Documentary Short

Very few winners let alone nominees in the Best Documentary Short category are remembered after the Academy Awards ceremony is over. Can you recall even a single winner in the honor’s more than 70 years? Maybe you’ve at least heard of Jessica Yu’s 1997 winner, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, since it led to the making of The Sessions, a drama about O’Brien nominated for an Oscar this year in the Best Supporting Actress category. You also ought to know that there are often returning nominees in this niche arena, including multiple winner Walt Disney and now five more filmmakers representing three of the current contenders.

One of those five Academy Award veterans even won in her previous race, and while that can often work against a nominee in other categories, here it shouldn’t at all. Even ignoring all the wins for the U.S. Armed Forces in the early years, as well as the aforementioned Disney, we’ve seen multiple wins each for Charles Guggenheim, Robin Lehman and Bill Guttentag. And the thing is, if Cynthia Wade joins them this year, she’ll do so with a film that some see as fitting the current model for Documentary Short winners anyway.

But there are a few films this year that fit the model, and one of the other two are likely to take the statue Sunday night. Read on to learn more about the five nominees and their chances of being named the winner. My prediction is the one in red

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shorts_inocenteInocente

Why It Was Nominated

Coming from former nominees in the Documentary Feature category — Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, of War/Dance honor — this portrait of a homeless, undocumented 15-year-old artist is an uplifting tale set amidst issues of immigration, domestic and child abuse and the economy. Inocente is the girl’s first name (Izucar is her last), and she’s a spunky, punky little colorful teen. That is, she has a colorful personality and spirit, and she likes to paint her face and wear bright clothes and paint vibrant, cheerful works. It’s the sort of short that’s hopeful in that it also showcases an organization (ARTS: A Reason To Survive) helping Inocente and others like her, and it’s very positive in its story of teenager overcoming obstacles that weren’t her fault.

Why It Might Win

The positive nature of the film is one thing in its favor, especially if we look at the similarly empowering young woman at the center of 2010 doc short winner Music by Prudence. Inocente Izucar is a subject that should easily win the hearts of voters, especially if they’d like to see her allowed on stage alongside the Fines if the film wins. And ARTS is the sort of educational establishment the Academy is interested in supporting and recognizing. 2011 doc short winner Strangers No More also dealt with an educational institution helping foreign kids in a land where they don’t fit in. Immigration, especially where innocent children are involved, is also a hot issue right now.

Why It Might Not Win

Inocente’s story is almost too positive and hopeful, as horrible as that sounds for a check against it. There’s ultimately little drama, no imperative need for a viewer’s assistance, too much enjoyment in the central character/subject. That’s more Documentary Feature territory (see Searching for Sugar Man win there, for instance). Also, Inocente reminds the Academy of 2011 nominee Poster Girl, also about a young girl expressing herself artistically both because of her inherent creativity and as a way of getting through personal issues. That one lost, and this might follow suit.

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shorts_kingsKings Point

Why It Was Nominated

The Academy, being made up of a lot of old people, seem to like films about other old people. But often with documentaries, the elderly subjects tend to preferably be Holocaust survivors or civil rights figures or nuns (whether or not they’re fellow Academy members). This film is merely about a retirement community, yet its exploration of the social conundrums of such communities probably hits close to home for some voters. On top of that, its a fascinating consideration of that life, so close to and so often reminded of death, where nobody wants to get too close to anyone. It’s actually the most interesting shorts in the bunch.

Why It Might Win

Perhaps out of nowhere, this year the Academy could pick a short documentary that isn’t really an issue film or a story of empowerment by going with the most interesting, albeit also the most depressing, nominee. The fact that it’s nominated at all means there could be some fresh thinking going on. Or, some of the older voters might consider it a documentary tackling an identifiable issue of age and loneliness and how our society should reconsider the way the elderly are expected to live out their final days.

Why It Might Not Win

It’s depressing. And the subjects aren’t particularly likable or capable of being rescued from something (most if not all are dead or close). And the Academy doesn’t typically go for interesting and thought-provoking in this category. Also, director Sari Gilman has made her directorial debut here, and while she’s a respected and revered editor (Paragraph 175; Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) and crafted a quality short, voters might just anticipate that she’ll be here again, either with another short or a feature.

