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REVIEW: Oscar-nominee about a ‘CaveDigger’ in New Mexico screens at the Guild

Beneath the ground in a region of New Mexico north of Santa Fe works a cave digger. A cave digger? Yes, Ra Paulette, cave digger since 1986, is an artist who sculpts into the ground, opening up cave spaces as artistic creations. In this documentary short, “Cave Digger” (2013), produced and directed by Jeffrey Karoff, this 39-minute short takes us underground and into the life of a 67-year-old sculptor of sandstone.

The artist at work
Courtesy of Jeffrey Karoff
nature surrounding Albuquerque
Lindsay Waite

The film screens only 3 evenings next week at the Guild Cinema, 3405 Central Avenue NE, at 7 pm Feb 17, 18 and 19, an opportunity to see a film about an intriguing and unique artist on the big screen. Check out the trailer (below left) to get a glimpse at Ra at work on what he calls “creating space through extraction.”

This film is wonderfully shot and has excellent production values. It highlights the impressive beauty of northern New Mexico’s terrain and respectfully captures the dreams and work of the artist. His friends, family and former patrons are also presented with insight. Jeffrey Karoff shows that he cares about the people, the land and the art in this piece, his first documentary.

Ra did not find his calling until close to age 40. But once he began cave digging, he realized he was undergoing a transformative process, creating magical places where one could feel the earth all the while experiencing the sun pouring in from the outside. In other words, the surreal spaces he creates include openings to the sky and sun. Ra has gained insights as he has worked, “finding god in that hole” much like artists thousands of years ago, he believes.

The first cave we enter in this film was created by Ra for his friend Liz and her partner Shel. It has a wooden front door, and several one-of-a-kind rooms that include a skylight, carved furniture and even bookshelves. It is bright and surprisingly un-cavelike. It is amazing.

Ra says: “I’m creating space through extraction. I don’t make drawings....I can feel the empty space.” Using only handtools, he works in the soft sandstone of solidified sand dunes that were once part of an ancient sea. He uses his own fear levels to guide him as to what is safe, and what is not. There have been some close calls.

We see Ra and those who commission him disagreeing about the nature and extent of his creations. The patrons reach a point where they want to direct him. He isn’t happy with that.

Meanwhile, Ra and his wife struggle with the eternal conflict between art and commerce. He finally stops taking paying jobs after he tires of disputes with the people who commission him. He says pointedly: “I am not the paintbrush and my client is not the painter.”

Thus, while Ra puts little energy into being a commercial success (and earning money), he acknowledges that it is not easy for his wife, Paula, to be a cavedigger’s wife. So, when Ra begins on Oct. 10, 2010 a 10-year project for himself - his “magnum opus” - one can’t help but wonder about the financial burdens left completely in the hands of his wife, as well as her frustration with having her personal quests put on the back-burner (again).

It is interesting when Ra recounts, by the way, that his father told him he’d be nothing more than a ditchdigger.

Toward the film’s conclusion, we watch Ra’s first day on this long-range project. He swings away at the sandstone, with minimal results. Yes. This is a tough, time-consuming job. As the camera slowly pulls back, Ra becomes a tiny speck as he disappears into a ridge, surrounded by boulders, desert scrub vegetation, and the vast scenery of land and sky. He is a part of nature, adding a man-made vision to the natural world.

This film is highly-acclaimed, and is in contention for a Best Short Documentary Award at this year’s Academy Awards. It was the official selection for the Brooklyn Film Festival, Sedona Film Festival and others, and has won awards at several fim festivals, including the San Antonio Film Festival and the European Independent Film Festival.

Again, this film screens next week, Monday through Wednesday (Feb. 17-19) at the Guild Cinema. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the theater prior to the screenings. In addition, tickets can be purchased in advance (cash or check) at the locally owned shop - The Octopus and The Fox - at 541 Central Avenue, SE.

Sources: Guild Cinema website, CaveDigger website , Ra Paulette’s website

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