March 5, 2010  |  Film, Viewpoints
Cubicle Critic: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

The prized Academy Award® statuette. Image courtesy

“The Oscars are my Super Bowl”—it’s something of a cliché in our media-obsessed world, especially among twenty-something women such as myself, but there you have it anyway. I’m not a football fan, and to me March madness refers to the stir-craziness that inevitably accompanies the last weeks before spring. But a celebration of the silver screen, of stars established and emerging, of glamorous dresses and fashion flops—that I can get behind.

So it’s with particular relish that I see the annual screening of Academy Award–nominated short documentaries at MoMA each year. Apart from being an invaluable research tool for my local, all-in-good-fun Oscar Pool, seeing the nominees in some of the smaller categories is a great way to add some interest to the ever-lengthening Oscars telecast (not to mention the serious cinematic cred it garners you among your friends).

Like many of the attendees at this past Sunday’s program, I’m nothing more than an armchair critic, but that hasn’t stopped me from issuing strong opinions in the past (way back in 2004, when The Children of Leningradsky tore my heart out in the theater but ultimately lost out to the more uplifting Mighty Times: The Children’s March, I was not above a bit of sulking over the onion dip at my annual viewing party). And this year’s nominees seemed particularly strong, easily holding my interest throughout the nearly three-hour program.

So here are my five-second, non-partisan recaps, in case anyone’s doing some last-minute cramming for their own Oscar ballots…

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. 2009. USA. Directed by Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill. Image courtesy of

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. Directed by Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill
Alpert and O’Neill went beyond the media reports to bring us face to face with the unimaginable anguish experienced by the parents of schoolchildren lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in the process creating a heart-rending portrait of collective mourning, bureaucratic indifference, and Chinese culture in general. Judging by the crowd’s reaction—there were several shocked gasps, and a scene in which a grief-stricken mother uses some colorful language against an apathetic politician elicited impromptu applause—this is a story that is compelling in topic, movingly told.

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. 2009. USA. Directed by Daniel Junge, Henry Ansbacher. Image courtesy of

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. Directed by Daniel Junge, Henry Ansbacher
I had never heard of Booth Gardner, but—the ultimate sign of interest piqued—I Googled him immediately following the screening. While I’m not sure where I stand on the issue myself, it was hard not to respect and admire Gardner’s brave, principled campaign to legalize assisted suicide in Washington State. What I liked best about this film was how it put a human face to both sides what is a rather sticky debate.

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. 2009. USA. Directed by Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert. Image courtesy of

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. Directed by Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
One of the coolest things about this documentary was getting to see the inside of the massive, finely tuned machine that is an automotive plant. Unexpectedly, the movements of the machines, parts, and employees formed a sort of mechanical ballet, which made it even more tragic that the film ultimately documents the last days of this living, breathing factory. With the current economic climate on everyone’s minds, this is a well-timed look at how real people with real families are affected by corporate downsizing.

Prudence Mabhena. Photo Credit: Osato Dixon. Image courtesy of

Music by Prudence. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Elinor Burket
The music alone is reason enough to look for this one on Netflix. Prudence, a Zimbabwean singer-songwriter with multiple disabilities, has a voice that’s soulful and stirring, and it’s impossible not to crack a smile when she’s grooving with her band, Liyana, composed of eight disabled musicians. Throughout the film I was especially struck by the beautiful, saturated colors in this film—they really seemed to underline Prudence’s vibrant spirit.

Rabbit à la Berlin. 2009. Germany/Poland. Directed by Bartek Konopka, Anna Wydra. Image courtesy of

Rabbit à la Berlin. Directed by Bartek Konopka, Anna Wydra
One of the things I love about the documentary form is that it briefly immerses you in something you may have known literally nothing about. This was the case with Rabbit a la Berlin, about the wild rabbits who lived—at first thriving, then not so much—in the Death Zone of the Berlin Wall for twenty-eight years. Who knew?!? This documentary seemed like a hybrid form to me: part nature film, part allegory, part moody noir…the list goes on. It was like no other documentary I’d ever seen, and a fantastic end to the program.

There you have it—five films, five strong contenders. As for my pick? Well…that’s proprietary, between me and my ballot! But I’m interested to hear from anyone who might have seen some or all of the films, either at MoMA or elsewhere. Is there one you’re rooting for?