Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary

A filmed record of the 2011 massacre of demonstrators in Yemen is the high point of this year's collection of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.

The indisputable standout in this year’s Oscar Documentary Short category is Sara Ishaq’s 26-minute Karama Has No Walls. The film is about the Friday of Dignity, a day in March 2011 when unarmed demonstrators in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a were attacked by government forces. Fifty-three of them died, and hundreds of others were injured and maimed, among them the university students who had begun the peaceful demonstration in what is now known as “Change Square.” Inspired by the transition taking place in Egypt at the time, the protestors were calling for the resignation of their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. (He stepped down later that year.)

Ishaq’s approach is what used to be called guerrilla filmmaking—with few exceptions, Karama Has No Walls consists entirely of footage shot during the demonstrations. The director acknowledges the substantial contribution of her male cameramen, Nasr and Khaled, by identifying their footage and turning the camera on them, having the young men discuss their feelings about the events they chronicled. They were both wounded, and as shocked as the protestors to discover that, rather than thugs, they were victimized by their own government. This well-conceived and edited short is an eye-opener, a small window on a country whose people are now engaged in a national dialogue inspired, in part, by the Friday of Dignity.

Jeffrey Karoff’s Cavedigger, a film about artist Ra Paulette, is skillfully written, although at 39 minutes it tests the patience of the viewer, in part because the subject is so self-centered and suffers from an incurable inferiority complex. Paulette designs cave dwellings in New Mexico, and seems to annoy his patrons for the same reasons he may alienate Karoff’s audience. The filmmaker goes about his work in the manner of a journalist, interviewing the artist, his friends, a former lover and, briefly, Paulette’s wife; he also traipses through the high desert with the artist, sometimes through the homes he created. Cavedigger is an exhaustive investigation, and a worthy short subject.

Edgar Barens’ Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (HBO, USA, 40 minutes) is a rather challenging and discursive film about the eponymous inmate of a maximum-security prison. Hall killed the dealer who, he explains, got his son hooked on drugs. The boy committed suicide at 14 years of age. Barens portrays 82-year-old Hall as a sympathetic figure, a World War II veteran and POW whose PTSD obviously went untreated. His subject proves somewhat more equivocal when we learn that Hall had eight wives, and that another son (who appears in the short) reported his father’s crime to the police. These facts, disclosed late in the narrative, raise several unanswered questions about Barens’ subject. Prison Terminal shifts to an important human-rights issue when Hall’s health declines, which is that many prisoners die alone, with no access to hospice care. Hall was fortunate to be an inmate at a prison which has a hospice program, although Barens’ depiction of it forsakes meaningful content for unnecessary and often gory details. Like his withholding of biographical information, the filmmaker’s choices here reveal a striking lack of skill for cinematic storytelling.

Previous Oscar short subject winner Malcolm Clarke (1988’s You Don’t Have to Die, shared with Bill Guttentag) teamed with Nicholas Reed to make The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, about a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor, concert pianist Alice Herz Sommer. Sommer performed in the Auschwitz women’s orchestra, which is what saved her life. She plays to this day, to the delight of some neighbors in her London apartment building. The filmmakers speak with Sommer and a few of her friends, also survivors, but they have no gift for interviewing, and fail at the important task of having Sommer clarify her feelings, especially when she makes broad statements about the value of her wartime experiences. While there are wonderful moments in this 39-minute film from the USA and U.K., such as when Sommer recalls meeting her husband or finding her three-year-old son in tears while listening to classical music, it is often repetitive and unfocused.

Jason Cohen’s 26-minute Facing Fear (USA) is about a remarkable friendship, yet the story takes so long in unfolding, and is so ineptly handled, that the short fails to keep the viewer’s attention. Matthew Boger, a young gay man living on the streets of Los Angeles, suffered a brutal attack at the hands of a neo-Nazi band, which included Tim Zaal. The two later met at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance where Boger works, and eventually became friends. Unfortunately, Cohen never gets to the core of this story, in part because he has little talent for drawing out his subjects’ feelings. Several times in the short, he uses significant or provocative insights in voiceover, rather than showing his subjects speaking them on-camera, or he edits together strikingly similar remarks from the two men, dulling the impact of their observations. Boger, the more articulate of the two, sometimes transcends the filmmaking, especially when he speaks about his religious mother, who tossed him out when he told her he was a homosexual. Cohen cuts away too quickly, nearly draining all of the emotional impact from Boger’s memory.