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Notes of triumph

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During the Academy Awards telecasts, the moments that have traditionally lent themselves to viewers rustling up some snacks occur when the Oscars for short film are awarded. It's been difficult for John Q. Moviegoer to care about something he will probably never see, but in recent years the shorts have been packaged up for mass consumption. A program of the mini narrative nominees made their way here in 2005, and in the wake of the documentary's surge in mainstream popularity (thanks, penguins!), we're treated to the pocket-sized nonfiction films nominated for this year's Oscar.

The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club kicks off the 2006 Oscar Documentary Shorts program. The film juxtaposes the downward spiral of a South African photojournalist against the demise of apartheid. Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer in 1994 for a harrowing picture depicting a vulture staking out a starving Sudanese girl, but he would take his own life two months later when faced with the public uproar over whether he should have dropped the camera and gotten involved. Interviews with Carter's friends and family tell the heartbreaking story of a hard-living shooter who believed his brand of fearless journalism was becoming obsolete, and who became increasingly unable to detach himself from the images on the other side of the lens.

A lovely proverb provides the title to God Sleeps in Rwanda, an inspirational look at a few of the gutsy women mending that country in the wake of a genocide that left the population 70 percent female --- and in many ways better off due to the dissolution of the oppressive patriarchy. The resilient and resourceful subjects include a woman who became the head of her household at the age of 11, as well as one HIV-positive widow raising four children as she fights crime by day and attends law school at night. She claims in her halting English that she's "not very wonderful," a point that's up for debate.

The Mushroom Club catches up with Hiroshima, Japan, 60 years after an atomic bomb annihilated 110,000 of its inhabitants. Filmmaker Steven Okazaki talks to survivors and observes members of the titular group, "children of the bomb" who were in utero at the time of the explosion and suffered debilitating birth defects. The most striking images come courtesy of animator KeijiNakazawa, who painstakingly illustrates how an atomic blast would affect the human body. These scenes are brutal and gruesome, as are a number of the sights in the aforementioned shorts.

But the preceding trifecta of unimaginable suffering is mercifully punctuated by Oscar winner A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, about the man who put poetry on the radio in the years up to and during World War II. Studs Terkel, Robert Altman, and Walter Cronkite share remembrances of the simple eloquence that had 60 million people tuning in to hear stars like Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles bring Corwin's words to life. We also hear from Corwin himself, 90 if he's a day and still teaching at USC. But a stirring piece like "On A Note of Triumph," broadcast on VE-Day and hailed by poet Carl Sandburg as "one of the great American poems," speaks for itself.

Just try to watch Unknown White Male,an additional documentary opening at the Little on Friday, without wondering how a similar situation would upend your own existence. Douglas Bruce was 35 years old in July of 2003 when he awoke on a subway in Coney Island with no clue as to his identity and no medical reason for his retrograde amnesia. Rupert Murray's absorbing and poignant documentary follows the bewildered man as he reacquaints himself with his life, snow, fireworks, and chocolate mousse.

A phone number in a book he was carrying led to Bruce's eventual identification, and though most of us would be rather pleased to learn that we lived in a fantastic East Village loft and retired at the age of 30, Bruce must tackle the daunting challenge of piecing together both his past and present with the help of family and friends --- people who, for all intents and purposes, he has never met. And their frustration and anxiety is evident as they attempt to connect with a loved one whose shared history has been erased.

Murray asks the question, "How much is already there, pure 'us'?" He's known his topic for 15 years, and if old home movies of Bruce are any indication, not much. The once-arrogant jet-setter is now an introspective artist, his hobby of photography suffused with a gravitas not previously exhibited. There's a 95 percent chance that Bruce's memory will return, though he's not sure he'll welcome it. Given this opportunity, as it were, to see things once took for granted for the very first time, would you resent it or embrace it?

2006 Oscar Documentary Shorts (NR) and Unknown White Male (PG-13), directed by Rupert Murray, both open Friday, March 31, at the Little Theatres.

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