Sitting down to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts is an enlightening experience, but it's not exactly a short one.
The docs, after all, are always the longest of the shorts. You can watch all five animated-short nominees in about 40 minutes, the same amount of time it'll take to view "Inocente" or "Mondays at Racine" or "Open Heart," three doc-short nominees that approach the Academy's 40-minute limit for qualifying in the shorts categories.
The five nominees average almost 37 minutes, and the whole category takes more than three hours of viewing. But it's a gripping three hours, full of moving stories about tough subjects: homelessness, childhood disease, cancer, aging ….
This year's field is typical in its subject matter, but uncharacteristic in that four of the five nominees take place inside the United States.
Between the time commitment and the fact that this is the one shorts category that requires Academy members to attend special screenings before voting, the category will almost certainly have fewer voters than any other. But that should change in 2014: Screeners will likely be sent and voting will likely be opened up to the entire Academy next year.
A theatrical program of the nominated doc shorts will open on Feb. 8 through ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures.
"Inocente" Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine 40 minutes
Made under the auspices of MTV, "Inocente" is the charming and occasionally heartbreaking character study of a homeless teen from San Diego who refuses to let her tough circumstances keep her from making vibrant, colorful, defiantly celebratory art. Fine and Nix were nominated in the doc-feature category five years ago for "War/Dance," and this film speaks both to the economic climate and the urge to express oneself.
It's a moving combination, and celebrations of the power of art have won in the category before ("A Note of Triumph," "Music by Prudence"). But up against films that are more wrenching, the chances for "Inocente" depend on how many viewers will fall in love with its subject.
"Kings Point" Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider 30 minutes
A retirement home in Florida is the setting for veteran doc editor Gilman's film, which tells personal stories of the relationships, longings and loneliness in the last place most of its residents will ever live. The doc moves deftly between stories of several residents, from ones looking for love to ones wary of letting anybody get too close.
Like "Inocente," this is a character study that views larger stories through small, personal prisms. No doubt younger voters can relate to stories of parents, and the older side of the Academy will have its own take on the humor and heartbreak of these residents.
"Mondays at Racine" Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan 39 minutes
Wade, a past winner in the category for "Freeheld," focuses on a Long Island beauty parlor that opens its doors once a month to women with cancer. The small rituals of shaving heads and pampering women fighting the disease are a jumping-off point for a deeper look at two women, one a young mother undergoing chemotherapy for the first time and the other an older woman whose marriage is fracturing under the stress of living with cancer for more than 17 years.
As the film moves away from the beauty parlor, the storytelling gets more scattershot and less focused. But "Mondays at Racine" does have the uplift that voters often like in the category, making it a clear contender.
"Open Heart" Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern 40 minutes
Davidson's film is the model of the kind of doc short that had traditionally done well in this category, including winners "Saving Face" and "Smile Pinki" in the last four years. For starters, it uncovers a wrenching problem, in this case rheumatic heart disease among children in Africa whose strep throat had gone untreated, and who are facing all-but-certain death unless they receive treatment that is only done at one public hospital in Africa. But crucially, it also offers hope instead of despair.
A global story well told, the movie follows a group of eight children who travel from Rwanda to Sudan for treatment at the hands of a Rwandan cardiologist and an Italian surgeon. Skirting politics to zero in on the human stories, it tells a story that is involving, horrifying and ultimately uplifting. In this category, that is often a recipe for success.
"Redemption" Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill 35 minutes
Three years after being nominated for "China's Unnatural Disaster," Alpert and O'Neill take to the streets of New York to tell the story of the men and women who make their livings combing NYC trash cans to collect and redeem cans and bottles. Their HBO film uncovers a world with its own rules, territories and disputes.
As a series of telling sketches that resonate in these times of economic hardship, "Redemption" has the potential to hit home with many viewers, even if its stories somehow feel smaller than some of the other nominees.
My take: Likeliest winner: "Open Heart" Top candidate that takes place in the United States: "Mondays at Racine"