Ranging from starkly sad to awe-inspiring, this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated short documentary films pulls the viewer in five distinctly different directions.
By the way, don’t take the term “short” too literally. All told, these films add up to 167 minutes of running time. Luckily, most of those minutes are well spent. All of the films have interesting stories to tell, although some are told better than others.
The best of the bunch, or at least certainly the most uplifting, is “Cavedigger,” the story of a 65-year-old man named Ra Paulette who has spent the past 25 years of his life sculpting cathedral-like caves into the sandstone of New Mexico. He makes little money doing so; he’s just driven to create these wondrous things — they have to be seen to be believed — within the earth.
At first the film offers his impressive physical endurance — he only uses the most basic tools — then it bowls you over with his works and creative drive, escorts you through some of his personal life and culminates with the project he plans to spend the rest of his life on. Be it madness or genius, selfish or glorious, this is an extraordinary story well-told.
Over on the darker side there’s “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” following the slow death of one prison inmate, a veteran serving life for murder. The film, which will soon be on HBO, reflects on the thousands of prisoners who die alone in cells in America every year. Jack Hall is one of the lucky ones; there is a small hospice run by prison volunteers where he is. There’s much tenderness in this film, but the proceedings are also inevitably gloomy.
Far brighter — and understand, this is a Holocaust story — is “The Lady in Number 6,” the story of 109-year-old Alice Herz Sommer, a concert pianist who survived with her son in a concentration camp for artists. Still perfectly spry and completely alert, she is full of wisdom and optimism despite all she’s endured. Her love of music and life is infectious, but the film is weighed down a bit by the presence of other, less fascinating survivors. The camera need never leave this woman.
“Karama Has No Walls” is built around terrifying footage taken by two young men on March 18, 2011, when government-backed snipers opened fire on peaceful protestors in Yemen. Fifty-three people were shot dead, many others injured, and the sheer tumult of the attack footage is shocking, as are the graphic, bloody scenes. The film is filled out by sad but standard interviews with suffering survivors, including a young boy who lost his eyes. Still, it’s a powerful portrait of butchery.
Last, and unfortunately least, is “Facing Fear,” which holds an interesting story but plays too close to a public service announcement. A young gay man who was severely beaten by neo-Nazi punks meets one of his attackers, now-reformed, years later and they build an unlikely bond. It’s certainly a well-intentioned story about change and tolerance, but it lacks electricity.
Happily, there’s more than enough power — especially in “Cavedigger” and “The Lady in Number 6” — to make this group of shorts worth seeing.
The 2014 Academy Award-nominated Documentary Shorts
Running time: 167 minutes