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Ranking The Oscar Shorts: Documentary

This Friday January 31st, many in the U.S. were be given their first chance to see this year’s Oscar nominated shorts. For those that are Oscar completists, you truly aren’t done until you sit down and watch these short films from the Animated, Live Action and Documentary realms.

They feature some of the very best and creative work you’ll see, in bite size chunks. There’s familiar names, but mostly, these are fresh faces, voices seething with vibrant creativity, and waiting to be discovered.

If that didn’t get you pumped, then check out this sneak peek. To find out if the Oscar nominated shorts are playing near you, please refer to Shorts.TV. If they’re out of reach, don’t fret: the shorts are also available on Amazon, iTunes and many On-Demand services, so they are only as far away as the remote.

Because each program is wholly different, and since they’re nominated separately, I’ve decided to rank each group of shorts separately from one another, with each mini reviews in different fashion. Now up: the Documentary Short film nominees! You can find my thoughts on the Live Action program here, and my praise for the Live Action pieces is coming.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT NOMINEES

Because the Documentary shorts are all longer than the live action or animated shorts, they are split into two separate programs. So, you’d have to buy a ticket for each separately at the theatre. Rest assured, they’re both worth it, and each about the length of a feature length movie. Since ranking these documentary seems antithetical to what all of these documentaries are about, and honestly, I don’t know if I could pick a favorite, since they’re all gut-wrenching and powerful in their own way, I’m just going to discuss each by program order. So the conceit for this one: no conceit. Lazy? Maybe, but it feels right.

Documentary Program A

Estimated Running Time: 97 minutes 

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (Directors: Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, Canada/USA/UK – English)

In her London apartment, at 10 AM every day, 109 year old Alice Herz Sommer gets up and starts playing the piano. That’s incredible enough… but you’ve just met the world’s oldest pianist and its oldest Holocaust survivor, brimming with wisdom and essentially a piece of living history. She still has her wits and health about her, and it’s clear that her unrivaled love of music is the reason why. She grew up in Prague surrounded by intellectuals like Franz Kafka and Arthur Schnabel, and it clearly rubbed off on her. This led to a long and fabled career in the arts until 1939.

When the Holocaust hit, Alice was separated from her husband, but was able to stay with her son Rafael. They were sent to Reichenstag, a camp where Jewish artists were used as propaganda tools to show that the concentration camps weren’t suffocating death and despair. For the duration of her imprisonment, Alice played classical music, hundreds of times over (each piece solely from memory), displaying strength and dignity to her fellow impassioned survivors, including Zderka and Rafi, two women who still visit her daily in room #6.

When you come across someone with so much life experience, and with so much to say, you sit down and take notice. That’s what The Lady in Number 6 does, as Alice churns out inspirational turn of phrase one after another, and you have to treat it like it’s the gospel truth. She’s played music for over 100 years, but she’s still not satisfied. She can always get better,  and “when you love something, work work work.” To her, music is God, a sort of religion, a bastion of hope. I couldn’t help but wish anything in life felt that important to me; we’d all be so lucky to have an ounce of her discipline and work ethic. It’s astounding. Her unwavering positive outlook on life may be as responsible for her prolonged existence: “Even the bad is beautiful, you just have to know where to look.” Her friends share the same optimism, with Rafi making no excuses for her life: it depends solely on her if her life is good enough, a stunning statement from someone who was taken from her life and thrown into a concentration camp.

The Lady in Number 6 is practically dripping with take aways, but the message that “calm is strength” and the unparalleled example that Alice and these women set will stay with you long after the credits. It’s a fascinating portrait of survival and perseverance.

GRADE: A-

“Karama Has No Walls” (Director: Sara Ishaq, UAE/UK/Yemen – Arabic)

The revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Libya grab(bed) all of the headlines but Karama Has No Walls provides a snapshot of another country’s journey to independence and democracy: Yemen’s. After watching, you’ll never laugh at this episode of Friends again.

