Monday, February 8, 2016

A downer list of Oscar-nominated short docs

The question one should ask the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after leaving in a funk after the screening of the five Oscar nominated documentary short films this weekend (at the Detroit Film Theatre) is why every doc they chose was such a downer. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with any one of them and among an otherwise mixed group of docs (ones uplifting, neutral, and depressing) each would have stood out for its greater critical impact. But lumped together they tend to leave the viewer numbed…...First up was Body Team 12 (Liberia – David Darg), an up front, stark, look at the risks a team of volunteers has to undergo to remove dead bodies during Liberia’s Ebola outbreak. We see scene after scene of them zipping up in rubber suits and goggles to prevent their flesh potentially coming into contact with the contaminated dead, the extreme care taken in actually removing bodies, as well as the social ostracism from interfering with bereaved families’ burial wishes..…A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (Pakistan – Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy) (photo above) is the story of an attempted Pakistani honor killing, in which a young woman, who chose to elope rather than marry according to her father’s wishes, survives a shooting and drowning at the hands of father and uncle, both of whom remain vociferously unapologetic even after being jailed. Saba is the victim of an Islamic honor killing and must eventually forgive her assailants to make neighbourhood peace. This is the most poignant of the films and likely the Oscar winner……Last Day of Freedom (USA – Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman). An “animated doc” - in other words a moving sketchbook that outlines the real filmed images - traces the story of Manny Babbitt, a schizophrenic and Vietnam vet, who is executed for murder. The film depicts Babbitt as a victim of injustices, not least a system that shunted his problems to the side. My patience with this sort of film only goes so far. Sure, Babbitt had problems. Sure, the justice system was racist and corrupt. But, I’m always left to ask, what about those who are victims of such perps, regardless of the latter’s personal demons? When will a doc (except perhaps for those who may be victims of sexual assault) be made about them?.....Chau, Beyond the Lines (USA/Vietnam – Courtney Marsh), is the story of children who have suffered birth defects as a result of parents being contaminated with the herbicide defoliant Agent Orange, used by American Forces during the Vietnam War. It’s a tragic yet heartwarming look at these kids, who are otherwise good humored and oblivious to their condition, in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. The film tells us that upwards of two million such people (a questionable fact, since a Vietnamese diplomat himself has identified 200.000 needing aid) have been maimed by Agent Orange, which the US used to clear jungle. No question Agent Orange’s use was controversial and has since been banned (it was never illegal in war under international law). But where are the documentaries indicting the North Vietnamese for their myriad atrocities, from torture to mass killings of innocents, to the terror after victory forcing tens of thousands of boat people to flee?.....Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (USA – Adam Benzine) is a film about the celebrated French filmmaker and intellectual Claude Lanzmann who made the famous and, in many people’s eyes, definitive film (it runs nine and a half hours) about The Holocaust. We learn about this 90-year-old’s significance among post-war French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he was lovers in the 1950's. This is an interesting enough portrait of a person, and of a film, few people may be very familiar with…..After watching all these five films, I’m reminded of an old cartoon (or it may have been a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)) of a group of film goers leaving a theatre where Marcel Ophüls’s 1969 The Sorrow and the Pity, was showing. All have, almost comically, downcast grim faces. 

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