02/22/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Academy Awards 2013: Documentary Shorts

Three of this year's five documentary short nominees have connections with New York. Three of them were produced by HBO and a fourth premiered on HBO. If there is an underlying theme to all five, it is that, with all of the negativity in the world, there are still a lot of unheralded heroes out there who are trying to help others just because it's the right thing to do.

Mondays at Racine
My wife told me that when she was a hairdresser she used to feel like a psychiatrist, not only because she listened to her customers unburden themselves of their worries, but because so many of them felt that their self-image was entwined with their hair.

Once a month, two sisters, Rachel Demolfetto and Cynthia Sansone, open up their Long Island hair salon to women who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation after being diagnosed with cancer. Although Demolfetto and Sansone are the inspiration for Mondays at Racine, the story really highlights the lives of two of the women who lose their hair to cancer treatment and how they help each other and others cope with the emotional trauma not just of hair loss, but of mastectomy.

Director Cynthia Wade won an Oscar in this category for her 2007 short, Freeheld, about a policewoman dying of cancer who fights to have her pension go to her lesbian partner.

The directors of Inocente, husband and wife Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, intended to make a general film about homeless children in the United States. Then they met Inocente Izucar, a 15-year-old from San Diego who, along with her mother and three younger brothers, had moved 30 times in nine years, never able to stay in one place for more than three months. Inocente dreams of a bedroom of her own. She deals with the bleakness of her life by painting, starting with her face, which she decorates like a canvas before going to school. When she was 12 years old, Inocente discovered ARTS: A Reason to Survive, a non-profit that uses art and performance to encourage kids who are "facing adversity," such as homelessness and domestic violence. ARTS helped Inocente stage an exhibition of her work, which sold out immediately.

The entire 40-minute film can be seen here.

For those who have seen the film, Inocente, now 19 years old, eventually did get her own apartment. She also appears at art workshops and inspires others, a fact that apparently surprises her. "They want to be just like me," she told the New York Times. "I don't want to be just like me."

Fine and Nix were previously nominated for their 2007 feature documentary War Dance about three children from a refugee camp in Uganda who participate in a national music festival. This is the only one of the five documentary short nominees not associated with HBO. However, their latest film, the feature length The Good Life, which premiered at Sundance in January, was financed by HBO.

Open Heart

Open Heart follows the journey of eight children whose hearts have been damaged by rheumatic fever from their home in Rwanda to The Salam Centre in Sudan -- Africa's only state-of-the-art and free-of-charge cardiac surgery hospital. The hospital is funded by an Italian non-profit, Emergency, and run by head surgeon Dr. Gino Strada. The children are accompanied by Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, Rwanda's only public cardiologist. These two men are inspirations, but, as with Mondays at Racine, the story is really about the patients, age three to 17, and their anxious parents back home, who don't know if their beloved children will survive the difficult surgeries they are undergoing in a faraway country.

There is one discordant note when the dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide, visits the hospital, for which his government provides funding. When Dr. Strada explains that the hospital is running out of money, Bashir suggests that they build a parallel hospital for rich people, the profits from which could fund The Salam Centre. Strada appears dubious, as well he should be.

Kings Point

Filmed over a 10-year period, Kings Point follows a group of Jewish seniors, mostly women and mostly from New York, as they live out their lives in a resort retirement community in Florida. The mother of director Sari Gilman lived at Kings Point, so she knows it well. Most of the featured women are widows who now, to one degree or another, seek love, companionship, meaning and affection. But it's not easy. As in any retirement community, in the background of their daily life are people, often friends, whose health deteriorates and who die, a constant reminder of what lies ahead for even the healthiest ones.


In New York City, cans and bottles can be redeemed for five cents each. This has led, on the fringes of society, to the growth of "canners," people who make their living or supplement their fixed income by walking the streets with big plastic bags collecting the redeemable items. Redemption profiles several canners, some bitter, some emotionally disturbed, some happy-go-lucky. They are the sort of people most New Yorkers look past as they pass them in the street. Yet, many of the canners argue that poor and outcast as they may be, they are engaged in an honorable profession because they recycle the waste of their wealthier brethren.

Directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill were nominated in this category for their 2009 HBO documentary China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, about the victims of an earthquake and the survivors' attempts to confront corrupt and incompetent officials.