Oscar's Doc Shorts: So Serious -- Except for the One About Elvis and the Nun

Thu Feb 9, 2012 2:23pm EST

For years, one type of film has dominated the Best Documentary Short Subject category: a serious, issue-oriented doc that deals with tragedies or social injustices and runs close to the 40-minute limit.

That single-minded focus on the part of doc-branch voters can make watching all of the nominees a sobering experience, and a lengthy one: This year's five animated-short nominees have a total running time of 53 minutes, but their doc counterparts total nearly three hours.

And in an indication of just how major a force HBO is in the doc world, and just how adept it is at qualifying television movies for a film award, the cable channel almost always has a hand in a good number of the nominees (and often buys the ones it didn't already have after the nominations come out).

I've said this before, but feel compelled to say it again: There's a lot more happening in the short-doc world than dead-serious films about social ills. Year after year, the Academy does a disservice to some of the best and most adventurous filmmaking by nominating one kind of film almost exclusively in this category.

This year's nominees deal with the Civil Rights movement, the war in Iraq, the tsunami in Japan and a wave of disfiguring attacks on Pakistani women. (The fifth breaks the mold; it’s about an actress who made Elvis movies and then became a nun.)

Two of the films were made for HBO, and at least one of the others has since been bought by the company. Two, surprisingly, only run around 20 minutes, but the others all approach the 40-minute mark.

In this category, it's worth remembering that the film that wins is more often than not the film that leaves viewers with a sense of hope. Searing indictments of societal wrongs get nominated, but the ones that are uplifting are the ones that take home the Oscars: "Strangers No More" last year, "Music by Prudence" the year before, "Smile Pinki" the year before that.

By those standards, and given that this is a seemingly thin field with three nominees that just don't feel fresh or substantial enough to turn win, this year appears to be a two-horse race.

This roundup of the doc short nominees concludes TheWrap's three-day survey of the three shorts categories.

Also read: Oscar's Live-Action Shorts: The Europeans Are Coming

Also read: Oscar's Animated Shorts: Zombies Are Out for Pixar's Blood

"The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement" (photo above)

Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin

The shortest of the nominees at less than 19 minutes, "The Barber of Birmingham" deals with a subject beloved by doc-branch voters: the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. The focus this time is on the struggle to register African-Americans to vote in the South, and in particular on the average men and women – the "foot soldiers" – who made up the bulk of the movement.

As the title suggests, a barber who lived through the struggles is the central character. But the film is too abbreviated to be an effective character study, or a history. Instead, it's a small slice of a big picture – and with its portrayal of Barack Obama's election back in 2008 as a galvanizing moment and a culmination of the movement, it feels a little out of time.

"God Is the Bigger Elvis"

Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson

This film has the most intriguing title, and the most mystery surrounding it: It's the only one of the 15 nominated films that is not being shown as part of Shorts HD and Magnolia Pictures' three theatrical shorts programs, which open on Friday.

(A spokesperson said the film was unavailable "because of licensing issues";  HBO is premiering it on April 5.)

It turns out that "God is the Bigger Elvis" is about an Academy member: Dolores Hart, an actress from the 1950s and '60s who starred in 10 movies, including Elvis Presley's "Loving You" and "King Creole," before leaving Hollywood to become a nun. She now lives in a Benedictine community in Connecticut, where the filmmakers speak to her about her decision to leave behind a promising career for the cloistered life.

Despite its intriguing looks at the difficulties of that life, and at her decision to leave her fiancé for the religious order, the film comes across as a little rote; the woman now known as Mother Prioress repeats her story with quiet conviction, but remains opaque.

In the end, viewers might feel closest to Don Robinson, Hart's fiancé, who never got over her leaving him, and who still visits her regularly. This is a film about spiritual devotion, but its most indelible moments have to do with human heartbreak.

The film never mentions that Mother Prioress remains a voting member of the Academy.

"Incident in New Baghdad"

James Spione

The footage caused a furor when it was released by Wikileaks: a U.S. military attack in Iraq that killed a number of civilians, including a couple of journalists who were mistaken for enemy combatants. And it also turned out to haunt one of the soldiers who was involved, and whose memories of the attack and its repercussions serve as the focus of "Incident in New Baghdad."

"Things changed that day," says Ethan McCord. "I no longer felt I was doing good … I just wanted to get home." Back home, he wrote an open letter to the  Iraqi people – and though he arrived on the scene after the firing had ended, he is blunt about complicity: "I am a part of that system that killed those people … Every American is part of that system, because they pay into it."

McCord's testimony is disturbing and provocative, and the story of his adjustment back to family life is touching. But the 23-minute film also feels abrupt and truncated, skimming over themes that could stand to be fleshed out.   

"Saving Face"

Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Another HBO documentary (with its premiere scheduled for eight days after the Oscars), "Saving Face" fits the mold of winners in this category. It deals with a deadly serious subject: a rash of attacks on women in Pakistan in which men disfigure their wives (or women who've spurned their advances) by throwing acid in their faces.

Crucially, the doc focuses on a woman who is taking legal action against her husband, on a battle for tougher legislation, and on Pakistani-born, British-based doctor who specializes in reconstructive surgery to repair the women's faces. His work is difficult and the results far from perfect, but his mission is vital: to change the outlook of women who've come to think that their lives are essentially over.

"Saving Face" lacks the uplift found in, say, "Smile Pinki," a past winner that also deals with reconstructive surgery; it is a harder, tougher movie, with more measured victories. But as a film that details a fight against heinous crime and social injustice on three different fronts, it contains enough moments of small triumph to make it an obvious frontrunner in the category.

"The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom"

Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen

Director Lucy Walker has pulled off rare back-to-back nominations after making the cut last year for her documentary feature "Waste Land." "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" was made quickly, when a planned publicity trip to Japan coincided with the major earthquake and tsunami of last March; she'd wanted to use the trip to make a short film about the beauty and fragility of cherry blossoms, but instead revised her idea to deal with both the devastation and the promise of rebirth as seen in the blooming of the delicate flowers.

The film opens with a litany of horror stories, including terrifying footage shot as the tsunami flooded one village. But after we've come face-to-face with the effects of the disaster, Walker slowly shifts the focus to cherry blossoms, which come to be seen as signs of hope and harbingers of renewal.

When it moves from the tsunami to the cherry blossom, the film turns from a sobering issue-oriented doc to something more lyrical and impressionistic; instead of victims telling their tales of woe, we hear people rhapsodizing about the fragile, ephemeral flowers and their importance to Japanese notions of renewal and rebirth.

The film comes in at less than one second shy of the Academy's 40-minute limit, and Walker risks viewer fatigue by trying to sustain what becomes a sobering but delicate reverie for that entire length. But "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" is the most stylish nominee, and its blend of toughness and beauty makes it the most substantial rival to "Saving Face."

Overview: "The Barber of Birmingham," "God Is the Bigger Elvis" and "Incident in New Baghdad" all have their strengths, but this feels like a contest between "Saving Face" and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom."  The former is the likelier victor, unless "Tsunami" wins on style points.

Related Articles:  Oscar's Animated Shorts: Zombies Are Out for Pixar's Blood Oscar's Live-Action Shorts: The Europeans Are Coming

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