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

The stronger half of Oscar's 2014 short-doc category.

"Prison Terminal" and "Cavedigger" make up Program B of the short-doc category.

Two men who've spent uncommonly long periods alone -- one voluntarily, one not -- are the focus of this documentary program, representing the two longest films on the Academy's short-doc ballot. Though strikingly different in mood and style, the featurettes both benefit from engaging subjects and from knowing exactly how long to spend with them.

HBO Documentary Films offers Edgar BarensPrison Terminal, whose subject Jack Hall affords a view of the plight of elderly prisoners in the U.S. corrections system. Hall, a WWII veteran who didn't fare well back in the civilian world, recalls that any time he had a problem with someone after the war, his first impulse was to kill them. After losing a son to drug addiction, he acted on that impulse, murdering a man he says was bragging about dealing drugs. He's been in a maximum-security prison ever since.

For the last dozen years of that term, he's been under medical care, growing increasingly frail after a heart attack and bouts of pneumonia. We watch as, in the last weeks of his life, he enters a small hospice program funded by charitable donations and staffed by convict volunteers. Though viewers may be divided on Hall himself, an ornery cuss who was pretty clearly bad news in his day, few will fail to be moved by the younger men who care for him: The onetime proud segregationist has come to rely on black men who bathe him with washcloths, massage his back, and wheel him around as he says goodbye to cellmates and a son who made amends after years of estrangement. Keeping 24-hour watch over him in Jack's final days, the men clearly have a vision of how our prisons (where, we're told, around 20 percent of inmates are elderly) could deal more humanely with those who, whatever their crimes, need companionship after decades of exclusion from society.

Cavedigger, directed by Jeffrey Karoff, offers a more upbeat kind of isolation: Ra Paulette, a strapping man of 65, has spent the last few decades working alone in Northern New Mexico, digging caves. Using only hand tools and a wheelbarrow he carries to work sites on his back, he chips away at local sandstone outcroppings to uncover the many-chambered, peaceful places he envisions within them.

The spaces he builds are starkly gorgeous, illuminated by skylights dug into the ceiling and decorated by sinuous reliefs chiseled into the walls. But he usually doesn't get to finish them: Clients are thrilled to hire him, as he only charges what a day-laborer would, but usually they're satisfied with the result long before Ra thinks he's done. We see a couple of his near-complete spaces and can sympathize with those who, two years or so into construction, are itching to relax in their custom sanctuaries.

Paulette knows he's something of a character, and Karoff lets him itemize his eccentricities while getting outside testimony from clients, a former girlfriend, and the wife who sounds like she's not sure she should have signed on to be his breadwinner. The film doesn't overemphasize his quirks, though, and ends on an admiring note as the self-taught craftsman embarks, once more, on what he hopes will be his crowning achievement.

Production Company: Shorts HD

Directors: Various

No rating, 85 minutes