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Short but Sweet

March 1, 2010

As a rationalist, I decry the use of small sample sizes to make a point. But as a journalist, schooled in the dictum that “three events make a trend,” I sometimes can’t resist. As anyone who watches Fox News knows, journalism and rationalism are not always complementary practices.

So, if the five Oscar nominees for best documentary short are any guide to the current state of the form, then short documentary filmmakers today are decidedly orthodox in their aesthetics and modest in their ambitions. All five nominees tackle subjects with obvious political overtones, but only two of the five address their political context head-on, and one of those two is explicitly about a political campaign. The other three films strenuously avoid politically contextualizing their subjects, settling instead for an uncontroversial humanism. Formally, only one of the five is particularly interesting, but this one film is so groundbreaking, it makes up for the rest of the pack.

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province focuses on the parents who lost their children in the May 2008 earthquake in south central China that killed 70,000, including 10,000 schoolchildren. Due to China’s one-child policy, many of these children were their parents’ only child. Gathering in town squares with photos of their lost offspring, the parents rage over shoddily constructed school buildings and corrupt local officials—although they are always careful to note that the national government is not to blame. It’s a familiar refrain to journalists in China: local officials are bad, but the government in Beijing is benevolent. How much is brain-washing and how much is self-censorship is impossible to ascertain, and Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, the makers of the film, don’t even try.

Which points to a central problem with China’s Unnatural Disaster: its utter lack of narrative perspective. Alpert and O’Neill drift from suffering parent to suffering parent, giving the audience no personal connection to this large-scale tragedy. They never interview any experts on school construction, making the parents’ claims, and the government’s counter-claims, impossible to verify. The one formal innovation is their use of white subtitles for civilian conversation, and red for government officials. It’s a model of clarity. But it also has the probably intended side-effect of making every government statement look like a lie. China’s Unnatural Disaster is an important historical document, but it’s not much of a film.

Music by Prudence, about a gifted but physically disabled singer, takes place in a country with a similarly authoritarian government but a far more dismal economic record: Zimbabwe. While 21-year-old Prudence Mabhena is a charismatic and inspirational subject, Roger Ross Williams’ film makes China’s Unnatural Disaster look like a masterpiece of political contextualization. Other than an occasional joke, no mention is made of Robert Mugabe, the confiscation of white-owned farms, the spread of HIV, or any of the other phenomena that have turned Zimbabwe into such a wretched place over the last two decades. But Prudence’s infectious performances with her band Liyana make up for the film’s political agnosticism. Plus, the cinematography by veteran Derek Wiesehahn and newcomer Errol Webber is absolutely gorgeous.

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant follows the pattern of eschewing analysis for humanism. The Last Truck records the human cost of the closing of the Moraine, Ohio, General Motors plant that employed nearly 3,000 people. Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert conduct many of their interviews with workers coming and going from their shifts (all of them drive GM cars). Like the makers of China’s Unnatural Disaster (also an HBO production), Bognar and Reichert don’t spend enough time with any one subject to create much human connection. They seem more interested in showing us a cross-section of the people who worked at the plant. They are surprisingly diverse: white, black and Latino; male and female; straight and gay. The filmmakers are obviously union-sympathetic, but the film provides little political or economic context for the plant’s closing, instead offering a forum for the workers’ expressions of anger, sadness and bewilderment. The film ends with the closing of the plant, and we have no idea what happened to these workers in the year-plus since the plant’s closure.

The best traditional documentary of the bunch—by far—is The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. Daniel Junge’s film tells the story of the campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Washington state, largely through the eyes of former Gov. Booth Gardner, the inspiration for, and initiator of, the campaign. A year after leaving the governor’s office in 1994, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When we first meet him, his face is partially frozen, his speech a slurry mumble, his walking a chore. But as friend and foe alike note, his mind remains sharp.

While Gardner is a naturally sympathetic figure—especially when it’s revealed he can’t even benefit from the proposed law in its current form—Junge does a terrific job of providing balance and context. One of the leaders of the anti-Initiative 1000 campaign is Duane French, a permanently disabled man who gets around in a motorized wheelchair. He makes the cogent point that during the onset of his disability he was so depressed that he would have likely asked a doctor to help him kill himself. A bit less sympathetic are his allies in the anti-Initiative camp, the Catholic Church and a Sarah Palin-esque figure who says the Initiative 1000 campaign is being led by “a very small group of people with extreme control needs.” Junge gives us a sense where the anti-Initiative campaigners are coming from, but he doesn’t shy away from their excesses.

As the election draws nearer, Gardner’s condition deteriorates. A seasoned public speaker, he begins to lose his train of thought mid-speech. It’s a heart-wrenching sight. Once his cause’s biggest asset, he is asked by the campaign organizers to limit his public appearances. He says to the camera, “I reached a point where I’m saying to myself: was it worth it?” And we don’t know whether he’s referring to the campaign, his life, or both. The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner is smart, moving and, best of all, responsible.

The biggest outlier of the nominees is Rabbit à la Berlin, which tells the story of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of rabbits. Tens of thousands of rabbits, who found a natural haven in the 120-kilometer-long meadow between the walls separating West Berlin and East Berlin. Wild rabbits really did live in this no-man’s land surrounded by tank barricades and watchtowers, but filmmakers Bartosz Konopka and Anna Wydra have tongues firmly planted in cheek. The rabbits operate as an extended metaphor for East Germans, first enjoying the safety of their isolation but later digging holes under the walls to seek better lives. Real archival footage, some of it from the masterful USIA propaganda film The Wall, alternates with shots of fuzzy little rabbits hopping, burrowing and occasionally boinking. Voiced over in the serious, calming tones of a nature documentary narrator, Rabbit à la Berlin is a bizarre and hilarious experience. I don’t know if you could exactly call it a documentary. But it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

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