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True Characters 

Two documentaries give us a look into interesting lives

click to enlarge "Cavedigger" is nominated for an Oscar for best short documentary.
  • "Cavedigger" is nominated for an Oscar for best short documentary.

Two short documentaries, each of which runs about 40 minutes, are included in this program, and each of these films introduces us to a memorable character.

“Cavedigger” by Jeffrey Karoff points its lens at a man named Ra Paulette, who carves caves out of the soft, ubiquitous sandstone found in northern New Mexico. It seems a singular artistic endeavor, even if it evokes visions of the Anasazi cave dwellings that dotted the area centuries ago.

What Paulette carves, however, seems better fit for use as cathedral than domicile. The carvings take years to complete and feature passageways, soaring walls into which designs are carved, and skylights that allow a person to have the anomalous sensation of being deeply underground yet exposed to the heavens. It goes without saying that Paulette is a man possessed by his visions — more an artist than a structural engineer, though what he does shares elements of both.

The program’s other film is “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” by Edgar Barens. Hall, a decorated soldier and POW during World War II, now spends his days in prison for life after murdering the person who sold his son drugs. Hall’s heart and lungs are failing, and we observe the last couple of weeks of his life as he’s moved from the infirmary to the prison hospice. A rare thing, this prison hospice is an exemplary model with its rogues’ gallery of life-term murderers who function as the unit’s loyal, sensitive caregivers.

Both documentaries feature intriguing characters, though they share a similar tendency to indulge their subjects. Tighter storytelling would probably enhance both shorts, but they receive extra credit for introducing us to characters who remain vivid after the lights come up in the theater. ♦

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