REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The short documentary is one category that doesn't get a lot of attention at the Oscars. Since it's the eve of the Academy Awards, we roll out the red carpet for NPR's Bob Mondello, who spoke with our regular weekend host, Debbie Elliott, about this year's nominees.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Is documentary short subject a category that you follow at the Oscars every year Bob?
BOB MONDELLO: Well, no, it's the category that I always miss when they do the Oscar quiz. It's the one that I'm absolutely guaranteed not to get right ever, ever, ever. And this is actually - I think this is the first year that I have ever actually watched all four of them prior to the Oscar ceremony.
ELLIOTT: Now, lead us through the category. There are four nominees. Tell us about them.
MONDELLO: Well, let's start with a picture called "Recycled Life." This is about a community that has grown up on the big garbage dump in Guatemala City. And it's an enormous place, and the folks who live there and who work on the dump are called guajeros(ph).
(Soundbite of film, "Recycled Life")
Unidentified Man #1: There's about 1,700 guajeros here in the landfill. And they've been working here 20, 30, 40 years, and there's even some families. The grandfather, the son was born here, and then the grandson was born here too, and are still working here. They have been here for so long that we can even say they own the landfill, you know.
ELLIOTT: You know what struck me about this film were some of the images, particularly of the children who worked and some who even lived at the dump with their families. There was this one little boy who's standing there with the huge trash mountain behind him and he's got on little fuzzy bear slippers...
MONDELLO: Right, and they're playing with toys...
ELLIOTT: ...that you think he probably found there. Yeah.
MONDELLO: Exactly. And there's a mother who places her child in a cardboard box and goes to work, because that's what they're doing at this place, they're pulling recyclables out of the trash to sell. It is how they earn their living. And it's really scary to think, you know, you look at this picture and you see this as a hell on earth for most of its length. And then when they tell you that the dump is almost full and they're going to have to close it and you realize that these are thousands of people who have no place to go and you think, oh my God, it's terrible that they're going to close it. They won't -how will they survive?
ELLIOTT: Now, another one of the nominees deals with children who are in a terrible plight. This is in China.
MONDELLO: Yeah. "The Blood of Yingzhou District" - it's about children who are orphaned because their parents have - were HIV positive and eventually died of AIDS. And the situation that these kids are in, in a society where there is not a whole lot of information for these families - this is mostly rural folks - so the reaction of people is that, oh my God, we've got to get as far away from these people who are sick as possible. So these small children...
ELLIOTT: They're afraid.
MONDELLO: ...they might be little tiny kids - suddenly abandoned, even by their own families, who know that they won't get it from them, but are afraid of the rest of the town ostracizing their own children if they are - if they take in these kids.
ELLIOTT: Particularly troubling was the story of this young toddler whose own uncles were afraid to take care of him. So this is like a two or three-year-old child all alone in the world.
MONDELLO: Yeah. It's a really astonishingly effective piece of documentary filmmaking because the efforts of people to alleviate the suffering are heroic but kind of limited.
ELLIOTT: Now, the third short documentary that's nominated for an Oscar, by comparison, is a bit more lively story. It still deals with a serious subject, but there's triumph in the end.
MONDELLO: Well, that's true. It's called "Two Hands." And it is about Leon Fleisher, a concert pianist who discovered that he had a problem with one of his - I mean the title is ironic because he had a problem with one of his hands, that it started to be paralyzed.
(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")
Mr. LEON FLEISHER (Pianist): Since the age of four, this was it for me. And suddenly I couldn't do it.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. FLEISHER: The Gods know where to hit you when they want to hit you.
MONDELLO: Now, isn't that an amazing problem to have, as a concert pianist to suddenly not be able to use one of your hands?
ELLIOTT: To lose one hand.
MONDELLO: And he managed to sort of struggle back. He did a lot of interesting things. He became a teacher. He became a conductor. And eventually he was able to play again through a variety of different medical techniques that they use. It's a rough story, but in 17 minutes or something like that, it tells a really life-changing story.
ELLIOTT: Now, the last contender is called "Rehearsing a Dream." It's like a real-life version of the movie "Fame," which was popular back when I was a teenager.
ELLIOTT: And you really enjoyed this. I can tell the way your face is lighting up.
MONDELLO: Well, it's rough to watch the other ones. This one was kind of a joy. This is about kids who win a national competition to be permitted to go to Miami for one week to work with people like dancer Jacques D'Amboise and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Michael Tilson Thomas is actually there for the musicians. It's an extraordinary opportunity for these kids. Let's listen to a clip.
(Soundbite of film, "Rehearsing a Dream")
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Hear how the wind begins to whisper.
Unidentified Woman #1: Really hear it. See it? Sweetie? Sweetie?
Unidentified Man #2: I'll be singing here and she'll stop me and say stop. And I won't even have sung, you know, two notes. I'm thinking, I haven't even started, how could I already be doing this wrong? But she knows.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) And we'll let it rain.
Unidentified Woman #1: Will you feel it.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) We'll not feel it. Then we'll let it rain.
Unidentified Woman #1: How will it rain?
Unidentified Man #2: Rain pell-mell.
MONDELLO: You get so into these kids who really want to be stars in a way. And you really get the impression that when they were in their own towns, that they were oddballs. They were kind of the geeky kids. And then suddenly here they're among family. There are all these other people that want to do the same thing they want to do. It kind of made me want to be 16 again. I mean, you know, you look at the wide-eyed excitement of these kids, you know, who are just starting out.
ELLIOTT: And you see the potential.
MONDELLO: Yeah, you really do.
ELLIOTT: Any predictions of which one might win? Do you do that, Bob?
MONDELLO: Oh gee, I guess - if I had to guess which of these was likeliest to win, it would be "The Blood of Yingzhou District" because...
ELLIOTT: It was a very powerful story.
MONDELLO: Yeah, it really is. That story about the kids who are orphaned through AIDS. But frankly, all four of them are quite extraordinary pictures and this is a good slate.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Bob Mondello. Thank you.
MONDELLO: It's my pleasure.
ROBERTS: You can watch parts of each Oscar nominated short documentary at npr.org. Debbie Elliott will return next week.