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Movie review: Oscar-nominated documentary short films

by Brandy McDonnell Published: February 21, 2014
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Alice Herz-Sommer, now 110, the world's oldest pianist and oldest Holocaust survivor, is shown in a scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary short subject "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life." Photo provided.
Alice Herz-Sommer, now 110, the world's oldest pianist and oldest Holocaust survivor, is shown in a scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary short subject "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life." Photo provided.

A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.

Movie review: Oscar-nominated documentary short films
The compact and compelling mini-movies make up one of the strongest slates in recent memory to vie for the best documentary short subject prize at the Academy Awards, airing March 2 on ABC. The Oklahoma City Museum of Art will show the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts Tuesday through Thursday as part of its annual Oscar Tune-Up.

As unlikely as it sounds, one of the must-see movies of 2013 is actually a surprisingly cinematic 39-minute portrait of the oldest living Holocaust survivor.

Few films have moved and inspired me as profoundly as the Oscar-nominated short documentary “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” an elegantly crowd-pleasing portrayal of now-110-year-old concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who still practices her classical repertoire daily and is frequently visited by two fellow Jewish artists who survived the Nazi concentration camps.

Director/co-writer Malcolm Clarke’s compact and compelling film is part of one of the strongest slates in recent memory to vie for the best documentary short subject prize at the Academy Awards, airing March 2 on ABC.

“The Lady in Number 6” chronicles Herz-Sommer’s upper-class childhood in Prague, where composer Gustav Mahler and writer Franz Kafka were family friends; her days at Theresienstadt, a feeder camp for Auschwitz where the Nazis sent Jewish celebrities and musicians to film them for propaganda pieces; and her golden years in England, where she still lives independently in a London flat.

“Sometimes it happens that I am thankful to have been there because I am richer than other people,” she says of her Holocaust experience. “Oh, they complain, ‘this is terrible.’ It’s not so terrible.”

The unfailingly optimistic and grateful Herz-Sommer credits music for saving her life – and not just because the Nazis kept her around to play 100 concerts in the camp.

“Music is God. In difficult times you feel it, especially when you are suffering,” Sommer says. Her lips are as wise at dispensing wisdom as her fingers are at creating music:

“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she later declares. “On me. Not on life – on me.”

New Mexico environmental sculptor Ra Paulette is shown in a scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary short subject "CaveDigger." Photo provided.
New Mexico environmental sculptor Ra Paulette is shown in a scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary short subject "CaveDigger." Photo provided.

While Herz-Sommer’s tale is the front-runner, the other short doc nominees also paint intimate portraits while delving into universal issues like mortality, forgiveness and artistic expression.

Another tear-jerker, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” goes inside a donor-funded and inmate-run hospice program at an Iowa maximum security prison. Documentarian Edgar Barens chronicles the passing of a World War II POW who became a hard-drinking hell-raiser. As Jack Hall’s failing health brings an end to his life sentence for murdering the dealer who got his younger son tragically hooked on drugs, it’s impossible to watch the short, which will debut March 31 on HBO, without pondering the strange twists of life and death.

The twists don’t get much stranger than in the life-affirming “Facing Fear,” about a chance meeting between Matthew Boger, a gay former street hustler, and Tim Zaal, an ex-neo Nazi, at the Museum of Tolerance. The men realize they have met before: When Zaal’s skinhead gang beat up Boger and left him for dead 25 years earlier. Jason Cohen’s film simply yet effectively tells their incredible true story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The story isn’t nearly as uplifting, but the telling is just as incredible and effective in Sara Ishaq’s Arab Spring documentary “Karama Has No Walls.” Using mostly footage shot by two young cameramen who risked their lives to chronicle the events – and continue to film for the cause of truth, freedom and democracy – it takes viewers on the ground in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in March 2011, when 53 peaceful protesters were gunned down by pro-government “thugs” and government security forces. The interviews with parents whose children died or were disfigured are as heartbreaking as the handheld footage is harrowing.

The most visually stunning of the contenders, “CaveDigger” mines into the unique art of New Mexico “environmental sculptor” Ra Paulette who excavates and carves elaborately beautiful caves out of white sandstone. Documentarian Jeffrey Karoff’s film spotlights a sort of shovel-wielding Michelangelo so driven by his artistic visions that he clashes with his patrons over their commissioned caves almost as often as he does with his wife over how they’re going to pay the bills.

The Oklahoma City Museum of Art will show the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts Tuesday through Thursday as part of its annual Oscar Tune-Up. For more information, call 236-3100 or go to www.okcmoa.com.

MORE SHORTS

The Oscar-nominated animated short films will screen at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28-March 1 and 12:30 p.m. March 2 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

The Oscar-nominated live-action short films will screen at 8 p.m. Feb. 28-March 1 and 3 p.m. March 2 at the museum.

For more information, call 236-3100 or go to www.okcmoa.com.

-BAM


by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more...
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