No one really expects the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences to honor the actual best in movies from year to year, but it can reliably be counted on to assemble a slate of films that represent tasteful, straight-ahead seriousness. The four nominees for this year's "Best Documentary Short" are all important with a capital "I," and with some slight exceptions, they eschew art in favor of information. At their best, they're direct, emotional appeals to viewers' sympathy and consciences, and at an average length of 30 minutes, they make their points without wearing anyone out. At their worst, they're about as aesthetically exciting as employee-training films.
None of the four are bad by any means. God Sleeps In Rwanda is arguably the weakest, since its flat structuresketching the lives of a handful of women who survived the Rwandan genocide and are now helping rebuild their societyis too wrapped up in celebrating the creative female spirit to delve into the situation's complexity. Still, Rwanda's women are worth getting to know, as they tell stories of overcoming rape and AIDS and emerging in some ways stronger than ever. The Death Of Kevin Carter: Casualty Of The Bang Bang Club takes a more detailed approach to its subject, a Pulitzer-prize-winning South African photojournalist who partied hard and cared too much, and eventually killed himself when the end of apartheid robbed him of compelling subject matter. Director Dan Krauss is too quick to dismiss the furor surrounding Carter's most famous photographa shot of a famine-addled little girl crawling through the sand with a vulture over her shoulderand to let his subject off the hook for observing, not helping. But at least he ends the short well, with an interview with Carter's daughter, who insists that her dad died a hero, if only because he would've been a failure had he lived.
Steven Okazaki's The Mushroom Club edges closer to actual cinema. In investigating life in Hiroshima some 60 years after the atomic bomb, Okazaki uncovers shameful pieces of history (like the government's attempts to hide Hiroshima babies born with birth defects) and uncomfortable tales of human selfishness (like two survivors who admit they ignored pleas for help during their rush to safety), and he cuts them together with meditative, though slightly dull, shots of modern city living. Chances are, the Academy will reward Okazaki's beautiful imagery and gently probing approach. But his film isn't as stirring as A Note Of Triumph: The Golden Age Of Norman Corwin, which covers the war-themed radio plays that helped sell the American public on the justness of defeating the Nazis. Co-directors Corinne Marrinan and Eric Simonson edit together interviews with the likes of Walter Cronkite, Studs Terkel, and Robert Altman into an impressionistic, informative collage of voices, all describing what Terkel calls "the most hopeful moment for the world," when the Nazi supermen were bested by what Corwin called "you common men of today." Unlike its competitors, A Note Of Triumph could be twice as long and be just as fascinating.
A.V. Club Rating: God Sleeps B-, Kevin Carter B, Mushroom Club B+, Norman Corwin A-