One attends the annual roundup of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts with a sense of duty — toward the issues presented, toward underfunded filmmakers doing important work, and, most critically, toward your office betting pool. The selection, as always, says more about what hot-button topics Academy voters think are worthy and less about the quality of the filmmaking, which, in any event, is generally high. Taken together, this year’s five nominees, presented in two programs at the Coolidge Corner, aren’t as strong a group as last year’s contenders for best documentary (short subject), but they showcase bravery and spiky individualism in refreshing ways.
The weakest of the five — if still an inspiring and often delightful experience — is “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” about Alice Herz Sommer, who at 110 is (as of this writing) the oldest living Holocaust survivor and certainly the most irrepressible. A classically trained pianist, Sommer lost her husband to the Nazis but found herself at Theresienstadt as part of the concentration camp’s orchestra. Rather than a parade of historical horrors, director Malcolm Clarke has made a celebration of optimism — the beauty that Sommer finds in music extends to the world and, for her, nullifies its darkness. This is a admirably novel, if nearly perverse, approach to the Holocaust, but the short is weakened by lack of focus and over-length.
“Karama Has No Walls” spotlights a different kind of stubbornness, that of men documenting history as it happens. The film is directed by Sara Ishaq but is primarily made from video footage shot by Nasr Al-Namir, Khaled Rajjeh, and other youthful protesters during the bloody March 18, 2011 crackdown by gangs and government forces in Yemen’s Change Square. Fifty-three were killed, many by rooftop snipers, and thousands of men and children were injured; the images are graphic, chaotic, and suffused with moral outrage.
Jason Cohen’s “Facing Fear” deals with a more intimate drama of reckoning. Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal first met 2½ decades ago when Boger was a homeless gay teen on the streets of Los Angeles and Zaal was the punk rocker who almost kicked him to death one night. By their next encounter, in 2010, Boger was running programs at LA’s Museum of Tolerance and Zaal was an ex-skinhead seeking absolution by speaking to youth groups. The two are now fast friends, and this disarmingly direct film is the story of the often bumpy road that got them there.
All three shorts are in Program A at the Coolidge. Program B includes “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” a film by Edgar Barens that was financed by HBO and will premiere on the pay channel March 31. The larger picture is of hospice care for prisoners at the end of their life sentences, but the film is most moving as a case study of one man, a decorated WWII vet and German POW who killed his late son’s drug dealer. Hall’s a tough bird and so are the volunteers, convicted murderers all, who care for him in his final illness, but “Prison Terminal” turns out to be a profoundly tender experience.
Then there’s Jeffrey Karoff’s “CaveDigger,” my personal favorite in this category and a portrait of an artist/eccentric whose works are astonishing interior landscapes. Ra Paulette looks like a retired math teacher but he has the blue-eyed certainty of an obsessive, and the vaulted, sun-dappled caves he digs in the sandstone outcroppings of northern New Mexico are realizations of an intense private vision. Paulette argues with his clients, doesn’t make much money, and risks cave-ins on a regular basis, and still he lives for the next hole in the ground he can turn into something beautiful. He’s as stubborn as that Holocaust survivor or those Yemeni cameramen — an embodiment of the urge to keep living, no matter what, captured on film.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.