Albert Einstein once said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” Good documentaries give us the opportunity to do just that, experience life from very different perspectives and understand the depths of human strength. As an upper-middle-class, educated and healthy University student, I know that awful things occur in the world. But before watching the 2013 Oscar-nominated short documentaries, I never would’ve known what it’s like to be a homeless teenage artist, an 85-year-old slowly accepting the inevitability of death or a mother diagnosed with breast cancer facing the loss of her femininity and sense of beauty.

Now, I almost understand. This year the Michigan Theatre is airing the five nominated documentaries in two parts, dividing up a program that would have lasted almost four hours.

“Part A” began with “Kings Point,” a film that looked at elderly people (mainly former New Yorkers) who live in a Florida retirement community, where they act cranky and play mahjong. Although the premise seems amusing, the film shows the loneliness and disconnection that comes with old age.

This film harshly contradicts the image of old people living it up Florida, so often perpetuated in advertising. (Apparently, retirement ain’t one big ol’ party, Taco Bell.) Instead, growing old without your loved ones can be dismal and lonely. “Kings” eloquently proves the fine line between independence and solitude.

Perhaps in an attempt to emotionally wound the entire theater, “Mondays at Racine” followed “Kings,” a look at women with aggressive cancer as they lose their hair, and with it some sense of their own womanhood. It chronicles Cynthia and Rachel, sister hairdressers in Long Island, who reserve one day every month to give free beauty care to these cancer sufferers.

Cancer stories are unfortunately common in our society, but rarely do we get to see the real pain and loss cancer sufferers feel — what we get are stoic, strong individuals heroically rising above their pain. “Mondays at Racine” finds tragic beauty in the real breakdowns of these women, and its effects strike a cord.

I fortunately am not close to anyone who has had cancer, but watching Cambria, a young mother of two, shave her head was nothing short of sorrowful. She isn’t defiant. She doesn’t tout the overdone power anthems of cancer victims. She quietly cries, accepting her loss in a way that transcends the “normal” cancer conventions. This film does just that, cuts away cancer tropes to identify the core emotion of these women.

“Part A” rounded out with “Inocente,” an intensely personal and luminous look at a colorful, radiant young artist (named Inocente), who also happens to be homeless. Her story is told through the canvasses of her fantastical and incandescent paintings.

This underdog tale is told with careful fragility and weight, focusing just as much on Inocente’s tragic past as her inspiring future. The visuals are stunning, contrasting the protagonist’s neon art and bright face with the decrepit areas in which she is forced to live. Tears are entirely justified, as was the resounding applause that filled the audience as Inocente’s laughing face faded from the screen.

“Part B” features two films, “Redemption” and “Open Heart,” both of which kept up with the theme of showcasing the breadth of human strength.

“Redemption” followed New Yorkers (both native and immigrant) who, because of the economy and layoffs, are forced to collect cans from the street in order to make a living. The film meanders, not identifying with the canners until the second half, when we see them all huddled together at the redeeming site — a sad family of people better than its current condition.

This film forces you to really consider the value of money and the useless things we buy. A two-dollar cup of tea from Espresso Royale is a bagful of 40 cans, an hour of digging through garbage. Though thought provoking, “Redemption” is the bleakest of the five, as it offers no hope of improvement or any real redemption.

“Open Heart” seems the most conventional of documentaries; it follows Rwandan children as they travel thousands of miles to receive necessary heart surgeries. Keywords: Africa, children, life-threatening disease. But “Heart” finds its own heart not in unfortunate backstories, but in the suspenseful joy of discovering what perils and successes follow these endearing kids.

Thousands of kids in Africa are diagnosed every year with rheumatic heart disease, an illness that has been eradicated from most developed countries. Eight of those afflicted children are specifically chosen to fly 2,500 miles from their villages in Rwanda to the Salam Center in Sudan, the only cardiovascular surgery hospital on the continent.

There they undergo intensive surgery, get a visit from Sudanese president (dictator) Omar al-Bashir and easily win our affections. “Open Heart” deftly shows the pain that comes with being a sick child and the harder feelings of inadequacy being a parent of that child, but it never loses its hope or its joy.

These films are at times too powerful; watching five heartbreaking stories in succession makes for an emotionally draining evening. However, they all have something to say about the human condition. These short documentaries tell their messages with simplicity and passion, so that everyone can understand.

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