It has been said, often by Bay Area documentarians, that the Bay Area has more documentarians than any other American metropolis. How often it has been said, and by how many documentarians, is not known. Someone should document this.
In the meantime, we can go ahead and estimate that there are just so freaking many of them. The great news is that so freaking many of the so freaking many are great -- amply endowed with the Bay Area bona fides of cultural curiosity, political alertness, humane disposition and formal panache.
That's why Bay Area documentarians tend to do so well with Academy Award nominations, which in turn is why the Rafael Film Center, this time in association with the Center for Asian American Media, will screen three short docs from local makers Sunday afternoon. The award for Documentary Short Subject is among the least corrupt of Oscars; it really is an honor just to be nominated -- enough so that it's even an honor just to be shortlisted for the nomination. And each of these three moving and provocative films deserves that honor.
Steven Okazaki, a frequent Oscar nominee and winner for 1990's Days of Waiting, about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is at his sharpest when combing through the emotional aftermath of human catastrophe. On the heels of 2007's Emmy-winning White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Okazaki delivers The Conscience of Nhem En, in which he meets the man whose job as a 16-year-old soldier was to photograph thousands of people arriving at Cambodia's notorious S-21 prison, where the Khmer Rouge would systematically torture and murder them. "The photographer's job is to take photographs," Nhem En says today in his own defense. "As a human being, you have a conscience. Would you die for it?" Even more challengingly, he continues: "The world should thank me for my work. If I hadn't taken those photos, if it weren't for me, no one would know or care about Cambodia. They are the proof."
What's most striking about Okazaki's potent 25-minute film is his own receptiveness. His stance always seems more inquisitive than judgmental, and he also spends some time with a few of the prison's survivors (of about 17,000, only 8 are known to have made it out alive). Okazaki duly lingers on Nhem En's haunting photographs, and concludes with his own series of portraits of contemporary Cambodians -- quite clearly haunted themselves.
Director Ruby Yang and producer Thomas Lennon won a documentary Oscar in 2006 for The Blood of Yingzhou District, about provincial Chinese children orphaned by A.I.D.S. Most recently they've re-teamed for Tongzhi in Love, a brief but memorable portrait of young gay men in modern China -- where, "among the three offenses against filial piety, failing to maintain the subsequent generation is the worst." Thus the already highly distressing solution of marrying lesbians and living lies to please the parents assumes even more obvious practical limitations. Yang, too, accomplishes much in a short span of time (30 minutes), weaving intimately confessional conversations, artful animation sequences and bluesy place-sensitive music by Bill Frisell and Brian Keane into a tapestry of rich, otherwise repressed inner lives.
The eponymous young subject of Megan Mylan's 39-minute film, Smile Pinki, is "Pinki" Kumari Sonkar, a ridiculously adorable little girl with inviting eyes and a bashful manner who, like many other kids, happens to have been born poor in rural India with a cleft lip. That could be a hurtful and isolating fate, were it not for Pankaj Kumar Singh, a social worker traveling from village to village gathering similarly afflicted children to get them free cosmetic surgery through a donation-based medical program at a Banaras hospital. "Had I known, I would have brought her to you as soon as she came into this world," Pinki's father tells Pankaj, with a poignant mixture of feelings that's characteristic of Mylan's compassionately observant film. Smile Pinki's main subjects may be children, but it's their parents' complex feelings -- of shame, pity, revulsion, adoration, gratitude, pride -- that drive the film.
What this means is that it's now safe to say that the Bay Area has the most emotionally walloping Academy-shortlisted documentary shorts of any American metropolis.
Bay Area Documentaries: Selections from the Academy's Shortlist plays at 4pm Sunday, January 11, 2008, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information visit cafilm.org/rfc.