Friday, February 17, 2012

Short in length, but long on impact

This year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts make for powerful viewing.
If you have to choose between the various categories of Oscar-nominated shorts, I'd opt for the documentaries. I don't mean to shortchange the other two categories (features and animation), but the documentary shorts constitute the strongest of the three groups, at least in my view.

The five nominated documentary shorts are The Barber of Birmingham, Incident in New Baghdad, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, Saving Face and God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is not part of the package available in theaters and which tells the story of Delores Hart, an actress who gave up a successful career to become a Benedictine nun. I hope it's as good as the rest of the shorts because the overall quality of this year's package is especially impressive.

For those who like to play the Oscar guessing game, it's worth knowing that the competition may narrow to two films, Lucy Walker's The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and Daniel Junge's Saving Face.

I have to admit to some bias here because Junge lives in Denver and has been building an estimable career that includes feature-length documentaries (They Killed Sister Dorothy and Iron Ladies of Liberia), as well as The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, which was nominated in this category last year.

Junge's new film deals with the plight of Pakistani women who have been the victim of acid attacks, mostly by unrepentant husbands. Junge's revealing film tells us lots about Pakistani attitudes toward women, which, thankfully, seem to be evolving.

Junge and his co-director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, build their film around strong characters -- not only the women whose stories they tell, but Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British plastic surgeon who travels to Pakistan to offer his services to women who've been attacked with acid.

The collaboration between Junge and Chinoy has produced a film that's not always easy to watch -- and shouldn't be, but which introduces us to women of courage and persistence who have suffered greatly and who are working to change a society in which male-domination can reach grotesque proportions.

If I had a vote (which I don't) I'd cast it for Saving Face -- not only because I know and respect Junge, but because I found his film to be the most powerful of the four that I saw, which is no knock on the other films in this admirable category.

The opening of Walker's Tsunami -- a four-minute look at the destruction of a small Japanese town is unforgettable; Incident in New Baghdad takes a sobering look at a horrible 2007 incident in the Iraq war and what it did to an American soldier who witnessed it; and Barber of Birmingham introduces us to James Armstrong, a Selma barber and foot soldier in the Civil Rights struggle.

All of these films prove that you don't necessarily need major time to make a big statement. And know this: Watching these films just might give you more by way of substance and emotion than you'll find in many commercial features.*

In Denver, the documentary shorts package is playing at the FilmCenter Colfax, 2510 East Colfax Ave. Watch for it at art houses in your city. In Denver, the animation and feature shorts can be seen at Landmark's Chez Artiste.

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