Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Five Documentary Shorts Nominated for an Oscar

Each year five short documentary films are nominated for an Academy Award, but only a limited number of Americans ever get the opportunity to view them.

In independent or art house theatres, they may play for a few weeks. Mainstream theatres owned by corporations like AMC do not program them at their theatres.

When the award is given during the Oscars, the vast majority have no idea what will win because not only have they had no chance to view them but they also have not even heard of any of the films.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will typically have some kind of comedian come on stage and make a joke about the category to possibly hold Americans’ interest. What fails to be communicated is how many filmmakers had to make short films before they could get their start as feature film directors. 

I saw all five documentary shorts nominated for an Oscar. In all of the films, one finds compelling characters willing to open up about truly personal aspects of their lives and give us an opportunity to leave the shells of our existence momentarily. 

The opportunity to watch all of these films in a theatre is wonderful. And I am sharing some thoughts on each of this year’s nominees because I think this category is one of the highlights of the Oscars. 

Karama Has No Walls

It is March 18, 2011, in Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen. University students and other youth are in the square in an area that has developed into the epicenter of Yemen’s uprising. The day is Jumaat Al-Karama, a Day of Dignity. What transpires will alter the future of Yemen forever, and the film shows what happened in and around the Square that day.

Shot courageously by Nasr Al-Namir, who was 17-years-old, and Khaled Rajeh, who was 23-years-old, thugs brought machine guns to the Square where a people known to love their weapons had given them up and committed to protest. A wall had also been built to separate the square, filled with demonstrators, from a neighborhood.

The wall was already flammable, but thugs poured petrol over it. Youth in the Square that day were not prepared for what happened. Shots were fired into the air, and the wall went up in flames. Security forces arrived. Snipers also fired into the protesters. As Rajeh says in the film, he was warned that the snipers were targeting him. He tried to move yet, as he did, he felt the snipers were following him.

The film shows the brutally injured and those fatally wounded as they carried to a Field Hospital in the Square. “How could you do this, Ali?” ask men with blood on them shout into the camera.

The horror of what happened is made personal through the recollections by parents of two young boys—one named Anwar who was killed that day, the other named Saleem who lost his eyes. But their sacrifice is kept in perspective because they helped make a revolution possible that led to Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down from power after ruling the country for 33 years.

There are many factors contributing to despair and violence in Yemen today. A National Dialogue Conference that was to bring about a new democratic future has faltered. US drone strikes have exacerbated issues, fueling the rise of al Qaeda in parts of Yemen. Yet, unmistakably, there was a moment when young Yemenis were willing to turn to peace and boldly take a stand for a new free, equitable and just Yemen. This film powerfully shows the risk of nonviolent protest in a society where demonstrators are likely to get shot and honors those who were in the Square on a day that many Yemenis say everything changed.

The Lady in Number 6

"My world is music," she says. "Music is a dream." It is beautiful. It is like a religion for her. Playing Beethoven, Bach, Brahms—classical music—gives her such an energetic spirit. And it has kept her alive for 110 years.

Alice Herz Sommer is the oldest pianist. She still plays piano. She was born in Prague and lives in the United Kingdom. She played for famous artists when she was young, like writer Franz Kafka, who knew her mother. She also is the oldest known Holocaust survivor, having been sent to Theresienstadt, which was a feeder camp for Auschwitz . At the camp, she was able to play piano since Theresienstadt was a camp where Nazis let artists play music so they could broadcast propaganda to the world and claim they were not seriously abusing Jews.

It is hard not to be inspired by Sommer’s spirit and love for music. She survived the Holocaust. The Nazis considered music to be a luxury and not for Jews so they took away her piano after they invaded in 1939. But she and two of her friends, who survived as well, do not seem to have allowed their horrific experiences to define who they are. One of them even says she “never felt like a victim.” She felt like an “observer.” Which is not to suggest she was not mistreated, but, as she states, “Survival is a very complex matter.”

Watching Sommer play piano and still remember what notes to play at her age (she’s 109 years-old in the film) is magnificent to watch on its own. Yet, what really makes this an exceptional film is Sommer’s character and her commitment to not allow pessimism or hate into her life. She is going to keep on living and be happy. Music makes her happy. In fact, just the thought of music makes her happy.

Music does not only have the power to help a person survive suffering and hardship, but it can also keep one’s spirit eager to wake up and live another day when most would think you haven’t got much life left to live. As she says, the older we are, “the more we are aware of the beauty of life.”


A middle-aged man, Ra Paulette has a passion for creating art through the digging of caves and he happens to  be really good at it too. Every cave he digs is with hand tools. He is captivated by the aesthetic of creating space in the sandstone of this area in New Mexico, which he suggests is the only place where he would he could do what he does. To him, it is transformative. It provides people a “break in the continuity” of their lives.

How does one live off digging caves? One would have to be pretty well-off to spend years digging because it makes them feel spiritually whole.

Fortunately, Paulette has his wife to provide some semblance of financial security. Paulette has tried to market his craft. He has created spaces for customers with thousands of dollars to spend on paying him $15/hour to dig. But that can be frustrating because sometimes they won’t want to pay him any more and will stop him from finishing the transformation of the space.

Paulette is driven, committed to digging that cave that will be his magnum opus, and there are few stories that are as visually gratifying as the transformation of rock into spaces of beauty.

Facing Fear

The story is unquestionably compelling. When Matthew Boger was 13-years-old, his mom kicked him out of the house for being gay. He had to live on the streets and, in Hollywood, he was nearly beaten to death by young  neo-Nazi punks. Then, twenty-five years later, Boger met one of the assailants who left him to die on the street one night .

Tim Zaal, who  once believed in white power, came to the Museum of Tolerance in Berkeley, California, where Boger is the director. Boger now had an opportunity to talk about the rage left inside of him after he was kicked violently by Zaal.

Zaal had guilt inside of him too. He struggled with what he had done and was willing to express that to Boger.

The serendipitous nature of it seems to have been a factor in convincing the men to talk about what happened that night. Boger forgave him. They now do speaking engagements together to teach people to not let themselves hate.

Is the positive upbeat nature of the film a downfall of the movie? Does one wish the chain of events between Boger and Zaal could be presented in a more stark context to amplify what happened between them?

Finding forgiveness is inspiring. Most gays who are victims of white hate probably may never have what Boger and Zaal have been able to accomplish. Yet, from that reality, the film derives its purpose and life in society.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

At the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, private donations fund hospice care for terminally ill prisoners. The idea is that, even if you are a murderer or rapist, you have done the time and deserve to spend your last few days with care, some semblance of comfort and others assisting you as you die.

The film centers on Jack Hall, a World War II veteran. Like many who go to war, he returned home and all he knew how to do is kill and how to kill quickly. He became an alcoholic. He also was a segregationist or  believer in white power.

While there is a great opportunity, the director pays only minimal attention to the racial issue that could be explored. All the prisoners taking care of him are African-American. Herky is in prison for murder, but, as he says, he thought when he started doing this it would be about what he could give to patients. He realized with people like Hall that when he takes care of them there is an incredible feeling you get back that is indescribable. And, in prison, Hall is friendly toward these men. He doesn’t seem to have any problem with them touching and caring for him.

But, regardless of that, it broaches the issue of how best to deal with the increasing number of elderly prisoners who are terminally ill and will die in prison. Do they just die in their cell? Is the pain and suffering of dying part of the punishment of being imprisoned? Or is there some program with prison inmates and prison medical staff to ease the pain and suffering because that may be the humane thing to do?


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  7. writeabove answered: Thank you Hospice
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