At nearly 40 minutes apiece, the five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts serve as incredibly efficient treatments of pressing world concerns, ranging from the true cost of terrorism to one poor Chinese community’s uphill battle to fight industrial pollution. Though this is the category in which the Academy most often exerts its righteous heal-the-world agenda, these specimens are of such quality, it’s clear that the filmmaking, rather than the issues alone, are what distinguished this quintet in the docu branch’s eyes. The full ballot makes for a daunting but dramatic program, narrowly released by Magnolia Pictures and partner Shorts Intl.
Jed Rothstein’s troubling “Killing in the Name” follows Muslim terrorism survivor Ashraf Al-Khaled, whose wedding was interrupted by a brutal hotel bombing. The event transformed his life, inspiring Al-Khaled to launch a mission against the community’s call to jihad. But instead of preaching the more Western-friendly notion that killing is wrong, he simply wants to educate his peers about how often it misfires. Rothstein’s access, including an interview with an unrepentant Al Qaeda recruiter, makes this flipside-sensitive view all the more chilling.
Jennifer Redfearn’s “Sun Come Up” shows the direct impact of global warming on the Carteret Islanders, forced to relocate from their sinking Southern Pacific home to neighboring Bougainville. But moving brings more challenges than this endangered group might imagine, relying on not only public goodwill but also the rough assimilation process to a new form of economy and employment. Though Redfearn’s eye-opening film focuses on the specifics of this particular microcosm, showing the inversion of a culture that once managed to rely almost entirely on its coconuts and crops, the Carteret story reflects issues facing climate refugees on an ever-broadening global scale.
Ruby Yang’s “The Warriors of Qiugang” locates a drama easily relatable to any American living in the past half-century — namely, the struggle by little people to fight the environment-destroying interests of local industry and corrupt government — in the remote Chinese village of Qiugang. There, outraged townspeople band together to shut down a factory that uses bribery and political manipulation to cover its carcinogenic tracks. The filmmakers themselves become part of the story, using the power of a media spotlight to leverage change — and yet, this case clearly marks the beginning of a long uphill battle, as China catches up with the rest of the Western world, learning the same hard lessons that more advanced nations are still struggling to work out.
Sara Nesson tackles the home front in “Poster Girl,” a portrait of civil affairs Sgt. Robynn Murray, who rejected the Army’s efforts to position her as the model female soldier and now serves as an activist veteran, speaking out against her experience in the military. Despite extremely limited footage from the front, Nesson effectively re-creates the tension of Murray’s service in Iraq, structuring a series of emotional waves that carry her through recent efforts at antiwar artwork.
More feel-good in its approach, Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s “Strangers No More” spotlights Bialik-Rogozin, a Tel Aviv-based school catering to an international mix of refugees from 48 different countries. While not a particularly elegant documentary, alternating as it does between talking heads, off-putting onscreen text and clumsy handheld camerawork, this moving portrait undeniably demonstrates the school’s unique role in helping damaged kids adjust by contrasting footage of 12-year-old Eritrean student Johannes when he first arrives, with a view of him at the end of his first school year.