Oscar Nominated Short Documentaries
by Dan Lybarger
Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if movies might not be better if they weren’t consistently obligated to run about two hours. After examining these films that have all been nominated for Best Short Documentary for this year’s Academy Awards, it’s amazing how much powerful and engaging content you can pack into 40-minute doses. Seeing these entries might help you determine how to vote in an Oscar pool, but more importantly, these movies deal with vital issues that receive only cursory detail in other media. They capture the emotions and the facts behind stories that have been either marginalized or ignored altogether. It also doesn’t hurt that none of these five movies are dull.
Killing in the Name
One of the greatest but least mentioned tragedies that has emerged in the wave of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists is that the majority of their casualties tend to be fellow Muslims. One individual who has bravely spoken out against terrorism is Jordanian Ashraf al-Khaled. He can point to passages in the Qur’an that condemn attacks on civilians. In addition to feeling that God has called him to speak out against wanton murder, al-Khaled and his wife lost their parents when a suicide bomber mistakenly targeted their wedding in 2005. Two-dozen people died with them.
Both al-Khaled and director Jed Rothstein are remarkably brave. Rothstein includes an interview with the man who recruited the suicide bomber at al-Khaled’s wedding, and the two head to Indonesia to talk to a participant in the 2002 Bali bombings. Al Khaled even speaks at a radical madrasa and reveals that many who claim the Qur’an justifies their actions haven’t read it very closely. Rating: 4.5
Strangers No More
Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon feature a school in Tel Aviv, Israel that teaches and supports children from around the world who have escaped war zones, poverty and other misfortunes. Despite their setbacks, the kids attending the Bialik-Rogzin School are astonishingly fast learners. Because the kids were often outsiders in the countries of origin, they become tight friends in their new environment. The school’s president Karen Tal comes off as an affectionate woman with a clear sense of reality. She knows the obstacles her students and their parents have faced, and don’t sugarcoat the odds. Nonetheless, she and her staff bend over backwards for their pupils, and the results speak for themselves. Seeing the kids learning confidence and growing intellectually and emotionally is guaranteed to cure chronic eye dryness. Rating: 4
Sun Come Up
To the thousands of residents of Carteret Islands north of New Guinea, global warming is not up for debate. Their home is sinking into the ocean at an alarming rate. Low lying areas that have been above water for thousands of years are now under the sea, and a sizable wave can kill all of their crops for a year. The residents have no choice but to move to nearby Bougainville, which is 50 miles away. Some of the people in Bougainville are happy to send the folks in the Carterets bags of rice but are leery of selling them land, which would be a more economically tenable option for all parties involved. Bougainville is just recovering from a civil war, and the residents of the Carterets have a laid back culture that’s at odds with their new surroundings. Despite the gorgeous tropical setting, Sun Come Up is bleak, but watching the people of Bougainville opening their hearts instead of their wallets is pretty inspiring. The film also raises some disturbing questions about what must be done to preserve cultures like the one on the Carteret Islands. Rating: 4
Robynn Murray was a cheerleader who joined the Army in 2003 and operated a machine gun on top of a tank during her tour of duty in Iraq. She was a bit of a sitting duck during crisis situations because she was exposed to sniper fire. She wound up on the cover of Army Magazine, but her life at home has been rough. She has hip injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder and serious regrets about her time in country. Worse, the VA has lost her records at a time when she needs financial and medical help the most. Director Sara Nesson presents Murray’s life with heartbreaking intimacy, but it’s oddly inspiring to see Murray slowly rebuild her life. Rating: 5
The Warriors of Qiugang
Even under totalitarian regimes, populist rebellions can work. For a period of three years, the residents of Qiugang, China combat a pesticide factory that has been dumping toxic chemicals in their water. The company behind the factory is so greedy that they use hired thugs to beat up people who speak out against them. That doesn’t stop farmer Zhiang Gongli from launching a series of lawsuits against the company and drawing international attention. Zhiang has a limited education, but he’s smart enough to persuade others to get others involved and to turn the system that benefits polluters on its head. Those who favor journalists retaining a distance from their subjects might want to rethink their policies here. When officials and representatives of the company see director Ruby Yang’s camera, they have to change their behavior. Needless to say, that might not have happened with a more impartial news crew. Rating: 4
The Tivoli will be playing these documentaries on Tuesdays and Wednesday s at 6 p.m. until Oscar night. Throughout this period, the Tivoli will also be playing the Live Action and Animated short nominees. Sadly, the only nominee from these films I am able to comment on is the witty and imaginative Pixar animated short Day Night.
At the screenings, you can enter the Tivoli’s Oscar contest where viewers can cast ballots over which films will win and potentially receive a $25 gift certificate. For more information, go to www.tivolikc.com or call 913-383-7756.