The Trenton Film Society brings the Oscars — or more accurately the showing of 15 Oscar nominated shorts — to Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse this Friday and Saturday, February 22 and 23.
The annual event, part of the group’s mission to engage the greater Trenton area through film, is also a local connection to the Academy Awards ceremont that will be held 3,000 miles across the country at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on Sunday, February 24.
While area film lovers can tune in to ABC and wait for the big film announcements, they can also come to Trenton to view the shorts, compare notes, and pick favorites.
True to its name, Oscar Shorts focuses on three categories for best short films: documentary (set for Friday, February 22, at 7:30 p.m.), live-action (Saturday, at 12:30 and 5 p.m.), and animation (3 and 9 p.m.).
While the nominated big budget feature films are heavy in visibility, the shorts are packed with power, as exemplified by the five nominated in this year’s best short documentary category, one with strict rules.
According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscar’s producers, an eligible documentary film is a theatrically released nonfiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic, or other subjects.
The documentary may be photographed in actual occurrence or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion, or other techniques. In any case, the emphasis is on fact.
To be eligible, it must run 40 minutes or less and must complete a seven-day commercial run in a theater in either Los Angeles County or in Manhattan. That run must have taken place within two years of the film’s completion date
First up in the category is “Inocente.” The name belongs to a 15-year-old homeless girl who meets viewers as she appears and describes herself as a regular girl, “who likes to jump in puddles and likes flowers.” She is also an undocumented Mexican immigrant who moves with her single-parent family from temporary housing while she struggles to complete her San Diego high school.
One of the first things noticed about Inocente is that her face is painted with extravagant lines and colors, explained when she confesses that painting makes her happy. When she wakes up, she says, she wants to paint on something, and “what better place than my face?” Fittingly, her goal is to become an artist.
That combination of the visual statement and narrative exposition makes this film cinematically satisfying, especially during the moments when the young artist is immersed in painting and creating an unscripted experiences in time (allowing subject and audience to discover something together).
Like their young artist subject, filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix emphasize a bright and rich palette, remembering that film is primarily a visual art.
Of course, the film’s subject is difficult to resist –– an underdog in every conceivable way –– and the film chronicles Inocente’s attempt to stay alive and patch a fractured relationship with her mother. The situation is heightened by the subject’s move toward an event that can literally make or break her: her first solo art exhibition at an arts center that works to help talented young artists gain recognition. The film neatly connects with the film genre that pits one individual against seemingly insurmountable odds, and, accordingly, the film drills on the emotions.
This is Fine and Nix’s second Academy Award nomination, the first being for their 2007 feature documentary “War/Dance,” about several children competing in a national music and dance competition in a Uganda displacement camp.
“Kings Point” is second on the bill. The film takes its name from its subject, a Florida retirement community. While the people who moved there — many from New York City — may have hoped to find an escape from winters and cares, they find declining health, a loss of companions and friends, and increasing loneliness.
The film opens with iconic black and white images of a gritty 1970s New York City and the statement that since life was not so beautiful there that people ran away to Florida. The dark images are replaced by clear, bright, and compositionally elegant scenes of verdant greens, terra cotta or cream toned buildings, and water. With a soundtrack of water sprinklers or gentle rain, the place seems like heaven.
Filmed over a three-year period, “Kings Point” follows five senior citizens who attempt to come to terms with themselves and one another in a land where, as one points out, they have acquaintances but no true friends.
Sari Gilman and Jedd Wilder’s film succeeds in its documentation of a segment of society that has become detached from the traditional multi-generational community and kinship. As one individual sadly points out, as more and more people die there are more and more empty condominiums. That voices speak of disappointments and fears while the screen is filled with picturesque images captures a spiritual dislocation. It also suggests that the members of this community may have unknowingly participated in a devil’s bargain.
“Monday at Racine” uses a monthly occasion to examine the lives of an invisible population, women emotionally and chemically dealing with breast cancer.
The Monday is the third one of each month. That is when two sisters, Rachel and Cynthia, open their hair salon, Racine (named by combing the first parts of the sister’s names), to offer free services to women with cancer and experiencing chemotherapy, hair loss, and operations that drastically alter their bodies.
The sisters explain to the camera that their actions are in memory of their mother, who died from breast cancer. They add that women face an emotional struggle when their health is jeopardized and their bodies altered. As one woman appearing at the salon says, “Your hair is part of your identity, and then you feel like you’re being erased.” Another, citing her removed breast, says, “I don’t feel like a whole person.”
Armed with brushes, makeup, and smiles, the two sisters counter the women’s fear and alienation with actions that express their belief that in these struggling women “there’s a beauty that comes out. That’s what they need. That way they can battle this (breast cancer) without the other fear — the beauty fear.”
The film opens with women happily showing off hats, then — as hats fly off and bald heads glow — provokes interest. Structured like a fugue where viewers follow the lives of several women — including one who is just coming to the group and another who has lived against the odds for more than 16 years — the variation of the women’s lives return to the Mondays, the sisters, and the sisterhood.
