Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of short films Academy members are helping traumatized soldiers sandbag international schools against terrorists and toxic floodwaters. In this, their final week, they resent the exploitation of refugee children in the Best Documentary Short Film category.
Henry, I think this is the strongest category we’ve examined this Oscar season. More powerful and focused than the necessarily broad Best Picture noms, less pompous (mostly) than the preening acting contenders, and not too reliant on children and childlike creatures to hook audiences—as in the live-action and animated shorts—the short docs (especially the three best) are arresting and compelling, highly specific in their stories yet incredibly affecting.
From Muslim anti-terrorism activists (Killing in the Name) and PTSD-suffering American soldiers (Poster Girl) to industrial pollutants (Warriors of Qiugang), rising sea levels (Sun Come Up) and even, yes, an international school full of cute kids (Strangers No More), these nominees have volumes more to say about humanity’s sorry state and flickers of hope than the technophobic top contenders. Let’s just hope that the Babies of the bunch, Strangers, doesn’t win, right Henry?
Yup, Ben, I’d hate to see that unbearably twee documentary win—did you catch when the director double-exposed images of wartime carnage over the face of a young, bewildered refugee? Oh, I get it—he’s a refugee! But to be honest, Ben, I was similarly disappointed by most of these docs, and am a little surprised by your blanket adoration. So, let’s start with your favorite, Poster Girl, about a young, female Iraq vet, Robynn Murray, suffering PTSD and a host of other disabilities without the Disability Pay to show for it. Inarguably, her stories of panic attacks, crippling debt, and alcoholism are heartbreaking—especially because she speaks with that sympathetic crack in her voice—and the film sports a rare degree of openness: not only from Murray, who describes her horrific war experiences as we rarely hear veterans do publicly, but also from the filmmaker, who had rare access to Murray’s spontaneous breakdowns. That scene in which she punches a hole in her wall and then falls down weeping, and her mother rushes in and cradles her on the floor? It’s gut-wrenching. Murray’s a tremendous character, a former Army Magazine cover girl laying out her disillusion with the military, and a sympathetic face of PTSD. But I felt the movie lacked much-needed context and, even worse, that it had little to do beyond introducing this character. The last ten minutes or so focus on a therapeutic art class, which serves as the requisite cathartic-climax part of the formula that all of these shorts follow: present global tragedy, then the individual fighting back, with a small victory at the end. But her political art projects are a weak counterbalance to the preceding horrors and drama, a genuflection to the demands of narrative cliche. Victories don’t get much smaller.
Phew, Henry, I was worried you had a real problem with Poster Girl. I understand what you’re getting at, and it’s precisely what I felt elevated these documentary shorts over their fictional and animated counterparts: rather than narrowing their scope to fit a short format, they present conflicts that can’t possibly be resolved in a short format—not to mention, you know, real life. So each has its small micro-climactic finale, but leaves broader, systemic problems and future perils hanging in the balance. The islanders displaced from their disappearing ancestral isle in Sun Come Up are given land, but barely begin the fraught relocation process; the village-killing pesticide factory in Warriors of Qiugang doesn’t stop polluting, it just moves someplace where fewer prying lenses will go; and while Robynn Murray achieves some kind of stability through art therapy, the vast inadequacies of veterans’ care programs loom large. To expect any of the global crises broached by each doc through small, very specific cases to be solved by short’s end is straight up crazy, Henry. But you’ve also gotta have a resolution of some sort, and for me three of the five nominees navigate these storytelling constraints really well.
Actually, Ben, I don’t think you understand what I was getting at at all. My problem with Poster Girl, or any of the other shorts, isn’t that they don’t solve the global crises they present: it’s that they pretend that they do. You’re right that most of the shorts (except maybe Strangers No More, blech) suggest that the issues that they present are open-ended. But did you really feel, after any of them, that you wanted to find out more about the issues, or get involved? Or did you feel like, phew, I’m glad that’s been taken care of? I don’t blame the filmmakers so much as I blame the Oscar process they became a part of: I’m sure there’s a set structural formula for successful short documentaries—they’re designed to introduce us to big scary issues, but not to make us worry too seriously about them. But, as such, they are, for the most part, middle-brow pandering in the worst way, pricking our liberal guilt while making us feel like someone else is on top of it.
Henry, if the foremost criterion by which to evaluate documentaries were how effectively they move us to take action then the best doc I’ve ever seen would be The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (seriously, beat all my high scores after seeing that shit). I don’t believe any of these documentaries were made with the sole intent of moving viewers to come help—although the Carteret Islands sure look nice, maybe for the Sutton-Stewart post-Oscars retreat? Rather, many of them present distant yet unsettling parallels to problems at home upon which we could actually have an impact, like the massive human displacements caused by rising water levels that will increasingly threaten coastal Brooklyn (just like Sun Come Up), or the ongoing cleanup of our two toxic waterways (as in Warriors of Qiugang). Which isn’t to say that they don’t all manufacture some cathartic relief within their still-unfolding disasters, I just don’t think those moments neuter the power of forgoing injustices as effectively as you do. And, speaking of neutered power, which do you think will win the Oscar? Do we have a weird repeat of Avatar‘s environmentalism against Hurt Locker‘s anti-militarism in the showdown between Warriors of Qiugang and Sun Come Up in the former camp, and Poster Girl and Killing in the Name in the latter? Or will Strangers No More win through the power of rainbow children?
I’m inclined to think cynically of Oscar voters, so I expect the very worst of the nominees will take the prize. So, yeah, how could the cute kids of Strangers No More lose? Except maybe even Oscar voters will see through this unbearable schmaltz. I think Warriors is too generic to stir significant support (pollution? yawn! in China? double yawn!); maybe if its cameras had actually been around for when the corporate bullies came a-terrorizing. As for Killing in the Name, its chief advantage is that it centers on a scarce-as-hen’s-teeth prize: a moderate voice of Islam, something for which politicized dunderheads (Oscar voters, right?) are always clamoring. But its story, about a man whose wedding was bombed by jihadis and who now travels the globe speaking out against violence among Muslims, is way too haphazard, hopping around the globe because it’s too damn hard to find all the sources you need in one place. (An Al Qaeda spokesman in one hemisphere, convicted terrorists in another.) My favorite of the bunch was Sun Come Up, but I think it’s because it was the only one to which I could personally relate: didn’t those Carterets, displaced by climate change, seem like they were victims of “natural” gentrification? The way sea waters pushed them out of their home reminded me of the waves of wealthy kids making rents in certain neighborhoods unaffordable. But global warming? That just makes me think of that limousine liberal, Davis Guggenheim, who couldn’t even get a nomination, blech. So, yeah, despite my reservations (c’mon, I liked it!), my money’s on Poster Girl. Go Team Bigelow!