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Oscar Review: THE DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

Docs splash

by on February 11, 2014

If you thought the live-action shorts were a downer, wait until you see the documentary shorts! The Academy must certainly have a masochistic streak when it comes to their short categories, for the live-action categories rarely include even the remotest hint of levity. This year’s crop of live-action shorts included a boy with cancer, a child soldier, a rape, and an abusive household. The documentaries up the ante even further with tales of death, violent revolution, a history of violence, and – natch – The Holocaust.

This is not to say that the documentary shorts (being released on a limited basis on February 14th) are bad films. Indeed, they are all poignant and – with the exception of one – well constructed. But they are something of an emotional gauntlet. But that’s why I’m here, dear readers: to endure the brunt, and to report on my findings. If you have the fortitude, I encourage you to consume these films in what is an oft-overlooked and rarely-discussed form.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Cave Digger (dir. Jeffrey Karoff, USA)

Cave Digger

Ra Paulette has a curious artistic M.O. He travels around remote areas of New Mexico, looking for large standstone hills and mountains, and spends a long time – sometimes years – burrowing into them, creating entire artistic spaces, with swirling walls, mirrors, and playful uses of the infiltrating light. While he is sometimes commissioned, this activity is more of a compulsion, a compulsion that alienated several people in his life. Cave Digger is perhaps the lightest of the doc shorts, featuring eccentrics (however dour). It’s a bit of a trifle, but never boring.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (dir. Edgar Barrens)

Prison Terminal

Wrenching and difficult, Prison Terminal tells the tale of Jack Hall, a decrepit man wasting to death – literally – inside one of America’s oldest maximum security prisons. This is a poignant and obscenely tear-jerking portrait of prison life, showing the audience what “life in prison” really means. Can dignity be maintained in such a situation? Powerful, moving, and perhaps too sad to even be judged properly, Prison Terminal is an emotional gutpunch.

Karama Has No Walls (dir. Sara Ishaq)

Karama

While the Yemeni revolution of 2011 was – socially and politically speaking – an important event in Middle Eastern politics, Karama Has No Walls is perhaps a sloppy way of telling that story. True, we do get to hear testimonials from the sitters-in, who were eventually savaged despite their non-violence, but this film sweeps by too briskly, and doesn’t give us ignorant Americans enough context to perhaps truly appreciate the magnitude of the revolution’s success, or the depths of the governments crimes. The content of the film is staggeringly important, but the form was a little shaky.

Facing Fear (dir. Jason Cohen)

Facing Fear

Easily my favorite of this year’s crop, Facing Fear sounds like an afterschool special, but is actually a rather optimistic view of human nature, and our capacity for both forgiveness and redemption. It’s about a fellow named Matthew Boger, a gay man kicked out of his house at age 13, and eventually beaten savagely by a gang of passing Skinheads. It’s also about Tim Zaal, one of the very Skinheads who beat him 25 years earlier. Now older and wiser, the two men – at the Museum of Tolerance, no less! – strike up an uneasy relationship, trying to suss out what the crime meant, and if Zaal can be forgiven. Is there animosity? Perhaps less than most of us would feel.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (dir. Malcolm Clarke)

Lady in Number 6

Alice Herz-Sommer, at age 109 (!), is the world’s oldest surviving Holocaust survivor, but, more importantly, she’s also a kindly old lady, and one heck of a pianist. Her stories of survival are amazing and awe-inspiring, and you get to see how literally music did save her life decades previous. The ultimate lesson one can take from the film is, I think, that you need to talk to your elders a lot more. Talk to your grandparents. They have some amazing stories, and they just may surprise you.