Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Documentary Short – Survivors of different stripes dominate the race

02.26.14 3 years ago 2 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Back in the days before online streaming, Best Documentary Short was the wild card of every year's Oscar pool — without seeing the nominees, which are usually equivalent in terms of profile (low) and previous recognition (little to none), there's no way of knowing which one would win. These days I do get to see the nominees beforehand, and you know what? There's still no way of knowing which one will win — this is surely the most evenly matched race of the night, consisting of at least three highly different survival stories (and one of heartbreaking demise). There's not one nominee that can be discounted here.

The nominees are…

“CaveDigger” (Jeffrey Karoff)
“Light-hearted” isn't exactly the word, since there's a wry melancholy to the entire enterprise, but the least solemn of the nominees in terms of subject matter is this engaging portrait of earth sculptor Ra Paulette, whose astonishingly intricate, hand-carved dwellings in the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico — lending new meaning to the term “man-cave” — really have to be seen to be believed. Much of the film of simply an awestruck showcase of Paulette's process and output, but where it gets interesting is in its examination of his brittle relationship with commissioning clients, and the ensuing conflict between artistic impulse and business obligation. It's a dilemma that should be familiar to any kind of artist, and it lends extra weight to what otherwise seems like an entertainingly offbeat episode of “Grand Designs.” There's probably not enough emotional pull in first-time director Karoff's film for the win, but it's a welcome change of pace in the category.

“Facing Fear” (Jason Cohen)
One nominee that should really land an emotional gut-punch — and yet felt to me too packaged and too rigidly structured to get there — is this study of reformed prejudice and forgiveness in contemporary Los Angeles. Cohen's film relates a fairly remarkable story: 25 years after being brutally beaten in the street by a gang of homophobic white supremacists, a formerly homeless gay man coincidentally comes face-to-face with his remorseful attacker at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance — for which this film plays as something of a PSA. Their gradual making of amends is touching, but Cohen imposes a portentous narrative style — separating the principals as they tell their stories in parallel — that is a little much for this slender 22-minute film (the shortest of the nominees) to sustain. Still, its issues will register with a number of voters.

“Karama Has No Walls” (Sara Ishaq)
The one subtitled (and non-American) nominee in this category, Ishaq's film is the most journalistically impressive of the lot, conjuring the tension and urgency of a thriller in its eye-level account of the Yemeni Revolution of 2011 — specifically the events of March 18, the Friday of Karama (Dignity), in which 53 anti-government protestors were killed when snipers opened fire on their non-violent demonstration. The film brings us first-hand impressions of that day via the footage of two young cameraman caught up in the fracas — as such, we're given unfiltered testimonies from victims of the attack, including a blinded child and his devastated family, and several others mourning the dead. “Karama” offers a selective perspective, and it's not long on political detail, but as a feat of you-are-there documentation, recording and relaying the unimaginable, it's vivid, bruising stuff that could well take the prize. (As Kris pointed out, meanwhile, it's also ideal companion viewing to Doc Feature hopeful “The Square.”)

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed)
It's easy to be cynical and say, going on the past Academy form in this category — and several others besides — that the Holocaust film is obviously the one to beat in this category, but Clarke and Reed's film would be a formidable contender even if that weren't such a familiar refrain in this race. Clarke has some history with Oscar: he won this very category in 1989 for terminal-disease study “You Don't Have to Die,” and received a doc feature nod for 2002's “Prisoner of Paradise.” Like the latter film, “The Lady in Number 6” is a study of a Holocaust survivor, in this case the bright, alert, 109-year-old Czech concert pianist Alice Sommer, who matter-of-fact telling of her life story and her unquestioning forgiveness of her oppressors is both quietly moving and inspiring. (Sommer sadly passed away last week, which would make a win for the film doubly poignant.) It's not the most inventive nominee in the running, but it's polished and affecting.

“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” (Edgar Barens)
The longest of the nominees — at 40 minutes — is also the most cinematically ambitious and, for me, the most intellectually and emotionally engaging. Still, it's hard to know if voters will be riveted or repelled by this punishing, HBO-produced human drama, which, true to its title, documents the protracted death of terminally ill prisoner Jack Hall, a convicted murderer whose own criminal backstory is questionable, yet never played for cheap pity. Shot in 2006 — its journey to the screen has been a hard one — the film is more concerned with the day-to-day realities, indignities and small, empathetic concessions of his in-prison medical care, and close relationships formed with his fellow inmates-turned-caretakers. It's work that would fit credibly alongside Werner Herzog's own recent documentary investigations into the American prison system; unrelentingly close in its focus on Hall, it may be too intense and unsparing for some voters, though it's sure to find a very passionate core of admirers.

Will win: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”
Could win: “Karama Has No Walls”
Should win: “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall”
Should have been here: “Vultures of Tibet”

I can't honestly pretend that I view enough eligible works in this category to weigh up this field against what it could/should have been, but it is one dominated by deeply felt, carefully constructed works of richly varied thematic content. I fell hard for the lyrical, pragmatic spiritualism of “Vultures in Tibet” at the Edinburgh fest and was rooting hard for it to appear on the shortlist, but this is eminently credible race.

What do you think deserves to win Best Documentary Short this year? Vote in our poll below.

How do you think this race will pan out, and is there a contender you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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