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Nature documentaries are boring.

If you believe that, set aside 40 minutes and prepare to be astonished. It's the running time for "Rabbit à la Berlin," a history of the Wall told from the POV of wild rabbits who lived between East and West Berlin. Heavily guarded, grassy and predator-free, the Death Zone they called home for 28 years let them to do what rabbits do. They flourished.

But in time some tried escaping their safe animal farm for West Berlin. And since the fall of the Wall, the furry rodents have been struggling to survive under freedom -- just like former citizens of the Soviet Bloc.
Directed by Bartek Konopka and Anna Wydra, the film (Królik po berlinsku in Polish and Mauerhase in German), was produced by Polish broadcaster TVP. It's one of five short documentaries vying for this year's Oscar.

Last Sunday, a week before the March 7, 2010 Award ceremony, New York's Museum of Modern Art screened the whole classy quintuple at its "Eighty-Second Academy-Nominated Documentary Shorts" program. The annual bloom is among MoMA's most highly anticipated, with tickets being snapped up the moment they go on sale. This year it clocked in at around three hours. And not one audience melee broke out, surely a Museum first.
Perhaps viewers were stunned into silence by "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province." In the first 39-minutes of the evening, Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill had taken them on a journey through the emotional and physical rubble of China's 2008 earthquake, where communities mourned its young casualties and decried official negligence.
What begins as disaster coverage boils into a political diary of protest against shoddy building and relief efforts.
A collective gasp went up in the auditorium with each new horrific fact: that families were compensated $317 per dead child; that more than three parents were forbidden at school sites; that, given China's one-child policy, most parents lost their only child. And so on.
If "Rabbit à la Berlin" uses nature as an allegory of totalitarian rule, "China's Unnatural Disaster" takes it as a platform for people to express civic rage. One bereaved mother sums up her disillusionment as "this is a lesson of blood." Another, pardon her Chinese, tells a fat cat to "search your mother's cunt."
Death and politics coalesce as well in "The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner." The 38-minute film by Daniel Junge trails the former Washington State governor's 2008 campaign to legalize assisted-suicide. Gardner mounted the initiative while combating Parkinson's disease. 
As Woody Allen has noted, success amplifies what you already are. But what if success ends what you are? Tough to say which caused more audience squirming, this conundrum, Booth's growing incapacitation or his opponents' efforts to quash the ballot. What's plain, though, is that Junge picked a compelling hero and that his own cogency -- a skill perhaps honed as creative director of campaign strategy firm Just Media -- helped him construct a sturdy work of nonfiction.
Work, or lack thereof, is the focus of another entry with "Last" in the title. "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant" gives a 40-minute insight into the final six months of General Motors' factory in Moraine, Ohio. The backstory on its shuttering involves "the slowest auto market in 15 years."


Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert build the film almost entirely out of conversations with workers. Speaking to the camera between shifts, these mostly middle-aged men and women give unemployment a personal face. Will blue collar workers without computers find new jobs? Are they up for retraining? Can they hope to re-experience the pride and mastery they achieved as autoworkers? Hope is the key word here, and it's not in conspicuous supply.


It is in "Music by Prudence."


The film opens with shots of the Zimbabwe bush so surreal and chords of a woman's song so rousing that what comes next is a jolt. A mangled and legless African gets stuck in a puddle with her wheelchair. She is 21-year-old Prudence Mabhena, the source of the voice, the producer of the film and the lead singer of Bulawayo-based group Liyana.


Maybe the Shona and Ndebele languages have a word for "uplifting" to suit her 35-minute story, directed by Roger Ross Williams. From the paternal grandmother who blamed her arthrogryposis on witchcraft (and wanted her killed) to the stepmother who let her marinate in three weeks' worth of bodily eliminations,
Prudence thankfully made it to the King George VI School for the disabled. There she met the seven other members of Liyana and became the singer, songwriter, lyricist, arranger and choreographer who's now recognized as an emerging star.
MoMA thundered with applause after the group's climactic Afro-fusion performance of marimbas, African drums, keyboards, shakers, keyboards -- and, of course, dear Prudence.
However different these five Oscar contenders, one common denominator is HBO Documentary Films. The network, which has a long history of sweeping awards, was behind all but "Rabbit à la Berlin."
Interwoven news clips are another thing some of the films share. "China's Unnatural Disaster" replays the devastating earthquake through television and cell phone footage; and "The Last Campaign" dusts off archival reels of Booth Gardner in the heyday of his governorship.
"Rabbit à la Berlin" takes the historical footage award, however. MoMA's savvy spectators ooohed at the shots of Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy on opposing sides of the Berlin Wall, and seemed no less moved by scenes depicting armed punishment of dissidents. Allegedly, the filmmakers only turned up six images of the original rabbits, though it's easier to guess which film will take the Oscar than which bunny was a body double.
By Laura Blum 


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