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Short Stuff: The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Picture yourself a documentary filmmaker. You shoot a bunch of interviews, piece together other footage, and design your graphics, and wind up with something about an hour long. Are you better off bulking it up by twenty minutes to get something roughly feature length that can maybe be sold to theaters and be in the running for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, or cut twenty minutes to get down to the restrictions of the Documentary Short Subject category?

I don't necessarily think that any of the nominees in the latter group got there via that route; in fact, most of the 2013 documentary shorts seem to be just the right length; even if the filmmakers have more footage available, any cuts they made in order to qualify for this award may have been in their best interests.

Granted, "The Lady in Number Six" could perhaps have used five more minutes, even if it might have proven too thin for a full feature. Granted, it initially looks like it might not need that much: This story of an old woman in a London apartment who starts playing the piano at 10am every morning and continues on through the day, becoming a fixture in her neighborhood due to her great skill and constancy might seem like something more fit for a five-minute segment on the local news. That's before writer/director/narrator Malcolm Clarke drops two bits of information on the audience: Aliza Sommer-Herz is a hundred and nine years old at the time of filming and spent her early life in Prague, which makes her a Holocaust survivor.

That information naturally overwhelms everything else Ms. Sommer-Herz and Clarke can share with the audience, as well it perhaps should; though technically only a few years out of a long and accomplished life, her time in the camps casts a long shadow, as interviews with Sommer-Herz and her friends and fellow survivors attest. Despite that, she makes an enjoyably optimistic subject. She has a seemingly-unshakable faith in the humanizing power of music which Clarke basically lets stand. He spends most of the short interviewing and observing her, using a handful of photographs from before the war and inside the camps as illustration.

If the short has a flaw, it's that Clarke doesn't seem to leave himself enough time to follow up on Sommer-Herz's assertion that survivors like herself were uniquely able to make the most of their lives afterward, having already been through Hell; there's just not much time devoted to her life in the decades after. Still, it at least highlights how there may be fine, remarkable people in every corner, which is an optimistic-enough take on the subject matter to be worthy of Aliza Sommer-Herz herself.

Any sense of optimism in "Karama Has No Walls" is more tempered, as it should be; Sara Ishaq's picture of Yemen's citizen uprising in 2011 contains some of the most jaw-dropping and horrifying images in this group of shorts, with the bulk of any hope for the future the result of its subjects' and contributors' dogged determination. In some ways, it plays as a spiritual and literal sequel to Best Documentary Feature nominee The Square - the Egyptian protests in that movie inspired the ones in Sana'a - but with a much stronger emphasis on the point when things turned ugly.

After some idealistic stage-setting, "Karama" quickly builds and explodes into one of the most intense depictions of violence overwhelming peaceful people you'll see in a theater, frequently bloody footage shot by young people that Ishaq assembles into a short that is unflinching but not overwhelming. She cuts back and forth to the family of people caught in the crossfire and also gives the audience a chance to meet the people operating the cameras, making it doubly clear that these point-of-view shots are not the work of seasoned war photographers. She also makes sure it doesn't feel exploitative or cynical, and the end result is 26 minutes that will certainly have the audience's rapt attention and unlikely to forget it afterward.

"Facing Fear", on the other hand, is kind of exploitative, but it's a knowing and aware exploitation in a sense of the word that's neutral in terms of value: Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal know that they have a story that may change people's lifes for the better - back in the early 1980s, Zaal was a neo-nazi punk who nearly beat Boger to death, only to meet twenty-odd years later while both worked in the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles - and they exploit it. Director Jason Cohen helps, interviewing the pair separately and showing the joint talks they give at the MOT, while also integrating other material.

It's a great story, but I suspect that a short film isn't the best way to present it. Boger and Zaal are both engaging people, and Cohen does a good job of balancing the movie so that as much as we can admire the change in Zaal, we're never placed in the awkward position of feeling like he went through something harder than the man he assaulted. But as a result, we never really absorb the details of his story, and Cohen's decision to shoot the two separately (for the most part) means that there are mixed messages about what sort of friendship they have now beyond these talks. As much as it's a good idea to get them recorded for posterity, the short feels like it really can't compare to seeing them speak, watching their body language around each other, and interacting with them to pull out the parts of the story that might most strongly affect one personally. Every documentary is like that, of course, but this one seems to be just a little more so.

On the other hand, "Cavedigger" may benefit somewhat from allowing the viewer not to interact with its subject, depending on how much tolerance one has for artistic types who may be a bit full of themselves (mine is, admittedly, somewhat low). That's the sort of guy Ra Paulette is; he has spent the last twenty-five years digging caves out of soft New Mexico sandstone, never drawing up a plan and without any apparent formal education in structural engineering or geology, which almost always leaves his patrons feeling frustrated and uninvolved, although they're a pretty laid-back bunch too.

It makes for an admittedly interesting dynamic - for all that Ra can be kind of indifferent to the concerns of other people and otherwise in his own little world, every time the viewers might be ready to roll their eyes, they get a look of something he created in its finished form, and it's quite frankly stunning. It quietly gives the audience something to think about in regard to the old cliché of the artist who uses someone else's money and resources but is reluctant to include that patron in the process, especially since Ra is not abrasive in his intransigence. It makes for a relatively undramatic short, but an often-intriguing one.

The figures at the center of "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" can be even trickier to get one's head around. A great many are murderers serving life sentences, and Edgar Barens's film takes an opportunity to take a look at what that phrase eventually implies: A prison population that is graying along with the rest of America, eventually spending much of their time in an infirmary wing dedicated to the care of the elderly and, eventually, hospice cells, where they are frequently looked after by other inmates who have volunteered for such duty.

Barens chooses the way of the highly-observational documentary, spending a great deal of time with Hill, a World War II veteran who had been in and out of trouble all his life before committing the crime that sent him away for life, and it's a look at the often rapid deterioration that comes at the end of one's life that is, in its way, every bit as unsettling as the violence of "Karama Has No Walls". Left mostly unspoken are any questions about whether the American addiction to incarceration, even if Hall and the caretakers are shown as human beings who have seemed to undergo some growth during their long time inside. When people are interviewed, it seldom seems like an extensive, after-the-fact session, but getting people to talk during free moments as he films the process of dying and caring for the dying right up until the end.

In some ways, "Prison Terminal" might inspire more thought than a movie twice its length that wears its politics on its sleeve. Barens doesn't advance any particular agenda, but he does at least put a human face on several issues and get audiences to think of the nuts and bolts of an issue that is, by its very nature and deliberate action, hidden from everyday view.

Because these short films are relatively lengthy, several venues showing these shorts may be splitting them into multiple programs - I saw a sort of double feature with "Cavedigger" and "Prison Terminal" on one ticket and the other three as a separate package - although I'm not sure exactly how they will play when the package is available on Amazon, iTunes, and other video on demand services at the end of the February. For nearly three hours of highly varied and intriguing true stories, it's a relatively unique night at the movies.

If I had a vote, it would probably go to "Karama Has No Walls", with "Prison Terminal" a close second. If I were a betting man, I figure I'd have to let "The Lady in Number 6" into consideration. Then again, as far as I'm concerned, the actual winner doesn't matter - the important part of awards like the Oscars is how the nominations bring attention to several worthy films like these five.

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originally posted: 02/11/14 17:12:04
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