Movie reviews

5 superb short documentaries vie for an Oscar

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I am almost (but not quite) speechless in describing this year's crop of Oscar-nominated short documentaries -- which you mustn't miss the chance to see at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Melwood screening room in Oakland this and next weekend -- before we learn the winner on March 2.

Why almost speechless? Because all five of the entries are so superb, so deserving of the award and so emotionally devastating -- not for the fainthearted.

'The Lady in Number 6'

'Oscar Short Documentaries'

Where: Melwood Screening Room, Oakland..

When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-15; 2 p.m. Feb. 16.

Directed by Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed, Canada/USA/UK, 39 minutes.

At 109, hale and hearty Alice Herz Sommer is the world's oldest concert pianist -- and oldest Holocaust survivor. From beautiful footage taken in her London old-folks home, we learn she was born in Prague (1903) into a highly cultured Jewish family that counted Mahler and Kafka among friends. Alice lived the musical-prodigy dream until 1939, when she -- and thousands like her -- ended up in Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration show-camp for artists, where she gave hundreds of Chopin concerts: "I played because it was the only thing that gave hope," she says, as we watch incredible documentary proof of the fact. How twisted were the Nazis? Dr. Josef Mengele made her play Schumann's "Traumelei" for his amusement. "Survival is a very complex matter," she tells us in this terrific story of courage and endurance. "I never hated. I am full of joy." She and this film are life-changing. Alice still plays Bach -- as well as Scrabble. Her homely face, by the end of the doc, is perhaps the most beautiful you'll ever see.


Jeffrey Karoff, USA, 39 minutes.

New Mexico environmental sculptor Ra Paulette, 65, carves elaborate sandstone caves, driven by artistic visions that often conflict with those of his patrons. His astoundingly massive designs seem to uncover and reinvent God's own. Mr. Paulette is an untrained but intuitive genius of an engineer, fashioning his architectural ideas with only the most basic tools -- pick, shovel, wheelbarrow -- in the sandstone equivalent of Michelangelo's marble.

'Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall'

Edgar Barens, USA, 40 minutes.

World War II veteran Jack Hall is a bird in a not-so-gilded cage. He killed his son's drug dealer 21 years ago and has been in Iowa State Penitentiary's maximum-security section ever since. Now, he's a terminally ill 82-year-old, facing his final days with the assistance of hospice care provided by prison workers. "Why don't you just shoot me and get it over with?" he asks, as we see the combination of exhaustion and panic in his rheumy old eyes. An old prisoner-pal named Herky provides love and sponge baths. An estranged son visits. About 20 percent of federal and state prisoners are elderly and in terminal shape. This HBO film is relentlessly downbeat but relentlessly revealing: It's not about the death, it's about the dying.

'Karama Has No Walls'

Sara Ishaq, UAE/UK/Yemen, 26 minutes.

When Yemeni student protesters joined others in the Arab Spring, demanding an end to President Saleh's 33-year autocratic rule, Yemen's government responded with an attack that left 53 dead. This painfully powerful doc shows amazing scenes of the huge crowds -- complete with popcorn and cotton-candy vendors -- as well as the sorrowful fathers of missing sons Anwar and Saleem. Yemen's armed population of 25 million has 62 million weapons (most of them made in the good old USA). Harrowing footage by a 17-year-old cameraman includes a boy whose eyes were shot out. It is wrenchingly difficult -- and important -- to watch.

'Facing Fear'

Jason Cohen, USA, 26 minutes.

Gay 13-year-old Matthew Boger endured a savage beating by a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads in Los Angeles. By chance, 25 years later, he meets up with one of them, who says, "I don't know if I could forgive somebody the way he's forgiven me." They're currently on tour together, for the benefit of L.A.'s Tolerance Museum, the memory of Matthew Shepherd (murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in October 1998), and all the young victims of homophobic bullying today.

See 'em to believe 'em. You'll be emotionally exhausted but glad you did.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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