The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Short Subject

by Rachel · February 19, 2012 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 6 Comments
Editor’s note: Welcome to the twenty-sixth of a 32-part series dissecting the 84th Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please click the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By David of Never Too Early Movie Predictions

Who is ready to learn something? I understand that the Documentary Features may be too long for some of us, but these are the SHORTS, for goodness sake. Has our attention span really gotten so low that we can’t sit through 20 to 40 minutes of a film that doesn’t have explosions or movie stars? SPOILER: Actually, some of these DO include explosions and movie stars, so it’s not like they’re asking us to read a book or something.
Sure, we can blame it on the fact that the films aren’t screening near us (my local art house theater plays the animated and live action shorts, but not the docs), or the fact that the few theaters that are playing these have only been able to get the rights to 4 of the 5, but isn’t it more likely that we’d go watch Ghost Rider or The Vow anyway? Who needs to learn about the world when we can escape from it? But for those of you who would rather be informed LAMBs than stupid sheep, here are your nominees:
1. Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen for The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom. Trailer. Official Site. IMDB page. Documenting the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, this film uses the cherry trees which blossomed in the aftermath to reflect upon the fragility and beauty of life. 
Facts: The film premiered at Toronto and won three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Director Lucy Walker was previously nominated in the feature documentary category for Waste Land and has been nominated for Independent Spirit and Emmy Awards for Devil’s Playground. She’s also worked on Blue’s Clues! The film is produced by Supply & Demand Integrated and is 39 minutes.
Assessment: I am currently predicting this to win because the cinematography in the trailer is absolutely stunning, and the combination of recent events and the presentation of a “visual haiku” will appeal to unique sets of voters. Plus, it has music by Moby! On the other hand, the Academy often uses this category to highlight societal injustices that demand a call to action, so the environmental causes of this disaster could make it feel less urgent.
2. Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for Saving Face. Trailer. Official Site. IMDB page. Documenting the phenomenon of acid attacks against women in Pakistan, this film follows several survivors and a London-based plastic surgeon who tries to help them, and also explores the push to pass new legislation that would impose stricter sentencing for the perpetrators of this crime. 
Facts: The film is scheduled to debut on HBO on March 8 as part of International Women’s Month. Director Daniel Junge was previously nominated in the documentary short category for The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, and producer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Emmy for Pakistan: Children Of The Taliban. The film is produced by Milkhaus/Jungefilm and is 40 minutes.
Assessment: Of all the films, this one has the most in common with past winners of this category, which often focus on inspiring stories of individuals in foreign lands working to fight real injustices. It is also getting good reviews from those who have seen it. Its biggest challenge comes from the fact that the Academy recently wrote new rules focusing on theatrical releases, rather than documentaries designed for television. The rule doesn’t go into effect until next year, but voters who felt strongly about it may balk at rewarding a film that is being released on HBO two weeks after the ceremony.
3. James Spione for Incident In New Baghdad. Trailer. Additional Scene. Official Site. IMDB page. My Review. Documenting the horrors of war and their psychological impact on veterans, this film follows Ethan McCord’s journey from soldier to activist. Unlike the war films that the Hollywood studios put out, this one involves the death of journalists and civilians by U.S. helicopters, WikiLeaks revelations of government cover-ups, and the plight of military personnel suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 
Facts: The film won at both the Tribeca and Rhode Island Film Festivals, and showed at several others including Tallgrass, Camden and Palm Springs. Director James Spione has previously won a Student Academy Award for Prelude. The film is produced by Morninglight Films and is 22 minutes.
Assessment: The continuing wars of the United States and the struggles of returning veterans are the types of issues that we commonly associate with the documentary branch. But the reality is that war films are usually rewarded in the Documentary Feature category, while the shorts tend to focus on smaller personal stories. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 1991 to find a documentary short winner that directly discussed the military industrial complex in the United States. This year there is additional competition because there is a documentary feature, Hell And Back Again, that covers very similar issues.
4. Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday for The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier Of The Civil Rights Movement. Trailer. Official Site. IMDB page. This documentary follows James Armstrong, an 85 year old civil rights advocate, as he participates in the election of the first African American president. In addition to his personal story, the film explores the improvements made to elections in the South since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Facts: The film premiered at Sundance, won at the Ashland Independent Film Festival and played at several others including SilverDocs, Tallgrass, MountainWeek and DocuWeek. One of the directors, Gail Dolgin, has been previously nominated in the feature documentary category for Daughter From Danang. The film is produced by Purposeful Productions and is 25 minutes.
Assessment: Civil rights stories have done well in this category, and the film is getting good reviews, but I wonder how the timing of this nomination will play out in terms of the American election cycle. It feels a few years too late to capitalize on the excitement of President Obama’s historic victory, and Academy members may feel that rewarding the film this close to the next election cycle could be seen as too partisan.
5. Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson for God Is The Bigger Elvis. IMDB page. News Article, 20/20 Interview. This film documents the life of Dolores Hart, a movie star from the 1960’s who received Elvis Presley’s first onscreen kiss, and then became a Catholic nun. 
Facts: The film is scheduled to debut on HBO in April. Director Rebecca Cammisa was previously nominated in the feature documentary category for Which Way Home, and producer Julie Anderson has been nominated for four Emmy awards. The film is produced by Documentress Films and is 37 minutes.
Assessment: The film doesn’t appear to tackle pressing social issues the way that the other films do, and is another HBO production that looks designed for television. On the other hand, this category has honored interesting figures in the past, and Hart is an actual Academy member who may have old friends and co-workers who would vote for her.

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6 Responses to The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Short Subject

  1. Shep. Burman says:

    Nice rundown here, I got to say that I think the award itself is a little strange. Would it be that much difference to actually include a really good short doc. with the feature ones? Instead of having an entire category for it? Especially since most of these are tv-productions anyway.

  2. EFC says:

    Shep. Burman – I have to disagree, I think it’s tough enough for these short docs to get much attention to begin with and need all the help they can get.

    It’s an unfortunate category of film, just like short narratives, because it’s harder to market them (or market them at all). Where else, aside from film festivals, do they really get a shot at being seen? At least some of them get their time to shine at the Oscars, so I’m cool with it.

    I mean, I’d never even heard of these joints until David wrote about them. (Good stuff, btw, David!)

  3. Shep. Burman says:

    EFC: Of course but I really don’t see that much difference on a 40 minute doc and a feature one. Thats probably what I was getting at but to be honest I probably see to few docs to even voice an opinion.

  4. Thanks all! I like the shorts categories, but have noticed that in this category in particular they push up against that 40 minute window. Still, I suspect that if they combined things it would be very hard for any of these to gain traction, simply because they aren’t played very many places outside of film festivals.

    I also think the shorts categories often provide a place to reward new talent. In so many of the bigger categories, you start dealing with issues like name recognition and campaign dollars. So it’s nice to see a few places where the talented little guy can get some recognition.

  5. TheVern says:

    Great post I agree with your pick about the Tsunnami Doc although I have never been good at picking a winner in this category.

  6. @EFC. Thanks! Glad I could help introduce you to them.

    @TheVern, Thanks. I do suspect that it will be between Tsunami and Saving Face, but it’s my first year predicting this category, so we’ll have to see!

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