Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Best Documentary Short

Killing in the Name, Jed Rothstein
Poster Girl, Sara Nesson
Strangers No More, Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon (WINNER)
Sun Come Up, Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
The Warriors of Qiugang, Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

It's as if the Academy announced that this year's theme would be "victims fight back" and that these were the five best submissions. Each of these 40-minute films pursues a dark topic — Islamic terrorism, war trauma, displaced children, the consequences of climate change, industrial pollution — and finds a person or group agitating to fix the problem.

"In the last five years, 88,000 people were killed or injured in terrorist attacks worldwide," Killing in the Name informs us. "The majority of the victims were Muslims." Ashraf al-Khaled was the groom at a wedding in an Amman hotel blown up by a suicide bomber; 27 people in the wedding party died. Ashraf formed the Global Survivors Network not merely to comfort those who lost loved ones to bombs but also to confront the terrorists who believe their murders are divinely ordained. It's chilling material, rather artlessly presented.

The Poster Girl is ex-soldier Robynn Murray, a high school cheerleader who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and did not get the Veterans' Administration attention she believed she deserved. A frequent presence at antiwar rallies (remember those?), Murray turned to sculpture to make her demons visible and tactile. "I want to make one that's all black, and then take it to a range and shoot it through the heart, and then paint red coming from it, because of the way that I felt when I got home. I felt like I died. And part of me did die." That Murray's abrasive personality takes getting used to is crucial to the film's power: the attractive poster girl on the cover of Army magazine is now an open wound trying to heal itself by opening up to the public.

The Carteret islanders in Sun Come Up enjoyed a much more placid existence than Murray's — until climate change made the waters rise, flooding this Eden in Papua New Guinea. Told by their government in 2003 that they would be moved to nearby Bougainville, the islanders had to wait for years before the family-by-family relocation went into effect. This glossily produced doc doesn't need its weepie-film music score; the situation is dramatic enough already, and it's applicable around the world. If the Atlantic Ocean keeps rising, Manhattan island could be the next Carteret, and New Jersey its Bougainville.

Yang and Lennon, who won a Short Doc Oscar for The Blood of Yingzhou District, about children with AIDS, return to China to record the battle of Qiugang villagers against corporations that have poisoned their land with dyes and pesticides. Some of the locals become self-taught lawyers; others sign petitions with their own blood. A how-to pamphlet on people power, the movie tells a story being re-enacted around the world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin.

All these films are not only "worthy" (noble screeds that make you want to say, "I gave at the office") but worthy (putting human faces on important issues). Still, they'll have a hard time beating Strangers No More, which spends a year in the life of students at Tel Aviv's Bialik-Rogozin School. The children are from more than 40 countries, many of them ravaged by war and famine. The kids are almost uniformly beautiful and personable, the teachers lavish in their care (one visits an Ethiopian student's father to help him get a visa). All the lessons are taught in Hebrew, but the universal language is a fond embrace.

Some children need special coaxing to overcome their wounds. Amal, from the Sudan, who still has a scar from being shot in the forehead, says, "I don't want to talk about it. That makes me cry." Others fit right in. Muhammad saw his father get killed by soldiers in Darfur, but at school, he says, "I feel like I'm with my family here." On graduation day, saying goodbye to the principal, he gets what he calls "a mother's hug" and declares, "I hope to make a school in my village." Esther, a refugee from South Africa, says, "We came here because this is the land of God." Bialik-Rogozin certainly seems like a heavenly school, and Strangers No More plays like an antidote to Waiting for "Superman". It's a nonstop heartwarmer, and it should win Best Documentary Short.