The subjects covered in the films nominated for the 2013 documentary short Academy Award might make a moviegoer wilt at the prospect of compassion fatigue. Homeless teens, women with breast cancer, Rwandan children in dire need of heart surgery — in theory, this is an information overload of raw misery.
In practice, these five shorts are not only uncommonly good but inspiring in the best, toughest, most moving ways. They don’t sugarcoat their various situations but find small moments of triumph and continuance, and they remind us of all the human stories Hollywood refuses to tell us.
This year’s nominees each run around 40 minutes, so the Coolidge Corner Theatre has divided them into two programs, equally worthy. Program A leads off with this critic’s personal favorite in the category, “Inocente,” directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. The title teenager is a San Diego girl who has been homeless for years, since she fled an abusive father with her mother and brothers. She’s also a terrifically gifted artist whose vibrantly colored visions erupt on canvases, walls, and, via makeup, her own face.
The movie packs a lot into its 40 minutes: the trauma of Inocente’s rootlessness, the support network around her, a creative future that will take her far from her family into a new life. This feels like the first chapter in a long, rich story.
“Mondays at Racine” centers around a Long Island beauty salon that caters to breast cancer patients one day a month; director Cynthia Wade follows a handful of the woman over the course of two years as treatments progress, families fray, and endurance is tested. It’s a depiction of a harsh but tightly bonded sisterhood.
“Kings Point” at first appears to be an overly cute portrait of a Florida retirement community, but it, too, deepens as it goes. Filmmaker Sari Gilman shows how old age can be as petty as high school but also that time strips us of our illusions and reveals our innate strengths and weaknesses. The passage of an elderly woman named Mollie from worldly elegance to decrepitude is arguably as unnerving as anything in “Amour.”
Program B features two shorts. The first, “Redemption,” is a sympathetic, discreetly outraged documentary about “canners” — men and women on the lower rungs of Manhattan’s economic ladder who collect bottles and cans for the deposit money. Directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill use their camera to show us what we often neglect to see: the ever-present canners in so many New York street scenes, their shopping carts piled high with the bottles we throw away.
The subjects include Vietnam vets, former factory workers, immigrant couples, and a college-educated ex-computer programmer who collects cans to supplement her Social Security. Every urbanite should see this film: As the divide widens between the country’s haves and have-nots, “Redemption” shows the latter forced ever further into the cracks.
The final nominee, Kief Davidson’s “Open Heart,” tags along as eight Rwandan children suffering from rheumatic heart disease — eradicated in the US but epidemic in Africa — travel 2,500 miles to the Salam Centre in Sudan, the only cardiac surgery hospital on the entire continent. Davidson avoids overt plays for our sympathy; the footage of the surgery is astonishing, and scenes of the center’s director, Italian medic Gino Strada, meeting with Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir (currently wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur) are downright surreal. But the kids themselves are little miracles of hope and resilience.
You come out of these two shorts programs both exhausted and enriched, uncertain which film will win the Oscar and suddenly aware that it’s beside the point.