Oscar prognosticators all have their opinions about Best Picture, the acting categories, even cinematography. But what has two thumbs and is determined to help you figure out the documentary shorts? This guy.
Your friendly neighborhood movie blogger has had the chance to see four of the five nominated shorts (Rabbit á la Berlin, about the rabbits who lived in the No Man’s Land during the era of the Berlin Wall, was unavailable). I’m predicting that the winner will come from among these contenders—or at least the odds would suggest as much.
China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill): On May 12, 2008, a powerful earthquake devastated China’s Sichuan Province. More than 10,000 of the 70,000 fatalities were children—and the filmmakers explore whether the reason why was shoddy construction of the region’s schools and corruption in the inspection process. There’s compelling material here involving a march by grieving parents, angered at lack of government response to their concerns. A regional official kneels in front of the marchers, pleading for a chance to resolve the dispute; you get the distinct impression that it’s his ass if the complaints get any farther up the chain of command. But while it’s fascinating getting a glimpse of how the Chinese government deals with this kind of frustration and dissent, Alpert and O’Neill end up spending huge chunks of time on parents’ tearful stories about their lost children. It’s all senselessly tragic, but by allowing everyone to share their heartache, the filmmakers bury their lead.
The Last Campaign of Gov. Booth Gardner (Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher): In 1992, popular Washington state Gov. Booth Gardner opted not to run for re-election after two successful terms; in 1993, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Facing a slow deterioration, the wealthy Weyerhauser scion decides to pour his money and time into promoting a 2008 ballot measure legalizing physician-assisted suicide. The title is somewhat deceptive, as Junge and Ansbacher are extremely fair-minded about giving plenty of screen time to the coalition opposing the measure. But it’s also clear that their sympathies are with their main character—both in his willingness to acknowledge when his opponents have put out an effective ad, and his increasing frustration with the disabilities that prevent him from being the front man for the campaign. It’s both a solid piece of journalism and an effective character study.
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert): The collapse of the market for gas-guzzling SUV’s crippled American auto-makers; this is the story of just one part of the collateral damage. A GM truck-manufacturing plant in Moraine, Ohio is targeted for shut-down, and the filmmakers spend several weeks leading up to the December 2008 closing following employees as they prepare for end of their jobs. Bognar and Reichert mostly get out of the way and let the plant workers (pictured) tell their stories, sharing both their frustrations at being portrayed in the media as “those greedy union people” and what the job has meant to them in economic and relationship terms. The result is a powerful look at the human face of disappearing American manufacturing, as well as an efficient portrait of the ripple effect across Midwestern communities rapidly becoming ghost towns. Without pointing at corporate villains, the film simply allows its subjects to mourn a way of life that mattered to them. In a just world, here’s your Oscar winner.
Music by Prudence (Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett): Born in Zimbabwe with a congenital bone disease, wheelchair-bound Prudence Mabhena faces the same fate as the rest of her disabled countrymen and –women: a life of marginalization in a culture that treats them as the result of witchcraft, better off dead. But she and other residents of a live/work disability center have found a passion that doesn’t require perfect bodies: music. Williams and Burkett spend plenty of time on the anthropological side of things, allowing us to get a strong sense of what disabled Zimbabweans are up against. Unfortunately, that means nearly as much time telling stories of woe as actually letting us here Prudence and friends ply their art. Sure, it’s all very uplifting and inspiring, but I prefer to get a sense for whether these individuals should be applauded for their talents, and not just for overcoming adversity.