The weakest link is "Incident in New Baghdad," essentially an interview (with some grainy footage replayed several times) with a soldier involved in a shooting in Iraq that claimed the lives of several civilians and a journalist. For the uninitiated among us, the importance of the incident is insufficiently explained; it's taken as a given, whereas it needs to be put in context. The soldier, Ethan McCord, explains the events of the day and their lingering effect on him, but the documentary feature nominee "Hell and Back Again" and even the recent feature film "Return" explore PTSD issues far more compellingly.
Also unworthy of the Oscar is "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement," about the amiable, gregarious James Armstrong, whose sons were two of the first black children to enter previously all-white Alabama schools under the aegis of the National Guard and in contravention of Governor George Wallace's orders. Armstrong witnessed a great deal of modern American history firsthand, and he's perfectly pleasant company, but the movie doesn't shed a lot of light - and we don't get a strong sense of his barbershop and the work of cutting hair.
Either of the other two films would be a deserving victor on Sunday. The haunted and sad but beautiful "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" opens with jaw-dropping footage of the March 11, 2011 Japanese tsunami that claimed thousands of lives very near the site of the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident. We hear the first-hand accounts of survivors who lost loved ones. One man says he doesn't want any material possessions - not even his shirt - he just wants his best friend's life back. (His friend had recently bought a new car, went back to save it and got swept away.) The second half of the movie explains the intrinsically Japanese nature of the cherry blossom and its importance as a symbol of hope and resilience for those who must go on with life.
My choice of the four is the well-reported and powerful "Saving Face," about Pakistani women whose faces have been disfigured - grotesquely, in most cases - by acid attacks, often by their husbands. Through these women, directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy give us glimpses of broader issues in Pakistan: the privileged status of men and the ways in which women's fates remain largely outside their control; the justice system; and the role of women in Parliament. The hero of the film is Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British plastic surgeon born in Pakistan, who returns to help these women literally "save face." "You do that," he says after a successful operation, "You give someone back their life. I don't think I have to be bloody religious to get to where I need to go."
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