a theatre, film & pop culture review
I think it’s fair to say at this point that I won’t be seeing all of the Oscar nominees this year: For some unknown, inexplicable reason, God Is the Bigger Elvis is not able to be shown in theaters due to licensing restrictions (say what?). Super-lame.
As for the other four documentary shorts, it’s time to go halfsies, because two are pretty great and the other two are mediocre-to-bad. Let’s start with the letdowns, shall we?
The Barber in Birmingham reflects on James Armstrong’s participation (but not really) in the Civil Rights Movement. This classy older gent, an Alabaman barber, is adorable as he fondly remembers cutting MLK Jr.’s hair four times (though he admits the legend never actually spoke to him) and… that’s about it. Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday’s film also touches on other “foot soldiers” who were children during school integration and who fought for the right to vote. The commentary is vague and the tone is celebratory in the most hagiographic sense. The subjects are worthy, but this doc doesn’t do them justice by remaining on the surface.
Incident in Baghdad represents the ubiquitous Iraq or Afghanistan doc that we clearly must have each year, whether in the short or feature-length category (see last year’s superior Restrepo). James Spione covers the notorious incident in Baghdad when a group of U.S. soldiers was caught on film slaughtering civilians and two journalists by gunfire. The (wiki)leaked footage was shown via all varieties of media outlets to the outrage of the American public. This short details US Army Specialist Ethan McCord ‘s PTS and anger towards the military for his involvement in the attack (he saved two small children who were near-fatally burned in one explosion, but not their father). It’s compelling material to a degree, but then again, how many times can we return to the same subject in essentially the same way?
Saving Face details the shockingly common act of men disfiguring and shaming Pakistanian women by throwing acid on their faces. It’s heartbreaking to look on these women who, until recently, had no legal recourse to make these men, usually their husbands (or their husbands’ families) accountable for their horrific actions, and Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s film follows one plastic surgeon from London (originally from Pakistan) in his attempt to help these women “save face.” Ultimately an inspiring piece in which one incredibly brave woman refuses to give up on bringing her husband-attacker to justice – he denied his actions despite eye witnesses and continued to threaten her while he was behind bars – and proves to be the first successful case of trying and convicting such an attacker. It’s important to note, however, that the filmmakers don’t make saints of these women: many, when asked how they would like to see the men punished, violently assert that the men should have acid thrown on their own faces. The film offers no judgment; the surprising comments are recorded at face-value for what they are: the ugly effect of an “eye for an eye” ideal.
So rarely does a documentary offer both insight and artistry, but that’s exactly the case here: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is not only remarkable for its choice in subject – the earthquake in Japan – but for its poetic beauty. Lucy Walker’s short recounts many individual stories of loss: one older gentleman, visibly grief-stricken, is astonishingly elegant in his heartbreak as he describes the moment his life lost meaning — reaching out for his dearest friend as he’s swept away in the flood. But just when you think this is your standard natural-disaster doc, a shift occurs: the man’s despair transforms into profound peace as he begins to speak tenderly of the cherry blossoms. A national treasure, the cherry blossom trees are so beloved by the Japanese that there are annual cherry blossom “viewing parties” in which people travel from all over to gaze upon the beautiful blossoms that continued to thrive and bloom despite the wreckage that surrounded them. Symbolizing the resilience and the beauty of the Japanese, Walker creates a gorgeous and moving analogy between the pain and despair of the tsunami and the hope and inspiration of the cherry blossoms. The cinematography itself– blossoms falling slowly and softly like snowflakes around girls and men alike, gazing up in wonder — is breathtaking. This is the documentary to see even if you don’t care for documentaries: devastating, beautiful, heartwarming, inspiring. This is what filmmaking should be.