Many believe we’re living in a golden age for documentary filmmaking, but you wouldn’t know it from the predictably square batch of nonfiction shorts the Academy has nominated yet again this year. Ranging in subject from civil rights to disaster relief, the finalists seem to be redefining the category as one that measures “best cause,” selected less for the strength of execution than perceived legitimacy of the issue at hand. Left out are formally innovative, artistically daring works. More’s the pity then that “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” the year’s only non-issue nominee, couldn’t be cleared for ShortsHD’s theatrical showcase.
The issue isn’t that these shorts aren’t strong; it’s that voters seem blinded to more exciting work being done in the nonfiction arena by how deeply they sympathize with the subjects on offer. No one questions that war is awful, and yet “Incident in New Baghdad” does little to further this observation, even as director James Spione investigates the trauma surrounding a U.S. military attack that was caught on tape and released to Wikileaks in which a journalist and civilians were among the unintended victims. One can’t help but be reminded of Tim Hetherington’s haunting conflict-zone “Diary,” a short film that challenges traditional forms but escaped the Acad’s attention. Here, Ethan McCord soberly explains how the episode destroyed his will to fight.
“Saving Face” recalls 2008 winner “Smile Pinki,” but does the subject of providing plastic surgery to Third World patients one better as it covers Pakistan’s campaign to end the horrific trend of acid attacks on women. No cause could justify such an action, and yet we learn that hundreds of women, some mere children, are defaced by men each year. Co-helmers Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy follow a handful of victims as they work with a London plastic surgeon to repair the physical damage, while a landmark petition makes its way through the legislature that would pose mandatory punishment on the perpetrators of these crimes.
“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” opens with gut-wrenching eyewitness video of the tidal wave that washed away entire Japanese cities last March. But the rest of short — the material that director Lucy Walker (“Waste Land”) actually went to Japan to capture, that is — fails to leave the same impact. Walker originally intended to make a film about what cherry blossom season means to locals, but had second thoughts after the disaster. By including elements of both, she captures an unexpected metaphor for rebirth, and yet the tsunami adds far more to Walker’s cherry blossom film than the other way around. At some fests, Walker’s entry played alongside Davina Pardo’s “Minka,” in which a couple rebuild a Japanese farmhouse beam by beam — an example of the Academy passing over an elegant and poetic short in favor of the one they deem more important.
Subtitled “Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement,” Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin’s “The Barber of Birmingham” focuses on 85-year-old Alabaman James Armstrong, who in the early 1960s, then in his 30s, marched for voting rights in his home state, and has lived to see the ultimate victory — the election of Barack Obama as president. Part history lesson, part affectionate character study, the short feels best suited to classrooms, where its respect-your-elders message can serve to educate the younger generation about a time not so long past when equal rights was a daily struggle.
Missing from the program is the refreshingly agenda-less “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” an alternately moving and amusing portrait of Academy member Dolores Hart rendered with compassion and style. Despite making her screen debut opposite Hollywood’s leading heartthrob, Elvis Presley, in “Loving You,” Hart unexpectedly abandoned her acting career at age 23 to become a Benedictine nun. One of the year’s most unconventional love stories, Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson’s poignant short captures not only the fervent passion that might lead one to a life of religious dedication, but also the bittersweet regret of her former beau, Don Robinson, who loved Hart enough to let her go, but still holds a flame for his former fiancee. Though it couldn’t clear theatrical rights, HBO will air the short April 5.