Thursday, February 10, 2011

2011 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentaries

Between war, terrorism, and environmental degradation, this year’s Oscar nominated short documentaries have a nightmare scenario for just about everyone. However, the better nominees also find hope where they can. For the first year ever, the Academy Award nominated short film road show will also include documentaries, split into two program blocks, both of which open tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

Jed Rothstein’s Killing in the Name (trailer here) was born in tragedy. Co-produced by Carie Lemack, whose mother was murdered at the World Trade Center, Name profiles Ashraf Al-Khaled, her fellow terrorism survivor and co-founder of Global Survivors Network. Al-Khaled will tell you Islam is the religion of peace and he has earned the right to say it. On his wedding day, a suicide bomber targeted the Jordanian hotel hosting his reception, killing his father and in-laws. Since then, Al-Khaled has become an outspoken critic of Islamist terrorist, challenging other Muslims to speak out more forcefully. As he reminds them, it is their co-religionists who are most likely to be the victims of their attacks.

While outwardly unassuming, Al-Khaled will boldly confront anyone in his quest to de-radicalize Islam, even “Zaid,” an Al Qaeda recruiter. Not surprisingly, Zaid proves to be a craven coward, refusing to meet Al-Khaled, instead consenting only to answer his questions through Rothstein. Yet, it is not just Al-Qaeda that glorifies wanton killing. The attitudes of children at an Indonesian madrassa are downright chilling. Frankly, Al-Khaled sounds like he is kidding himself when he speaks of planting seeds of doubt in them, but again, he has earned to right to a little self-deception at that point. Though only thirty-nine minutes, Name is easily one of the most illuminating documentary examinations of terrorism to play the festival circuit.

Like Al-Khaled, Zhang Gongli also fights to make the world a safer place. A farmer in Central China, Zhang became a self-taught legal activist, who challenged the chemical plant poisoning his region as well as the local Communist Party authorities which protected it. Aided by an Chinese environmental NGO, Zhang’s struggles are documented in Ruby Yang’s The Warriors of Qiugang (trailer here). Eventually privatized, the serial polluting began while the plant was a state enterprise. Indeed, it was the local Party that first turned a gang of thugs loose on the village in an attempt to intimidate the activists. It would be a strategy the plant would repeat, with the local authorities’ acquiescence.

Though largely compatible with the no-frills observational approach of the so-called Digital Generation of independent Chinese filmmakers, Warriors also features occasional grimly stylized animated sequences. It is a searing indictment of the Chinese government’s hypocrisy, not simply in terms of environmental protection, but even more fundamental human rights. While hardly concluding with everything happily resolved, it is definitely an encouraging David-and-Goliath story.

For inspiration, none of the nominees can compete with Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s Strangers No More (trailer here). There is a country where immigrants fleeing war and civil strife finally feel safe enough to allow their children to enroll in school (in many cases for the first time ever). That country is Israel. Yes, the irony is not lost on the teachers of Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school, where students from forty-eight countries find a safe harbor every day. Focusing on students from Ethiopia and Sudan, we see Bialik-Rogozin’s Hebrew immersion strategy pay dramatic dividends. Clearly, what they do at that school works. Though Goodman and Simon avoid making the obvious point, it is worth noting you will not find a comparable institution anywhere else in the region.

Inspiring and disturbing in equal measure, Name and Warriors are excellent films, highly recommended in any context. They play together as part of Program A, along with Jennifer Redfearn’s Sun Come Up. Following a group of South Pacific Islanders who must relocate due to rising sea levels, reportedly the result of global warming, Redfearn wisely does not overplay the environmental card. While it raises a few interesting anthropological-sociological issues, ultimately Sun’s POV figures simply are not as compelling as those of the other nominees.

Strangers is a totally grounded, legitimately feel-good movie, also enthusiastically recommended. Unfortunately, it plays with Sara Nesson’s Poster Girl, a film top-heavy with the director’s agenda. Neeson profiles Sergeant Robynn Murray, who was once on the cover of ARMY magazine, thus making her the “poster girl” for the war, at least if you were a serviceman or retiree who saw the magazine and somehow still remembers it. While Nesson’s approach borders on the exploitative, it is certainly heartrending to watch as Murray learns first-hand how problematic government-run healthcare truly is. (In contrast, the Renaud Brothers’ Warrior Champions stands as example of how to sensitively address PTSD, without turning it into a political football.)

Three out of five is pretty good by Oscar standards. Indeed, Name, Warriors, and Strangers each provide real insight into the state of the world and a small measure of hope that average people can have a constructive impact on big macro-level problems. Both Oscar nominated documentary short programs open tomorrow (2/11) in New York at the IFC Center.