Friday, March 3, 2006

A Feast of Short Films

Oscar-nominated Short Documentaries


"Brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend."
-- Norman Corwin, "On a Note of Triumph" (1945)

"Every school kid should know that."
-- Studs Terkel, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (2005)

Some people like to be prepared. If you belong to that group, you can catch this year's Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts beforehand, but you'll have to wait until after Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast to catch the documentary shorts. (See below for show times.) Although I haven't seen any of the former, this year marks the first time I've caught all of the short docs prior to the Oscar telecast. Of course, that doesn't mean I can predict the winner any better than those who haven't--seems like it's always a crap shoot--but I'll give it a shot.

First up is The Mushroom Club (35 minutes) directed by Steven Okazaki. In his third Academy Award-nominated film (he won in 1991 for Days of Waiting), Okazaki looks at Hiroshima 60 years after the blast that devastated the city. He starts by examining the ways in which Hiroshima has changed since that horrific event before turning to 10 survivors (hibakusha), all between the ages of 59 and 85. Some were orphaned by the bomb, other were injured or born with disabilities. Although the title implies that Okazaki is making light of a dark subject, The Mushroom Club (Kinoko Kai) is the actual name of a support group. While I admired the director's clear-eyed approach, I wondered if his tone wasn't a little too detached. According to the IMDb, he plans to follow up by looking at Nagasaki, with the goal of combining the two into a feature-length film.

Of the four nominees, my favorite was Corinne Marrinan and Eric Simonson's A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (40 minutes), but I should probably admit my bias-"f you can call it that--upfront: I worked in radio for 18 years. In the 1940s, Corwin was one of the field's top writer/producers. Folks like Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, and Edward G. Robinson clamored to work with him, while Studs Terkel, Norman Lear, and Robert Altman, who'll be receiving this year's honorary Academy Award, attest to Corwin's skill in presenting thought-provoking discourse when a battered nation needed it most. It's too bad this film wasn't bundled with Good Night, and Good Luck. as it would've made for a perfect fit (like Edward R. Murrow, Corwin was a CBS employee). A Note of Triumph marks Simonson's second Oscar nomination.

Directed by Dan Krauss, The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club (27 minutes) is undeniably fascinating, but it would've benefited the most from a longer running time. Kevin Carter was a South African photojournalist whose career was made--and unmade--by one amazing photograph. Granted, he took many others over the course of his 33 years, but his picture of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture earned him the Pulitzer. On the downside, both he and The New York Times were besieged by complaints that he should have done more to help the girl. Krauss argues that this criticism, combined with years of documenting apartheid-era atrocities in his homeland, drove Carter to suicide. I'm sure that's true, but his conclusion is a little too neat (Time, for instance, notes that Carter had attempted suicide before).

Lastly, God Sleeps in Rwanda (30 minutes), from Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman, returns a decade after the fact to profile five Rwandan women who are remaking their lives in the wake of the country's 1994 genocide. Since men were the primary victims, women now make up 70% of the population, even though many of those who survived have since died from AIDS (raped by the Hutus who killed their families). One Tutsi lost her husband and seven children and was left for dead, but survived and gave birth to a daughter. Though a product of rape, that child represents her whole world. Although each story is compelling, this one is the heart of the film. All four of this year's nominated docs could be described as "important" and "serious," but only Rwanda, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson, could also be described as hopeful.

My prediction? A Note of Triumph should take home the gold and Corwin, whose career came to an end with the advent of TV (and now teaches at USC), will most likely be in attendance to help accept the statuette. However, the Oscar will probably go to God Sleeps in Rwanda. For my money, it was the most emotionally involving of the nominated films, although the way in which the five pieces are organized blunts what could have had an even greater impact, i.e. the first story is the most powerful, although filmmakers Acquaro and Sherman wisely return to it at the end.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films play at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE) Mar. 3 - 5, Fri. - Sun. at (4:50) 9:20 and Mon., Mar. 6 - Thurs., Mar. 9 at 9:20.

Oscar Nominated Live-Action Short Films play at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE) Mar. 3 - 5, Fri. - Sun. at (2:30) 7:00 and Mon., Mar 6 - Thurs., Mar. 9 at 7:00.

Oscar-nominated Short Documentaries play at the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.). Program 1 (The Mushroom Club and A Note of Triumph) runs 75 minutes. Program 2 (The Death of Kevin Carter and God Sleeps in Rwanda) runs 60 minutes. Mar. 10-16, Fri.-Thurs., at 7:00 (Prog. 1) and 8:30 (Prog. 2) and Sat. and Sun. at 2:00 (Prog. 1) and 3:30 (Prog. 2).

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