a theatre, film & pop culture review
It’s a tough crowd in the documentary short subjects this year, and by tough, I mean trying: all but one are self-important with tragic gravitas. The sole optimistic nominee, that takes a “we are the world” approach, will likely win simply because of its do-gooder attitude: Strangers No More is so utterly captivating because its subjects are endearing almost to a fault. A loving snapshot of a year in the life of the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, where children from all over the world — war-torn South Africa, Egypt, Chile, etc. — come for a chance at a new beginning, with Hebrew as the uniting language. Of course a film about such burdened and devastated kids could be incredibly emotionally manipulative. But the wonder of this short is that it needn’t employ any trickery to grab its audience by the heartstrings –the wise-beyond-their-years, eager to learn, loving, soulful children do it without any direction whatsover. These kids are inspiring and heartbreaking and an absolute pleasure to spend time with. When a film makes you want to pick up and move to Israel to teach the children… well, let’s just say that’s quite the accomplishment.
From here, though, things just get depressing. Sun Comes Up does muster up some optimism as it follows a small tribe living on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea that is about to disappear into the rising sea. But the film’s success is also its downfall in that its microcosmic approach to the effects of global warming is both specific enough to intrigue and too specific to have the desired rallying effect on audiences — it all seems a bit too remote, even if all too human. The Warriors of Qiugang, while the most dedicated film (the filmmakers spent an effortful three years creating it), is also the most snooze-inducing (and has some strange little animated sequences that come off as a bit amateurish). A pesticide factory invades a small Chinese village, killing the community both indirectly (its land and crops) and directly (spreading cancer from toxic fumes), and finally causing the villagers to speak out against the local government that continuously ignores their pleas for environmental regulations. Again, a bit of a remote microcosm for worldwide environmental concerns, so more than likely the Academy will ignore it.
This leaves us with two films that will hit a bit closer to home. Poster Girl is the story of army vet Robynn Murray, once the cover girl for an Army magazine (she was considered the model female soldier), now suffering from emotionally crippling PTSD in addition to various physical injuries. The most personal (and personally invasive) story of the nominated films, Murray rips open her psychological wounds and traumatic memories for public consumption. But just when you think it’s verging on too-muchness, the film takes an inspiring turn by showcasing Murray’s life-saving discovery of the transformative power of art: she, and many other vets, create paintings, collages, and sculptures from their old uniforms, soldier manuals, and flags, and in the process rediscover their humanity (which, admittedly, is a bit much as well, but at least it lightened things up a bit). The problematic Killing in the Name, on the one hand tackles the difficult but always fascinating subject of Islamic fundamentalism, both from the perspective of a Jordanian crusader (whose wedding was crashed by a suicide bomber) and an Al-Qaeda recruiter (who coordinated the wedding bombing). What’s so troubling about the film is not the predictable “Americans are infidels, white people are cruel, etc” mantra of the fundamentalists, but the fact that the film allows the focus of many of its subjects to be on the lamenting solely of the Muslims that were mistakenly killed in these terrorist attacks, which is both alienating and creepily disconcerting.
Unfortunately, none of these altruistic films is aesthetically intriguing, but with all the good intentions and desperately vital subject matters, layering on some artistry would be asking a bit much…right?