Combining sessions with doctors, family, hairdressers, and interviews, the cinematography is serviceable, yet the filmmaker is alert to finding compositional opportunities in process, creating poetic moments.
Since the film captures extremely intimate scenes of women in personal and revealing moments, the filmmaking is restrained and unobtrusively documents these women facing life-altering decisions and painful moments. One such moment occurs as a woman, upon seeing her hair removed, says that now she has to admit that her cancer is not going away. She later allows the camera to gaze on her naked body after her double mastectomy.
Of the many moving moments in this film is the final scene, where another young woman — who in the early stages of treatment is losing her hair — joins the gathering on Monday to have her hair removed and be fitted for a wig. There she is surrounded by the others who have already passed through this ritual and hold the young woman’s hands as her locks fall to the floor. The scene is both painful and beautiful.
This is the second Academy Award nomination for Cynthia Wade, who was previously nominated in 2007 for the short documentary “Freehold,” a film that chronicles a dying female New Jersey detective in her fight to have her pension left to her female companion.
Eight Rwandan children who share the same serious heart disease are the subject of “Open Heart.” The film is a straightforward chronology of the children being sent to Sudan to have an operation that may or may not save their life.
As in “Monday at Racine,” the emphasis here is on documenting unplanned events that result in a tense life-and-death unfolding. This case study of the operations also serves as an argument for a greater understanding of the high rate of childhood mortality related to rheumatic heart conditions in Africa and the need to provide more centers to address such (there is only one free one in the entire continent).
The film is structured like chapters in a book, with different sections of the story appearing as titles. While all the children are featured, the one who forms the continuity is tiny Angelique. She appears early and astonishes as she bravely tells her father that she is willing to go on the plane without any family members and fly thousands of miles to a different African country on an uncertain trip.
The film is an interesting mixture of events on a high-stakes journey and everyday banality where insightful and poignant moments mix.
Take for instance when the children say goodbye to their parents and head to the plane. The camera settles on the faces of the watching parents who know that they may never see their children again, their eyes wide and faces filled with questions. Later as a frightened child learns that she needs to have another operation, her companions take her hands and offer encouraging words. Contrast these moments when the president of Sudan visits the hospital and talks with the hospital director about making the enterprise profitable. What a world, indeed.
Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern have worked independently on a variety of film projects. This is the first Academy Award nomination for either of them.
The final entry is “Redemption,” Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s account of a handful of New York City residents who support themselves as “canners,” people who collect thrown away bottles and cans and redeem them for money.
With images that emphasize color and character, the film focuses on the various canners who reveal their lives (a jobless army vet and a laid off IBM worker), their motivations (to just survive or help their kids), and strategies (having different beats and elbowing out interlopers).
The power of the film is that it focuses on individuals who — being lost in the great recession — have become part of everyday street scenery. Given voice here these forgotten men and women share how their views of society have changed and let viewers see anew. One such moment is when one canner accesses everyday purchases in cans and bottles terms (with each valued at 5 cents per item) rather than dollars and cents. A cup of Starbucks coffee costs a few hundred cans, a fancy meal could equal a thousand, and the amount for a home is mindboggling.
Alpert and O’Neill were previously nominated for their 2009 film, “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province,” which examines how faulty construction and lack of proper inspection allowed schools to collapse and kill numerous children in 2008.
Together the films are valuable in their ability to capture various contemporary human experiences. While some subjects seem more familiar (“Redemption”) and others are more cinematic (“Inocente”), each one is powerful.
However, since one will be picked for each cateogry during the award ceremony on Sunday, this column is weighing in for short documentary.
One of two reviewers picked “Inocente.” The winning combination was the merging of an emotionally connecting narrative with extraordinary cinematography and music, giving it the same impact of a satisfying feature film. “Open Heart” was the runner up.
The other selected “Mondays at Racine.” The reasoning was that the film was an unusual and intimate document of quiet heroics, and that to achieve the intimacy the approach to recording needed to be minimal, unobtrusive, and nimble. While it did not have the visual tones of “Inocente,” the runner-up, the film was engagingly organized and visually satisfying as it recorded deep and restrained emotions.
But viewers can make up their own mind, join other film watchers this weekend, chat about the five works, and decide for themselves. Or one can just wait for the envelope on Sunday night.
Trenton Film Festival, Academy Award Nominee Shorts.
Documentary: Friday, February 22, 7:30 p.m., “Inocente,” “King’s Point,” “Mondays at Racine,” “Open Heart,” and “Redemption.”
Live-Action: Saturday, February 23, 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., “Asad,” “Buzkashi Boys,” “Curfew,” “Death of a Shadow,” and “Henry.”
Animation: Saturday, February 23, 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., “Adam and Dog,” “Fresh Guacamole,” “Head Over Heels,” “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare,’” and “Paperman.”
Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. $15 for matinees; $20 each for evening screening. Dinner special available Saturday. trentonfilmsociety.org or 609-331-9599.
Writer Kate Newell contributed to this article.