THE BLOG

Academy Awards 2011-Documentary Shorts

Feb 26, 2011 | Updated May 25, 2011

This year's documentary shorts nominees are, well, earnest. All five of them center on uplifting responses to difficult situations.

Killing in the Name (USA)
You might recall the 2005 terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan, in which an Iraqi terrorist blew himself up in the middle of a wedding party being held at a Radisson Hotel. Among the 38 people killed were both parents of the bride, Nadia Al-Alami, and the father of the groom, Ashraf Al-Khaled, as well as 24 other wedding guests. Killing in the Name follows Ashraf's journey into the heart of the world of terrorist recruiting to try to convince impressionable young boys, in particular, that killing innocent Muslims is not a goal they should be striving for. It would be nice if there was a bit more emphasis on not killing non-Muslims as well. Most disturbing is an interview with a young, pleasant-looking man who apparently supports himself by convincing others to be suicide bombers. He concedes that it takes about a month to do so. When asked about the innocent victims at the Radisson wedding, he shrugs it off and says that Ashraf should be pleased that they all went to Heaven.

Poster Girl (USA)
Sgt. Robynn Murray is an Iraq War veteran who is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). I have heard people express the opinion that PTSD is an imaginary condition. I suggest that any such person watch Poster Girl. Murray comes off as a tough, macho type. So when we learn that prior to enlisting she was a cheerleader and a National Merit Scholar, we begin to realize what war can do to a person. She was told that she would be part of one of those public affairs teams meant to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. But when she arrived in Iraq she discovered what they didn't tell her: that she would be the machine-gunner for the unit. As Murray talks about what she saw in Iraq and what she did, the human toll on both Iraqis and Americans becomes painfully clear. And then there's the dysfunctional system for dealing with disturbed veterans when they return home. Even though Poster Girl has an upbeat ending, what makes it the favorite to win is that Murray, despite her toughness, seems, without any artifice, to be always on the verge of bursting into tears.

The Warriors of Qiugang (USA)
As someone who wrote a book about dictators, including a chapter on China, I am disgusted when people gush about the Chinese economic miracle and how maybe we should learn from the Chinese. The reality is that most of the Chinese population is poor, and the government runs roughshod over citizens who live in rural areas. The Warriors of Qiugang shows the plight of 1,800 villagers who have the misfortune of living next to a pesticide factory, the owners of which didn't hesitate to dump toxic waste into the local water supply, not to mention the air. Once again, there is a happy ending, but the filmmakers do note that this is unusual. At one point, 96% of the Qiugang villagers sign a petition to the government, while 4% do not. As it happens, that is almost the exact ratio between the number of Chinese in the country as a whole who belong to the Communist Party (5%) and those who don't (95%).

Sun Come Up (USA/Papua New Guinea)
For most people who are concerned about artificial climate change, the realities are abstract, and the real problems will kick in sometime much later, maybe even in someone else's lifetime. But for the Carteret Islanders in Papua New Guinea, that time is right now. Their low-lying land is being lost to the rising ocean level caused by global warming. Because the government is useless, the islanders send a delegation to the mainland to try to convince villagers there to give or sell them some land to begin their relocation. Unfortunately, the closest mainland is Bougainville Island, which is still traumatized by a civil war that ended in 1997 after causing thousands of deaths. Fortunately, after some rebuffs, they do find a sympathetic village.

Strangers No More (USA)
Strangers No More is a promo film for the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, which provides an educational refuge for children who have suffered the traumas of war, crime, genocide and more. I'm glad that such a school exists, but there's something wrong with Strangers No More. To begin with, we are told that the school welcomes students from 48 countries, but the three children whose stories we follow are all black Africans (from Sudan, Eritrea and South Africa). They are all appealing and what they have experienced is horrible. But the film only skims the surface of what must go on in the school.