The films nominated for the short-documentary Academy Award traverse New York City streets where people eke out livings collecting cans and bottles, a Florida condo complex where seniors try to fill their days and a Sudanese hospital where young heart patients undergo high-risk operations.
The shorts' commonality lies in subjects whose age, illness or socioeconomic status renders them vulnerable, and in the films' ability to tell a story that feels complete in 40 minutes or less.
On Saturday and Sunday, the Crest Theatre will show the five documentary shorts vying Feb. 24 for the Oscar. The program has been divided into two parts that can be viewed on a single day or split between two days.
"Redemption" follows those people who push carts laden with cans and bottles they have plucked from others' recycling bins. Their numbers in New York have increased several-fold during the economic downturn, can-collecting veterans tell filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill.
One is a retiree supplementing Social Security benefits by redeeming cans and bottles. Most others, such as an immigrant mother whose children help her collect and redeem, earn their entire incomes one 5-cent can at a time.
More competition on every block can lead to curbside dust-ups among redeemers trying to establish turf. And making one's living redeeming is hardly living, as we see when the filmmakers take their cameras into a tiny apartment shared by a redeemer and several other people.
Poverty gets an even more intimate look in "Inocente," which profiles a remarkable 15-year-old San Diego artist named Inocente.
Inocente's vibrant paintings allude to and provide a mental escape from her family's homelessness and her strained relationship with her mother, whose illegal status in the United States makes it difficult to keep a job or an apartment.
The fraught parent-child relationship gives the story its weight. So it disappoints when this sometimes-slick MTV film tries to enhance the emotional stakes via editing or with a gooey folk-pop song.
Children Inocente's age and younger travel without their parents from Rwanda to Sudan in the superb "Open Heart." Funded by private donations and the Sudanese government, the hospital is the only place on the African continent offering free surgeries to children with rheumatic heart disease.
Rheumatic heart disease often results from simple cases of strep throat. It is highly preventable in countries where penicillin is available, but penicillin is not widely available in Rwanda.
Director Kief Davidson gets incredible access to the children, hospital staff and even President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who meets with hospital officials in one scene. The controversial Sudanese autocrat appears to wobble a bit on his government's commitment to help fund the hospital, adding tension to the narrative.
"Open Heart" creates a nice arc that starts in Rwanda and moves through a world highly foreign to the kids one of strangers and airplanes and sophisticated medical facilities. The film also births a star in little Angelique, who is such a conscientious patient that she watches her pre-surgery diet more closely than her doctor does.
The toll of illness on appearance and self-image forms the first layer of "Mondays at Racine," set in a Long Island salon that one day a month provides free services to women with cancer. The sisters who own the shop offer mani-pedis and hugs, and they hold the hands of clients as stylists shave their heads of hair already coming out in clumps due to chemotherapy.
The head-shaving process can devastate, less because of vanity than because a bald pate can be a physical representation of illness. Director Cynthia Wade uses the shop as a starting point for profiles of two women one recently diagnosed, the other first diagnosed in 1994 both resilient and exceptionally candid about cancer's effects on their lives.
Thoughts of mortality occupy the edges of the sunshine-infused "Kings Point," set among Florida condo residents who followed the great 55-and-older migration from New York to Florida of the 1970s and '80s.
Now well past 55, these residents wonder if living so far from family is a good idea. Distance from loved ones can be highly inconvenient at Kings Point, where cliques are based on health, not looks or money. Neighbors with their own health woes to worry about might not want to hear about yours, or visit your condo and possibly catch what you have.
Residents still play games, lie in the sun and appear to have fun, but "Kings Point" also makes the viewer wonder to paraphrase Peggy Lee, a near-contemporary of the condo complex residents if this is all there is.
What: A two-part program with the five films up for the short documentary Oscar at the Feb. 24 Academy Awards.
When: 1 and 3:40 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Program 1: "Kings Point," "Mondays at Racine," "Inocente." Program 2: "Redemption," "Open Heart."
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $12.50 general, $10 seniors and students (price includes both parts of the program).
Information: (916) 442-7378, www.thecrest.com
HAVE A SAY
Get ready for Oscar!
Which film will win best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24? "Lincoln"? "Life of Pi"? "Argo"? Who will claim the acting awards? Test your cinematic knowledge with The Bee's Red Carpet Movie Awards contest. Go to http://sacbee.upickem.net and select your winners on our Oscars Poll before 4 p.m. on the big day. The person with the most correct picks wins four movie tickets and a grab bag of film-related prizes. Official rules are listed with the contest. Good luck!