Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: Documentary Short Film

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

2014 ACADEMY AWARDS PREDICTION:
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

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1. CAVEDIGGER
Jeffrey Karoff

2. PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL
Edgar Barens

2. KARAMA HAS NO WALLS
Sara Ishaq

4. THE LADY IN NUMBER 6: MUSIC SAVED MY LIFE
Malcolm Clarke & Nicholas Reed

5. FACING FEAR
Jason Cohen

Notoriously bad at predicting the documentary short subject winners, I’ve only done so correctly once in the past four years, but I’m now convinced I’ve got the Academy voters figured out. Any time the film’s subject is Art Changed/Saved My Life, it’s a winner, unless there’s a nominee about kids (since, as we all know, inspirational kids trump all). If such a nominee isn’t available, the next best topic is disease/ deformity/(personal)medical issues. Form plays no part; it’s all about subject. This may sound cynical, but just look at the previous winners.

So, let’s start with the kids. None of the nominees focuses on children in any way. Karama Has No Walls, about the March 2011 Yemen uprising (inspired by the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square, the subject of one of this year’s Best Documentary nominees) briefly highlights a blinded child, one of the injured of the massacre that killed 53 in Change Square. His story is affecting, and his positive spirit (especially while surrounded by devastated relatives), endearing. But we don’t really get to know him or his family, and the same is true for the other participants and injured that the film fleetingly touches on. Sara Ishaq’s doc is an urgent, graphic account of the tragedy caused by a country’s oppression, but it suffers from a major lack of context, as well as an unwillingness to delve more deeply into the personal.

There aren’t any nominees this year that can truly be categorized as in the disease/deformity/med issues realm, but Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is the closest. An unsentimental profile of a WWII vet serving a life term for murder (he killed the drug dealer responsible for his son’s fatal addiction) in Iowa State Penitentiary, Edgar Barens’s doc captures terminally ill Private Jack Hall’s final days. Unsparing and captivating, the film subtly depicts the ways incarcerated men strive to be better whilst behind bars: one-time racist Jack befriends his African American cellmates, who in return, volunteer-run an in-jail hospice at which they bathe him, comfort him, and feed him during his final weeks. Don’t worry: It’s not a lesson-movie, but a thoughtful study on compassion. Unfortunately, like Karama, Prison Terminal never quite gets personal enough to make it truly effective.

Not really fitting into a favorite type of the Academy’s is Jason Cohen’s Facing Fear about a gay man beaten nearly to death by a skinhead in Hollywood. Twenty-five years later, by a twist of fate, the men cross paths, and forgiveness and eventually friendship, result. What should be an incredibly moving story somehow comes off as a slick advert for tolerance (or for, specifically, the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. where Boger works and where much of the film takes place). All the beats are there, but none of the heart necessary to pull it off as an affecting tale of tolerance. Nevertheless, this will still be high on the Academy’s list, so it’s a potential spoiler.

That leaves us with two Art Is My Life shorts. In my personal favorite, CaveDigger, 65-year-old Ra Paulette digs caves into the sandstone rocks of the New Mexico deserts. Sounds boring, but it’s the opposite: Paulette is an obsessive artist, crafting each cave to a client’s specification (sometimes going off on his own artistic tangents, to the commissioner’s hilarious frustration), with narrow archways and high ceilings leading into rooms with shelves and seating and intricate sculpting throughout. He goes it alone, with only hand tools (no drills or other machinery), and lovingly carves every inch. These caves are gorgeous works of art, and Paulette is a fascinating subject — stubborn, thoughtful, and insightful about his work — but he’s also introverted, and so largely remains a mystery. The emotional distance will cause voters to look elsewhere.

And there they’ll find The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. The title about says it all, right? Overlong and sentimentally narrated by Oscar-winning writer-director Malcolm Clarke, this short chronicles the life of concert pianist Aliza Sommer-Herz who, at 109, is the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust. She advocates the therapeutic value of music, which, along with a crazy-positive outlook, she passionately insists saved her life in Auschwitz. Such an infinite font of optimism and joy (which, ultimately, can be a bit much for us realists), there is no way the Academy will be able to resist the combination of her charm, the saving grace of art, and  the Holocaust. This is the clear winner, folks.

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