As usual, the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject mainly involve issues of immediate social and political value, with one curious exception: "God is Greater than Elvis," Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson's portrait of former actress Dolores Hart's transition from acclaimed Tony winner (and the woman who first smooched Elvis onscreen, in 1957's "Loving You") to devout Catholic nun.
In other cases, however, the subject speaks to larger concerns. "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement" centers on the proud stance of James Armstrong, who died in 2009 after cutting hair for over 50 years at the same ramshackle shop. Directors Robin Gryday and the late Gail Dolgin explore the living museum of Armstrong's workshop, a place adorned with signs and newspaper clippings of pertinent moments in black history. The man embodies the movement, relishing the filmmakers with stories of taking on Martin Luther King Jr. as a client and recalling his role carrying the American flag in the 1965 Bloody Sunday march.
From the outset, "The Barber of Birmingham" hits a celebratory note, with the barber expressing his shock at the election of Barack Obama. More of a collage of mini-anecdotes and juxtapositions between two vastly different periods of American expression, the movie successfully positions Armstrong as a symbol of progress, although it leaves the question of the future untouched.
"Incident in New Baghdad" similarly turns its subject into a symbol of current events, in this case dealing with the Iraq war. Ex-marine Ethan McCord landed on national television when aerial footage of a misguided Apache attack caught him rescuing a pair of injured Iraqi children. Back home and coping with trauma, McCord reflects on his experience and explains his transition to an anti-war mindset. Cutting between McCord's on-camera confession and the aerial footage tracking his good deeds, director James Spione combines a tightly wound suspense narrative with activist intent, culminating with McCord's decision to join the Iraq Veterans Against the War. The short offers little more than a snapshot of McCord's evolving perspective, but it's certainly effective to that end.
However, none of these contenders contain the broad reach of the other two nominees. HBO's "Saving Face" tracks the rarely discussed rash of acid damage inflicted on Pakistani women, a societal issue with at least 100 reported cases each year. "Acid violence" results in the horrifically scarred faces populating this half-hour survey directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Jung. These women are an embodiment of vicious oppression, bearing the brunt of a sexist culture in vivid physical terms. The filmmakers explore the issue from virtually every angle, turning to a British doctor tasked with handling many acid cases as well as confronting many of the men responsible. Ultimately, however, "Saving Face" builds to a positive note as it tracks a number of victims' attempts to unify in opposition to their oppressors. While the narrative may seem scattered at times, its issue remains in powerfully unsettling focus.
The same description applies to "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom," a mournful elegy to the victims of Japan's massive 2010 tsunami through the voices of those who survived it. Opening with a four-minute camcorder take documenting the tsunami's path of destruction, the half-hour film directed by Lucy Walker (nominated in Oscar's Best Documentary category last year for "Waste Land") combines such terrifying home videos with equally unnerving recollections, and yet manages to find a lyrical counterpoint in the presence of cherry blossoms among the wreckage. The most emotionally charged of the nominees, "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" is especially remarkable for the way assembles a series of downbeat memories into the slightest hint of optimism for the survivors' abilities to make it through each new day.
WHO WILL WIN? "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" seems like the clear frontrunner, since it deals with a much more recent issue than its competitors contenders. "Saving Face" competently exposes a serious national problem with enough impact to make it a definite runner-up.
Editor's note: Each year since 2005, Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures have released a program of the Oscar-nominated short films. Starting Friday, this year's trio of programs–live action, animation and documentary–play at over 200 theaters across the United States and Canada. This piece follows yesterday's coverage of the animated short nominees.