Over the last couple years, I’ve come to believe that it is in the Shorts categories that the real cinema of the Academy Awards happens. Film buffs love to refer to the Oscars as their version of the Super Bowl—an analogy that is very revealing. There’s a reason why indie films are rarely recognized by the Academy: The Oscars are often less about rewarding cinema itself and, like the Superbowl, more about revelling in the commercial spectacle of it all—the successful films are the ones that know how to play the system and appeal to the right demographics, the ones that are adept at baiting and predicting and PR. Moreover, as the conversations surrounding this year’s awards demonstrated, the Oscars are plagued by a lack of racial and gender diversity, which means that they sideline a large, very well-deserving section of filmmakers and audiences.
The shorts don’t magically remedy all these problems, but they offer a refreshing, more progressive alternative. Since they lack the distribution and commercial prospects of features, they’re also free of the restrictive requirements of “mass appeal” and are often motivated simply by a desire to make good quality cinema. The short format also allows for the kind of innovation that feature films, solidified into formulaic character arcs and three-act plots over the years, do not permit. Most importantly, without the awkward distinction between “foreign” and American films, the shorts category tends to be much more diverse and recognizes narratives from all over the world.
This year’s stupendous live-action shorts collection, for instance, brought together shorts from Kosovo, Palestine, Austria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They span wars, religious kerfuffles, family conflict, and romance. The United Kingdom’s “Stutterer” (which wasn’t my favorite) took home the prize, but this was a race in which everyone was a truly a winner. Below are reviews of the live-action shorts, ranked in descending order of my preference. But really, it doesn’t matter which one I liked the best or which film “should” have won. What matters is that all of these films deserve to be noticed, watched, and appreciated.
1. Alles Wird Gut
Austrian director Peter Vollrath’s “Alles Wird Gut” (Everything Will Be Okay) stretches a two-sentence plot over a 30-minute runtime, and the result is absolutely riveting.
The film starts innocuously enough, with divorced father Michael picking up his eight-year-old daughter Lea for the weekend. Soon, however, one gets the sense that something sinister is brewing underneath Michael’s anxious fidgeting and the protracted, idle chitchat between father and daughter. Then things take an ominous turn: Lea’s phone disappears mysteriously, and Michael procures an emergency passport for her and sells his car. As the clues start to add up and you realize where the film is headed, it’s like watching a perfectly-acted and -paced trainwreck unfold in slow motion.
In an interview, Vollrath described his screenplays as “treatments”—he gives his actors very little written dialogue and encourages improvisation. This approach works magnificently in this short, mainly because the actors rise to the challenge with remarkably unaffected, natural performances—especially the young Julia Pointner, who plays Lea. Thanks to them, the film somehow manages to be both very quotidian and slice-of-life and a meticulously crafted, nail-biting thriller.
2. Ave Maria
The premise of Palestinian director Basil Khalil’s “Ave Maria” is like a complicated, religiously inflected riddle: While driving through a rural area of the West Bank, an Israeli family’s car breaks down in front of a remote little convent run by five Catholic nuns. The family, consisting of Orthodox Jews, needs to call for help—but then the Sabbath begins, which restricts them from using the phone. The nuns, meanwhile, are observing a vow of silence, so they are limited in their ability to help. Religious animosity further strains the interactions between the two groups. How do the three Jews, eager to leave Arab territory before night falls, make their way out?
How they collectively, creatively solve this puzzle is the meat of this film, which manages to pull off a commendable feat: extracting deadpan humor out of an interaction between cultures and religions without poking fun at the religions themselves. One of the strengths of this film is its visual wit. The camera expertly captures the comedic nuances of the mise-en-scène: for instance, the Jewish patriarch’s look of alarm when he sees pork shanks in the convent kitchen, or the flies buzzing around the toppled head of a statue of the Virgin Mary as characters bicker in the background.
As a standalone, the ingenious concept and clever telling of “Ave Maria” make it a winner. However, compared to the gut-wrenching emotional intensity of the other shorts, this film’s breezy, lightweight comedy risks being taken less seriously.
In a diverse and global shortlist, Irish director Benjamin Cleary’s “Stutterer” stands out as very “millennial Hollywood” (which is perhaps why it won the Oscar): The editing is snappy and stylistic, the visuals are bright and saturated, and the tone is steeped in solipsistic irony. The young, charming protagonist, whose communication abilities are severely crippled by his stutter, is faced with a panic-inducing dilemma: The woman he has been courting for the past six months over Internet chat is in London and wants to meet him in person. Every moment of “Stutterer” is incredibly charming—the protagonist’s self-deprecating and witty interior monologue, which throws into stark relief his difficulties with speech; the flirty Facebook chat banter between him and his online lover; the heart-melting twist at the end. On the plus side, it is an earnest and delightful film, but on the flipside, it is a rather simple and cliché story.
4. Day One
The lone American entry in this category, “Day One,” is based on AFI student-director Henry Hughes’ own experience serving two combat tours in Afghanistan. The film documents an Afghan-American woman’s first day of service as a military interpreter. During a terrorist arrest, the alleged terrorist’s pregnant wife is injured. In the midst of a clash of cultures, languages, and weapons, the interpreter is forced to deliver the baby despite having no medical experience or training.
This was one of my least favorite films of the lot. Don’t get me wrong: “Day One” is an accomplished and hard-hitting—occasionally even hard to watch—piece, whose performances and production values are quite astounding for a student film. Nevertheless, for a movie that firmly situates itself in a space riddled by topical questions of race, religion, gender, and politics, it’s curiously unclear what the film is really trying to say. There are whiffs of what seems like a commentary on Islamophobia, or on the place of women in the hypermasculine realities of war. However, the film invests more in shocking its audience with the extremities of war than in fleshing out these themes or its characters. On the whole, it comes off as pandering rather than thoughtful.
Jaime Donoghue’s “Shok” (“friend” in Albanian), Kosovo’s first Oscar-nominated film, is also set in a war: the Kosovo War of 1998. Based on true events, the plot revolves around two young Albanian friends, Oki and Petrit. The two boys ride around happily on Oki’s new bike until a menacing Serbian soldier decides he wants it. This starts a series of incidents of military violence and intimidation that leads to a truly heart-shattering conclusion. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that its emotional punch is acutely felt at a time when war and violence are making refugees of millions all over the world.
“Shok” is a powerful, excellently acted film (so many great performances by children this year!), and it sheds light on a terrible war not known to many. Its flaw, though, is that it can on occasion be heavy-handed. It has a superfluous, sentimental frame story that makes the entire central plot of the film a flashback. Moreover, its sustained close-ups of sobbing children, the dramatic music that plays as the Albanian civilians, forced out of town by the Serbian army, walk out together in slow-motion—all these touches feel unnecessary for a film that is already incredibly heartbreaking, especially given that its subjects are young children.
First published in Post- Magazine on Mar 3, 2016. Illustrated by Jenice Kim.