Heavy Themes With Moments Of Merciful Lightness
When it comes to the annual Academy Awards telecast, there are always two big questions: “Who’s hosting?”, and “Why’s it so long?”
Regarding the second question (the answer to the first one is Chris Rock, and surely he’ll prove memorable), the bandied solution usually involves eliminating the “technical awards” and the short film awards. To do so would be a big mistake.
The Oscar telecast earns its length simply by publicly democratizing the art form (if for only part of one night). Despite all the insufferable industry self-congratulation and flounced limousine liberalism the event inevitably delivers, the Oscars are the only awards show that allows vital behind-the-scenes “no-names” to share the stage with the world’s biggest movie stars. Short filmmakers, artists not so different from you and I, are given face time during one of the most-watched global telecasts. Their work matters just as that of the feature film technicians do, in that it shows that filmmaking, as hard as it truly is, is still an art of the people. And although the nominated films are not widely known, that is slowly changing. In our age of shortened viewing time and increased internet availability for distribution, actually getting to see the nominated short films prior to the Oscars is all the more possible. Couple that with the continuing effort of theatrically showcasing all five shorts of each category (live action, animated, and added this year, documentary) in major cities, and the chances to see and experience these previously elusive works is a far greater reality.
This year’s batch of Live Action Short Films is a weighty one, peppered with a few glimmers of light and chuckles. There isn’t a dud in the bunch, which collectively runs about 107 minutes. Here are this year’s nominees for Best Live Action Short Film:
Ave Maria Directed by Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont
If you watch the nominated Live Action Short Films in alphabetical order, Ave Maria is a deceptive foot to start out on. The film is quite good, if also a lark. Seemingly operating from the storytelling starting block of “find a good joke, and tell it well”, filmmakers Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont (neither of whom, like all of the filmmakers in this showcase, has been previously nominated) manage to do just that, while also coming from a place of cross-cultural and mixed ethnic commentary. The blend is successful, even if the film, at a comparatively scant 15 minutes, is done no favors in its “first play” placing on the list. (Perhaps the theatrical showcase will vary the order, to break up the longer, heavier films with this and the similarly lighter Stutterer?) A foreign language work with roots in Palestine, France and Germany, Ave Maria tells the tale of what happens when a cantankerous Jewish couple and the husband’s fussy elderly mother’s car breaks down in from of an isolated nun’s convent located in the sparse West Bank region. Since it’s the Sabbath, the religiously observing travelers cannot operate the phone to call for help, but due to their vow of silence, the nuns can’t speak on the phone. Together, they must put aside their differences in cartoony quirky form, and work to get these stranded people back on the road.
Day One Directed by Henry Hughes
Telling a story that is based in true experience, the 25 minute production Day One tells the dread-filled narrative of a female interpreter for the U.S. Army as she navigates her first day on patrol in Afghanistan. Ethan Hawke’s character in Training Day comes to mind in terms of tension-filled tales of rookies immediately thrust into extreme situations. A lot happens in Day One‘s short running time: An explosion, an arrest, and most significantly, a problematic birthing situation that arises in the field. In short, when the pregnant wife of an enemy bomb maker suddenly goes into labor, our protagonist finds herself on the medical-service end of a very complicated home birth. Story-wise, the beats run all over the place – but this is mostly to the film’s credit, and a reflection of the remembered reality that the film is based upon. The tone is somber but urgent, and the production is solidly cinematic as it properly evokes the feel of something like American Sniper. All in all, it’s a humanitarian film that pits combatants together in a troubling situation with a common goal: Life. Of the five nominees, Day One may be the entry that has the most going for it across the board.
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut) Directed by Patrick Vollrath
What starts as a feel-good divorced daddy/daughter outing slowly takes a very uncomfortable turn in this German-produced short film. After a hugely overindulgent trip to the toy store in which eight year old Lea is given free reign to pick out anything thing she wants – okay, okay, make that two items of whatever she wants! – the night continues with a stop in a photo booth (a silly one… then a normal one…), then a trip to the airport… Soon enough, it becomes apparent what is happening. Young Lea clearly loves her father, but as the thirty minute short unreels, we too begin to unreel at her utter helplessness as she’s whisked along as a key part of a scheme she has zero say in. Equally apparent is her father’s desperation to simply be with his daughter, even as we cannot root for him. Everything Will Be Okay is a tough watch, but a worthwhile one. Shot with a handheld immediacy and favoring tight framing and hard straight cuts, the film is a jarring trip into one young child’s perfect weekend that ends in lifelong heartbreak.
Shok Directed by Jamie Donoughue
If you’ve made it this far, and you’re questioning whether the emotional weight of this showcase is too much for you, it might be best to turn back now. Shok, telling the story of two young boys living in war-torn Kosovo circa 1998, is the most harrowing of the bunch. Even as the political and military conflict at the center of everything remains unexplained and therefore perhaps a bit murky for those of us who weren’t there and may struggle to remember who exactly was fighting over what in the conflict, the film packs its punch regardlessly. Shok is a tragic and devastating look at what it is to grow up amid guns, occupation and the constant threat of violence, all built upon a bed of racism and hatred of “the other”; two cultures pitted against one another that are all but indistinguishable from one another to outsider eyes. Perhaps that is an unintentional takeaway by this lifelong Westerner, but in the end, it only adds to the point that writer/director Jamie Donoughue is getting at: That the monumental human tragedy of it all lies in the distortion of what a normal childhood should be. Look for Shok to take home the gold on Oscar night.
Stutterer Directed by Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage
The twelve-minutes of anticipation of a hoped-for meet-cute that is Stutterer arrives as a small if effectively-realized mercy following the sheer emotional weight of the three preceding longer shorts. That’s not meant to marginalize this nice little tale of a young single guy with a debilitating speech impediment and his “should I or shouldn’t I?” decision to meet a female online acquaintance in person for the first time. But fact of the matter is, as well made and well acted as Stutterer is, it can’t quite transcend it’s “awwww”-inducing premise. What the film does very well is quickly establish not only these characters via their online exchanges, but also just how right they likely truly are for one another. The girl on the other end, although only a still smiling headshot and a series of text bubbles, feels as lively and vibrant as any non-manic pixie dream girl could ever be in the flesh. As for the main character, the film’s primary innovation is a complexly realized voiceover montage effect that demonstrates his inner dialogue. It creatively details his intelligence, his spark, and yes, his struggle with his own self-image due to his inability to speak well. We root for him to overcome his fear, and just go meet the girl already. In this, Stutterer‘s voice is well-realized.