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Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts: United Under the Banner of "People Are Amazing" 

Wednesday, Feb 5 2014
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To ascribe a general theme to the Academy's chosen contenders for superlative short-form documentary, let's borrow a line from prelapsarian Woody Allen: "Human beings, wow." Just a few degrees away from some wry Christopher Guest leg-pull, Jeffrey Karoff's commendably sincere Cavedigger profiles a self-taught New Mexico sculptor of underground architectural artworks. Says one friend/client, "When he has a shovel in his hand, he's like a coke addict with piles of coke." Quite. Other, more sober-minded films in this batch seek wisdom from re-examining violent confrontations. Respectfully gathering participants' astonished camcorder footage and solemn recollections, Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls chronicles Yemeni protesters joining the Arab Spring and incurring chaotic and deadly violence. Bay Area filmmaker Jason Cohen's Facing Fear smartly probes the happenstance reunion between a gay man, now a manager at the Museum of Tolerance, and the former neo-Nazi punk who beat him unconscious in an L.A. alley decades ago. Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed's The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, a forgivably gauzy portrait of the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor, opens on her gnarled hands at the piano, bouncing through Bach with elegance and genuine feeling. As a girl, the now 110-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer once played the piano for her mother's friend Franz Kafka; today she cites the "intellectual atmosphere" of one's upbringing as crucially important and considers her life experience uniquely enriching. Taken together — along with the riveting additional nominee Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, about a dying elderly prison lifer and his fellow-inmate hospice workers, and premiering on HBO March 31 — these docs do make clear what a peculiar little species ours is after all.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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