In selecting its shortform nonfiction nominees this year, the Academy chose to celebrate directors who found a way to humanize heavy issues. While the underlying subjects range from hate crimes to the Holocaust, the films themselves feel intimate and personal, introducing viewers to extraordinary people and leaving the impression, long after their relatively short running times have elapsed, of our having encountered someone special. Although these five nominees are probably the least-seen of the entire ballot, they represent the greatest chance for discovery, introducing talented filmmakers and fascinating individuals worth seeking out either in theaters or on-demand.
Earning fresh headlines on Oscar week with the passing of its subject, “The Lady in No. 6” reflects the optimism and vitality of 109-year-old pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, a little old Czech lady possessed of infectious positivity. Herz-Sommer takes nothing for granted, having survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp after being selected to join its orchestra, which partly explains the pic’s subtitle, “Music Saved My Life.” But through a sometimes-clumsy mix of photos and narration, Oscar winner Malcolm Clarke (“You Don’t Have to Die”) considers more than just Herz-Sommer’s wartime experience. At the time he filmed her, Herz-Sommer still played daily, having long since forgiven her tormentors. With a charitable smile, she waves off Germany’s sins and credits the country instead with giving the world Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Forgiveness is also the subject of Jason Cohen’s “Facing Fear,” a simultaneously devastating and inspirational retelling of how Matthew Boger, a homeless gay teen who had been randomly targeted, beaten and left for dead by a gang of neo-Nazi punks, later found the strength to befriend Tim Zaal, the very aggressor whose boot mark remains permanently etched in his forehead. Coincidentally, the two met at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance and now give presentations together about prejudice, reconciliation and the often-difficult concept of putting oneself in another’s shoes — lessons that the elegantly assembled short now brings to an even wider audience.
Because the doc shorts run longer than their live-action and animated counterparts, distributor ShortsHD has divided the nonfiction offerings into two programs. Running between the two aforementioned nominees is “Karama Has No Walls,” which combines astonishing verite footage of an attack on nonviolent protestors in Yemen’s Change Square with a more traditional and baldly sentimental series of interviews with the parents of victims killed in the massacre. While the adults put the loss of life in emotional context, the most impressive aspect of the film is how thoroughly several young men managed to document the attack, in which local goons, rooftop snipers and a phalanx of military reinforcements set a wall on fire and proceeded to shoot the peacefully assembled demonstrators, often targeting those with cameras. In this day and age, the revolution will always be televised.
Though unaffiliated with a specific political cause, Jeffrey Karoff’s “Cavedigger” otherwise complements the other nominees in that it, too, reveals a remarkable human being, providing deeper insight into an individual within the space of 39 minutes than the others manage. A unique artist committed to carving cavernous dwellings out of New Mexico sandstone, Ra Paulette has pushed himself away from loved ones and patrons alike, seeking some sort of ineffable communion with the earth. With gorgeous hi-def lensing by d.p. Anghel Decca and an atmosphere as invigorating as those Southwest desert vortexes, the “Walden”-like portrait serves as a reflection on obsession, creativity and, to a surprising extent, one’s priorities vis-a-vis the modern world.
While thoughts of legacy still linger on the mind, Edgar Barens’ HBO-bound “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” humanely reveals how an Iowa inmate incarcerated for life spends his final stretch. Whereas countless docus have explored the subject of death row, “Prison Terminal” asks the question few ever consider — namely, how do those sentenced to die in prison actually die in prison? Rather than focus on the Iowa State Penitentiary’s unique hospice program, Barens chooses to follow one patient, Hall, a former P.O.W. who found himself behind bars again for a murder which he doesn’t regret. Hall’s crime is of little interest to Barens, who similarly de-emphasizes any stylistic interference, focusing instead on the idea of dignity in death, even for those whom society condemns.