Who Views Short Shorts
TMT Weighs in on 2014’s Oscar-Nominated Shorts

CATEGORY: DOCUMENTARY

The Lady in Number 6 (Dir. Malcolm Clarke)

I’m not sure what aesthetic principles were guiding the making of Malcolm Clarke’s The Lady in Number 6. At almost 40 minutes, the film could have used some judicious editing, and its gauzy cinematography and poncy voiceover seem an odd pairing for the life story of its subject. Thankfully, that subject is the remarkable Alice Herz Sommer, at 109 years the oldest known Holocaust survivor, her presence and thoughtful discourse anchoring the film. Clarke traces the chronology of Alice’s life, from her Prague upbringing among artists and musicians, to her nascent career as a concert pianist, all brought to a tragic halt by her deportation to Theresienstadt, a feeder camp for Auschwitz where artists were sent to contribute to the Nazi propaganda machine. The film really flowers with the introduction of two of Alice’s best friends, Anita and Zdenka, who add their stories and commentary (Anita recalls a particularly chilling memory of having to play cello for “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, the deranged engineer of horrific medical experiments at Auschwitz). But despite their histories, the three women have maintained a reverence for life and are able to talk of their experiences with impressive eloquence and grace. If it does little else, The Lady in Number 6 is an honorable record of that. (3.5/5)

Cavedigger (Dir. Jeffrey Karoff)

Another epically long short film, Jeffrey Karoff’s Cavedigger is the least contentious and political of all the nominees. I’m glad the Academy threw an eccentric character study into the mix, but Karoff’s film is short on revelations and somewhat monotonous. The subject is Ra Paulette, an artist and self-proclaimed “digger of caves and a piler of rocks” (is that a thing?). With the hippie-speak and droning score, Ra starts to resemble that daft uncle who moved to New Mexico — until you see the caves he digs. They are bizarre, exquisite subterranean sculpture, as holy as inverted cathedrals, and pretty astonishing. That Ra gets paid little more than minimum wage to do this kind of work only confirms the failures of the hippie ethos in a capitalist economy (here’s hoping some newly-minted tech billionaires see the film and subsidize this guy!). Like the film’s late reveal of Ra’s caves, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a much more interesting story lurking underneath, but Karoff’s reverence hovers on Ra’s work, and in 40 minutes, we barely scratch the surface of the life of this strange and mystical man. (2.5/5)

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Dir. Edgar Barens)

Edgar Barens’ Prison Terminal starts as a close look at the waning life of elderly prisoner Jack Hall, a World War II veteran who suffered from alcoholism and (undiagnosed) PTSD. The crime that put Hall in jail happened decades after the war: his teenage son committed suicide while on drugs, and Hall sought out the dealer who had sold to his son and killed him. From Hall’s story, the film expands to include the hospice workers who take care of Hall and dying prisoners like him (who interestingly are also inmates). The fuzzy images and meandering quality of the filming gave me the impression that Barens didn’t so much make a film as he did hover and wait. Still, it has compelling moments. Some external drama appears in the form of one of Hall’s sons (Hall apparently had eight wives), who freely admits that he was the one who turned his father in. Despite that (or because of it?), this son is the only family member we see visiting Hall on his deathbed. From there, Barens’ film winds to its inevitable and nonetheless moving conclusion. The hospice workers bring great kindness and simple dignity to a lonely man’s last moments, and that part of Barens’ film lingers. (3/5)

Facing Fear (Dir. Jason Cohen)

The shortest and punchiest of the lot, Facing Fear was my personal favorite. For one, it’s the only film to employ more conscious, palpable cinematography (and seemingly to take advantage of the expansive digital tools available to filmmakers — the documentary shorts show surprisingly little of the artistry of the documentary feature nominees). The film tells the story of Matthew Boger, who was kicked out of his suburban California home when he came out to his Catholic mother. Only 13, Matthew hustled to survive on the streets. Tim Zaal also grew up in the California suburbs, but he veered toward hardcore punk rock and eventually joined up with a group of skinheads. In the early 1980s, the two men’s lives collided one night when Tim’s group spotted Matthew hanging out on the streets of West Hollywood. Spoiling for a fight, they chased Matthew down and almost beat him to death. The film does a nice job of effectively and movingly setting up this backstory before the twist: decades later, the two men collide again, this time at the Museum of Tolerance, where Matthew works and Tim (now an ex-skinhead) is invited to speak about his experiences. There’s just something quintessentially American about this story, and the men’s experiences are such interesting representations of the times in which they lived. I wonder if the film would pack the same punch if you already knew Tim and Matthew’s story (I didn’t), but formally Jason Cohen’s film is a strong piece of work. (4/5)

TMT PICK: Karama Has No Walls (Dir. Sara Ishaq)

Benefitting from clear, matter-of-fact storytelling, director Sara Ishaq’s Karama Has No Walls chronicles a critical moment in the Yemeni revolution against president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The film is about March 18, 2011, now known as the Friday of Dignity (Karama), when government forces turned on the peaceful protesters in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a. Inspired by events in Egypt, protesters who had been gathering for weeks in Sana’a’s Change Square were calling for the resignation of president Saleh. On that Friday, snipers began shooting at the crowd, turning the protests into violent chaos, leaving 53 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Ishaq’s film shows us Change Square the day before the attacks, a crowded, lively tent city that with its soccer matches and food vendors seems more like a carnival than a protest. When we shift to March 18, Ishaq begins editing in interviews with the families of two victims and with two young cameramen who were filming in the square, and their recollections are cut throughout the increasingly disturbing and brutal footage of the attacks on the protesters. Ishaq’s film is an undeniably compelling and immediate firsthand account, but in truth, most of that power comes from what is credited as the camera footage of the two young men. If that is the case, Ishaq does a credible but not inspired job of constructing and editing the film. The interviews with the families, though moving, felt like more of a concept than a structural necessity. What is truly vital is the imagery from the square. Regardless, I’d put Oscar pool votes on this one for the win. (3.5/5)

  

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