Short film documentaries require a depth we usually don’t require of other non-fiction short films. When we see an episode of Dateline or an hour-long feature on CNN, there’s room for commercial breaks, and the subject is usually something exploitative or juicy to get the viewer to keep watching (“Who killed this family member?” “What’s endangering your children now?”) At their best, a good documentary short subject has not only a compelling narrative, but also something to challenge the viewer. Otherwise, it’s just trivia or a homily.
This year’s selection of Oscar-nominated documentary short subjects has both. One has remarkable footage that couldn’t be obtained any other way and another has obvious life lessons that don’t need teaching. One short examines a unique form of art and another examines why hate crimes are bad. This batch of short documentaries shows us the format at its best and its worst.
[Shorts are listed in alphabetical order]
A fascinating documentary about an artist working in a unique art form, Cave Digger explores the work of Ra Paulette, who builds gorgeous sandstone caves in New Mexico. Paulette has no engineering training but his work is absolutely jaw dropping both in its craft and its results. He only works with hand tools, uses only natural light, and as he astutely puts it, this is “the art of creating space.” He’s essentially building dwellings, but doing so in a way that’s never been done with such a level of detail and artistry. The dynamic cinematography further emphasizes the majesty of his work, and then the narrative expands to show the demands of creating art for patrons who don’t understand it. And while his work and methods may be a bit eccentric, Paulette comes off as a kind, grounded individual who just happens to be the only person in the world who can make this kind of art.
Tim Zaal is a 48-years-old and a former neo-Nazi. Matthew Boger is 46 and a manager at the Museum of Tolerance. As a young man, Boger was kicked out of his home by his homophobic mother and forced to live on the streets. The two crossed paths decades ago when Zaal and his gang of skinheads zeroed in on Boger for no particular reason other than he was gay, and nearly beat him to death. Fast-forward to the present day, and Zaal now works at the museum and they realize what happened in the past. Small world! Facing Fear’s message about accepting tragedy and the challenges of forgiveness would have been slightly more effective if it hadn’t spelled out those exact points at the end of the short.
Karama Has No Walls
In 2011, there was a sit-in in Yemen to protest the past 33 years of autocratic rule. A peaceful tent city was established in what became known as “Change Square”, but on March 18, 2011, everything went horribly wrong. The documentary doesn’t detail the specific politics or even examine the event from a multitude of angles. Instead, we’re given incredible, handheld footage from people on the ground when “thugs” (there’s no description beyond that term, but presumably they’re affiliated with the government) with sniper rifles started shooting into the crowd. The footage is intercut with interviews of family members whose loved ones either died or were seriously injured on that day. Karama Has No Walls is a harrowing snapshot of suffering and strife but there’s also bravery in the two cameramen who risked their lives to bring this snapshot to the world. It’s a documentary that is both terrifying and yet slightly uplifting right down to its epilogue.
The Lady in Number 6
What begins as a cute little story about 109-year-old piano player Alice Sommer eventually becomes cloying to almost no end. The documentary tries to wrap us up in her love of music as she proclaims “Music is a dream!” and “Music is God!” and then backs these statements with the story of how her ability to play piano and her son’s singing voice helped them to survive the Holocaust by performing for the Nazis. Her story is then undermined as the documentary moves on to interview her fellow survivors as if Alice’s story isn’t enough to sustain the film. Their suffering has to backup her suffering in case you hadn’t already realized that their personal strength and determination helped get them through the Holocaust. It’s a revolting sentiment since it conveys the notion that those who died in this unrelenting, uncaring horror show died because they were somehow “weaker” than those who survived. Nevertheless, The Lady in Number 6 feels the need to shout at us how inspiring Sommer is and then uses the Holocaust as an emotional crutch.
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Prison Terminal is a story about hospice care where the “hook” is that the hospice is inside a penitentiary. Jack Hall is decorated World War II veteran who is serving life in prison because his son became addicted to drugs, committed suicide, and Jack murdered the drug dealer as an act of retaliation. This background lets us know that Hall isn’t a monster, but his life sentence isn’t unwarranted. While Hall has a charismatic, sorrowful disposition and openly wonders if he’ll go to hell, the movie flattens him out by rarely talking about his crime or any sense of remorse. As for why he’s getting the hospice treatment, one of his caretakers (another inmate who’s serving life for murder) says they wanted Jack “to have it nice because of his war record.” So is this denied to criminals who aren’t decorated veterans? The story does convey a sense of compassion and how it can develop among those seeking redemption for their crimes, but the prison setting doesn’t add any more than that. There’s a lot of promise and innate conflict in Prison Terminal, but the documentary seems intent on avoiding it and going for something warm and fuzzy instead.