J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 10, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentaries

It was only a matter of months after Katrina hit that a bumper crop of outraged documentaries began jostling for art-house attention. Strangely, almost one year after the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and Tsunami rocked Japan the documentary film industry still maintains nearly complete radio silence. However, filmmaker Lucy Walker recognized the magnitude of the tragic events in Japan, capturing the immediate aftermath and early rebuilding efforts in The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (trailer here), the clear and overwhelming standout among the Oscar nominated short form documentaries, which opens today as part of the 2012 showcase of Academy Award nominated shorts at the IFC Center.

Blossom opens with first-hand video footage that will make viewers forever foreswear Roland Emmerich disaster movies. From the relative safety of higher ground, residents watch as the tsunami slowly obliterates their town and all their neighbors left behind. Their audible anguish is haunting.

There are many stories from those who lost loved ones. Clearly, the pain remains understandably raw and immediate for them. Yet, there is no finger-pointing or ranting in Blossom. The Japanese people are contradictorily both too practical and too philosophical for such indulgences. Instead they seek to remember and rebuild. Whether it is the beautiful young photographer recording the rebirth of the town destroyed in the initial scene, from that very same vantage point, or the relief worker who always stops to salvage family photos and tombstones, their efforts are profoundly moving.

Directed by Walker, a high profile nonfiction filmmaker, whose perfectly nice and reasonably informative Waste Land was a feature documentary nominee last year, Blossom is considered the frontrunner in this category and rightly so. Saving Face is also part of the program, but has separate publicity arrangements, while God is Bigger than Elvis is not included due to licensing issues.

The remaining contenders simply pale compared to Blossom's impact. Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday’s The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement is billed as a profile of the late James Armstrong. However, they show no real interest in their ostensive subject, using him only as a prop, or more precisely a mirror to capture Obama’s reflected glory. All we learn about Mr. Armstrong himself is that he participated in many of the great Civil Rights marches and presided over a barber shop filled with artifacts from the era.

Likewise, James Spione’s Incident in New Baghdad is undermined by its ideological blind spots. Former Army Specialist Ethan McCord explains how a complicated skirmish publicized by Wikileaks haunted him since his discharge. It seems an Army Apache helicopter group took out an enemy contingent armed with RPGs and AK-47’s. Soon thereafter, a minivan pulled up and was bombarded in turn. It turns out a young boy and girl were seriously injured inside the vehicle and their father was killed in the driver’s seat. Why he headed towards rather than away from the combat does not seem to intrigue McCord or Spione. However, the tremendous efforts the U.S. military made to successful save both children ought to speak volumes about the moral superiority of our troops and their mission. McCord remains bitter and that is his right. As an indictment though, Incident just does not compute.

Blossom is an important and inspiring film, highly recommended even when programmed with two vastly inferior nominees. With the anniversary of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami fast approaching, it is important to remember the Japanese people in our hearts during what is sure to be a painful time for them. Concerned individuals can still support the Japan Society’s relief fund by going here. Varying greatly in terms of Oscar worthiness, the Academy Award nominated documentary shorts open today (2/10) in New York at the IFC Center.

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