Intro: This post calls for a bit of explanation. Normally the documentaries seen on HBO’s Documentary Series are lengthy films that air one per week. This week’s entry however couples three unrelated films together. The reason being is that they each qualify as a Short Subject Documentary. MONDAYS IN RACINE totals 41 minutes, REDEMPTION takes 37 minutes and OPEN HEART also runs 41 minutes. Though they may be shorter films in length they are not short on content. What follows is my ‘gut reaction’ to each after I watched them in order on the premiere night of 10.14.
Overview: MONDAYS IN RACINE – The toll chemotherapy takes on a woman is physically exhausting, and can also be devastating to her identity. Many wake up with clumps of hair on their pillow, and without hair, one woman states, “You feel like you’re being erased.” This documentary spotlights an unusual salon that provides free beauty treatments – hair, makeup, manicures and pedicures – to cancer patients one Monday a month. The goal is to give these sufferers a sense of normalcy and support, and in doing so, combat the fear that accompanies the disease.
REDEMPTION – While employed New Yorkers pass by in a hurry on their way to and from work, “canners” eke out a meager living on the sidewalks of the city by collecting empty bottles and cans and dropping them at redemption centers for five cents each. Former short-order cooks, computer-sales executives and factory workers, these men and women turned to canning after the economic downturn eliminated their livelihoods. Amidst the ongoing debate over income disparity in America, REDEMPTION looks at this growing army of jobless New Yorkers, whose treasures are found in trash. Says one, “I guess it’s survival of the fittest,” a sentiment echoed in the words and actions of the men and women who struggle to get by on the tiny sums the redemption centers offer them. Many have canned for years and have no reason to remain hopeful, yet they are, rising each day to sift through the waste of the city and survive another day.
OPEN HEART – Heart disease is often associated with an unhealthy lifestyle in the West, but in Sub-Saharan Africa treatable maladies such as strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever that causes heart damage, especially in young children and teenagers. Though it is invasive, dangerous and prohibitively expensive, open heart surgery is almost always the only option to save their lives. OPEN HEART, spotlights an Italian cardiologist in Northern Sudan as he fights to save young patients who have traveled from Rwanda for this high-risk procedure. Given the critical condition of his patients the doctor is frequently skeptical about their chances of success, but with the help of his medical team, he presses on, hoping for the best. However, his worries extend beyond the operating room.
Expectations: MONDAYS IN RACINE – Well, I guess we are going to discover what transpires on that special Monday when the doors of Racine’s are open exclusively to cancer patients. Some questions I expect to have answered include finding out what inspirers the beauty salon owners to show this compassion; learn whether perhaps they are battling cancer at the time of filming themselves and certainly learn what kind of women take up the salon in their offer for the free pampering and how this special treatment helps them get through their day, their chemotherapy and their lives. It seems like a nice gesture indeed and I assume the compassion and positive attention given do matter to those who need it. I am sure it is this documentary’s mission to affirm just that.
REDEMPTION – I’m intrigued. You always hear that there are people living by whatever means necessary. You always hear about the homeless and their actions but not much about how they got that way or what they are doing about it. It appears that the people in this documentary are trying to do something about it, as opposed to just accepting it, one plastic bottle and pop can at a time. I’m not sure what tone this piece will exactly take, whether it is grim or hopeful, but since we have seen documentaries about the recently displaced souls, so this film needs to hold my attention. It has a good chance doing so as it is a 2013 Oscar nominee for Short Subject Documentary.
OPEN HEART – Take me into the hospital and into the OR. Take me into the world of these doctors and their patients. Prove to me that young lives are changed for the better; that these children are healing or healed. I hope and expect a positive outcome of this piece not the sadness of lives lost. The tone of the short preview, included here, does indicate an optimistic perspective. I guess that is hoped for when the story centers on children. For MONDAYS IN RACINE I didn’t expect a happy ending for everyone, it isn’t realistic, yet for OPEN HEART I do hope for that positive result. Only upon watching the documentary will I know if that is the case or not. Here is that promised clip.
