Movie reviews: Documentary shorts go real to reel

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When Penn State students talk about "canning," they mean stationing themselves outside stores or at busy intersections and collecting money for charity.

The term has a whole other meaning in "Redemption," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the growing ranks of desperate men and women who go "canning" and collect bottles and cans from the trash so they can redeem them for a nickel each.

New Yorkers who are jobless, homeless or cannot support themselves on Social Security -- as with one woman who gets into a tussle with an interloper muscling in on her turf -- dig through garbage so they can survive.

Walter, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, has been collecting for 18 years and computes prices in terms of cans -- a cup of coffee is 50 cans, while a box of fancy chocolates he spies in a window would be 450 cans.

Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill show this can be what happens when people who worked in restaurants or sweatshops or factories or hotels or, in one case, the World Trade Center lose those jobs. One woman looks at people sitting at outdoor tables and marvels, "It must be amazing to enjoy food at a restaurant. Not like us, walking all day."

Moviegoers may be thankful for what they have after watching the five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts (Three and a half stars, PG-13 in nature due to brief language, subject matter). They will be shown at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday and again Feb. 15-17.

As one of the owners of a Long Island salon, which provides free services for women undergoing chemotherapy once a month, says, her problems pale compared with what she sees. "Nothing to complain about. That's my answer now."

"Mondays at Racine" is about two sisters whose mother became a recluse after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984. They run the salon where chemo patients can have their heads shaved -- as someone holds their hand and cries with them -- or have eyebrows penciled in and artificial lashes applied.

Women here bare their heads and their hearts to filmmaker Cynthia Wade, and, remarkably, there is no need to fear the follow-up with the survivors. Still, bring tissues and expect some explicit images of what a double mastectomy looks like.

"Open Heart" shines a light on the estimated 13 million African children and teens who suffer from rheumatic heart disease, a problem long ago eradicated in America thanks to penicillin dispensed for such ailments as strep throat.

There is only one hospital on the continent performing free life-saving heart surgery, and director Kief Davidson tracks eight Rwandan children, some as young as 3 or 6, traveling 2,500 miles without their parents for valve repair or replacement. The children are a portrait in courage, and they try to rally one of their own when she has to stay behind: "Be strong ... now get up and eat."

It leaves unresolved the question of how the hospital, which gets 75 percent of its funding from private donors and 25 percent from the government of Sudan, will survive. If it doesn't, neither will the boys and girls with broken hearts.

"Inocente," from Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, takes its name from an illegal 15-year-old Mexican American girl who has been homeless for much of her life. Her abusive father was deported, and Inocente, her two younger brothers and Spanish-speaking mother have not lived anywhere for longer than three months in the past nine years.

But Inocente is a talented artist -- she specializes in vibrantly colorful, graffiti-inspired pop imagery -- who lands a solo show thanks to the nonprofit San Diego program ARTS or A Reason to Survive. "Inocente" puts a face on homelessness (the family has relied on others or slept in a procession of shelters, apartments, a garage or outdoor park) and shows what a difference ARTS and the arts can make.

The shortest (31 minutes) and, in some ways, weakest of the lot is Sari Gilman's "Kings Point" about senior citizens residing in a condo community in Florida.

Most fled New York's cold and crime decades ago, and they grapple with having acquaintances rather than old friends, missing their children and grandchildren up north, filling their days with cards, mahjong, dances, a bus trip to a local mall, TV and, sometimes, jealousy, unrequited affection and the search for "real love."

It's a cautionary tale that proves, once again, old age isn't for sissies even if you are guaranteed a lounge chair by the pool. An epilogue is equally illuminating about the choices people make and the unintended consequences that can follow.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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