2007 Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Short But Sweet

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
A child laborer from “Recycled Lives”
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It’s not surprising to find that documentary filmmaking–covering concepts from penguins to politics–is in the midst of a major renaissance. Considering that 70 percent (charitably) of Hollywood features are poorly made, profit-minded pabulum (from conception to completion), documentaries represent America’s last best chance of finding intelligent discourse, skillful cinematography and a near total absence of fart jokes. … OK, so The Aristocrats might have slipped in one or two of those.

Of course, not all subjects demand the full 90-minute film treatment. Thanks to the handy packaging of the
2007 Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Shorts , audiences hungry for the real deal can dig into four short documentaries in the time it usually takes to watch one. And, since all four of these films were nominated for Academy Awards, you can be assured of their quality before even setting foot in the theater.

First out of the gate is the Oscar winner, Ruby Yang’s “The Blood of Yingzhou District.” The film examines the lives of several children orphaned by China’s growing AIDS crisis. For a time, the selling of blood become an industry in the rural districts of China. Thanks to poor hygienic conditions and a near total lack of understanding about communicable diseases, AIDS spread like wildfire. Now superstition and a continuing lack of education have left the orphans of this disease (some of whom are infected, some of whom are not) complete social pariahs. It’s a grim, tightly focused snapshot. Admittedly, one of the main reasons some people tend to avoid documentaries is because they’re “depressing.” I can’t say that “The Blood of Yingzhou District” is a cheerful film, but it is an honest and heartfelt dose of reality.

Following it comes another seemingly depressing film, Leslie Iwerks’ “Recycled Life.” It is the perfect example of what a documentary filmmaker should do: Find a compelling topic and don’t get between it and the audience. Iwerks’ film takes us into a whole new world, one few of us could have ever even imagined existed. For more than 60 years, an entire community of people have lived inside the Guatemala City dump. What seems like a dark tale of the lowest form of poverty quickly becomes a fascinating social study. Sources estimate that more than 2,000 families (known at
guajeros ) make their living scavenging this massive landfill. In point of fact, these outcasts are very hard workers and make a surprisingly decent wage. One could even argue that they perform a valuable task, recycling more than a million pounds of waste per day. Of course, their life is not without its peril. The environment is extremely toxic, and the children raised here are virtually assured to follow in their parents’ illiterate, unskilled footsteps. Avoiding clear-cut conclusions of “this is good” and “this is bad,” the film unearths many complex layers to the tale. Throughout the brief film, Iwerks traces a near-perfect story arc–right on up to its shocking climax and hopeful conclusion.

The final two films form a nice mirror image of one another and provide a cheerful counterpoint to the first two offerings. “Rehearsing a Dream” by Karen Goodman & Simon Kirk takes us behind the scenes of Arts Week, an annual gathering of high school artists hosted by the American Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. The top 160 students in a variety of arts (painting, photography, dance, music, theater) are sent to a one-week camp in which they receive training from such professionals as Vanessa Williams, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Michael Tilson Thomas. As valuable as the lessons are, it is the gleeful interaction of these students–many of whom come from small towns where football is the only celebrated skill–that seems to leave the most lasting impression. In a time when arts funding is draining quickly from our public schools, it’s exciting to see the enthusiasm of these amazingly talented young people.

The final film, “Two Hands” by Nathaniel Kahn, introduces us to Leon Fleisher, a celebrated concert pianist who lost the use of his right hand to an unusual brain disorder in the ’60s. Faced with the loss of his one and only skill, Fleisher reacted badly (at first), drowning his troubles in self-help groups and Scotch. In time, he realized his enduring love for music and became a teacher and conductor. It’s an inspirational tale and a reminder–as all these films are in a way–that human beings are nearly limitless in their capacity to overcome adversity.
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