Friday, January 31, 2014

Select 2014 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

The subjects of this year’s two best Oscar nominated documentary shorts have some pretty unique talents, but Alice Herz-Sommer is in a class by herself. Still playing with verve at the spry age of 109, Herz-Sommer performed over one hundred piano recitals in the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) concentration camp. Taking strength from her music, she lived to tell and continued to find the beauty in life. Her story unfolds in Malcolm Clarke’s The Lady in Number 6 (trailer here), part of the annual two part showcase of Academy Award nominated short docs, which opens today at the IFC Center.

As a young girl, Herz-Sommer’s sophisticated Prague family often socialized with the likes of Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Something of a prodigy, she was widely recognized as one of the world’s top concert pianists by the time she was in her early thirties.  Then the Germans invaded.

Obviously, Herz-Sommer survived, but she would be no stranger to tragedy. Yet, her indomitable spirit is genuinely inspiring—not in a Hallmark card sort of way, but reflecting hard won wisdom and a tenacious love of music. Still razor sharp at 109, she is forceful screen presence, who never resorts to canned clichés.

No stranger to the subject of Theresienstadt, Malcolm Clarke was previously Oscar nominated for the documentary feature, Prisoner of Paradise, chronicling the life of Herz-Sommer’s fellow prisoner, Kurt Gerron. He includes enough historical context for those unfamiliar with the realities of the Potemkin concentration camp, but keeps the focus squarely on Herz-Sommer. He also has a great voice for narration and incorporates some distinctive original music, performed by Julie Theriault. Altogether, it is a sensitive and classy package, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

While he life circumstances are radically different, Ra Paulette, the subject of Jeffrey Karoff’s Cavedigger (trailer here) is another fascinating artist. Like the title implies, Paulette digs caves. He is sort of a subterranean landscape artist, whose work incorporates elements of architecture and sculpture. Frankly, Paulette comes across as a bit of a flake, but his dedication is impressive and his caves are truly a sight to behold. Some of his work is reminiscent of Granada cave homes, but on a much grander scale. It is real feat of filmmaking, spanning years and transporting viewers to the remote corners of northern New Mexico.

Ordinarily, Yemen would also be considered quite the exotic locale, but over the last two years footage of the Arab Spring uprisings have become almost ubiquitous. Sara Ishaq’s Karama has no Walls adds some particularly graphic images to the public discourse. Drawing on video shot by two remarkably young cameramen, Walls is surprisingly effective breaking down step-by-step how the Change Square massacre escalated. Yet, despite the anguished testimony of two grieving fathers (say, why don’t we the mothers on camera, as well?), the film has the look and trajectory of an extended BBC report. In contrast, Matthew VanDyke’s Not Anymore feels more cinematic, yet also more immediate.

Granted, Herz-Sommer’s story has been documented in Caroline Stoessinger’s widely translated A Century of Wisdom, but thank heavens Clarke got her oral history on film. Frankly, Paulette is not getting any younger either, but he seems to keep chugging along, just like Herz-Sommer. The best of the five, The Lady in Number 6 screens as part of the annual nominated short documentary showcase’s program A, along with the well intentioned Karama has no Walls. The intriguing outdoorsman outsider art documentary Cavedigger screens as part of program B, both of which open today (1/31) in New York at the IFC Center.