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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts (86th Academy Awards) review

facingfear

There is a single thread running through these shorts, and it is deeply existential and irreducibly personal: How do we save ourselves?
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There is a single thread running through all the Oscar-nominated short documentaries this year, and it is a deceptively simple question with no one simple answer, and not even one simple definition as a question. But it is deeply existential and irreducibly personal: How do we save ourselves? “Saving ourselves” will mean something different to everyone, with a different degree of urgency. It may encompass what we consider to be the core of our beings… or even the mere posing of the question may help us define who we consider ourselves to be. It would be remarkable if any of the definitions and answers in this stories coincided with your own. But I suspect you will find something provocative in all of them.

The theatrical presentation of the documentary shorts is divided into two programs.

Program A:

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” [IMDb] [watch online outside North America], from English filmmaker Malcolm Clarke (written with Carl Freed) introduces us to a woman who believes she is “the luckiest person alive.” And not, it seems, because, at 109 sprightly years, Alice Herz Sommer is the oldest Holocaust survivor on the planet, but because her life has been filled with music. Her story — from a childhood among intellectuals in pre-WWI Prague to how music in a Nazi concentration camp helped her endure to her “century at the keyboard” as a pianist and teacher — is remarkable. Her incredibly optimistic and positive outlook on life is rejuvenating, even to the relative youngster that I am. A wonderfully cheering little movie.

“Karama Has No Walls” [IMDb], from Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq, is a startling look at events in the Yemeni capital Sana’a in March 2011, when 53 Arab Spring protesters were shot to death by government forces. This is a personal film, though, not a political one, told mostly through the footage of two cameramen who have dedicated themselves to the cause of freedom, justice and democracy. An excellent bookend to the Egyptian documentary The Square.

“Facing Fear” [IMDb], from American filmmaker Jason Cohen, is a haunting and hopeful document of the unlikely partnership between former neo Nazi Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger, who had been badly beaten by Zaal and his friends when the teenaged Boger was living on the streets of Hollywood, having been thrown out by his religious mother for being gay. Now in their 40s, they have forged an accidental re-meeting and their horrific past connection into an object lesson for others about the possibility of forgiveness, and a warning about how difficult it can be to escape one’s past. I got chills listening to these men tell their painful stories; this is the most powerful and profound film of the five nominees. I think it may win the Oscar.

Program B:

“CaveDigger” [IMDb] [available on demand via Vimeo], by American filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff, is a portrait of environment artist Ra Paulette. “A digger of caves and a piler of rocks,” he sculpts breathtakingly gorgeous spaces into the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico, often working for minimal pay, far less than an artist should expect… and almost always ending up in battles with his patrons, whose land he is typically working on commission. Intensely driven by his own vision, Raulette is unwilling to take direction: is he unreasonably inflexible, or channeling an inspiration only he can see and cannot deny? (He does say, “Sometimes I feel more like an archeologist uncovering something that is already there.”) This is certainly the most beautiful-looking of the nominees, which might give it an edge.

“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” [IMDb] [debuts on HBO March 31st], from American filmmaker Edgar Barens, takes us inside maximum security Iowa State Penitentiary, and inside its onsite, inmate-run hospice for terminally ill prisoners. WWII vet and former POW Jack Hall is serving life for murder — a crime, it is hinted, that might have been a result of then-undiagnosed PTSD — and now he’s dying. “Why don’t you just shoot me and get it over with?” he jokes-but-not-really. Some will find this a challenge — do convicted murderers deserve dignity while dying? — yet but I was deeply moved by Barens’ gentle appreciation of how compassion and change are not locked out of the “cold place” that prison is, as another inmate calls it.


see the official site for showtimes and locations across the U.S. and Canada


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  • David C-D

    I really appreciate all your reviews of these Oscar-nominated shorts, most of which I would never have heard of otherwise.

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