If the motto of some news organizations is "if it bleeds, it leads," Oscar's Documentary Shorts category would understand. Over the years, this is a category that has focused, almost to the exclusion of everything else, on serious, issue-oriented docs that illuminate dire social problems, rampant injustices, disease, the Holocaust and other subjects that aren’t much fun.
It also tends to nominate a batch of 39-minute, 30-second films (40 minutes being the cut-off point) that have been financed or picked up by HBO, which then quietly books them for a week in a theater on the outskirts of L.A., so that they've qualified for the Oscars before they make their more lauded TV debuts. (But that's another story – and most of this year's batch of nominees do not appear to have the HBO ties that all five of last year's nominees did.)
The flip side of "if it bleeds, it leads," though, is that in the Doc Shorts category, the film that takes home the Oscar is often the one that provides redemption and hope with its grim message.
Call it the "if it grins, it wins" rule: Voters here want their bad news tempered with hope, and the films that do that most successfully are often the ones that win. (Example: "Music by Prudence" last year.)
So when you’re looking for the winner, remember the title of Eric Simonson's winning short doc from 2005: "A Note of Triumph."
This year's slate opened last week in New York and begins a theatrical run on Friday in Los Angeles.
"Killing in the Name"
After Ashraf Al-Khaled lost 27 friends and family members to an Al Qaeda suicide bomber who set off an explosion in the hotel where Ashraf was having his wedding party, the young Muslim began to speak out about the tragedy, and to launch a campaign against jihad within the Islamic community. Rothstein's documentary follows a man on his quest to get Muslims to confront and condemn terrorism — a quest, based on the evidence presented here, that has faint hope of making a difference.
The documentary uses the usual array of talking heads and found footage, with interviews ranging from victims to an unrepentant Al Qaeda recruiter who matter-of-factly calls the bombing of Ashraf's wedding "a good killing." But Rothstein takes a very methodical, very dry and very slowly-paced look at an inflammatory subject; it makes his film an admirable piece of journalism, but it may not give it the emotional appeal necessary to win.
Sara Nesson and Mitchell W. Block
The strength of "Poster Girl" comes from its title character: Robynn Murray, a cheerleader who joined the army, served in Iraq and came home haunted by what she'd seen and wracked by Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Murray wails about her fate, breaks down on camera, and opens up to the filmmakers with devastating candor; her story is raw and scary, and it puts an indelible human face on the casualties of war.
The film is not just a devastating anti-war indictment, but an even more devastating indictment of the ways in which the bureaucracy mistreats and underserves our veterans. Once a poster girl – or magazine cover – for women in the military, Murray is now a poster girl for the damage done: as one interviewee says, "They took an American apple-pie cheerleader and they pretty much crushed her."
Brave and fragile, sometimes consumed by rage and self-loathing and sometimes finding reserves of strength, Murray has taken a few steps toward healing by the end of the film – and perhaps crucially, she's managed to turn some of her pain into art. "Poster Girl" stands out from the other nominees because it's less of an issue doc than a close, raw, unflinching (and just maybe, slightly hopeful) look at a single person.
"Strangers No More"
Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
If voters are looking for uplift and inspiration, this film has it in spades. Goodman and Simon tell the story of a public school in Tel Aviv whose student body is made up of students of all ages from 48 different countries, most of them from families that fled their home countries and came to Israel as refugees. The school welcomes Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, embraces and nurtures children who have been through unimaginable horrors, and even works with its students' parents to get work permits and the like.
You could call "Strangers No More" the anti-"Waiting for 'Superman'" – this is a school where everything works, and a film that is by far the most jubilant and inspiring of the nominees, full of hard-to-resist happy endings. In fact, its one drawback may be that the inspiration is laid on too thickly: by the time they get to the extended and jubilant graduation sequence that ends the film, viewers may start to wonder if any school could really be this perfect.
If voters aren't bothered by that, the film may well supply the notes of triumph needed to win.
"Sun Come Up"
Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
If "Strangers No More" is the flip side of "Waiting for 'Superman,'" this film could be the human side of "An Inconvenient Truth." Redfearn and Metzger use the case study of a single tribe to illustrate the impact of global warming and climate change: the Carteret Islanders, who live on islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, but have been forced to look for new homes because rising seas are destroying their land and their food.
The film follows a small band of islanders as they travel to the suspicious mainland in search of a village that will give them enough land for resettlement. It's heartbreaking to watch a community faced with the end of its centuries-old way of life, and forced to beg for a new start with no bargaining power. But by the end of the film, crucially, the heartbreak turns hopeful and the Carteret Islanders have at least a glimpse of a possible future. That ending is undeniably moving, and could give the film a real shot in this race.
"The Warriors of Qiugang"
Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon
Oscar winners in this category in 2006 for "The Blood of Yingzhou District," Yang and Lennon return to China for another serious, straightforward look at a ravaged Chinese community. In their last film, they spent a year with children who'd lost their parents to AIDS; this time, they spent three years following a village that has been ravaged by pollution from chemical plants producing pesticides and dyes.
As the filmmakers watch, the Qiugang villagers wage a fight against the companies that have operated with impunity for years. By the end, the government steps in and the villagers' crusade appears to be on the verge of succeeding. The film plays like a call-to-arms for the Chinese people, and a sobering reminder of the environmental problems facing China and bound to impact the rest of the world. Clearly, it's an important issue and an important film; in the Oscar race, though, the question is whether villagers signing a petition could possibly have the impact with voters that children orphaned by AIDS did.