Gut Reaction: MONDAYS IN RACINE – I was slightly off the mark going into this short film. Sometimes not going over the details before watching a documentary throws me off. Racine’s Beauty Salon and Spa is run by sisters Rachel Demolfetto and Cynthia Sansone in Islip, New York. Upon reading this documentary’s title I thought this piece took place in the city of Racine in the state of Washington. It is just a small error but, don’t worry, I made a bigger one. I expected this film to have the salon as its focal point, but it really isn’t. Within, the first few minutes of the film we have established what happens at the Racine’s and why the sisters give the free services they do. Well, at that pace no wonder the work is only 41 minutes long. What takes up the other 36 minutes? Why the rest of the footage focused its attention where it should be on the ill patrons of Racine’s. I should have expected that really. Just like the salon focuses on the ailing ladies who come in the documentary focuses on them as well. In the process it indirectly shows the benefit Racine’s has on these women. So, the story takes us outside the salon and into the lives of the afflicted, mainly Cambria and Linda. We see them getting chemo, or having a hard talk with the doctor and also at home trying their best to deal with the disease and be with family. How cancer has affected their lives is important to see for it helps us compare what the ladies are like in and out of Racine’s. Of course, as a documentary will unblinkingly do, it will show you the good and the bad. The good is clearly the efforts of Racine’s. It is small acts of kindness that make the world better as a whole.
REDEMPTION – Yes, it ended up holding my attention. But, if it had gone over its 37 minutes it might not have. I am left with a couple of thoughts after watching it. I don’t think they were thoughts the documentary meant me to have. First, is the film’s title itself, REDEMPTION. It is a noun that means the process of finding value, purpose or repurpose for something. Clearly, in this context it means repurposing the bottle or can by recycling it and placing a small monetary value on it. But to me, in watching this work, it also means applying those values not to the plastic objects but to the person. These ‘canners’ are taking it as a job to provide for themselves and/or their family. They are continuing to have some sense of purpose and cleaning the streets in the process. They are struggling to still be of value. They are being redeemed alongside the recycled trash.
My next thought, again not an expected one, is one of disgust and not with the people shown here actually. Now, I am a rural small town boy who has heard of people living this way but never witnessed it. Of course, you would expect if this type of survival had to happen it would happen in New York City. The necessity of people living this way disgusts me and upon seeing it the thought crossed my mind of “Why do people love to live in this city?” It left me with the unintended dislike of city life.
Lastly, I must say that I was somewhat surprised by the tone of this piece. There were some moments of distress and hardship expressed but the majority of the people filmed (and maybe it was because they were filmed) was rather upbeat. They were jovial, conversational, caring and actually acting like they were having a good day. Good for them! They are out there trying to survive and doing it the hard way five cents at a time. More power to them.
OPEN HEART – Ouch, that was a heart-breaker. I sweated it out thinking that the realistic notion that all eight of these children would survive the process was scary. Stating that should not ruin anyone’s viewing of this documentary for it is made clear that this high-risk medical experience does not always end in a good way. What we see here does. The children are bright and, though naturally afraid, show great strength to endure in the long run. OPEN HEART offers an amazing story of these beautiful children (like Angelique, pictured) and the journey they must take to be well. You can only hope other children get the same opportunity and outcome.
Kudos to the Italian staff of the cardiac center in Sudan and the Rwandan doctor; their open heart to help the infirm is what being a doctor should be about. This documentary helps to reaffirm that there are good people out there doing good things. The tone of this film could have been so different. Though frustrations, fears and concerns were mentioned they did not dominate the work and imprint those feelings onto the viewer. You end up feeling hopeful for the patients and the future ones to come and proud of the medical staff that invest their lives to this cause.
In Conclusion: All three of these films were nominees for this year’s Documentary Short Subject Oscar and it is clear to me why they held that distinction tough I watched them all in order there are opportunities for those interested to check them out one at a time. They all appear on HBOGo & HBO2. MONDAYS IN RACINE also airs on HBO on 10.18 at 11:30am, 10.20 at 1:30pm, 10.21 at 5:3pm and 10.26 at 4:15pm. REDEMPTION can be seen on HBO on 10.19 at 7:55am, 10.22 at 1:15pm, 10.24 at 7:35 am and 10.26 at 2:00 pm. OPEN HEART’s additional HBO play dates are: 10.17 at 4:30pm, 10.19 at 5:30pm, 10.23 at 8:00am and 10.27 at 1:30pm.
It I had to pick one out of the three that I enjoyed the most I would lean towards OPEN HEART. It impacted me the most emotionally, probably because it had lovely yet ill children involved, plus the fact that it showed humanity making a difference. I liked that. If you are interested in documentaries and can’t get into a full-length one than maybe a Documentary Short like the three offered here would be more suitable. They all are worthy of your attention. I also hope HBO continues showing the shortened variety of documentaries more often. Let me know which one you liked in the comments below and come back for next week’s review as we continue the Fall Documentary Series. The next entry is previewed in the following clip.