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Among the Oscar shorts, documentaries take the prize

Truth is better than fiction.
By GERALD PEARY  |  February 24, 2011

“STRANGERS NO MORE” Karen Goodman’s film spotlights a Tel Aviv school that takes in refugees from 48 countries. 
The winter blahs are over. The first great cinema treat of 2011: the five surprisingly superb documentary shorts vying for an Academy Award, opening this Friday as "2011 Documentary Oscar Shorts" at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. 

My Oscar pick: Karen Goodman's "Strangers No More," a heartwarming visit to a public school in Tel Aviv that takes in refugee children from 48 countries and treats them with ennobling kindness and gives them extraordinary educations. The most important documentary? Jed Rothstein's "Killing in the Name," which follows around the globe a Jordanian peacenik, Ashraf Al-Khaled, who had 27 members of his wedding party murdered in an Al Qaeda attack. His goal is to persuade his fellow Muslims to denounce Islamic terrorism. Al-Khaled is a formidable screen presence, and so is Robynn Murray in Sara Nesson's "Poster Girl." She's an former sergeant in the US military who, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, speaks out against the war in Iraq and begs forgiveness of those she terrorized while serving there.

The final two documentaries take audiences far away. For "The Warriors of Qiugang," director Ruby Yang spent three years in China's Anhui Province, siding with citizens battling a cancer-causing chemical plant. Jennifer Redfearn's "Sun Come Up" takes place on Carteret Island off New Guinea, where Christians of African ancestry prepare to move to the less peaceful Bougainville Island, an exile they compare to the Jews' exodus from Egypt. Global warming — yes, it exists! — is causing flooding of their ancient home and killing their crops.

And the Oscar-nominated animation and live-action shorts, both opening at the Kendall Square? What a drop in quality from the documentaries!

Teddy Newton's "Day & Night" served well as a 3D apéritif before theatrical screenings of Toy Story 3. But taken by itself, this Pixar short about two Shmoo-like apparitions with see-through bodies doesn't do much. Jakob Schuh & Max Lang's "The Gruffalo," adapted from Julia Donaldson's children's book, is a quite-cute, too-long saga of a mouse who scares off enemies with tales of a made-up monster. Geefwee Boedoe's "Let's Pollute" is an unsubtle, ironic call for corporations to ravage the earth — though the retro 1950s UPA animation is neat.

"The Lost Thing," by Australians Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan, features the title multi-tentacled creature found on a beach. The hand-painted Kafka-esque world is appealing; not so the schmaltzy music. Finally, French filmmaker Bastien Dubois's "Madagascar, a Journey Diary" is so light and bouncy that it feels like a travel commercial.

As for the live-action shorts, "The Confession," by Britain's Tanel Toom, is a mostly effective calling card for a future feature. A boy in need of material for his first confession commits a tiny sin that goes awry, whereupon grotesque deaths ensue. The melodrama gets a bit much. "The Crush," by Ireland's Michael Creagh, falters in a stiffly staged shootout involving a jealous lad with a gun. Also from Britain is Ian Barnes's "Wish 143," a not-bad tale of boy with cancer who wants to lose his virginity before dying. Belgian Ian Goldschmidt's "Na Wewe" takes place in 1990s Burundi, where soldiers stop a car and separate the passengers into Hutus and Tutsis. Instead of machine gunning, there's PC-screenplay talk.

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Related: Review: Beautiful Darling, Review: 45365, Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, More more >
  Topics: Features , Coolidge Corner Theater, Oscars, documentary,  More more >
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