Last year, Ed noted the competition in this category didn't want for tragic gravity. With another full slate of five nominees this year, each nuzzling right up against the 40-minute limit stipulated by Academy rules, the documentary short subject field is again a tad more heavy than rich, with altruism invariably trumping aesthetics. Which isn't a bad thing at all, even if a few of this year's nominees are unquestionably softball pitches, and ever so faintly dry. (Odds there's an Elinor Burkett lurking among these filmmakers are blessedly long.)
The biggest offender in that regard is The Warriors of Qiugang. I hasten to clarify that, at no less than three years in the making, it's pretty easily the most dedicated effort of the whole batch, and announces the achievement in a title card right off the bat. Filmmakers Ruby Young and Thomas Lennon planted themselves in a small Chinese village doing battle with a nefarious pesticide-manufacturing plant that has, so they tell it, decimated their turf's ecosystem in the span of just a few decades. Their struggle against faceless bureaucracy is obviously admirable, but, so far as Academy members are concerned, it's hard to imagine voters getting too riled up about a couple thousand villagers complaining about the quality of their air when hundreds of children killed in shoddy schools toppled by an earthquake couldn't get their attention last year.
Another short that doesn't quite register loudly enough on The Cove litmus test (the one which measures how likely voters are to equate their check mark with the act of efforting change in world policy) is Sun Come Up, though the topic is probably the most politically friendly in the entire lineup. Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger's film smartly tackles the threat of global warming in microcosmic fashion, by focusing on a small tribe living their existence on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, an island that is about to be wiped from the face of the earth by the rising seas. Sun Come Up follows them as they send reps to the mainland to beg for a new piece of land to call their own. If its heart is open, its approach is a tad too abstruse to stick the landing the closing title cards attempt.
Also working against Sun Come Up is the category's one bone fide upper: Strangers No More, a sweet-trite snapshot of a year in the life of Bialik-Rogozin School, a sort of world charter school located in Tel Aviv, where children from every war-torn corner of the globe are invited to come and make a fresh start for themselves. And to learn Hebrew. We're not oblivious to the movie's secret, cherubic weapons, including one that, unfortunately, didn't even occur to filmmakers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon. Is it callous to suggest that if they'd have just had the foresight to give a full profile to the kid who briefly, in the film's opening moments, introduces himself as Egyptian, their Oscar would've been a slam dunk?
On the other side of the Gaza Strip (politically, not geographically) is the category's most challenging work: Killing in the Name. Jed Rothstein examines Islamist fundamentalism by following Jordanian crusader Ashraf al-Khaled, whose wedding day was crashed by a suicide bomber who killed no less than 27 members of his wedding party (including three of the four parents), as he confronts various proponents of jihad, demanding an justification for the casualties. As Ed noted to me, Rothstein pulls few punches, and includes some downright terrifying footage of holy war's collateral damage. That said, it's Oscar chances are somewhat compromised by the same problem Laura Poitras's The Oath would've faced had it been up for documentary feature: One or two too many people profiled in both movies have a potentially alienating way of lamenting not the fact that terrorist acts by Islamist radicals kill people, just that they unwittingly kill other Muslims, thereby blocking aspiring martyrs' ascendance into heaven. Tough sell.
That leaves Poster Girl, Sara Nesson and Mitchell Block's portrait of Robynn Murray, a young Army vet who, at one time, was featured on the cover of an infantry magazine as a model female soldier, but now copes (and just barely) with the ravaging effects of PTSD and the physical pain of a hip injury. No other movie in this group so fully invades its subject's personal space (to the point that I expected her quavering voice to trigger a sympathy panic attack), and no others are so fully rewarded with the raw, emotional payback that invasion produces. Murray's battles with psychological despair, the ineptitude of the VA network and persistent flashes of what she witnessed while fighting in Iraq are all rendered in intimate, occasionally violent stolen moments. Just when you think the doc is about to overplay its hand, Murray starts ripping up her Army conduct manuals to make a paper-mâché of her torso, essentially mirroring the documentary's aesthetic approach. If you don't think voters eat up amateur artistry finessed from injustice, then you've apparently forgotten about Born Into Brothels.
Will Win: Poster Girl
Could Win: Killing in the Name
Should Win: Poster Girl or Killing in the Name