Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts: 2013

This year's five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are all fair but forgettable (and, as ever, interrupted by Shorts HD with needless and unenlightening interviews with previous nominees). From worst to best:

The exceedingly minor "Cavedigger," about Ra Paulette, a self-styled artist who digs and decorates caves out of a pliable form of sandstone found only in the deserts of New Mexico. As impressive as his creations are his intuitive sense of how far he can dig safely and his respect for the earth and for others.

"Facing Fear," about Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal. As a gay youth surviving on the streets of Hollywood, Boger was beaten to within an inch of his life by a gang of skinhead punks led by Zaal (whose bootprint remains clearly etched on Boger's face). Decades later, Zaal has reformed and comes to speak at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance, where he meets the director: Boger. They slowly recognize each other, Boger forgives Zaal, and they become unlikely friends.

"Karama Has No Walls," which consists mostly of on-the-ground footage of the uprising in Yemen as part of the Arab Spring and the merciless crackdown in response by the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. There's an immediacy to this short, even though we're not always certain what exactly we're seeing.

"The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life," about Alice Herz Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor, whose piano virtuosity likely saved her life at Theresienstadt. Sommer credits her longevity to music, relentless optimism, and equanimity: "Calmness is strength." It's amazing to hear her recount onerous tribulations with gratitude for the lessons they taught her and the perspective they gave her.

I'd cast my notional ballot for "The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," about a decorated serviceman serving life in an Iowa prison for murdering the drug dealer who sold to his son (who died of an overdose). "He was bragging about how he made his money. He didn't brag no more." When pneumonia leaves Hall with weeks to live, he's moved into an innovative, privately funded prison hospice staffed by lifers (who find a new sense of purpose) and overseen by a sympathetic head nurse. I'd select this short because it highlights the problem of what to do with the fast-growing number of sick and elderly prison inmates.

Oscar pool prediction: Voters in this category seem to want the winning subject to come onstage, so look for "Cavedigger," "Facing Fear," or, if she's sufficiently ambulatory, the profile of Sommer.

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