You can learn a lot in just a couple hours. And you can do it with a soda and a tub of popcorn in your hand, thanks to Shorts International's presentation of "Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts."
The live action and animated shorts competing for Oscars have been shown in cinemas for some time. Last year was the first in which the documentary shorts also got the big screen treatment. It's about time: These films might be short -- which the Academy defines as under 40 minutes -- but they deal with big issues. You'll find yourself moved multiple times -- though, since these films are made with a deliberate point of view, you might feel frustrated now and then, too.
Four of the five nominees are included in the presentation at the West End Cinema; "God Is the Bigger Elvis," about an actress who made her debut in a film
with Elvis Presley, then became a nun, is not being shown due to licensing issues. But the running time is still a feature-length 130 minutes.
It's an election year, so it might not be a surprise that two of the films deal with American politics. The better of the two is "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement," which tells the story of James Armstrong -- and along with him, black America and, indeed, America itself.
This 85-year-old unassuming barber in Birmingham, Alabama, has a lot of stories underneath his easygoing exterior. He once cut Martin Luther King, Jr's hair.
That brought a crowd, he recalls; so did the moment when he began "cutting white folks' hair."
Armstrong always thought that the worst thing a man could do in life was nothing. So he devotes almost every inch of free space in his barbershop to press clippings and photographs of those who have done something: fought for the rights of themselves and their fellow Americans. We catch up with Armstrong the eve of Barack Obama's election. "Things are changing. A black man, president of the United States," Armstrong muses, with real wonder in his voice. Another woman states, "I didn't think I would live to see this day."
It's easy to understand the previous pessimism: Simply exercising the right to vote was a struggle for African Americans. Amelia Boynton, who participated in the 1965 Alabama march that was dubbed "Bloody Sunday" because of police brutality, remembers when she was arrested. "I didn't know if I should give up nonviolence and sock him in the face," the still-fiesty woman says. Armstrong carried the stars and stripes in that march; he was a World War II Army veteran.
His determination carried through to his sons, who were among the first to integrate an Alabama elementary school. Now Armstrong drives a beat-up Electra 225 held together with tape and pieces of wire. At least, with this short, the hero will no longer remain unsung.
Ethan McCord is a conflicted hero. The focus of "Incident in New Baghdad" recounts the July 2007 day that two Reuters journalists were killed, along with other civilians, in an American helicopter attack in Iraq. WikiLeaks released an edited cockpit video of the incident that made headlines when it was made public, under the provocative title "Collateral Murder," in 2010.
McCord returned home in 2009, struggling to put his difficult time in the army behind him. He felt he had been getting better -- exploding in front of his children less, for example -- when he turned on the news one morning to see himself in uniform again. A television station was airing the WikiLeaks video, and he could be seen running with a child in his arms. He helped rescue two children in a van whose father, the driver, had been killed in the attack.
He joined the army, in part, to become a hero. "I wanted to be the guy the Iraqis were cheering for as we drove down the road," he recalls. He's now a part of Iraq Veterans Against the War, in great part because of what he saw that doomed day in July 2007.
The video created controversy because of the unarmed reporters who were killed. But, seeing the video in this short, there's no question there were armed men in the group they walked the streets with that day. Some carry AK-47s, while another holds an RPG. The van was struck, though, because it stopped to try to
rescue one of the wounded reporters. As one of the Reuters journalists lied on the ground, a voice can be heard on the video just itching to fire again, saying, "Come on, buddy. All you gotta do is pick up a weapon."
Told from McCord's point of view, "Incident in New Baghdad" is, of course, one-sided. The former infantryman implies that every American has blood on his hands. Yet, thanks to the raw footage it includes, the short provides enough information to raise questions of those who think they know what exactly should
have been done that day.
The other half of the program takes us outside the country. "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" is, like "The Barber of Birmingham," a tale of determination.
The survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the Pacific coast of Tohoku can hardly believe their eyes as they watch, in amateur footage, the natural disaster unfold. "Oh no! Please don't destroy our town!" one pleads. But these people, in the hardest hit area, not only rebuild their own homes -- they find cause for celebration, as the annual cherry blossom season looms.
Washingtonians, who have created a festival around our own cherry blossoms, a gift from Japan, should find particular joy in this recovery.
The strongest contender of the four, though, is "Saving Face." The HBO documentary, which will premiere on the cable channel on March 8, is a devastating look at what too many women face even in these "modern" times. More than a hundred acid attacks, mainly on women, are reported in Pakistan each
year. Many more, of course, go unreported. Most women who bravely go in front of the camera here were attacked by their husbands. One was sleeping when her husband, who didn't want her any more, threw acid in her face. Another was attacked outside the courthouse where she'd asked for a divorce from the abusive man. But we hear other stories, too. One girl was maimed at 13, when she rejected the advances of her schoolteacher.
These tales are heartbreaking. "I had a great passion for taking photographs of myself," one woman recounts, looking at pictures of herself as a girl, when she'd pose every time her mother bought her new clothes. Now those photos hurt: They remind her of a time when she looked normal.
Another woman had to make up with her attackers. Her husband threw acid on her face, his sister added gasoline to the mix, and then his mother lit a match. But she was forced to move back in with them after her children became sick and she couldn't afford to take care of them on her own.
The filmmakers even managed to interview some of those responsible -- though they refuse to admit their culpability. That latter husband says that in any burn unit, "99% of the woman have burned themselves alive." It's almost comical to watch him try to explain away the telltale mark on his hand, where some of the acid he threw splashed.
But there is hope amidst the heartbreak. A Pakistani plastic surgeon who lives in London, Muhammad Jawad, returns to his homeland to help some of these victims. "It took one second to ruin my life completely," one of those women says. But Dr. Jawad and many others are spending the time it takes to give these women a chance at a better future.