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The Oscars: Hope amid tragedy in short-documentary nominees

Four of the films hit theaters this weekend, covering a U.S. raid on Iraq, Pakistani victims of acid attacks, a civil-rights veteran and tsunami survivors.

February 17, 2012|By Robert Abele, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Mr. James Armstrong is a barber, a "foot soldier" and a dreamer whose barbershop in Birmingham, Alabama has been a hub for haircuts and civil rights since 1955.
Mr. James Armstrong is a barber, a "foot soldier" and a dreamer… (Shorts HD )

The four Oscar-nominated short documentaries being released in theaters this weekend are a mostly somber bunch, traversing the globe to find pockets of tolerable humanity in the kind of grim international dispatches you might expect to find in an episode of "Frontline/World." (Only nominee "God Is the Bigger Elvis" isn't part of this theatrical release.)

James Spione's "Incident in New Baghdad" is little more than a straightforward interview with U.S. Army Spec. Ethan McCord, but it's a gripping, grueling tale. One of the first soldiers to arrive at the scene of an infamous July 2007 attack by U.S. helicopters that killed a number of unarmed Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists, McCord recounts the disillusionment that followed his appraisal of the bloody aftermath. Blunt in tone but propulsive as eyewitness account, it's not revelatory filmmaking, but with Oscar's penchant for hard-hitting war docs, its nomination isn't surprising.

More effective as issue advocacy is "Saving Face," which relays the stories of Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks by men. Though the women's circumstances are enraging and sad, directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy find rays of hope in their struggle for justice as a stiff punishment bill makes its way through Parliament, and in the efforts of a Pakistani-born, London-based plastic surgeon devoted to restoring their dignity.

Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, meanwhile, pack a lot into the 25-minute "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement": a brief, sobering history of voter suppression; a recounting of the Selma to Montgomery march; and a bite-sized portrait of 85-year-old James Armstrong, a haircutting fixture in his town who carried a U.S. flag that day in 1965, and whose tattered barbershop walls teem with photos and clippings from the era.

The most artfully persuasive mixture of tragedy and renewal, however, is "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom," from "Waste Land" filmmaker Lucy Walker. A twin portrait of nature at its most impersonally destructive and communally poetic, the film opens with harrowing home video footage of last year's earthquake-caused tsunami devastating a Japanese town. What gives the country's survivors a healing chance, however, is the yearly arrival of cherry blossoms, whose brief, exquisite lives act as more comforting reminders of the give-and-take quality of existence.

To that end, Walker and gifted cinematographer Aaron Phillips have created a first act haunted by images of rubble and people's tales of loss, ruin and health fears, but a visually becalming second act of sobering rebirth as the trees' abundant pink blooms spark heartfelt testimonials to this "beautiful but not showy" harbinger of spring.

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