The 2014 Academy Award race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent years – no more so than the Oscar-nominated short films – especially in the documentary category. Due the films’ length, the five nominees will be shown in two programs. Here’s how they size up.
“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”
Directors: Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, Canada, U.S.A. and U.K. If you‘re lucky enough to live on a certain block in North London, you might be able to hear a woman in apartment 6 of one particular building regularly perform the music of Bach, Beethoven and other classical composers.
What makes these musical interludes rather unusual is that the musician, Alice Herz Sommer, studied piano with Artur Schnabel. She also knew Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler – and not just from their literature and music. Kafka was a good friend of her mother and would take Alice and her twin sister out for walks. She even claims to have attended the premiere of his Symphony no. 2 in Vienna when she was 10 years-old. While Alice undoubtedly did see Mahler conduct his work, Symphony no. 2 premiered in Berlin in 1895, eight years before she was born.
The woman can be forgiven for getting a few details wrong about events that occurred literally a century ago. The gist of her story is what counts, and it is an extraordinary one. In “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” Alice recounts how music lit her path, enabling her to survive one of the darkest periods of the 20th century, beginning in 1939, when the Germans rode into Prague on motorcycles, literally by the thousands. (Update: Alice Herz-Sommer, passed away Sunday, 2/23/14 in London, at the age of 110.)
4 Stars out of five
“Karama Has No Walls”
Director: Sara Ishaq, United Arab Emirates, U.K., Yemen. Another Square, another revolution. Around the time Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a flashpoint that led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the people of Yemen assembled in Change Square in the capital of Sana’a in protest of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his 30-year rule.
Change Square is ground zero for the next chapter of the Arab Spring, as protestors with cameras dodge bullets trying to film a revolution in process amidst the chaotic uproar.
At a protest estimated to be 100,000 strong, henchmen armed with rifles are seen taking positions on rooftops surrounding the demonstrators. Someone drenches an ad hoc fence with gasoline. When it goes up in flames, the shooting begins. Bullets fly, the crowd panics, all of it captured on film. Director Sara Ishaq collected and assembled the film, which comprises some of the most gut-wrenching journalistic footage you’ll ever see.
A chaotic scene filmed inside a hospital depicts a desperate attempt to triage the victims. Blood is everywhere. Shots of bullet-ridden bodies carted into a hospital include an 11 year-old boy, who lost sight in both eyes. Fifty-three protestors died during the attack Sana’a. Hundreds more were killed in the ensuing months as the unrest spread across the country.
5 Stars out of five
Director: Jason Cohen, U.S.A. The film opens with 48 year-old Tim Zaal looking into the camera. “I don’t know if I could forgive somebody the way he’s been able to forgive me,” he says. Zaal grew up in L.A. seduced by the energy and violence of the Nazi punk rock scene in at the time.
Mathew Boger, 46, was born near San Francisco. He hid his sexuality until his mother found out he was gay and threw him out of the house. She wouldn’t take him back, so he headed for L.A., landing in the hustler scene on Hollywood Blvd.
One night, Zaal and his friends were looking for a victim to express their free-floating anger – gay, black, Hispanic – it really didn’t matter. Boger found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the gang, led by Zaal, nearly beat him to death. “Facing Fear” is the unlikely story of what happened when they coincidentally meet 26 years later.
4 Stars out of five
Director Jeffrey Karoff, U.S.A. Armed with a pick and shovel, self-taught cave-carver Ra Paulette burrows into compressed sandstone – solidified sand dunes geologists call “hoodoos” – to create caverns on to which he then carves patterns. The sandstone looks deceptively hard, but is far more amenable to sculpting tools than rock or marble. The breathtakingly stunning works of abstract interior architecture that result from Paulette’s digging and chiseling resemble what one would expect to find inside a Frank Gehry structure.
“Cavedigger” tells the story of manic ambition and uncompromising artistic genius. As Paulette's wife says, “It’s not easy being a cave digger’s wife.”
4 ½ Stars of five
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall”
Director: Edgar Barens, U.S.A. “Prison Terminal” opens with a photo of Pfc. Jack Hall, U.S. Army 1942-45, then abruptly cuts to 60 years later at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Ft. Madison, where he’s now known as inmate #801309. Hall’s circumstances changed forever after his 14 year-old son got hooked on drugs and committed suicide.
“One day this dope dealer was bragging about how he made his money,” Hall recalls. “He didn’t make no more. I stopped him. So I got life up here. That was 21 years ago.”
Now he's serving a life sentence, even though he likely suffers from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after his WW II service, which included a prisoner-of-war stint.
The film follows Hall, his surviving son, prison buddies, nurses and volunteer inmates after he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and put into one of the few hospice programs for prisoners in the U.S. The film is a raw slice of prison life unlike anything I’ve seen – the kind of journalism that puts the whole crime and punishment debate in a different light. It should win the Oscar, but Academy voters might find the film's story arc tough going.
5 Stars of of five.
See playdates and locations for “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary” HERE. Under “All Film Types,” choose “Documentary.”
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