A common thread does run through the five short films nominated for Best Short Documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards. Each tells of individuals who have persevered, driven by an internal compass that assures them their pursuit is righteous.
A remarkable example of carrying on cheerfully is that of concert pianist Alice Herz Sommer, whose life is recounted in Malcolm Clarke's "The Lady in Number 6" (Canada, 38 min.). Born in Vienna in 1903, Sommer played her way through the Holocaust, when assigned to a concentration camp where the prisoners provided entertainment for the Nazis. She survived, convinced that life would always be filled with joy. Indeed, the lively 109-year-old Sommer revels in the uplifting power of music, and still plays piano effortlessly.
Jack Hall is another World War II survivor, but his life devolved into alcoholism and violence. Now 82, he's serving a life sentence for murder at an Iowa prison. He's also dying: "I'll get out of here one of these days — in a box." Edgar Barens' "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" (USA, 40 min.) uses Hall as the focal point to examine the utility and humanity of the prison's hospice ward. It provides Hall with comfort, though perhaps not as much as the lifers who voluntarily staff it — murderers redeemed through caring for their own.
A life after violence is also the focus of Jason Cohen's "Facing Fear" (USA, 23 min.). As a homeless gay 13-year-old in Los Angeles, Tim was severely beaten by some skinhead punks. By chance, years later, he encounters his assailant, Matthew, and the film shows the two embarking on a mutual healing process.
In "Karama Has No Walls" (Yemen, U.K. and UAE; 26 min.), director Sara Ishaq interviews participants (including citizen cameramen) in a 2011 political rally in Sana'a, Yemen, that turned deadly. She stitches together raw (and disturbing) footage, with first-person accounts of the demonstration and its bloody aftermath. A less-covered corner of the Arab Spring, but another potent reminder that little in the public arena these days occurs undocumented.
On a lighter note is Ra Paulette's quixotic pursuit to hand-dig elaborate caves out of New Mexican sandstone. They are more like gorgeous underground houses, replete with sun roofs, wall art and built-ins. But as Jeffrey Karoff's "Cavedigger" (USA, 39 min.) explains, little about Ra's work has been easy, taking a toll on his relationships and taxing his spirit. The caves, however, are simply amazing.
All the shorts are straightforward presentations, good stories immeasurably enhanced by visuals, whether it be Sommer's knotted fingers, blood spilling from a protester's head, the sunlight in Ra's cave or the look of fear on a tough guy's face as his life ebbs away.