Nominated documentary short films are all winners
This year's Academy Award-nominated documentary shorts reveal new sides of Africa, Asia and the U.S.
Image from Michael Gitlin's "The Birdpeople"
The tragic end of a South African photojournalist is at the center of Dan Krauss' probing "The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club." As part of a fearless alliance of journalists, Carter was a dashing figure who dodged bullets to chronicle the violence in the townships of Johannesburg in the years before apartheid ended.
Going abroad, he captured an iconic image of a starving Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture. The photo, which ran in the New York Times, earned Carter a 1994 Pulitzer Prize but also drew criticism from those who saw it as exploitative. The unraveling of a man haunted by condemnation and years of photographing pain and death is effectively depicted by Krauss through interviews with Carter's family and colleagues.
Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman went to Africa for the subject of their film, "God Sleeps in Rwanda." The film, narrated by Rosario Dawson, profiles five Rwandan women who survived the country's ethnic cleansing and found themselves in a world that had completely changed.
Their families murdered, themselves victims of rape, the women became part of a workforce that was now 70% female. The genocide that tore the country apart has had the strangely beneficial effect of empowering the women, providing employment opportunities and roles in government that never previously existed. In a society ravaged by AIDS and still reeling from violence, Acquaro and Sherman sound an inspiring note of hope and optimism.
The consequences from the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, are documented in Steven Okazaki's "The Mushroom Club." In returning to the subject of his 1980 film, "Survivors," Okazaki balances history with contemporary issues, including a resurgence of Japanese nationalism and the ways men and women who survived the blast deal with their physical and emotional scars.
The moving film takes its title from a group formed by a journalist after World War II to benefit the "children of the bomb." Now in their 60s, many of them are mentally challenged, the effects of their mothers' exposure to radiation. Most poignantly, an elderly man wonders what will happen to his daughter, whose mental capacity is that of a 2-year-old, once he is gone.
It is difficult to conceive of a better time to revive the rousing words of one of radio's great artists. In "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin," filmmaker Eric Simonson clearly illustrates the power of the medium and the devastating relevance the words of this "poet of the airwaves" still carry. A journalist by trade, Corwin moved to radio in 1936 and two years later began doing weekly dramas he conceived, wrote, cast, directed and produced for the CBS radio network.
Corwin's most famous broadcasts were "We Hold These Truths," a commemoration of the Bill of Rights' 150th anniversary that aired a little more than a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and "On a Note of Triumph," celebrating the victory over Germany in 1945. In the latter broadcast, heard by 60 million Americans, Corwin wrote, "Brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend." Hearing it once again, Walter Cronkite replies, simply, understatedly, "wow," and Studs Terkel quietly declares, "Every school kid should know that."
Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio tackles the 1978 kidnapping and eventual murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro from the inside out in the political drama "Good Morning, Night," screening Saturday at UCLA.
A band of four Red Brigade revolutionaries set up an apartment with a tiny room where they hold Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) for several months while trying to get the government to negotiate with them, all the while wondering why the people aren't supporting them. Maya Sansa plays Chiara, a young woman who fronts for her comrades (Luigi Lo Cascio, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Giovanni Calcagno) by working in a library at a government ministry.
Director Bellocchio projects the realization of the futility of the group's actions through Chiara. Slowly, but dramatically, the mask of an angry revolutionary slips to reveal a human being of compassion. While directly commenting on the political turmoil that stirred in Italy in the 1970s, Bellocchio makes a moving indictment of the hollowness of the terrorism that defines today's global politics.
Turning the tables
Filmforum's Sunday program "Looking at Surveillance" features two films that examine the practice of watching. In "The Birdpeople," Michael Gitlin turns the tables on those who like to look at our feathered friends. "Learning a new way to see," the filmmaker treats bird-watchers and ornithologists with the same detached reverence they afford their subjects. Among other flights of whimsy, the perceptive film catalogs the connections between Richard Nixon, Alger Hiss and the prothonotary warbler, as well as the search for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
Rebecca Baron's meaningful "How Little We Know of Our Neighbours" examines the relationship between the seer and the seen and the muddled distinction that separates observational anthropology from voyeurism. The film tracks the early uses of photography as a means to capture images of the unsuspecting, on through the Mass Observation Movement begun in 1937 to today's omnipresent barrage of security cameras and the evolving definition of rights to privacy.
French filmmaker Patrick Bokanowski rejects the literal use of cinema as a way to reproduce reality in favor of a surreal, dreamlike presentation. His 1982 film, "L'Ange," is at times painterly, with amber light streaming into a dark staircase ascend over five sequences. Shiftily using experimental techniques, Bokanowski creates a non-narrative universe in which meaning is almost completely subjective, hypnotically accompanied by his wife and collaborator Michèle Bokanowski's, intricate score. Monday's REDCAT screening will be preceded by a performance of Michèle Bokanowski's "Pour un Pianiste."