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shorts_racineMondays at Racine

Why It Was Nominated

This is former winner Cynthia Wade’s film, and just as she did with that 2008 success, Freeheld, here she gives us a story of women. It should be noted that the Documentary Short category loves women’s issues and women’s stories lately. We see more female subjects, whether they’re empowered artists or lesbians desiring equal rights or patients of some kind. Last year’s winner, Saving Face, is about women who’ve been disfigured by men throwing acid in their face and the plastic surgery that helps to heal their physical wounds. Mondays at Racine is a less curable or solvable issue, focused on women with cancer and the beauty salon that welcomes them once a month for a special occasion of support and a shave.

Why It Might Win

By far the most emotional film of the pack (I admit I got weepy a few times), and like last year’s winner it deals with women who are suffering, physically and in turn psychologically in the sense that they feel a loss of femininity and beauty, as well as with people who help these women through their situation. The subjects are courageous and resilient. They’re even more inspiring and empowering than Inocente and they’ve got a kind of proximity to death that’s even more tragic than the women of Kings Point and while it’s relative to Saving Face, it’s not as much of a clone as Open Heart is. And, of course, as noted, Wade has the previous win on her side.

Why It Might Not Win

The film does lack a level of distinction in both the storytelling and the stories themselves. Devastating as it is, cancer just isn’t all that interesting or original as a subject matter. Also, one couple’s candidness about their sex life might seem a bit off-putting to some voters. Other members might have preferred for it to focus more on the Racine Salon de Beaute & Spa and the wonderful sisters who run it and open their doors to these women. In this category, the Academy loves to see the people doing good even more than the people in need or who experience the good deeds. Then, there’s also the chance that Wade’s previous win will hurt her, voters deciding she doesn’t need another Oscar.

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shorts_heartOpen Heart

Why It Was Nominated

How could someone make a short documentary about African children in need and the white Europeans who are saving their lives and not be nominated for an Oscar? This film, directed by Kief Davidson and executive produced by Damon Lindelof (and his wife, Heidi), is so perfect it’s almost a cliche. And when it screened in theaters last summer as part of DocuWeeks, there was no overlooking the fact that it sounded just like last year’s Documentary Short winner, Saving Face. Only instead of a plastic surgeon reconstructing the faces of women who survived acid attacks, this has a heart surgeon saving kids with otherwise terminal problems.

Why It Might Win

Because it’s so similar to last year’s winner but it involves children, and who doesn’t root for the saving of children? Kids being rescued also appeared in 2011 winner  Strangers No More, and a child who similarly gets to travel afar to be given free, live-changing surgery was the subject of 2009 winner Smile Pinki. So, there’s a history that this short fits into. Meanwhile, it’s got the most stunning cinematography of the nominees, including some amazing footage of open heart surgery being performed. Also, there’s more to this story than the kids in need and the doctors with aid, as Davidson also shows us some of the international bureaucracy involved, which is both an intriguing and a frustrating side of the otherwise simple focus on a good cause.

Why It Might Not Win

Because it’s too similar to last year’s winner. Because it doesn’t focus simply on the good cause. Because there’s not enough about the children. Because it doesn’t dig deep enough into the most interesting part, which is the bureaucratic meeting and negotiating between the doctors and controversial Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

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shorts_redemptionRedemption

Why It Was Nominated

As any good documentary short does, this one shows us a world we’re not aware of or used to thinking about — in this case, the lives of “canners,” men and women, homeless or not, who redeem cans and bottles for money. And while it’s full of colorful characters, it’s also an issue film at heart, addressing the increase in poverty and homelessness and joblessness in recent years. Also, directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill have been here before, with 2010 Documentary Short nominee China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (they were also shortlisted for the 2012 Oscar with In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution).

Why It Might Win

Voters might feel Alpert and O’Neill are due, or they might want to go with something tonally lighter this year that still deals with a serious backdrop.

Why It Might Not Win

Because it’s too light and has upbeat music and is just not daunting enough for voters to think it “important.” Its cause is too much in the background. It’s certainly not as serious as Alpert and O’Neill’s other recent contenders, neither of which went all the way. This and Kings Point are actually interchangeably at the bottom of most Oscar pundits’ rankings for this category. As far as we see time and time again, the Academy just likes more issue-oriented works for the Documentary Short category.

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