If blogosphere chatter is any indication, Jerry Seinfeld didn't win any new fans in the documentary filmmaking community at last month's Oscars telecast when he did an admittedly funny rant that culminated with a reference to the nominated features as all being "depressing." I'm not sure that's such a put-down. It means the filmmakers, to some extent, are doing their jobs, showing the world more or less as they find it. And the world is depressing. That's not convenient, but it's true.
Apollo Cinema has gathered the short-film nominees into a single program that starts playing today at the Coolidge. These are not the best that short filmmaking has to offer, but they do present an opportunity to see, on a big screen, an art form that gets short shrift, even from film critics.
Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon's "The Blood of Yingzhou District" and Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad's "Recycled Life" have unhappy subjects, but they bear down on some kind of silver lining. "Ying-zhou" won the Oscar, and it's not terribly hard to see why.
The filmmakers show us a few of the 75,000 Chinese orphans whose destitute parents contracted AIDS from unsafely selling blood for money. Children cry for their parents. They cry over their pariah status among other children. A young woman risks a lot to marry into a family that probably wouldn't be crazy about the fact that her little sister is HIV-positive. (The disease is sorely misunderstood in this village.) And the most heartbreaking kid, Gao Jun, is a castoff who's stopped speaking altogether.
This is a necessary film more than a work of craftsmanship, the sort of tool you use to bring attention to a neglected issue. It's as if the filmmakers made a choice between urgency and fine filmmaking as though the two need be mutually exclusive. The short feels, as most of the pieces in this quartet do, like a rough draft. "Yingzhou" has some nice flourishes but a preference for slow motion that suggests the filmmakers didn't know how else to suggest a particular moment or shot was important.
"Recycled Life" is a snapshot of Guatemalans who live in one of the country's toxic landfills. Like "Yingzhou," this is an extremely concerned, explanatory piece of nonfiction that feels unfinished in its lack of focus. "Recycled Life" is particularly derailed by its blatant tugs at the heart. More than once we're told that the guajeros, as those who live or work in the garbage sites are called, are not to be pitied. Yet the dolorous woodwinds and guitar on the soundtrack, and the narration by Edward James Olmos are the stuff of Save the Children television pleas. Pity is the movie's bluntest instrument. Even so, I hadn't seen a film about the guajeros, and I'm gratified I now have.
The other two films are arts-oriented. "Rehearsing a Dream" is by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon (whose "Chimps, So Like Us" was a documentary-short nominee in 1990), and it feels like a trailer for a "Fame"-esque reality show that doesn't exist. It glimpses the week that 160 students from America's top high schools spend in Miami as part of the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts' annual tutorial and performance program. It looks like an amazing week, but the filmmakers rely on too many interviews in which kids express the same relief (I'm a freak at home; here, I totally belong.) Why not just shadow one or two kids, and let the experience speak for itself?
The most accomplished of this batch is Nathaniel Kahn's "Two Hands ," in which the celebrated conductor-pianist Leon Fleischer gives us an abridged version of his life story, focusing in part on the palsy in his right hand that makes playing and conducting difficult. The film plays like an unnarrated "60 Minutes" profile. (You can almost hear Morley Safer rhapsodizing off camera somewhere.)
Kahn -- better known for the outstanding feature-length Oscar-nominee about his dad Louis, 2003's "My Architect" -- combines interview footage with hospital visits, stock clips, and random but inspired shots of such things as X-rays. Kahn has style, but not too much. His film is playfully descriptive without losing affection for its subject. The balance is just right.