This year’s five Oscar-nominated short documentary films are a generally staid bunch, brie and white wine offerings less interested in exciting or enraging viewers than in teaching socially conscious lessons.
Alice Herz-Sommer, at 110, is said to be the oldest Holocaust survivor and oldest known active pianist, a vocation that helped sustain her spirit and possibly saved her life during her years in concentration camps. At the Czech camp Theresienstadt, prisoners with musical skills involuntarily starred in propaganda newsreels that made camp life look cheerful. Given its themes, “The Lady in Number 6” is favored to win, but it is one-note filmmaking.
The same goes for “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.” It’s a prosaic account of an aged World War II veteran and convicted murderer in a maximum-security prison hospice. Once a violent segregationist, the old cuss mellowed considerably toward the end, as fond of his black caregiver-inmates as they are tender toward him. Profound implications, but disappointing delivery.
“Karama Has No Walls” takes us inside the 2011 Yemeni uprising that left 53 dead in Sanaa. The camera is pushed along in tidal surges of bodies amid a cacophony of chants, gunfire and screams. The shopworn take-away is that change sometimes comes at a terrible cost. Duly noted.
“Facing Fear” is an elaborate public-service announcement for the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. Matthew Boger, an LAMT executive, was a gay street kid in West Hollywood 25 years ago when he was severely beaten in a homophobic attack. Decades later he met his attacker, now repentant, and the duo offer classes on intolerance and forgiveness. The sort of thing you watch for extra credit in civics class.
Now, the good one: “Cavedigger.” It’s a portrait of New Mexico excavation artist Ra Paulette, who attacks mountains of soft sandstone with pick and shovel and trowel, creating sensual, cavernous spaces of light, air and wonder. Paulette’s glorious underground sand castles are staggering to behold, and director Jeffrey Karoff does them full justice with rapt, admiring camerawork.