The documentary "Redemption" follows a group of New Yorkers… (Handout )
Trials and tribulations in myriad forms are at the center of all five Oscar-nominated documentary short films this year. There are two very different but incisive cuts at the country's homeless problem in "Inocente" and "Redemption," a beautiful breast cancer story in "Mondays at Racine," "Open Heart's" moving look at Rwandan children with heart disease, and finally, "King's Point's" candid examination of the social and physical strains in a Florida retirement "resort."
Typically the longest of the three shorts categories the academy recognizes, the documentaries have been packaged into two programs — one ticket buys admission to both. It's a chance to see the contenders before one walks away with that coveted gold statuette later this month. I don't know how the academy will vote, but here's a rundown on my picks, from the best to the rest.
"Mondays at Racine" (39 minutes) — Breast cancer is a story of loss in so many ways — a breast, sometimes two, often intimacy, and of course, hair. Director Cynthia Wade uses that defining, or redefining moment, when chemo has hopefully done its work but a head must be shaved, to get women talking about all of those emotions. The filmmaker explores their journey through the prism of a Long Island beauty salon owned by two sisters who set aside one Monday a month for cancer patients. As hair — and tears — fall, and the women talk, an intimate and surprisingly uplifting portrait of those difficult times emerges. "Mondays at Racine" tops my list.
OSCARS 2013: Defining scenes | Oscar Watch | Play-at-Home Ballot
"Inocente" (42 minutes) — To watch "Inocente" is to be struck by the divide between the power of this 15-year-old teen's art and the power of her story. The art is creatively vibrant, filled with the colors of hope and joy. Her life in contrast, is shadowed by darkness. In directors' Sean Fine and Andrea Nix's exceptional documentary, Inocente's story unfolds through interviews with the perceptive teen and watching the creation of her paintings. As one piece after another emerges from her brush — there is an upcoming exhibition — stories of her abusive father, her mother's economic and emotional struggles, the salvation she found in art, begin to take shape as well. It's difficult to say which is more impressive — her art or her life.
"King's Point" (40 minutes) — Frankly the more filmmakers chronicle old age, the worse it seems. What looks like a Florida paradise painted flamingo pink is shown to be a garden of discontent named King's Point in documentarian Sari Gilman's clever hands. The time she spent talking to the residents of this retirement "resort" yields a hotbed of frustration, disappointment and social infighting along with the normal aches and pains. Most of the residents were former New Yorkers drawn to warmer climes and sunny skies. Whatever they envisioned for their golden years, this is not it, the unrelenting march of time has taken is toll. Fortunately the residents of King's Point, are a feisty bunch — and they don't mind sharing.
"Redemption" (35 minutes) — Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill take us into the strange New York City subculture of those who scratch out a living collecting bottles and cans for the pennies recycling will bring. The directors follow a handful of the unemployed who spend longs days digging through the discards before cashing in at the city's recycling centers. They have routines, alliances, turf fights. The work, itself, is hard. Many are homeless. Alpert and O'Neill have found an observant bunch, for "Redemption" exposes not only an intriguing subset of the poverty stricken but a visual study of the tons of recyclable refuse that, thanks to the rest of us, pile up each day.
"Open Heart" (39 minutes) — Rwanda is a country beset by woes, still it comes as a shock that one of the leading causes of death among children is rheumatic heart disease, primarily a result of the scarcity of antibiotics to treat ordinary childhood illnesses. Director Kief Davidson follows eight Rwandan children as they make the long trip to the Sudan for valve surgery made possible by the Salam Center, a free clinic whose funding is always at risk. Knitting the individual stories together is Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, the country's lone pediatric cardiologist who must decide which children to send to Sudan and is part of the medical team that escorts them. Unfortunately, the film sometimes loses focus, and force, as it shifts among the children, the doctors, the medical issues and the clinic's fight to stay afloat.