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Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Films Reviews

Private Jack Hall in "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall"
Courtesy of HBO

Review by Joshua Handler

This year, as with any other year, five short documentaries are Oscar-nominated in the Best Documentary (Short Subject).  While this group was a decidedly mixed bag, there were none that were bad - there were simply some that left far greater impacts than others.

"The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life" (Dir. Malcolm Clarke) - Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film, "The Lady in Number 6" is a delight.  Telling the story of the oldest living Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, a woman who recently died at age 110.  Sommer lived a rich, distinguished life and continued to play piano even at 109 when this documentary was filmed. The filmmaking here is polished and the movie itself is powerful, moving, and very inspirational.  If all people were like Alice, our world would be a better place.

"Facing Fear" (Dir. Jason Cohen) - "Facing Fear" tells the story of a former Neo-Nazi and a gay man whom he nearly beat to death.  Years later, the two meet by chance and try to reconcile.  This film has its fair share of powerful moments and extraordinary subject matter to boot, but it never digs deeply enough into its subjects and subject matter and doesn't deliver the punch that it should.  This is not a bad film by any stretch, it just isn't focused or strong enough.

"Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" (Dir. Edgar Barens) - Hands down the best of these nominees and, quite simply, one of the best of any of this year's Oscar-nominees is "Prison Terminal".  The film tells the story of the last days of Private Jack Hall, a terminally ill elderly veteran serving a life sentence in prison for murder (Hall killed the man who got his son hooked on drugs which eventually led to the son's suicide).  What makes Hall's last days unique is that he got to spend them in a privately-funded prison hospice program.  Edgar Barens uses cinéma verité style to tell this story, which means the film is fiercely unsentimental.  "Prison Terminal" is a humane and profoundly moving film that takes a hard look at redemption and second chances.  Some of the footage that Barens shot is unlike anything I've ever seen on film.  This is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.  "Prison Terminal" premieres on HBO on March 31.

"Karama Has No Walls" (Dir. Sara Ishaq) - A first-hand account of the student protests and following violence in Yemen, "Karama Has No Walls" is a powerful, yet unfocused film.  The footage in this doc is frequently disturbing and always unique, yet the structuring of this film partially derails it and diminishes its impact.  "Karama" doesn't know what it wants to focus on.  Overall, though, this doc is worth a watch if only to see a first-hand account of something rarely covered in the American news.

"Cavedigger" (Dir. Jeffrey Karoff) - "Cavedigger" is a portrait of Ra Paulette, a man who digs caves, frequently on commission, using only hand tools.  This film benefits from having an eccentric subject, unlike any I've ever seen, and strong focus.  By the time this film was over, I felt like I knew Ra.  While "Cavedigger" isn't the most "important" of the doc shorts per se, it is certainly worth viewing.

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