Oscar Documentary Shorts Review: Hardly a Standout Among the 2014 Nominees

Karama 2

The 86th Academy Awards are just over five weeks away, and we’re about to get the opportunity to go see the most obscure nominees of the lot: the short films. Again thanks to Shorts International, all of the films from all three categories open in theaters this weekend. They are, as usual, quite the eclectic bunch.

Up to now, the Best Documentary — Short Subject category has had a great run of recent hits. Not every winner has been stellar, but the lists of nominees have been pretty strong. Redemption, Kings Point, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, and Rabbit à la Berlin come to mind as standouts. It seemed like a mini-Renaissance of mini-movies might be underway, at least with Oscar. Unfortunately, this year things have taken a bit of a tumble. That’s not to say that the nominated films are all bad, just that there aren’t exactly any that are worthy of the award. Overall, this is the worst batch since at least 2009.

The documentaries have been divided into two theatrical programs. Program A includes Karama Has No Walls, Facing Fear and The Lady in Number 6. Program B includes CaveDigger and Prison Terminal. My reviews of each short is below.

Karama Has No Walls

This short by Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq is an interesting parallel nominee to Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-contending feature, The Square. While the latter follows two years of revolution centered upon Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Karama is a shorter look at the events in Sana’a’s Change Square, a tent city so dubbed after the beginning of the Yemeni Revolution in 2011. Ishaq shows us some intensely powerful images, filmed by two revolutionary cameramen named Khaled Rajjeh and Nasr Al-Namir. She couples this with the testimony of two fathers whose sons were tragically caught up in the violent suppression of the protests by the Yemeni police.

A bit difficult to watch, Karama effectively captures the violence and chaos that accompanied the deaths of 53 people on the 18th of March, 2011. Yet while many of these elements are powerful, Ishaq tries to cover a bit too much ground. With only 26 minutes, a glimpse at a single story or element of the revolution might have been more effective. It feels more condensed than excerpted.

Rating: ★★★

Facing Fear

The simplest among these nominees, Facing Fear is built around a single incident and its aftermath. The short begins with memories of a violent incident that occurred decades ago in Los Angeles. Matthew Boger, a gay teen trying to survive on the streets of Hollywood, was brutally assaulted by a group of neo-Nazis. One of his attackers was Tim Zaal, who would later come to renounce his extremism. It was then that the two men, now adults, found themselves face to face at the Museum of Tolerance, where Boger now works.

The resulting questions about the possibility of forgiveness, and whether time really does heal all wounds, are certainly interesting. The two men offer some evocative testimony as well, retelling their own journeys to this moment of possible reconciliation. Yet the film itself is a bit stiff, relying primarily on the juxtaposition of interviews and the rote interjections of old family photos and films. Even at just 23 minutes, it feels a little bit protracted and dull, more of an educational video produced by the Museum of Tolerance than an Academy Award nominee.

Rating: ★★

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

109-year-old Alice-Herz Summer is a wonderful subject for a documentary. She’s charming, lively and has lived an extraordinary life. From childhood walks with her mother’s friend Franz Kafka, to the great concert halls of Europe, to the depths of 20th century horror in Theresienstadt, she has a great many stunning stories to tell. Her two Sunday friends, a cellist and actress who are both Holocaust survivors as well, relate fascinating ideas regarding the paired surrealism and monotony of life in the camps.

Unfortunately, The Lady in Number 6 suffocates their stories with insistent music, unnecessary narration and a sense of style determined to beat every conceivable emotion out of the audience. The use of dramatic soft lighting in Summer’s apartment is particularly silly. It’s as if director Malcolm Clarke has no confidence that his audience will find these women compelling without a great deal of his help, or that viewers even have a passing familiarity with the tragedies of the 20th century. An unfortunate bungling of truly interesting women, this is the weakest film in the category.

Rating: ★


Ra Paulette digs beautiful caves. In the forgiving sandstone of New Mexico, he picks at the earth bit by bit, slowly forming almost cathedral-like spaces in the ground. It takes him years, and a great deal of money. His patrons tend to get fed up with the glacial pace and the expense, so most of his projects remain incomplete. CaveDigger looks into these past conflicts and then features the work that Paulette has been doing on his final project, a “magnum opus” that he is doing entirely for himself.

The tension between the beauty of Paulette’s work and his apparent reluctance to consider the concerns of a material world is the central theme of this short documentary. Director Jeffrey Karoff is careful to make sure his film never exactly takes sides, showing that even the abandoned projects remain beautiful and allowing the former patrons of unfinished caves speak for themselves. It’s a little bit like Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass, which also featured a high-minded artist at odds with the world’s logistical demands (see my review). Yet in spite of this balance, one can’t help but wish that just a little more of the film’s almost 40-minute running time was spent exploring the caves themselves. An extended sequence like the one at the end of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams might make this perfectly good documentary a standout.

Rating: ★★★

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Shorts International has decided to save the best for last. This HBO Documentary follows one old prisoner as he spends his last days in hospice care at an Iowa prison. Jack Hall was a Private First Class in the army during World War II, picking up medals for his service in both the African and European campaigns. Then, decades later, he committed a murder and his son turned him in. Now he’s nearing the end of his life, and he will be cared for by other prisoners in their brand new hospice.

The achievement of director Edgar Barens is two-fold. First, Hall’s hospice experience is an excellent means by which he can honestly portray the prison system. Prison Terminal hardly masks the brutal realities of the penitentiary, but its warm presentation of the inmate volunteers of the hospice and the interaction between prisoners and guards (and the families of guards) emphasizes the humanity of everyone involved, including the convicted felons. Secondly, Hall’s own story is also resonant on its own, and his journey toward accepting his own death allows glimpses into the greater experience of the “American Century,” as we once called the 20th. The way that PTSD affected him and his friends, the residual horrors of war and their most insidious manifestations emerge as a subtle undertone of Hall’s life and how he ended up in prison in the first place.

We think of prisons as entirely separate from the life of the community, a forgotten repository of what we don’t want to see. With Prison Terminal, Barens turns this troubled place open to the nation and shows how connected to it we truly are.

Rating: ★★★★

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.