In 2011, after Mubarak finally stepped down in Egypt, the foment of revolution in Yemen built momentum. After 33 years of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reign, students and youths demanded democracy. In what became known as the “change square, ” located in the country’s capital of Sanaa, protesters gathered in a burgeoning tent city for a sit-in demonstration against Ali. The government responded by building walls around the protesters, then setting fire to them and many of their hopes by responding in brutal violence, killing 53 innocent people.

Karama Has No Walls intersperses stunning, actual footage from the events of March 2011 with heartbreaking interviews from the cameramen who provided it: Nasir (who is 17!) and Khaled (23), along with two stricken fathers. One is the father of Anwar, a student killed by snipers, and the other is the father of an 11 year old boy who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is now blind because of it. If you’re not tearing up when Anwar’s father describes identifying his son’s body… you should get your eyes checked. Stunningly, both Nasir and Khaled continue to operate cameras to this day, to chronicle the revolution and the new dawn in Yemen. Their bravery, and their bewilderment at the army and security forces ganging up on their fellow citizens during a peaceful protest, is stomach curdling. This documentary showcases the power that journalism can still possess (like an episode of Newsroom).

This particular Friday March 18th was Juma’at El-Karama, the Friday of Dignity, and because their government showed none of it, the rest of the country rallied behind the revolution. In November 2011, Ali stepped down, ushering in a new age for Yemen, at long last. Karama Has No Walls provides its necessary, concise back story, while simultaneously imploring you to grab a camera and capture your story, your injustices.

GRADE: A

“Facing Fear” (Director: Jason Cohen, USA/English)

As in The Lady in Number 6, the stunning capacity for humans to forgive is again evidenced by Facing Fear. Matthew Boger, now 46, was kicked out of his home by his mother for being gay. He was 13 years old. Now homeless, he moved to LA. Tim Zaal (48) grew up in the white washed suburb of San Gabriel, and was hateful: his anger, fear and violent nature attracted him to punk rock concerts, and soon he joined a neo-Nazi group, to fight. One night, Tim and his friends nearly beat a 13 year old kid to death for being different. That kid was Matthew.

25 years later, a now reformed Tim Zaal came to speak at the Museum of Tolerance in LA to tell his story. In a what-the-%&@$ moment of divine coincidence, Matthew works there, and they instinctively knew immediately the unfortunate shared history between them. Somehow, Matthew managed to stomach Tim’s presence, and the pair began to work together, delivering inspirational speeches about their unique and troubled story. In a way, it was therapy for the both of them, allowing Tim to forgive himself in a way he never thought possible, and Matthew to forgive Tim, and by proxy, his mother. It’s a gripping story of bullying and what comes AFTER (or what can), and inspiring proof of how resilient people can be, and the ability we all have to change. Matthew’s capacity for forgiveness puts any and all squabbles in your life in its proper perspective.

It’s clear that the specter of Matthew’s mother still looms large over Matthew (and who could blame him?), and I wanted to know MORE. Did he try to track her down? Did the filmmaker? It’s likely for the best to keep the focus on Tim and Matthew’s relationship, but it still felt like a loose end of sorts. I also thought it was a lost opportunity not to interview Matthew and Tim together at the end, even if the separate interviews preceding it is a stunningly effective way to structure the documentary.

GRADE: A-

Documentary Program B

Estimated Running Time: 87 minutes 

“Cavedigger” (Director Jeffrey Karoff, USA/English)

Ra Paulette is, in his own words, “a digger of caves, a piler of rocks,” and has been going at it for 25 years in northern New Mexico. Like Alice and her music, Ra is absolutely taken with digging. He’s no engineer, operating solely by intuition. This mercurial, stubborn and (maybe) brilliant man is now 64, providing perspective on his life and accomplishments in this documentary. I don’t think “cavedigger” properly describes what it is that Ra does. Ra is an artist, capable of turning virgin rock and sandstone into monuments to nature, wide-open and transformative living spaces that are a testament to his unique vision and passion. While they’re indescribably incredible, his unwavering vision and passion is exactly what may shape his legacy. Badly. Throughout the doc, we meet a few of his clients, including his ex-girlfriend Liz and her husband Shel, to his jilted wife Paula. Except for his first job with Liz and Shel, he’s never completed another cave to his satisfaction, or (perhaps more importantly) to his patrons, due to difference in opinion. Ra only answers to one person, and that’s Ra.

