Oscar-nominated documentary short films pack a punch

Screening of lauded films at Capitol Theater includes Oscar winner ‘Lady in Number 6’

The OklahomanMarch 7, 2014 

This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary short films make up one of the strongest slates in recent memory to vie for the best documentary short subject prize at the Academy Awards.

The winner on Sunday night was a surprisingly cinematic 39-minute portrait of the oldest living Holocaust survivor.

Few films have the ability to move and inspire as profoundly as “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” an elegantly crowd-pleasing portrayal of now-110-year-old concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who practices her classical repertoire daily and is frequently visited by two fellow Jewish artists who survived the Nazi concentration camps.

Director/co-writer Malcolm Clarke’s compact and compelling film chronicles Herz-Sommer’s upper-class childhood in Prague, where composer Gustav Mahler and writer Franz Kafka were family friends; her days at Theresienstadt, a feeder camp for Auschwitz where the Nazis sent Jewish celebrities and musicians to film them for propaganda pieces; and her golden years in England, where she lives independently in a London flat.

“Sometimes it happens that I am thankful to have been there because I am richer than other people,” she says of her Holocaust experience. “Oh, they complain, ‘This is terrible.’ It’s not so terrible.”

The unfailingly optimistic and grateful Herz-Sommer credits music for saving her life – and not just because the Nazis kept her around to play 100 concerts in the camp.

“Music is God. In difficult times you feel it, especially when you are suffering,” Sommer says. Her lips are as wise at dispensing wisdom as her fingers are at creating music.

“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she later declares. “On me. Not on life – on me.”

But that is just one of three Oscar-nominated documentary shorts that will be screened at the Olympia Film Society’s Capitol Theater through March 13; the other two are “Karama Has No Walls” and “Facing Fear.” The remainder of the nominees – “Cave Digger” and “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” – will be screened the following week.

All of the short doc nominees paint intimate portraits while delving into universal issues such as mortality, forgiveness and artistic expression.

“Prison Terminal” goes inside a donor-funded and inmate-run hospice program at an Iowa maximum security prison. Documentarian Edgar Barens chronicles the passing of a World War II POW who became a hard-drinking hell-raiser. As Jack Hall’s failing health brings an end to his life sentence for murdering the dealer who got his younger son tragically hooked on drugs, it’s impossible to watch the short without pondering the strange twists of life and death. (The short also will air on HBO starting March 31.)

The twists don’t get much stranger than in the life-affirming “Facing Fear,” about a chance meeting between Matthew Boger, a gay former street hustler, and Tim Zaal, an ex-neo Nazi, at the Museum of Tolerance. The men realize they have met before: When Zaal’s skinhead gang beat up Boger and left him for dead 25 years earlier. Jason Cohen’s film simply yet effectively tells their incredible true story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The story isn’t nearly as uplifting, but the telling is just as incredible and effective in Sara Ishaq’s Arab Spring documentary “Karama Has No Walls.” Using mostly footage shot by two young cameramen who risked their lives to chronicle the events – and continue to film – it takes viewers on the ground in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in March 2011, when 53 peaceful protesters were gunned down by pro-government “thugs” and government security forces. The interviews with parents whose children died or were disfigured are as heartbreaking as the handheld footage is harrowing.

The most visually stunning of the contenders, “CaveDigger” mines the unique art of New Mexico “environmental sculptor” Ra Paulette who excavates and carves elaborately beautiful caves out of white sandstone. Documentarian Jeffrey Karoff’s film spotlights a sort of shovel-wielding Michelangelo so driven by his artistic visions that he clashes with his patrons over their commissioned caves almost as often as he does with his wife over how they’re going to pay the bills.

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