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Short Documentary Oscar Nominees Debut In Tempe

 This year’s Oscar nominees for short documentary debuted on Friday at the Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. One of them is “ Cavedigger," about a very unusual artist in northern New Mexico.

“Sometimes I feel more like an archaeologist uncovering something that’s already there. It’s pretty down and dirty work. I’ve tried to tell young guys, ‘You could do this, you could have a cave of your own!’ Doesn’t register," said Ra Paulette in the film's trailer.

He quite literally digs caves out of sandstone cliffs. Documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff first learned of Paulette’s work when he and his wife met a couple after buying a home in New Mexico.

“And they said, ‘We’re having a cave made on our property.’ So we thought, what is that about? And they said, ‘Come and take a look, you’re going to be surprised.’ And that was an understatement," said Karoff.

Karoff describes the walls of the caves as being hand-carved, covered in organic shapes.

“A lot of the caves actually have sculptural details on the walls, but the way in which the cave comes together is almost womanly," said Karoff.

Paulette has made 14 caves over the last 30 years. Karoff’s film covers the sculptor’s process, which is about two-thirds digging out the caves and one-third carving the walls. It also touches on his occasional  disagreements with patrons who hire him to build a cave, which Karoff said can be a bit bemusing.

“He’s the only guy who’s ever made caves for the sake of art, and yet, when people commission these works, they have an opinion about how long they should take or what they should look like. I sort of wondered, where did you form those opinions? Based on what?" asked Karoff. "Ra himself says, ‘If I could compare myself to the guy down the street, then I would have a way of determining whether I’m too slow or too demanding, but I’m the only guy doing it.”

At 67, Paulette does not his think his body will let him do it much longer. Right now, he is working on a magnum opus, a series of 10 caves.

Karoff’s documentary “Cavedigger,” along with the four other Oscar nominees are now playing at the Valley Art on Mill Avenue.

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Nick Blumberg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2014.