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Film Review

2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films

I was impressed with the Oscar nominations for live action and animated short (each under 30 minutes) films, and recommended them in my review a week ago. But just returned from seeing the documentary shorts, and they are all nothing less than extraordinary. Every one is highly accomplished, powerful, and moving. The first, "Incident in New Baghdad" (USA), is about an infantryman, Ethan McCord, who served in Iraq, witnessed terrible things, and returned with PTSD. He carried a badly wounded little girl away from the scene of a now infamous machine gunning of a group of suspected insurgents, which actually included a Reuters photographer. The film opens with graphic footage of that attack, filmed from the attack helicopter. There is very disturbing footage here but the power of this film is largely due to McCord's testimony. It is clear that even though the soldier leaves the battlefield, the battlefield often doesn't leave the soldier. The second film, "Saving Face" (USA & Pakistan), focuses on the horrific wave of acid attacks on women by their husbands or rejected suitors. The result is horrible scarring, that leaves their faces unbelievably damaged. The women usually remain in seclusion, leaving their homes only with their faces completely covered. Even their children are horrified. These crimes had been largely condoned and unpunished until a courageous group of women organized, and with two equally courageous women, an attorney and a legislator, introduced a law in the Pakistani Parliament to punish the attackers. Three of the maimed women tell their stories, and the film looks at a London plastic surgeon, born in Pakistan, who comes back to Pakistan periodically to operate on these women. This is a memorable film and deserves wide distribution.

"The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" (USA) begins with the now famous video footage of the tsunami taken from a small hill, as it swept into Minamisanriku on March 11, 2011. The footage is chilling and riveting, accompanied by the cries and crying of people on a hill watching. There are interviews with a number of the survivors, interspersed with post tsunami footage of the remains of the town. The survivors are unintentionally lyric, in a melancholy way, about how they survived and their feelings of guilt at having lived while so many of their friends and neighbors died. The film then shifts to focus on the opening of the cherry blossoms, which has always been an extremely influential event in Japan. Many talk about how this blossoming has given them the strength to survive and begin rebuilding their lives. The views of the blossoms opening help bring an internal healing. There are fascinating insights into Japanese culture including the importance there of sublimating one's interests for the benefit of the country. There are lessons here for Americans, especially in how Japan is dealing with a disaster that killed at least 16,000 with another 8,000 still missing. More than 100,000 buildings were totally destroyed, and at least that many heavily damaged. The 9/11 attack, while devastating to us, killed just under 3000. The cinematography is stunning, in every sense. It is literally beautiful and often inspiring.

The fourth film, "The Barber of Birmingham" (USA), introduces us to James Armstrong, an 85 year old black barber who was very active in the civil rights movement in the 1960's, and like so many, endured beatings, tear gas, and dogs, in their efforts to register to vote, attend integrated schools, and not be forced to sit in "colored only" sections. The archival footage of the police reactions is shocking, and makes the viewer appreciate the courage of the civil rights movement. Armstrong's small barbershop is covered with objects, photographs and newspaper clippings from their struggles, including an American flag that he carried on the marches, with each white stripe containing the date and town of the march. This flag should end up in the Smithsonian. His simple yet noble statements are very moving and stay with you long after leaving the theater.

For some reason, the documentary shorts are only being screened by the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, along with the live action and animated shorts. The documentaries are only being shown once each Saturday and Sundays, mid day (1:30 today). Landmark Theaters, here in San Francisco, is showing the live action and animated shorts, not the documentaries. But the documentaries are all so exceptional it is worth the drive to Marin to see any one of them, much less all four. All are unforgettable. It's not clear why the fifth nominee, "God is the Bigger Elvis", was not screened.

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