Ra is a fascinating figure: he’s well aware of his infuriating faults (“this is who I am”), admitting that he never grew up, that his obsession has been hard on Paula, but isn’t going to change. Paula is ready to be more than the cavedigger’s wife, but is busy, hopelessly providing for them, as Ra undertakes his last cave, his so-called magnum opus. When “Paula’s Cave” (a name that clearly ticks Paula off) suffers a disastrous cave-in (that Ra was lucky to survive), it’s clear that there will always be another cave.

The VERY NEXT DAY, Ra started on Magnum Opus 2, with a plan that may call for 10 years of work (he began in 2010). I’m in utter awe of his commitment and the shape he’s in for his age (he does it all by HAND), but cringe at the thought. In spite of everything that is wrong about it, I couldn’t help but hope he achieves his Magnum Opus. While all of these documentaries put the spotlight on controversy and difficult topics, there might not be a more divisive person than Ra, and I like a documentary that lets you make your own conclusions, while showing all sides of the argument. It’s not as important or life-changing as the Holocaust or Yemen, nor should it be, but it’s also more universal: there’s something undeniably frustrating about Ra, but Paula and we as an audience just can’t quit him.

GRADE: A-

“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” (Director: Edgar Barens, USA/English)

If you want something that perfectly encapsulates the problems with the U.S. government, take a gander at its prisons. The U.S. prison system is a mess. It’s overcrowded, it’s expensive and it’s not really helping. Don’t worry, Prison Terminal doesn’t flood you with politics: it merely provides a glimpse into the last few days of one Private Jack Hall in a maximum security prison. Jack Hall received several medals of valor for his service during WWII, where he managed to survive a stint as a POW in a German prison.

He was never the same after that, and his life never got easier. His son got hooked on dope and killed himself. Jack overheard his son’s drug dealer brag about how he made his living… so Jack made sure he no longer could, murdering the man. When he returned from the war, he couldn’t shake the dictum that if someone treated you wrong, you killed them. Now 82, Jack’s still haunted by his actions, and by the war, but knows how wrong it all was. In Prison Terminal, he’s taken into the Iowa State Penitentiary hospice care, on the brink of this mortal coil. The program started in 2005 (sprung from donations; no tax dollars here), and this documentary was filmed a year later, showcasing the benefits that such a program can have (a whopping 20% of the prison population is elderly).

Jack used to be a racist, but his fellow prison inmates opened his eyes. Ignoring the man’s previous prejudice, Glover, Herky and Love, three inmate volunteers  who care for Jack with grace, dignity and love befitting the latter man’s name, have helped transform Jack. When Jack tells Herky that he loves him, Herky loves him back. Jack’s also had a chance to mend and build a relationship with his other son Don. This is all thanks to the hospice care and its volunteers, and the infirmary cell he’s lived in over the past 12 years, after a heart attack gave him chronic pneumonia.

Jack’s a murderer, but he’s done his time, and nobody deserves to die alone, and this hospice gave Jack the chance to spend his last moments with his son, friends and fellow inmates. For Herky, volunteering in the hospice program changed his life, allowing him the chance to give back, to help, to give his life a meaning he didn’t think possible. We know he also changed Jack’s life, thanks to stirring documentary.

Prison Terminal is airing on HBO on March 31st at 8 PM. I highly recommend you all check it out.

GRADE: A

WRONG OSCAR PREDICTION

Oof. Every entry is worthy. There’s a controversial political topic (prisons), a perpetual Academy hot button (Holocaust), an eye-opening, inspiring tale of rebellion (Karama Has No Walls), and a ripped from the headlines tale of forgiveness on the subject of bullying, hate crimes and the triumphant wellspring of tolerance that followed (Facing Fear). And a crazy dude who builds caves. I think it’ll be director Sara Ishaq walking away with the statue for Karama Has No Walls, thanks to Nasir and Khaled’s footage and fearlessness. I don’t think it can be ignored.