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2014 Oscar Nominated Short Documentary Film

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Jeff Breuer
2014 Oscar Nominated Short Documentary Film
on Feb 12, 2014 at 3:20:52 pm

Let me start off with a quick warning that Scott's predictions in the animation category are worth a lot more than mine here. Last year I was not even in the ballpark. But this is a new category for me and I am learning! It was a decent show this year, although I thought lasts year's show was noticeably more engaging. Anyhow, here we go!

The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life

The movie starts off about a hundred-and-something year old woman who plays the piano everyday in her retirement complex but evolves into a story about a woman who had music to help her through captivity during the Holocaust (she is the oldest Holocaust survivor). The lady is a fairly engaging and interesting to listen to and as you listen to her story you cling to the life lessons she brings to you. The filmmakers also did a decent job of using stills to tell the story in unique ways. But the ideas seemed largely commercial/entertaining than artistic. The story itself felt too long and slow and the emotional arcs were not terribly strong.

Karama Has No Walls

Karama follows the young men in Yemen during their peaceful protest of their government during the Arab Spring. Title cards are used, and not well, to set the scene up and it took a while to get into, but once up and running it was good. We follow the young men through footage they shot of the event and we bounce between the kids, a couple years older and the families of a couple of the fallen protesters. There was not a lot of inventive storytelling here, but damn was it a good story and the people recalling the events matched with the footage they shot was exception, engaging and emotional. At the end we are left with this great emotional story and then just a couple little title cards to get us back down, a bit anticlimactic.

Facing Fear

Like Innocente, this is another glossy doc made in LA. A boy is kicked out of his house at age 13 for being gay and is living off the streets in LA when, by chance, he comes across a group of neo-nazi skinheads that beat him nearly to death. Fast forward about 30 years, the boy who was beat up now manages this tolerance mueseum of sorts and this reformed skinhead is giving lectures there about his reformation. The two talk and find out the reformed skinhead was the dude that nearly beat him to death years ago. Awkward! This one has all of the bells an whistles you would expect and is solid work. The trouble is that it doesn't feel as moving as it sounds. Part of the problem is that is all interviews with b-roll. There is not a lot of visual stuff that stands on its own.

Cave Digger

Whenever I see the title of this movie, Dave Matthew's "Grave Digger" gets stuck in my head. In Cave Digger we follow Pa Paulette, a literal cave digger. In New Mexico there are mountainous areas that are made of this special type of hard sand that makes it possible to dig and sculpt by hand. Ra is an artist trapped in a commercial world. His work is absolutely stunning, but he likes the mountains to speak to him as he creates the work, but his clients care about things like a budget, and time. Though it is not a terribly emotional ride, it is a good character study and the last zoom out shot is really beautiful.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

For those of you playing the home game, Prison Terminal is an HBO doc. It's a solid story, well rounded, a bit gritty (fitting) but well put together. Jack Hall is a decorated war veteran who came home (most likely with undiagnosed PTS) and killed a drug dealer so now he is spending life in prison. The jail hospital has two new hospice rooms that the prisoners put together. This is where we will watch Jack Hall spend his last days. Prison Terminal has good characters and it is interesting to watch prisoners care for each other. When a lower third pops up you see what they are in for, so you will see a normal looking guy praying and sincerely caring for somebody and see that he is serving time for murder. It challenges the conventions by which you want to perceive them. On the negatives it felt a bit preachy at times and the movie really dragged for a while with a long montage of him laying in the hospice bead.

Who's Gonna Win?
Sorry, I really don't know what to say here. Slant Magazine had a good article that might give you some more perspective. They make the argument that movies about the Holocaust rarely go home empty handed, but I don't think that is enough argument for a piece that feels more commercial to win. Cave Digger has had a bit of a buzz around it, but it is not terribly emotional, no cause to get attached to and you don't walk away feeling changed.

When I left the theater my thought was, Facing Fear will win hands down. It's just too much like Inocente, a glossy doc with a story LA voters could connect to. But ultimately I think there is just too much talking and they sacrificed could have been a much more emotional and moving piece.

That leaves us with Karama and Prison Terminal. Both are moving pieces that deal with issues. To me, Karama was the clear emotional winner but it was really lacking technically and it is hard to overlook the struggles they had getting into the story. Prison Terminal would be a solid, safe pick but it just doesn't feel fresh, original and exciting as Karama. Prison Terminal felt like it could have been made twenty years ago, which I actually liked about it, but I think that hurts it's Oscar-a-bility.

Right now, I think I'm going for Karama. I didn't mention this earlier but it does have a lovable kid who went blind because of what a bomb did to his face. This will sound horrible, but how does that not win? It was a side story completely separate from the main narrative, which was a little distracting, but still very engaging. So right now it is Karama, however, about ten minutes ago I was convinced it would be Prison Terminal. Knowing my luck though, it will be Cave Digger.

Good luck!

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Scott Roberts
Re: 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Documentary Film
on Feb 13, 2014 at 10:00:19 pm

[Jeff Breuer] "There was not a lot of inventive storytelling here, but damn was it a good story and the people recalling the events matched with the footage they shot was exception, engaging and emotional."

I like that kind of documentary storytelling better (in the Karama one) than the Facing Fear idea of just having people talk to the camera and not really show much of anything else relevant in the B-roll (or any footage worthy of corresponding to the actual event). It always just feels like a 30 minute TV show, or just a bunch of people telling a story at a forum, not so much a documentary film.

Cave Digger looks like something cool to watch, but not the likely kind of film that would win over something more political or emotional.

Hey, I just checked, Prison Terminal wasn't on HBO On Demand... >:( I hope they put it up there closer to Oscar day, I wanted to check it out...

Karama seems like the best bet for me, too. I think they'll deny The Square the best feature length doc (for The Act of Killing), and they'll give it to Karama to let something of that nature/culture/world issue type thing get *some* kind of award. Unless The Square wins, then they probably wouldn't want two downer middle east docs going home with statues. Hey, when are they going to let something goofy win a doc award...? Like a documentary about a litter of puppies crossing a daisy field or something? :)

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Jeff Breuer
Re: 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Documentary Film
on Feb 13, 2014 at 10:48:12 pm

[Scott Roberts] "Hey, when are they going to let something goofy win a doc award...? Like a documentary about a litter of puppies crossing a daisy field or something? :)"

You and me Scott! Let's bust this thing wide open. Let's make the first Oscar winning Puppy vs. Daisy Field documentary short. Nobody dies. No cause is involved. Tim knows enough about the Oscars, he should be able to give us the right formula and then we just apply it to puppies and daisies, right?

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