The Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject is often the spoiler for many Oscar betting pools, and unlike Danny Boyle’s third-world fetishism meets syrupy love story shoe-in, the slumdog category of mini-docs serves up hardships in a much more terrifying and bleak package. The problem with bleak and terrifying packages is that nobody ever sees them. Usually. Over the weekend at MoMA’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, we joined a packed house of hardcore cinephiles eager for their chance to watch these heart-wrenching tales and pad their Oscar knowledge databases. And while it probably won’t help them edge the odds (don’t worry we’ll do that for you), everyone looked grateful to be sitting inside a comfortable museum and not out in the harsh worlds depicted by these films.
The Conscience of Nhem En. 2008. USA. Produced and directed by Steven Okazaki Could win because: It’s easily the most complex of the four films nominated, presenting audiences with moral dilemmas and a revisionist historical take on the mass exterminations committed by Khmer Rouge. But it probably won’t since: It’s almost too brutal, too unwatchable, even for the most hardened purveyor of wartime atrocities. Although, we admit, it does have a shot since it uses the digital medium to take cameras into cramped spaces and capture intimate gut-wrenching interviews, while creating a style worthy of the best cinema-verite has to offer. That, and the odds favor it. The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306. USA. Produced by Margaret Hyde. Directed by Adam Pertofsky. Could win because: It has the highest production values of the group (it’s the only one shot on film, and 35mm to boot), and in a year where the civil rights movement saw one of its greatest victories, the film’s sentimental look back at the day King died might sway voters. But it probably won’t since: The film doesn’t raise any new issues or help us view King’s death as anything other than the terrible national tragedy we already know it to have been. Also, the formulaic approach of interview/newsreel footage is too old-school for the brave-new-hand-held-world.
The Final Inch. 2008. USA/India. Produced and directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant. Could win because: The magnitude of eradicating the globe of polio, one of the most visibly dramatic diseases the world has ever suffered, is so important that the subject matter alone could carry this doc to the feet of the shiny gold bald man. But it probably won’t since: The magnitude of eradicating the globe of polio, one of the most visibly dramatic diseases the world has ever suffered, is so large an issue that the human element gets a little overshadowed by the enormity of the project. Still, the real-world setting of Slumdog Millionaire as well as polio being a disease that specifically targets little kids, can’t entirely ruled this doc out as a contender. Smile Pinki. 2008. USA/India. Produced and directed by Megan Mylan. Will win because: In a year where the Oscars are looking for a narrative approach to the awards ceremony, this film is A. a story that takes place in the slums of India, B. one that puts a very human face on a very touching subject (cleft-palates), C. one that appeals directly to the tangible, and very western concern of appearance, and D. one that speaks directly to Hollywood housewives, who know a thing or two about plastic surgery, and who are the biggest pool of voters for the Awards.
And while it is not written that this shall be, it’s where we’ll be putting our money. Although after seeing these films, we should probably give our money to charity instead.