This year’s crop of documentary shorts is heart-wrenching and tear-inducing in the way that only reality can be. You can see them all for yourself at West End Cinema.
In the 1970s and 1980s, retiring New Yorkers moved to Kings Point, Florida, excited by the balmy climate, palm trees, and $1500 down payment on a home. Sari Gilman, whose Grandmother Ida also lived at Kings Point, lets this community tell their own stories. The result is a film neither maudlin nor contrived but incredibly poignant in its portrayal of the reality of aging. The residents find themselves grappling with love, loss, illness, death, and the scariest specter of all–loneliness. “You try to fill your days as best as you can,” is the greatest of seemingly prosaic yet totally not tragedies and a stark commentary on modern life. The people who moved there to find companionship in their old age face some of the same difficulties that people of younger age do too–forming bonds. Nothing is more heart-wrenching than being sick or dying alone, however. Ironically enough the very self-reliant spirit that drove these folks to move down to Florida now has them so incredibly far away from family and life-long friends. As one of the residents explains, “You don’t make friends here. You have good acquaintances…it is all about self-preservation.” Kings Point is incredibly engrossing in that it presents a look at a population often reduced to the hollow description of “the seniors in Florida.” It’s a trenchant commentary on a future that we all have to contend with, i.e. growing old. It’s a bittersweet rumination on how we treat “old people”–the ones who have so much knowledge and who have contributed so much and are now relegated to facing some literally life-and-death situations all alone
Redemption takes a look at “canners”–people who collect bottles and cans on New York’s streets and then redeem them for 5 cents an item and the appropriately titled “Redemption Center.” It’s a crushing, no-holds-barred look into the face of poverty and the creation of a new underclass that only modern conditions and “development” can bring about. The canners come from all walks of life–some are homeless, some are retirees who do not have enough money to live on, some are immigrant families…They walk the streets all day and night, rummaging through trash, in the hope of making twenty dollars a day. When one of them passes by a sidewalk cafe, she wistfully ruminates, “I wonder what it would feel like to sit down and eat in a restaurant. It must be really nice.” Therein is the genius behind Redemption–in showing the nauseatingly wasteful consumerist culture that creates the crumbs [cans] that feed a subclass that will never have access to that sort of opulence and is relegated to scavenging on its discarded leftovers. One man’s trash is another man’s barely subsistence.
Once a month on Mondays, owners Cynthia and Rachel open their Long Island beauty salon to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Lest you think this sounds like a sadder riff on Extreme Makeover, this is not a movie about shaving one’s head. Yes, there is the self-caring aspect to it, but ultimately, the women who come to Racine are there for the camaraderie, for a chance to support each other in the battle with a common enemy. The film is a heart-breaking look at the havoc that cancer wreaks on those who have it and on the families and loved ones left standing in its ravaging wake. In one sense, it explores how losing something as superficial as hair is intensely depersonalizing. “I didn’t want to shave my head as I would look in the mirror and just see cancer.” “Having no hair made me feel like an alien.” Cynthia and Rachel explain that they started this event so they can give women back a sense of themselves. That sense comes not just through getting one’s make-up done but through meeting others living through the same thing. One of the women in the film has had cancer for 18 years–through her story, we see the damage it does to a person and to a family.
MTV Films backs a film very different from its usually sensationalistic fare but one that would nevertheless resonate well with its teen-leaning audience. Inocente is the story of a 15-year-old homeless artist. Told through extended interviews with her, the movie feels like an intimate look inside the diary of an ebullient and resilient young girl who refuses to live in her circumstances and dares to dream her “silly dreams.” Inocente gives a new face to homelessness in America–as she puts it, “being homeless does not mean waking up on the street every day. It means having no home.” In the past 9 years, she has never lived in one place longer than three months. The film also explores what it means to be an undocumented immigrant and the truly alienating feeling of having no home in too many ways to name. Inocente’s Mom is constantly toiling at her job as a maid, yet is unable to provide enough for her family to have a roof over their heads so they sleep in shelters, under bridges, in friend’s homes. Inocente is about the impossibly vibrant, colorful art that belies her grim surroundings. Working with a non-profit organization, she is selected to put on her own art show, where she sells all of her paintings. The film is a celebration of the redemptive and transformative powers of art that allow one to break outside of personal and social boundaries.
Open Heart is the story of eight Rwandan children who travel to Sudan to receive life-saving heart operations. They all suffer from severe rheumatic heart disease, resulting from complications caused by strep throat left untreated by antibiotics. The film is a pointed commentary on how the lack of some of the most basic health care, such as antibiotics, has such incredibly consequences for people in Africa. Open Heart also offers a glimpse into the dedicated work of people like Dr. Emmanuel, Rwanda’s lone government cardiologist, and Dr. Gino, the Salam Center’s head surgeon, and the huge impact their fervent advocacy has on the lives of so many. Dr. Gino, in trying to keep his center cost-free, has to wrestle with governments and private donors to continue being able to save lives. Open Heart is a look at the incredible feats that a few dedicated people and organizations can bring about.
And the winner is:
Although all of the films are incredibly strong contenders and I would have a hard time picking between it and Redemption, Kings Point stands out in the quiet way it presents a reality that should be so ubiquitous yet is often pushed out of our minds even though it’s one we may well have to contend with. Its honest portrayal of loneliness and how we relate to each other in today’s self-focused world is incredibly thought-provoking. The protagonists are dealt lots that are not inordinately tragic or abnormal…we all grow old after all, but there are so few films out there that focus on a group that, like children, also deserves our care, attention, and protection.