Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts at “A Weekend with Oscar”

Fillmaker Michael Moore introduced the Oscar nominated Documentary Shorts at “A Weekend with Oscar,” in NYC, on Saturday, February 18.

On Saturday, February 18 and Sunday February 19, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented “A Weekend with Oscar” which included a screening of Documentary Short Subject nominees for the 84th Annual Academy Awards.  The event took place in the Academy’s screening room at 111 East 59th Street in Manhattan.  The program was produced by Patrick Harrison, East Coast Director of the Academy.  Harrison pointed out that the event marked the eighth year that the Academy was presenting the shorts program.  Following some introductory remarks, Harrison turned the program over to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore explained that he is the governor representing the documentary branch of the Board of Governors of the Motion Picture Academy.

Moore gave a short introduction that was very insightful.  He explained, “The short documentary filmmakers do this pretty much as an act of love.  There is no money to be made in making a documentary short. Commercial movie theatres do not show them.  Art houses do.  Festivals do.  It’s an art form that we at the Academy don’t want to lose.” 

Moore went on to describe shorts as an area “where so many people who eventually make a feature start out.  It’s affordable, especially with the equipment today.  If you have the talent and skill to be able to do this, it’s now an art form that’s open to just about anyone who wants to pick up a camera and tell a story.”

In regard to the five nominees for the Best Documentary Short category that we were about to see, Moore explained that they were selected from 35 documentary shorts eligible for this year.  Moore introduced New York based filmmaker Julie Anderson, who, together with filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa, made the documentary “God is the Bigger Elvis.”  Moore said that the New York community for documentaries is even larger than Los Angeles in terms of its members, saying it is “actually the only Academy branch where there are more people who live and work in New York than in Hollywood.”  He added, “Whenever you hear the documentary category (during the Oscar telecast) you know it’s time for the New York filmmakers to be ready to take the stage.”

The five nominated documentary shorts, screened back to back, ran about two hours and forty-five minutes.   They featured a wide variety of subjects and all were very compelling. A common theme was the triumph of the human spirit.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

The film concerns the lesser known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  The primary subject is James Armstrong, an 85-year-old barber in Birmingham Alabama.  Armstrong, a charming, humorous man with a strong sense of pride and history still works in his ramshackle barber shop, a virtual museum of the Civil Rights Movement.  The shop proudly displays the American flag that Armstrong carried on the famous march from Selma to Montgomery.  Armstrong recalls once having given a haircut to Martin Luther King.  The documentary features other unknown foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement including 97 year old Amelia Houston.  What is so unique about “The Barber of Birmingham” is that while it concerns areas already well covered by past documentaries, it does so from the perspective of lesser known participants and, in so doing, tells the story of all the people we will never know by name who made the Civil Rights Movement happen.

God is the Bigger Elvis

During the 1950s Dolores Hart had a successful acting career in Hollywood.  She starred in movies opposite Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Montgomery Clift, Robert Ryan, Myrna Loy, Anna Magnani and even Elvis Presley in the 1957 movie “Loving You.”  Hart also starred on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company” from 1958 – 1959.  However, as she explains in Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson’s captivating short documentary “God is Bigger than Elvis,” deep down it was not enough.  In 1963 Hart gave up stardom for a life of prayer and spirituality.  She entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut where she lives to this day. The Abbey is the only one of its kind in America.  It consists of 36 nuns who follow strict Benedictine rules of work and prayer.  Today Hart is Mother Prioress Dolores Hart.  She proves to be a lively, funny, sincere and devout interview subject.  Hart speaks frankly and fondly about her famous past life, her reasons for leaving it and the sense of fulfillment, peace and interior renewal that she now has in leading a life that has given her a true communion with God.  A life, Hart claims, which is even bigger than Elvis.

Incident in New Baghdad

Army veteran Ethan McCord talks about his life changing experience in the Iraq War.  McCord was involved with the aftermath of the infamous July 12, 2007 U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed civilians and journalists and injured two children.  The leaking of the video of the attack was among the classified information that Corporal Bradley Manning released to wikileaks, putting the controversial website on the map and Manning in jail.   I have seen this incident explored in two other documentaries, but never from the personal perspective shown here. McCord is clear and articulate about his point of view of the event, and the Iraq War, both of which made him re-examine his role as an infantryman.   “Incident in New Baghdad” is very well made, graphic and harrowing.

Saving Face

“Saving Face” is a very difficult to watch, although well done documentary about Pakistani women whose husbands have thrown acid in their faces causing horrible disfigurements.  It is estimated that there are 100 of these attacks every year in Pakistan, and those are just the ones that are reported.  It is also the story of a government and culture trying to reform by instituting harsher penalties for husbands who commit this crime, many of whom go unpunished.  The story also concerns Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a London based Pakistani plastic surgeon who comes to Pakistan to try to help these women.  Most important, “Saving Face” is about courageous women who have experienced the unimaginable and yet are determined to go on with their lives while seeking justice.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” contains the most graphic footage of Japan’s tsunami that I have ever seen.  Houses, boats and cars are pushed aside, almost casually as if by an unseen giant hand, and consumed, as the tsunami waters move through and ravage towns while people flee to the hills.  The film also contains beautifully shot compositions that juxtapose the cherry blossom trees coming into bloom against the wreckage left by the tsunami.  The blossoms are a metaphor of the human spirit willing to go on and rebuild.  My only criticism of the film, and it is difficult to be critical of a film on this subject matter, is that, after a while, it becomes repetitive.  We get the idea of the unimaginable horror of the tsunami and the rebirth that the cherry blossoms represent.  We are shown and told about the significance of the blossoms over and over.  A shorter cut of the film would have been more effective.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on February 21, 2012, in Academy Events at Lighthouse, Documentary, Feature Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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