2014 Oscars – Documentary Shorts


Here are reviews of all 5 nominees for Best Documentary Short.

Karama Has No Walls

This short feels like The Square’s little brother (Which is nominated in the feature category). Instead of Egypt, this film takes place in Yemen around the same time as other uprisings in the region. There’s a big sit-in during the Karama holiday when violence erupts. In seconds, peaceful protesters become martyrs and a few brave revolutionaries filmed the chaos. 53 people were killed and hundreds wounded.


It doesn’t have the scope of The Square or the same keen eye, but the footage is alive and vital. At one point a man is shot who was literally standing right next to the cameraman. When the screen is filled with smoke and dirt and bullets are flying every which way, it cannot help but feel urgent. The film doesn’t give much background or dive into the politics of the situation, but this kind of first-hand record has its own kind of value.



Ra Paulette is an artist but his canvas is the Earth. This is a simple profile of the man, his methods, and his motivation. Using only hand tools he digs breathtaking temples in the ground. These “caves” can take years to make, but Ra seems to relish the process and the solitude. While Ra is a singular talent, his no-nonsense demeanor isn’t all that captivating. The film’s philosophical over informational approach can be frustrating. It’s not as illuminating as it thinks it is.


But his creations are quite amazing. That’s what the film should have been selling. One interesting passage deals with a commission he never finished. It gets at some logistics of how he does what he does while commenting on certain realities and sacrifices artists must make. But that’s a small part of a long short that offers little more than a pretty view.


Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

There’s a lot of good in this short, but it’s also confused and problematic. As the title implies, it’s about an elderly prisoner, and WWII veteran, on his death bed. But the film is really trying to be about non-state funded hospice services. Being terminally ill is hard enough without the the burden of being behind bars. The special hospice program is selfless and kind and the film obviously wants to advocate for it to be standard practice.


Focusing on just one dying man, instead of many, dilutes that message. Jack’s background and personality overshadows the bigger picture. Seeing Jack’s fear, regret, and acceptance is emotionally strong material. But the unfiltered access also straddles the line between documentary and snuff film. It’s uncomfortable and lingers just a bit too much. You end up thinking more about how terrible death is instead of how it can be accommodated.


The Lady in Number 6

Alice Sommer lives in North London. She is 109. She is still full of joy and sharp enough to play her piano everyday. She also happens to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. That’s a great hook for any movie and this short is smart enough to stay out of the way and let a great tale be just that. There’s no real style or flash to the piece, but it doesn’t need it.

Alice is a remarkable character and she tells her story without nostalgia. She doesn’t choke up or embellish. She’s blunt and honest. Her heavy accent could have used some subtitles but that’s a minor quibble. The takeaway is that despite such a full life with the worst tragedies, Alice doesn’t dwell on the negative. She’s almost grateful for the bad stuff because it made her stronger. She believes in making your own happiness. A sentimental idea for sure, but the film allows it to be inspiring.


Facing Fear

Years ago a skinhead punk crossed paths with a homosexual street kid in Los Angeles. The misguided supremacist nearly killed the runaway. Flashforward many years, and now the kid and the punk are working together at the Museum of Tolerance spreading a message of forgiveness. The two men relay their own stories about how they evolved from that hate crime to today.


It’s pretty straightforward material. It doesn’t over analyze that past and it doesn’t pretend the world exists is in a bubble either. There’s nothing grand about it but the message justifies its existence. Sharing is what lends the story power, so this short is a natural extension of that. There’s always a danger that something like this can start to feel preachy, but the brevity prevents anything from feeling drawn out.


The shorts hit VOD February 25th.


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