Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscar Shorts: Documentary (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Oscar Shorts: Documentary

Existentialism, forgiveness and the bend and sway of the heart are the themes of the year in the Documentary Short category. Your cinematic eyes are guaranteed to travel far and no selection here is ephemeral or short sighted.

From Canada, "The Woman in Number 6, is a biographical vignette of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor at 109. Like a musical zen mistress with a bit of Ghandi and perhaps a hint of Yoda, Sommer has the facility to hover above nearly every traumatic event in her life and continue playing Chopin at the piano. At 40, the Nazis sent her to Theresienstadt where she played over 100 concerts all under the blight of impending death. Alice survived. Her husband died in Dachau in 1944. Alice's son lived to become a cellist. The only time she is moved to tears is when she recounts his passing in 2001. As a young girl she went on walks with Kafka and Mahler. Faced with the Third Reich she showed a buoyancy and resilience to carry on as if the grey shock of death had no position within her.

She plays with music as her beacon. Her trademark smile as a centenarian, makes the Dalai Lama seem like a sourpuss and your heart will soar with every remark Alice Sommer makes.

"Karama Has No Walls" from Yemen, is an unsettling firsthand account of the protests in Sanaa. The film, featuring real time footage from smartphones, records a landscape no less apocalyptic than a Goya canvas. We might wish that the camera moved away in the maelstrom of blood, fire, and blacked out eyes, all too extinguished.

But it does not.

Here is a film where a smartphone is a divining rod of truth, depicting a "Friday of Anger" in which a huge fire became conducted by thug and security forces with much blood spilled, including the shooting of a young boy, and the gory loss of his eyes.

"Facing Fear" recounts the story of Matthew Boger, who as a male hustler was attacked by Tim Zaal, a neo-nazi by a boot in the face. Twenty five years latter they meet again, seemingly by accident. Boger, who as a young teen was violently rejected from his mother for coming out, wrestles with revenge. He was left for dead, bleeding on a dark L.A. street. At first Tim is an uncommunicative cement bull, yet somehow he apologizes, and both of them collaborate on a presentation. Boger who has a lightning scar on his nose (which could be an ironic SS insignia) is a real life Harry Potter- --his slow smile a testament against violence. Both Zaal and Boger appear to see something of themselves in each other and recognize their shadow-selves. Zaal alone, however, feels the most fragile. As Zaal is covered with Aryan tattoos and walking with a cane, he limps along, heavily pressed within the angry outlines of his history. Yet despite all, Tim makes a conscious choice to exhale and pursue a friendship with Matthew, albeit shaken by guilt.

"Cave Digger" highlights the offbeat sculptural work of Ra Paulette who creates huge caves from holes in northern New Mexico. Paulette, who may well be a spiritual contemporary to Edward Leedskalnin in his Coral Castle, works without fail through a romantic trial and crushing disappointment to create huge hollowed out structures that look like space capsules left by H.R. Giger. Paulette is one man, single minded in intent, unfettered by business or agreements. Through every setback, he digs and digs, obsessed by creating a mirrored retreat for a desert goddess known only by him that commerce cannot call.

Finally, there is a taut portrait entitled  "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" describing the existence of prison lifer Hall, incarcerated for the murder of a drug dealer. Hall was not a sympathetic character before prison. He was a violent man and an angry bigot, yet as he is shown here, withered and struggling with pneumonia, your heart may very well pull for him. While it is true that Hall murdered a man without remorse in the manner of a vigilante, prison has blanched the beast inside him. It comes as a surprise, too, that he is a WWII veteran and that he has a heart and a very present (if wobbly) moral center. Hall with his cauliflower nose and interested yet stubborn eyes, wants to live as long as he can. Especially poignant though, is Hall's bond with one black inmate in particular, Herky, who stays with him in hospice, through all spells of isolation and last moments.

Once, Hall was shell of anger, but now he is an accepting and even brave pale plant of a human, chatting and making some sarcastic small talk with Herky, and the nurses, with a wit almost on par with Hunter S. Thompson.

The sight of James Hall, seeking any and every wisp of oxygen he can find, with his angry and jagged tattoos still in plain sight, has split his being into two: one ignorant and repulsive, the other kind and gentle--a man at his end.

This disparity hits like a one two punch and if I had to pick, "Prison Terminal" would be a winner.

These documentaries make an eclectic and eccentric tapestry. Although short in duration, each selection by itself is as rich and fulfilling as any feature. The Documentary Short upholds its place as one of the year's strongest and most provocative Oscar categories.

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