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The Fantastic Four

Oscar-nominated short documentaries stand up, stand strong, may require Kleenex

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Watching four short documentaries in a row is a bit like climbing a mountain and rolling down it backwards. It's an emotional journey uphill, followed by a gravitational slam into reality. You're rubbed raw by the things you come in contact with. You move fast, out of control and you don't know where you'll land. It might be challenging for some to experience that kind of emotional upheaval, but for those willing to look into political and world issues without blinking an eye, it's a rich reward of compassion, education and insight, all in 129 minutes of run time.

The short documentaries nominated for Academy Awards last year are all worthy of their accolades and cover a diverse range of subjects. Each documentary tackles important issues. Each film also inspires and provokes viewers to ask key questions about politics, humanity and war.

The first documentary, The Death of Kevin Carter, Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, biographies the life and death of Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. From the first sounds of gunfire, gritty reality washes over you. This is not a watered down news report. This is footage that escaped the public's eye by being too graphic and intense for most news media to show. The footage also clearly shows the toll taken on the men and women who are driven to take part in the selfless service that is their profession. Early photos of Kevin Carter show a man full of passion and purpose. He looked a bit like a rock star, exuding confidence with a beguiling smile. Then later photos showed a tormented witness seeking salvation from the horrific images he had documented with his camera. He jumped in while bullets flew overhead and never once stopped shooting his pictures. So what happens to a man caught in the eye of the political hurricane in Africa who seemingly has the passion and courage to risk his life daily? The Death of Kevin Carter focuses a scrutinizing eye on the price one man paid for his career, fame and art while it simultaneously raises questions about the price humanity must pay for waging war. This was the first Oscar nomination for director Dan Krauss.

The second documentary, God Sleeps in Rwanda, highlights the inspirational strength of the human spirit following the unimaginable tragedies Rwandans have faced. Caught in the aftermath of a grossly calculated military strategy of adding rape to the genocide (a disturbing strategy whose architect was the woman who served as Minister of Women and Family Affairs in Rwanda) upon Rwandan Tutsis, women are left with a legacy of HIV and AIDS, a torn-apart homeland and the burden of rebuilding their country. Shocking statistics and horrifying stories are given, yet the film focuses on the enormous strength these survivors have without trivializing their struggles. The role women are taking to rebuild Rwanda is not just the focus of this film but a testament in history, preserved respectfully in the interviews collected. This was the first Oscar nomination for filmmakers Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman.

The Mushroom Club, the third documentary in the series, excavates stories of survivors of the Hiroshima Bomb. Director Steven Okazaki revisits Hiroshima 60 years after the bombing and examines the changes to a once-destroyed city and reveals how easily history can be forgotten. "The Mushroom Club" is the name given to a group of children born with birth defects as a result of radiation exposure from the bomb. Several survivors' stories are told, but the story of a 59-year-old woman with the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, due to her in utero exposure to the bomb, is shaking--not because of the tragedy of her life but because of the lack of accountability shown from both Japanese and American scientists who neglected for 30 years to tell her parents that their daughter's birth defects were caused by radiation poisoning from the bomb. Okazaki decided to make The Mushroom Club in 1995 when he observed that the 50th anniversary of the bombing came and went with little media coverage. He wanted to point out how history is written and how easily it can be forgotten. This was Okazaki's third Oscar nomination. He won an Oscar in 1990 for his short documentary, Days of Waiting, a film about artist Estelle Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians to be interned with 110,000 Japanese Americans in 1942.

The last film in the series, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, received the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. This film showcases the renowned career of writer Norman Corwin, who was the Edward R. Murrow of 1930s and 40s radio. Corwin has been called the "poet laureate of radio." While Corwin's works were all over the map as far as subject, his renowned piece which marked the end of WWII is known as his greatest masterpiece. A Note of Triumph aired May 8, 1945, on V-E Day. With spirited commentary from Walter Cronkite, Norman Lear, Robert Altman and Corwin himself, director Eric Simonson pays tribute to a lost art form--and shows that patriotism comes in many different forms. Listening to Corwin's recordings is a delight, and his use of language is incandescent. It makes you stop everything to concentrate on his words and really listen. Listening to it 60 years after the original airing makes it even more special; it feels like a privilege. While the film showcases Corwin's most famous work, it barely uncovers the tip of the iceberg that is Corwin's magnificent career. For more information on Corwin check out his Web site at www.normancorwin.com. This was director Simonson's second nomination for an Oscar. He has also been nominated for a Best Director Tony Award.

Boise's TVCTV presents all four Oscar-nominated short documentaries at the Flicks on Sunday, June 4, 7 p.m. $11, 646 Fulton St., 342-4222.

Questions? Comments? E-mail screen@boiseweekly.com.