Note: I started working on reviews of all the Oscar-nominated short films, which are available for viewing on a password-protected press web site. Unfortunately, I only saw three of the five Documentary Shorts before access was apparently cut off. Not reviewed are "Saving Face" and "God Is the Bigger Elvis."
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Lucy Walker’s meditation on the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 of last year, unleashing a wave of destruction and a breach at the Fukushima nuclear plant, is a simple juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy. It opens with an astonishing four-minute video of the tsunami rolling in, destroying a town before our very eyes. Later, we watch from this same hillside vantage point at the chaotic debris, and at the cherry trees sprouting gorgeous blossoms. Cherry blossoms have an almost mystical relationship to Japanese culture, and it’s heartrending listening to people talk about the loved ones they lost. But when the blossoms arrive as always, their hearts are partially healed. The film is a bit overlong and slow-moving, but the emotional impact is hard to deny.
Incident in New Baghdad
An effective look at the war in Iraq, “Incident in New Baghdad” ultimately tips from journalistic portraiture into outright propagandizing. James Spione’s film centers on an occurrence in a Baghdad slum in July 2007 that caused an international uproar when video of it was released by Wikileaks three years later. It’s anchored by the presence of Ethan McCord, one of the Army grunts on the ground that day who’s since become an anti-war activist. He suffers from PTSD from his experiences, including carrying an injured child whose family got horribly caught in the crossfire. While it’s a harrowing tale, Spione undercuts its effectiveness by having the movie climb on a soapbox, instead of reporting what happened.
The Barber of Birmingham
James Armstrong, a humble barber in Birmingham, Ala., was a “foot soldier in the civil rights movement,” and this moving portrait of the late, great man – he passed away at 85 in 2009 – serves as a glimpse at the racist legacy of the South. Particularly harrowing are the pictures and archival footage of African-Americans attempting to register to vote, and being greeted with bureaucratic walls (literacy tests), threats and overt violence. This is juxtaposed with Armstrong’s joy at a black man being elected president in 2008. “The Barber of Birmingham” treads familiar ground, but does so adroitly.