For several years now, the Oscar-nominated short films in the Animated and Live Action categories have been available for viewing ahead of time, either at local theaters (like Sundance in Madison) or online at iTunes and YouTube.
This year, for the first time, the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are available as well, including a run this weekend at Sundance Cinemas.
Although, in this case, “shorts” are a relative term. With each of the films clocking in at between 30 and 45 minutes, you need to reserve at least three hours to see all five of them at the theater.
Those who can make the time will find an impressive, often sobering collection of films dealing with real-world issues around the globe, from environmental pollution in China to the aftermaths of terror attacks in the Middle East.
All of the films are fairly traditional, emphasizing reportage over visual style or narrative inventiveness. Given the nature of the topics, the filmmakers mostly let the stories speak for themselves.
My favorite of the bunch is “Sun Come Up,” the fascinating account of what may be the first “climate change refugees.” The residents of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific Ocean have found that rising tidewaters threaten their island’s existence, and have to relocate to an island in Papua New Guinea 50 miles away.
The reception that the refugees get is mixed, with some offering charity and others, still recovering from a 10-year civil war, reluctant to offer land to them. The locations are stunning, and director Jennifer Redfearn captures the moral complexity of the situation, as well as the incredible sadness of the islanders trying to protect their culture as their ancestral home slips into the sea.
Another strong entry is “Poster Girl” a lacerating look at an Iraq war veteran, Robynn Murray, who is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. First-time filmmaker Sara Nesson gets incredible access to Murray and her struggle to tame the rage, fear and shame inside her, and shows how creating artwork about the war and its effects has helped her heal somewhat.
Jed Rothstein’s moving “Killing in the Name” follows a Jordanian man named Ashraf, whose wedding reception was the site of a suicide bombing that killed 27 guests. Ashraf now devotes his life to speaking out against terrorism in the Muslim world, and in the film we see him meet with victims and perpetrators, trying to get Muslims to break their collective silence about the true cost of terrorism.
Believe it or not, Ruby Yang’s “The Warriors of Quigang” is one of the more uplifting docs in the collection, even though it centers on a Chinese village that has had its water supply poisoned by a big corporation. It’s uplifting, though, because the villagers fight back, unrelenting in cutting through the red tape and corporate doublespeak to hold the company accountable.
The last film in the series, “Strangers No More,” looks at a school in Tel Aviv where students from 48 countries, many of them third-world nations undergoing strife, have found a way to live and learn together. After all the strife we’ve seen in the other films, it’s kind of a relief.