Thanks to the historic Texas Theatre, what is normally a gap in my annual movie-going experience has been filled. The documentary shorts category is especially difficult to program for both theatres and cable channels. Run times are typically around 40 minutes, and the subject matter is not always the most uplifting in nature. The Oscar nominated group this year includes the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Yemen’s uprising, a violent hate crime, a terminally ill prisoner, and a cantankerous artist who avoids most interaction with people. Not exactly a festive day at the theatre!
Despite the subject matter, documentary shorts are an exceptionally interesting genre because they must quickly capture our interest with a person or topic, and then provide enough depth that we feel the need to discuss or think about it long after the short run time has finished. Oh, and the filmmaker is usually working with a miniscule budget, often handling the camera and editing, and most any other detail with very little help. It’s truly a genre of passion not profit.
These are not my Oscar predictions (coming in a couple of days), but rather a brief recap of each in the order of my preference – starting with my favorite.
LADY IN NUMBER 6
Filmmaker Malcolm Clarke wonderfully captures the spirit of the oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer. She was 109 during filming and she happily passes on the joy she finds in every day life, despite a most cruel and unusual past. Alice’s parents were friends with Franz Kafka in Prague, and as a little girl, she would listen to the stories he told. Her remarkable prowess on the piano led her to a remarkable career as a performer, but more importantly saved her life at Theresienstadt concentration camp. Alice Herz-Sommer passed away the day after her story so inspired me. She was 110.
KARAMA HAS NO WALLS (Czech)
The 2011 uprising/revolution in Yemen is seen up close through the lens of two cameramen (and director Sara Ishaq) right in the middle of the peaceful demonstration-turned-violent attack. When the soldiers, snipers and thugs begin attacking the civilians, we see people die in the streets. We see their friends carry bodies away. The attack resulted in 53 deaths and numerous injuries. It’s incredibly discomforting to watch, especially on the heels of the Oscar nominated feature documentary The Square, which details the similar uprising in Egypt. Kamara (Dignity) indeed.
PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL
This is a very unique story that takes place within the walls of Iowa State Penitentiary, one of the countries maximum security prison. It’s not unusual for “lifers” to die in prison, but what is unusual is a hospice wing funded by private donations and staffed by many volunteer prisoners. We see this in action by following war hero turned convicted murderer Jack Hall. The film gives an overview of how prison hospice can provide a dignified death, and we see this through an extremely close and personal vigil of Mr. Hall through the lens of director Edgar Barens.
What may be the most incredible story and coincidence (destiny??) of any of the nominees, this film tells how the lives of Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger collided not once, but twice. A very young Mr. Boger was kicked out of his house by his mother. She refused to have a gay son living under her roof. A few years later, Mr. Zaal and his band of neo-Nazi skin-heads chased down a random gay man (Mr. Boger) on the streets of L.A. simply to beat him to death. By pure coincidence (or was it?), the two cross paths again in the museum where Mr. Boger works. As a reformed hate crime zealot, Mr. Zaal is the scheduled speaker of the day. Director Jason Cohen captures this story of reformation, redemption, forgiveness and too many other emotions to name.
Ra Paulette is not a particularly likeable guy. But he cares little what you think. His artistry lies in his unusual ability to dig caves into the hills and mountains, creating spectacular living spaces. In an all too familiar story line, this artist is one of the worst businessmen you have ever seen. Since he can’t estimate his work or take direction from his clients, his jobs often get cut short and left unfinished. In his constant search for his Magnum Opus, he leaves friends and a wife in the piles of rubble he pulls out of the earth. Despite his best efforts, director Jeffrey Karoff can’t make us like Mr. Paulette, no matter how much we marvel at his talent.
**NOTE: If you are interested in learning a bit more about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, then please go to this link and read NPR’s article. The link also takes you to the trailer for The Lady in Number 6, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/24/281965889/oldest-known-holocaust-survivor-dies-pianist-was-110