The Oscar Nominated Shorts are a unique and vital part of the awards season experience. It’s an opportunity to explore short subject cinema, something we don’t view in our day to day lives unless you count cat videos on Youtube and also an outlet for world cinema as the shorts tend to include content from nations you would maybe wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I’m fascinated each year with not just the output but which shorts category comes out the strongest. This year the Short Documentaries prevail with the emotionally gripping A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and animated narrative of Last Day of Freedom wherein 2015 they were the low point.
This year the roughest category was the Live Action Short which I all felt had interesting ideas, just not all well executed. They fall between not as heavy as the docs but not as light as the animation and god knows I don’t understand how the Academy picks them but I feel pretty bad for the shorts that couldn’t beat out some of these.
The shorts categories gives the most opportunity for comedy to shine amidst the prestige of the Oscars. Ave Maria is a Palestinian made film about a Jewish family whose car crashes in front of a silent nunnery on the West Bank. While just reading into the religious politics of all those items sounds detrimental, writer/director Basil Khalil finds humor in the cross culture communication that must take place between the parties such as the nuns vow of silence stopping them from initially helping the family to the husband refusing to operate machinery because of Shabbat. Their religious restrictions make it difficult to problem solve until they break their traditions to serve the greater good. The ultra proper nuns and manic Jewish family played well off each other’s energies making all equally charming in their flaws. The weakest aspect of the short was the filmmaking. The transitions were stilted as each fade to black felt like a TV show throwing to commercial. I wouldn’t discount the film entirely on this but the storytelling definitely outweighed the production.
No audience member wants to feel like they are being emotionally manipulated because it makes the assumption that the audience can’t find the emotional connections on their own and must have their hand held as they are taken on the journey. Shok follows two childhood friends living in Kosovo amidst the Serbian occupation in the late 90’s where their friendship is tested as they face altercations with the Serbian forces. What bothered me aside from the poor performances from the child actors, was how much the writer/director Jamie Donoghue wanted you sympathize with the Albanian plight. The short begins with text informing the viewer that it is based on true events conveying that Shok is a personal story for this filmmaker but I believe that anyone making a short is doing so out of passion. You don’t get into short subject filmmaking for the money. Whether you told me this was a true story or not, I would have wanted the film to create the emotion on its own rather than falling back on its real world context of why you should care. The other reason I disliked the true events statement is that it comes off as a crutch that if I don’t like something storytelling wise, I can’t blame the writing because he’s just recounting events as they happened. I indeed found the short melodramatic at times and the grown-up version of the child visiting the village which bookended the film was too heavy handed. I respect presenting a real life experience that greater Western society may not have been a part of but I don’t need a film to tell me I should be more emotionally invested.
Everything Will Be Okay
This German short was the most cinematic of the five. From an eight year old’s perspective we watch a daughter who while spending the afternoon with her divorced father is possibly being kidnapped and taken out of the country. The disorientation of the story unraveling puts you right in this POV even if the camera isn’t forcefully putting you at her level. You can sense the slight uneasy of her father that we as an audience pick up on that she may not but when he turns and his frustration flares, we feel just as scared and stressed as this child who is unsure of what’s going to happen next. I slightly wish I understood the circumstances more but I realize the filmmaker is intentionally placing you a confusing situation because the complex reasoning for why a father would need to run away with his child is very advanced for this girl to understand. The short more feels like a piece of a larger story and where its ending seems incomplete. It’s a very harsh blackout where I would have preferred more closure or a softer let down coming right after the climax. Because of this I don’t love it as a short but is a great start to a feature.
The British are somehow amazing at shorts because every year they present the most consistently well made products. Stutterer is a brief and sweet character study about a man struggling with a stutter that isolates him from society. The journey is him breaking out of his shell to meet with a girl he has been chatting with online. It’s charming, witty and sentimental but because it’s well crafted with it’s directing, sound design and acting it doesn’t come off as cheesy as it should. Putting us in this guy’s head where he can speak with ease contrasted with the challenges in reality makes him sympathetic and so likable. I’m putting my money on England winning this category again.
My issue with Day One is I don’t understand why it’s telling this story. As an AFI thesis film it has all the qualities of a well made short with direction, cinematography and acting but it doesn’t seem to realize that when you present such an uncomfortable subject, you have to have good reason for doing so. The story is of an Afghani interpreter for the U.S. Army wherein her first day in the field she encounters a pregnant woman whose husband may have terrorist affiliation. The film centers around an altercation which leads to an emergency birth. There’s concepts for themes dealing with gender inequality in the middle east as well as within the armed forces but paired with almost seeing a baby’s arm cut off, the ideas never quite congeal. I couldn’t put my finger on what the film wanted to express and then in the credits where it states that filmmaker, Henry Hughes, served with an interpreter who inspired this story, it made me just believe this could be a recounting that has no answer. If Hughes is just replaying out something that occurred, I still think he could have found a way to clarify the intentions of his themes. Better than Shok but not by much.