Saturday, February 2, 2008

Documentary Shorts

Don't know if I'll get to see the Oscar nominees for best documentary short, but I did see last's years. Here is what I wrote about them, and if you have any opportunity to see "Two Hands", take that opportunity.

“Reel Short Lives”
I certainly understand how The Blood of Yingzhou District won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Would you want your colleges or friends or parents or spouse or children to know that you voted against AIDS orphans? From a technical standpoint, I firmly believe this was not the best film of the four nominated in terms of story telling and technique. Strictly in film making terms it was just a step above your average infomercial for the Christian Children’s Fund – without the Christian part. But I sure am glad that someone did go to the effort to see that this story was told.
Of course, compared to Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, not many people have seen this little film or the other films nominated for best doc short. It takes a little effort to see these films. But with the resources the Internet and our libraries provide, you can see these films. And I hope, after you hear a little more about them, you’ll make that effort.
Back to The Blood of Yingzhou District. This is the story of children in the tiny remote village of Anhui in southeast China. The village is poor, and to supplement family incomes, many adults used to sell blood. Apparently, the medical hygiene is wretched, for quite a number of donors contract AIDS through the transaction. The parents leave behind children whose only heritage is their parent’s disease.
The film introduces us to a young boy, perhaps four years old, by the name of Gao Jun orphaned and afflicted with AIDS. He is also afflicted with great anger. He strikes out against the animals that often provide his only company. His extended family does not want to take him in, because they are afraid of being ostracized in a community that fears AIDS might be spread through casual contact. So the boy goes from one foster home to another.
We also meet Nan-Nan, an AIDS orphan who at least has a teenage sister to care for her. But her sister wants to be married and keeps quiet about here sister’s illness in fear that exposure may destroy the opportunity to be married. We also meet the Huang siblings who discuss their rejection in school.
I am thankful that film makers Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon made this 40 minute film to bring these tragic events to light, and one hopes that children in such situations will receive the attention, care and concern they need. But the film itself lacks the narrative focus and creativity of presentation found in Recycling Life, a story of workers and residents in the Guatemala City dump.
One of the great things about this film (as opposed to the AIDS orphan film), is that the people of the film are not portrayed only as victims. We see the hard work, initiative and creativity of people who find a way to make a living for themselves and their families in horrendous conditions.
As Edward James Olmos narrates this film, produced by Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad, he doesn’t shy away from discussing the great dangers posed by bulldozers, hazardous fumes and falling mounds of trash. The film chronicles a great methane fire that forced the government to make reforms in the condition of the dump. But we also see a woman who goes from a collector of trash to becoming a trash buyer. This woman is a natural entrepreneur who would succeed in any environment.
We also are shown those who took the initiative to care for the residents of the dump by building a day care center and school by the dump. This film is a fuller testament of life than Blood because we don’t just see those who suffer, but we also see more fully those who attempt to alleviate the suffering.
That would include the film makers who use a marvelous blend of still photos, music and graphics to tell the story of the community of the Guatemala City Dump.
(This film holds even more interest for our congregation with our ministry to dump workers in Mexico.)
I was less impressed with Rehearsing a Dream, produced by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon, a film about high school students who attend a week at a fine arts retreat. The kids selected for this program are the best from around the country in visual arts, music, writing, dance, film making and drama. (We see much more of the students involved in music, dance and drama, but little of the painters, nothing of the writers and most strange, nothing at all of the film makers.)
The kids are, of course, thrilled to be with other students of like interests and passions. The emotions the students experience will certainly strike a chord with those of us who went on special Christian retreats or even sports camps when we felt that finally we were completely in our own element with kindred hearts.
But sadly, the film makers never give a sense of perspective to the student’s emotional elation. One student says, “I want to pursue a career in the arts so I can always be challenged to learn and grow. I don’t want to just be an accountant or teacher.” Perhaps a kid at Accountant’s Camp would express similar feelings about those who want to pursue a life in the arts. (Frankly, I thought many of these students in the long run would benefit more in their life perspective if they spent the week instead in the dumps of Guatemala City.)
Yes, the arts are wonderful, but those who are called to a life in the arts are not necessarily more special or fulfilled than those who pursue a life in plumbing. I wouldn’t expect the students at the conference to have that kind of perspective, but the film makers should. They should realize there is more to life than performance.
The makers of Two Hands, the final film that was nominated as the Best Short Documentary, do realize there is more to life than performance. That lesson is presented through the life of concert pianist Leon Fleisher, a man who learned through hardship. I thought this film was not only the best documentary short, but also one of the best films of any kind made last year.
Nathaniel Kahn and Susan Rose Behr interview Leon Fleisher, whose mother raised him to be either a great concert pianist or the first Jewish President of the United States. He did not take the political route, but instead rose to fame and fortune performing under the great conductor George Szell.
But his life took a dramatic turn after a minor injury to his right hand moving lawn furniture forty years ago. He expected his hand to heal quickly, but instead his hand cramped, the fingers continued to fold in, and he soon realized that the career he built his life around is gone.
For years he pursued every avenue to heal his hand, from hypnosis to EST. But when he eventually resigned himself to his fate, he found other avenues to pursue his love of music. He learned to conduct. He learned to teach. He even found other ways to continue to play the piano.
This film has the advantage of a powerful personality and story in the person of Fleisher. But it has a universal appeal and message as the man reflects whether he would rather have avoided the suffering resulting from the loss of his playing hand. He finds looking back that he gained more than he lost.
As to whether Fleisher ever learned source of his mysterious malady or a cure for the same -- you’ll just have to see the film for yourself. It is worth the effort to seek it out.
(None of the shorts are rated. All have some strong language.)

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