Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Oscar Docs II - the Shorts

February 11, 2007

The good folks at the American Cinematheque provided their annual public look at the four Oscar nominated documentary short subjects this weekend at the second theater they have restored in LA, the Aero in Santa Monica. (The first, of course, is the lovely Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd.) I really love seeing these shorts not necessarily because they are the most technically sophisticated films, but because the short film, and in particular the non-fiction short film, is an art all its own. The short film, in a way, is like the cinematic equivalent of haiku – a brief and directed piece that if done well can have a surprising impact. It has to be lyrical or profound with only the most basic elements and can draw one’s attention to beauty or terror or unspoken truth in the smallest gestures or images that are often overlooked in feature length films.

from The Blood of Yingzhou District
As is their wont, the Academy has selected four shorts mostly from veteran filmmakers, most of whom have had prior nominations for documentary work. Two of the four are standard “big issue” films. The Blood of Yingzhou District is director Ruby Yang’s look at children orphaned in China’s AIDS epidemic. This film is stark not just because of the fear and social isolation these children face, but also for the devastating rural poverty it portrays. There are beautiful images in this grainy digital film and it does a good job of not losing the subject's sobriety to an overly slick production. The film also wisely focuses on the children and not on the manner in which people became infected as part of local paid blood donation programs. Definitely moving and often difficult to watch.

from Recycled Life
Poverty and children are also central to Leslie Iwerks’ and Mike Glad’s Recycled Life which concerns the Guajeros of Guatemala City - a society of thousands of adults and children who make their living by scavenging for food and re-salable items in the city's main garbage dump. Many of them live in or near the dump itself amidst toxic methane fumes and other dangers. There is a deep irony at work here as the film points out that despite the tragic aspects of this by-product of urban poverty, there are unexpected benefits. The Guajeros reduce the city's daily waste by nearly a third due to their recycling efforts resulting in less garbage for the landfill. This story does have a somewhat happy ending when after a huge 2005 fire consumes the dump for days, the government finally takes action to place some safety restrictions on the dump including security and the banning of child workers in favor of their placement in day care and refurbished local schools. A more professional looking film, Life suffers from appearing almost too corporate at times like a commercial for some large aid agency. For example, the monotone narration by Edward James Olmos places the specter of a Sally Struthers-like voice in the midst of images and people who can more than adequately speak for themselves.

from Rehearsing a Dream
Of course, the documentary short subjects have an easier time focusing on more upbeat and lighter fare than the feature length works do and this year's nominees again demonstrate this aspect of shorter films. This nominees include Rehearsing a Dream, a film sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, a non-profit group that encourages talented children and adolescents to develop careers in the performing or visual arts. The film from Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon follows a group of teens invited to participate in an annual conference and workshop event with professional artists in Miami in 2006. Here the likes of Michael Tilson Thomas dole out warm supporting advice to high-school bassoon players. I guess whether or not you find this inspiring depends on your tolerance for adolescent hyperbole and dramatics that are in abundance here, particularly amongst the theater and drama enthusiasts. Watching these histrionics makes one long for the days when Mickey and Judy would just put on a show in the family barn. Where have all the flowers gone?

from Two Hands
Finally there was Nathaniel Khan’s Two Hands, a very brief biography of Leon Fleischer, focusing on how a focal dystonia radically changed the course of his music career and how carpal tunnel surgery and botox have made it possible for him to play the piano once again with both hands. While interesting, Two Hands seemed overwhelmed by the other films in the screening due to its relative brevity (easily half as short as the others) and its rather straightforward approach and narrative. I kept feeling something was missing here and the film simply wasn't probing enough to be very interesting. However, Fleischer gets to go to the Oscars apparently since his local date at UCLA was rescheduled to accommodate this. So, more power to him.

Who’ll win? It’s harder to tell this year than last. What little I know on the topic seems to suggest that voters like films that look like films: high production values that don’t look like digital video PR films so Two Hands may have an edge, but it could just as easily be any of the others, particularly Blood.

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