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Film Review

2014 Oscar Nominated Short Documentary Films

Each year, for the past seven years, a few theaters have been screening the Oscar nominations for short films. Short films are defined as those less than 30 minutes, and divided into three categories: live action, animated, and documentary. Usually the live action shorts are the most accomplished and powerful, but this year the documentaries are phenomenal, and in my opinion, the best thing that I have seen on screen so far this year. Four of the five documentaries have a power rarely seen, indelible, and I could barely finish the reviews without crying. But seeing these films can be difficult because only the Rafael (San Rafael) and the Shattuck (Berkeley) theaters are screening the documentaries, and then only on the weekends. The other two categories, live action and animated, are playing more widely and during the week, at the Embarcadero, the Aquarius (Palo Alto), the Rafael, and the Shattuck. It may be inconvenient, but if you go, you will have a profound film experience. The documentary series running time: 3 hours 7 minutes, with a 15 minute break. Sounds long, but they go by in a flash.

The films are separated by brief statements from well known directors of past Oscar nominated films. Several point out that the goal of a documentary film maker is to reveal, inform, and advocate for positive change. Others talk about the particular difficulties of doing shorts because the characters have to be developed and the story line clear, all in a short period of time. One compares short films to short stories, and another thinks of them as cinematic haikus. Most of these comments are quite interesting, and in some cases, provocative. For instance, advocacy may not be a virtue to some with documentary films. As I mentioned, this year the documentaries were extremely accomplished and really should be seen on the big screen. So this review is only of the documentaries, and am undecided about doing a review of the other two categories.

The first documentary is The Lady in Number 6 (Canada), about a 106 year old pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor, who continues to play for several hours every day. Mrs. Herz-Sommer was born in Prague to an artistic family, began playing at a very young age, and clearly remembers meeting some of her parents' friends, like Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler. She married a businessman who was an accomplished violinist, had a son and a good life. But in 1938 Germany annexed the Sudetenland and the German Army occupied the remainder of the country a year later, months before the beginning of WW II. Her mother and father were arrested by the Gestapo and died in one of the death camps, as did her husband. The Nazis confiscated her piano, and months later she was deported with her son to Theresienstadt, the model concentration camp set up by the Nazis to convince the Red Cross that the Jews were being treated well. She was even able to keep her son with her, a rarity. She was selected to play in the camp orchestra, which clearly saved her life even though performers and inmates at that "model" camp were routinely sent to the death camps after a few months. She and her son survived, moved to Israel, and he became a famous cellist. After her son died she moved to London where she is interviewed. We see her with her circle of close friends, all Holocaust survivors (all women), who have fascinating insightful things to say. More than anything, these women are strong willed yet with a deep sense of optimism. That optimism, which Mrs. Herz-Sommer credits with saving her life, is evident in so much of her conversation. "Every day is beautiful". A full century at the piano, hers has been a life extraordinarily well lived, and beautifully documented by this very moving film.

The next documentary is Karama Has No Walls (Yemen). Karama is the Arabic word for dignity. Yemen is one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world. Slavery was not abolished until 1962. The country, originally split into two sections, north and south, was politically united in 1990, but under an increasingly repressive president. This very powerful film consists principally of footage shot on March 18th, 2011, as thousands of students and workers took to the streets to demand the resignation of the president, who had ruled for over 30 years in a highly autocratic and sometimes brutal regime. They set up a tent city in a public square, when suddenly, and without provocation, thugs and the military began shooting, killing 53 people and wounding hundreds. Two cameraman, one only 17, the other 23, filmed the protests and massacre. I have never seen such graphic, violent footage on screen, and it is a miracle that the two cameraman were not killed. People were being killed literally alongside of them, yet they continued filming. Later, one was severely wounded but recovered. They also interview the fathers of two dead students, and it is heartbreaking. Yet this beginning of the revolution was successful and the president resigned. Karama Has No Walls is similar to the recent Egyptian documentary, The Square, which is also quite powerful. No one, seeing either of these films, will soon forget them. The images are riveting, to say the least.

The third film, Facing Fear (USA), is a very moving account of a gay man, Matt Boger, who ten years earlier was living on the streets in Santa Monica, and was attacked and nearly killed by a neo Nazi gang, especially a fearsome looking guy, Tim Zaal, with his skinhead tattoos. Matt's mother had literally thrown him out of the house because he was gay, yet he is now the manager of the Museum of Tolerance in LA. A few years ago, the two met again when Tim came to the museum, having left his skinhead life behind. Tim recognized Matt and began to talk. Matt of course was stunned when he realized that this man tried to kill him out of hatred, and began to deal with his anger, and ultimately forgiveness. They evolved into doing presentations to high school classes which are clearly effective, judging from the faces of the kids. This powerful film is really about fear, anger, and forgiveness, and the difficulty of change.

The fourth, Cavedigger (USA), looks at an obsessed artist, now 65, whose art consists of digging caves in sandstone in northern New Mexico. These are not just any caves, but beautifully conceived and sculpted. He only uses hand tools, like picks and shovels, never powered equipment. Even the excavated material is removed with a wheel barrow. He says that unlike architects who create space with walls and a roof, he creates space with his excavations. And what space! It reminded me of the interior of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, but obviously smaller scaled and less grand. Sometimes people commission a cave, and sometimes he simply creates one for himself. The last shot is unforgettable.

Just when you think you can't possibly see anything more powerful than the first four, the final documentary, Prison Terminal (USA), shows us the last six months of Jack Hall's life. Hall killed a drug dealer, was sentenced to life in prison, and has spent the last 21 years in the Iowa State Penitentiary. It is 2006, Hall is now 83 and being held in the infirmary cell block, reserved for sick and elderly prisoners. Hall has progressive lung disease, and is clearly dying, so is placed in the hospice section, which is staffed mostly by older inmate volunteers, many black, most with life sentences like Hall. Hall fills in his story, including his service in WW II when he ended up in a German prison camp. He describes his behavior after the war, which today we would immediately recognize as PTSD. "I couldn't sleep and had to get drunk to sleep, then would have bad dreams". He married, had one son, who was estranged from Hall until 10 years ago when his son began visiting him in prison. The son confides that his father was once a racist, but clearly loves the men that are caring for him. The irony is that most of the caregivers are older black men, who are as loving with Hall as if he were their own father. There is really some skilled camera work here, with many closeups of Hall, his friends, and caregivers. Much of the footage is haunting, and definitely unforgettable. The film maker, Edgar Barens, had previously done a film on the hospice unit in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and it shows in his very sensitive handling of this story. So five wonderful films and three hours later, you will have seen true greatness on the screen. Don't miss these; they are as good as it gets.

Ciao, Ian

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