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 2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts 
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The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom - Directed by Lucy Walker
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom - Directed by Lucy Walker

Seldom has video footage left the impact as did the oft-repeated footage of the March 11, 2011 tsunami that devastated a vast area of Japan while literally consuming one entire village. Lucy Walker's 40-minute documentary isn't just about the tsunami itself, but about the personal and communal restoration of hope symbolized by the arrival of cherry blossom season in Japan.

The first half of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom focuses upon the devastation of the tsunami by sharing both familiar and not so familiar news and freelance footage of the devastation along with several heartfelt, indeed heartbreaking, interviews with survivors of the tsunami who lost their homes, their friends and their families. After about 20 minutes, the tone of the film shifts with the arrival of cherry blossom season and the belief, at least through Walker's eyes, that somehow this renewal symbolizes a renewal of hope for survivors and for the community at large.

It is hard to be witness to such a tragedy, even from a far, without becoming deeply impacted by it and even those who didn't necessarily experience the tsunami couldn't help but be modestly traumatized by the overwhelming devastation caught by amateur photographers who posted their videos on Youtube and other channels of homes, cars, large buildings and a huge wall of water all literally moving at will throughout the village.

Even as I write this, I find my entire body chilled at the thought.

Walker's film does an excellent job of capturing the devastation without ever feeling manipulative, though there are times the weaving together of the original score and the imagery feels a bit too heavy-handed. This is true even during the second half of the film, when Walker appears to be almost consumed by the idea of renewal.

The film picked up three awards at the recent Sundance Film Festival, including the award for Short Filmmaking. Walker, a familiar documentarian responsible for such films as Devil's Playground and Waste Land, has created a powerful and impacting film that may lead to a win for Walker this year.

Odds of Winning: 3-1

Incident in New Baghdad: Directed by James Spione
Incident in New Baghdad: Directed by James Spione

The images were disturbing when Wikileaks leaked them to print, broadcast and web outlets around the world. The images appeared to capture American attack helicopters slaughtering a group of mostly unarmed men on a Baghdad street in 2007. This long repressed incident, which the military would report under duress as having been fully investigated, included the killing of two Reuters journalists.

Incident in New Baghdad, directed by James Spione, focuses its attention largely upon U.S. Army veteran Ethan McCord, a soldier who has acknowledged being one of the men in the video as he's seen carrying a child seriously injured in the attack which, according to the U.S. military brass, met the "rules of engagement" because some of the men in the group were armed.

This 20-minute short is one of three nominees for Best Documentary- Short Subject, a prize the film captured at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film works primarily because of the passionate and brutally honest testimony of McCord, who has spoken openly about his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how significantly it was triggered following the Wikileaks release of the film in 2010. The trauma of seeing that video spurred McCord into action in speaking out against the war and actions in the Mideast, but also into action seeking ways to support those returning from Iraq and other Mideast countries.

Incident in New Baghdad is prime material for a short film, with director James Spione taking one incident in the Iraq war and examining it both through the eyes of the military and through the public's eyes. The images of McCord running madly while seeking help for the injured 10-year-old Sajad Mutashar are unforgettable images for us, the casual can't even imagine the indelible and unforgettable impression left upon McCord.

Given Hollywood's more progressive bent, Incident in New Baghdad stands a strong chance of taking the golden statuette this year for Spione and everyone involved with the film.

Odds of Winning: 4-1

Barber of Birmingham - Directed by Gail Dolgin, Robin Fryday
Barber of Birmingham - Directed by Gail Dolgin, Robin Fryday

The third and final entry into the category of Best Documentary - Short Subject is Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, a look at the life of 85-year-old Mr. Armstrong, an African-American barber from Birmingham, Alabama who has seen and experienced much in his 85 years and eloquently and powerfully draws parallels between his own experiences in the early civil rights days to actually living long enough to see a Black man become President of the United States.

Barber of Birmingham is an informative and well done 20-minute short film, but one can't help but consider it an "almost ran" in this year's Oscar race given the familiarity of its topic and the incredible power of the two films it's competing against this year. The film picked up the award for Best Documentary Short at the Ashland Independent Film Festival this year, and on a certain level the film feels a lot like a documentary from a couple years back on artist Thornton Dial.

The film does go further than simply sharing Mr. Armstrong's story by examining democracy and patriotism in the face of adversity and, perhaps more importantly, examining the steps that must be taken to continue the march towards a more equal society.

It's worth noting that co-director Gail Dolgin also was a producer on one of the year's best documentary features, the deeply moving Crime After Crime.

Odds of Winning: 8-1

All Reviews by Richard Propes
Copyright 2012, The Independent Critic

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