The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentaries, Program A: Film Review

Hot Spot Films
Trio of docs appeal more to our sympathies than our aesthetic judgment

History-making conflict and surprising resiliency feature in the second half of the Academy's short-doc nominations.

The weaker half of this year's short documentary Oscar ballot, this theatrical package offers three films that wouldn't be much out of place sandwiched into a TV newsmagazine or as enhanced content on a newspaper's web site. At their best, they serve as reminders of what a human being can endure, and even thrive after surviving.

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The closest of the three to straight journalism is Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls, which looks at political protests in Yemen through the eyes of those who demonstrated in 2011. Two local cameramen caught shocking footage as peaceful demonstrations in Sana'a's "Change Square" were assaulted -- first blocked off from surrounding neighborhoods with a brick wall, then firebombed, then subjected to a long sniper assault that killed 53 and injured a thousand more. Ishaq pairs this frightening raw footage with present-tense interviews with the men who shot it and fathers of young men who protested. Scenes of the aftermath in a field hospital, with doctors operating on dirty floors, offer the most immediate access to the horrors inflicted on those who stood up for human rights.

In Facing Fear, the violence is all past-tense: Matthew Boger was a gay youth hustling on the streets of Los Angeles when he was attacked by over a dozen neo-Nazis -- kicked repeatedly with razor-studded boots and left for dead. Decades later, he accidentally met one of his attackers: Tim Zaal, a reformed skinhead who had been invited to speak about his experience at the Museum of Tolerance. Jason Cohen's film hears the story from both men separately before interviewing them together, watching as they give what is now a famous presentation about prejudice and forgiveness to schoolchildren and acknowledge the miracle of their present-day friendship.

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The program's most enjoyable film by far is, surprisingly, the one about the Holocaust: Malcolm Clarke's The Lady in Number 6 stars Alice Herz Sommer, who at 109 (during filming) is its oldest known survivor. Though Clarke does spend plenty of time on Sommer's experiences during the war (she was interred at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she and friends survived because they were gifted musicians), he sets the stage with a transporting account of her youth in Prague -- where Kafka and Mahler were family friends, and the young concert pianist appears to have led an idyllic life. Watching her speak of her son's prodigious appreciation of music is heart-warming enough -- she recalls him weeping at three years old while hearing a record, saying "the music is so beautiful" -- but scenes of this alert, bright-eyed conversationalist holding court in her living room, saying things like "I love everyone" and "I'm full of joy" and quite clearly meaning them, are the stuff of feel-good award-winners.

Production company: Shorts HD

Directors: Various

No rating, 95 minutes