“2014 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary” plays Friday through Sunday at 11 a.m. at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 2:30, three stars out of four.
Feature documentaries seem to be embracing different kinds of cinematic storytelling, from the narrative sleight-of-hand of “Stories We Tell” to the self-reflexive “The Act of Killing.” Most short documentaries, though, stick to a more traditional format out of necessity, since they’re all competing for the same relatively narrow distribution channels, such as public television.
But you can do a lot within those restrictions, as shown by the five short documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year. (“Short” is relative — all five films are at least a half-hour long, likely to make them more attractive to television programmers).
For me, the knockout of the bunch is “Facing Fear,” by UW graduate Jason Cohen. The film presents two middle-aged men talking about their difficult years growing up — Matthew was a gay teenager thrown out on the streets of Los Angeles by his mother, while Tim Zaal was a burly, aggressive teen who fell in with a racist skinhead group. Cohen effectively builds suspense as he brings these two men towards an inevitable collision, but it’s what happened next, years later, that makes “Facing Fear” such a surprising and powerful film. It’s a film about forgiveness and tolerance, but it never pretends that either of those things come easy, and that struggle lies at the heart of the film.
Also very strong is “Karama Has No Walls,” a ground-level account of a horrific 2011 incident in Yemen in which 53 protesters against President Ali Abdullah Saleh were murdered by security forces. The story is told primarily through the video footage that two young men shot throughout the confrontation, and the film viscerally captures the chaos and terror of being trapped in such a situation. It’s not for the faint of heart, but unforgettable.
It’s also hard to shake “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” a film from HBO Documentaries that will also premiere on the channel on March 31. In some ways the film is very simple, looking at the final days of Jack Hall, an elderly inmate at Iowa State Penitentiary who is part of the prison’s hospice program. But as we see other inmates tenderly washing and caring for Jack, and we hear the sad-eyed old man talk about his life (he was a World War II veteran who likely suffered from PTSD), the film becomes a quietly beautiful meditation on life and death, and how we treat those around us, and ourselves.
The lightest film in the bunch is the spry “Cave Digger,” which follows an unusual and rather cantankerous artist, Ra Paulette, who creates gorgeous manmade caves out of the cliff faces and hoodoos of New Mexico. The caves, with their carefully curlicued walls and beams of natural light, are breathtaking, but the film tends to run on a little long and get sidetracked by Paulette’s personal life and disagreements with his patrons.
Finally, “The Lady in Number 6” tells the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor who survived the camps largely because of her virtuoso piano skills, allowing her to be placed in a special camp where she’d play on demand for the Nazi officers. It’s a worthy but familiar film.
I’ll be putting “Facing Fear” down in my Oscar pool on March 2, but wouldn’t be disappointed if almost any of these films ends up winning. It’s a strong collection.