Stories of survival, forgiveness and artistry highlight Oscar's documentary short subject race

Posted by · 8:20 am · January 27th, 2014

This year’s documentary short subject Oscar race is a varied blend of profiles with a harrowing eye-witness account added for good measure. They tell stories of Holocaust survivors and earthworks artists, forgiveness, compassion and solidarity. It’s a pretty strong assortment for voters to choose from with no clear winner from afar.

Like the other short categories, the full Academy membership will be receiving DVD screeners of all the contenders in this race, and therefore, the ballot is open to any and all who would like to vote. Unlike the animated shorts category, where recognizable studio-backed entries can find an advantage, or the live action short film category, where well-known actors can give this or that film an edge, the documentary shorts rarely feature such built-in angles on winning the race. It boils down to the movies themselves, the stories they tell, the characters they reveal and the combined impact on the viewer.

To expand on that, what’s exciting about this annual race is that you can’t really look at the history of the category and say a certain kind of documentary tends to win. Profiles of children in some state of disprivilege pop up frequently enough, but for the most part, it’s a cornucopia of subjects and topics. And this year provides something for everyone.

Sara Ishaq’s “Karama Has No Walls” is the most immediate of the lot, an on-the-ground account of how the Yemeni Revolution turned bloody in the city of Sana’a. Protesters demanding a change in government from President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 30-year rule did so peacefully in the streets, pitching tents and sitting-in with solidarity until pro-government snipers tore through the crowd on “the Friday of Karama (dignity),” killing 53 and injuring thousands. The film ultimately views this event through the eyes of those who lost loved ones, finding emotional notes as it soberly moves through the carnage. It’s a film with its share of harrowing images and, like a lot of journalism of this sort, a wonder for its sheer existence.

(Side note: “Karama Has No Walls” would be well-served in a double-bill with documentary feature nominee “The Square,” which tells another story of the Arab Spring from the heart of the Egyptian Revolution.)

Moving into the profiles, we have “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” One could take the cynical route of “Holocaust-related material always does well at the Oscars” and chalk this one up for the win, as it reveals the impact music has had on the life of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, 109-year-old Alice Herz-Somme. Using the still-lively subject as a hub for others’ stories from concentration camps, the film continuously settles on Alice’s sense of forgiveness for her wrong-doers and how playing the piano both literally (as it gave her a purpose for the Nazis) and figuratively (preserving her sanity amid ruin) saved her life. Director Malcolme Clarke is a previous winner in this category, by the way (1988’s “You Don’t Have to Die”), and former nominee for the 2002 feature documentary “Prisoner of Paradise” as well.

HBO’s “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” is a wholly different account of incarceration. A former WWII POW who was convicted of murder and served the rest of his life behind bars, Jack Hall is a cantankerous sort with an unfortunate story. The film doesn’t linger on the murder beyond Hall’s pronouncement that his victim – a dealer who brought drugs into his son’s life, leading to his suicide – was one day bragging about how much money he made “and he didn’t make no more…I stopped him.” Instead, director Edgar Barens follows Hall’s dwindling days (indeed, capturing his final breath) and the inmates who serve as his hospice caretakers, capturing the bonds formed through such unique relationships. Barens’ story is interesting, too, cashing out his retirement fund to buy the camera, struggling to finance the film’s completion (it was shot in 2006). At just over 40 minutes, “Prison Terminal” is the longest of this year’s nominees.

The most visually captivating of the bunch would have to be Jeffrey Karoff’s “Cavedigger.” Of course, the director is fortunate in that he has so many pretty things to point his camera at: the gorgeous earthworks carvings and constructions of cave digger Ra Paulette. Paulette’s creations are immaculate, abodes fit for Gods chiseled from New Mexico sandstone. And the film finds some interesting material in showcasing how the demands of those who commission such work can clash with the fancies of an artist, from Michelangelo and the cardinals of Rome to Paulette and his sometimes eccentric clients today. Paulette’s is a story of the consummate dreamer, and how the life of an artist can sometimes make for hardship at home.

Finally, there is Jason Cohen’s “Facing Fear,” very modest in scale compared to the other nominated films but no less powerful in its message. We learn two diametrically opposed stories of youth, of 13-year-old Matthew Boger thrown out of his house for being gay and forced to find his way on the streets of Hollywood, and of ne’er-do-well Tim Zaal finding comfort in rage-fueled punk clubs and Mohawked gang life. Their worlds collided one night when Zaal’s crew beat Boger near to death, and again years later, with Zaal reformed and telling his story to a group at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance…where Boger just so happened to be an employee. Today, against all odds, they are friends who trust each other with their lives and give presentations at the museum together. It’s all movingly, unassumingly captured by Cohen, an important piece of work in the line-up.

I could honestly see any of these five films winning the award, with “Cavedigger” perhaps being the outlier given that it doesn’t boast the same emotional tug as the others. My instinct is “The Lady in Number 6” for its refinement of craft, but it could just as easily be “Karama Has No Walls.” Each of these documentaries tells a story that will draw viewers in, so it will be interesting to see which one penetrates the most.

The nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject will be released in theaters as part of Shorts HD and Magnolia Pictures’ annual Oscar Nominated Shorts showcase on Jan. 31. They arrive on VOD Feb. 25.

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