With February fast approaching, it seems appropriate to write a post about that problematic behemoth of the film industry, the Oscars. I admit to being fairly new to the scene: typically, my interactions with the Academy begin and end with me Googling red carpet looks the day after the awards ceremony. This year, though, I wanted to be a little more in touch. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to dive in to all the complicated (and frankly upsetting) politics of the bigger categories like Best Film or Best Actor. I decided to start small; or rather, short. For this post I watched the 2016 nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, an emotionally taxing set of five films with casts and crews from all over the world.
The list includes Ave Maria (Palestine, France, and Germany), directed by Basil Khalil, Shok (Friend) (UK and Kosovo), directed by Jamie Donoughue, Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay) (Germany and Austria), directed by Patrick Vollrath, Stutterer (UK), directed by Benjamin Cleary, and Day One (USA), directed by Henry Hughes. Although these films offer much-needed international perspectives, you will notice that all of the directors are men; even in less popular categories like the Short Film, the tendency of the film industry (and particularly the Academy) to prioritize primarily male voices, stories, and perspectives is readily apparent, and should be considered critically. Still, putting aside questions of identity politics (however necessary they may be), I will begin by heartily recommending that you watch these films, difficult as they are to sit through without shedding a few tears.
I have never been one to watch short films; they often don’t play in most theaters, and they can feel somehow inaccessible, made solely for the film fanatic who is particularly literate in the finer points of film technique. After all, these short movies just don’t have the space to tell long stories; out of a sort of necessity, their strength often comes from careful attention to design and cinematography. These films, though, proved me wrong. It’s true that I thought each was well shot (Shok giving its viewers a careful contrast between the beauty of the Kosovar countryside and the ugliness of state-perpetrated violence and poverty; Alles Wird Gut moving the audience skillfully from the bright lights of a fair to the cool, colorless space of an airport), each also told an essential human story with impressive precision.
Because of the brevity of these films—the longest clocked in at half an hour—every line of dialogue, every shot, had to be meaningful. There could be no wasted action. Thus, these films packed every minute with an emotional force that I don’t often see in feature length movies.
Each of the nominated films open on a scene that gives us a sense that something important is at stake, at risk, or in danger of being lost: within the first few minutes of Ave Maria we hear (but do not see) the sounds of a car crash; the camera moves outside, where we get a close-up of the head of the Virgin Marie statue, knocked off in the crash, oozing what looks like blood onto the sandy earth. Stutterer opens on the main character, Greenwood, trying to overcome his debilitating speech impediment to call the telephone company; the woman on the other end repeats, “Hello? Is anyone there?” as we watch his mouth working frantically to produce sound. The use of close-up in both cases feels particularly powerful; the emotional crux of the piece literally fills the screen (in the former, the darkly silly and accidental meeting between people of differing faiths is pictorialized in the wounded statue; in the latter, a man’s struggle to connect despite his stutter is made visual with a prolonged gaze at Greenwood’s lips.)
The other three films also open on a weighted scene: a speeding car almost runs over a child’s bicycle lying in the road (Shok), a man paces in front of a gated house, buzzing the doorbell over and over (Alles Wird Gut), a woman tries to operate a makeshift showerhead and a man barges in on her (Day One.) The viewer is thrown immediately into the action, waiting for what will happen next and knowing that it must happen soon. Each film becomes something of a masterpiece in tension; even those without scores, like Alles Wird Gut, evoke mood very effectively through the use of diegetic sound (especially those sounds of modernity: the whine of a motorcycle, the whoosh of a highway, the ding of a cellphone, all of which create a feeling of manic speed or stress.)
Though the films vary in lightness (ranging from an unflinching reflection on the Kosovo War to a sweet piece about a young man’s first date with his online girlfriend), none of them lack for emotional honesty. Above all, they are believable: in Stutterer, Greenwood sends flirtatious messages over Facebook (“6 months? Have I really been enduring you for that long?”); in Ave Maria, Moshe’s wife and her mother-in-law bicker constantly throughout their fifteen minute ordeal. These conversations feel like the ones we have with our own friends and families every day; thus, even as the characters’ worlds are different from our own, they never venture into the realm of film set. Because we are allowed to see these quotidian, or even goofy moments—Lea, in Alles Wird Gut, sticks her tongue out in her passport photo; in Shok, Petrit begs his mom to let his friend sleep over—we are willing to follow these characters into whatever dark places the filmmakers take them. And, almost without exception, we are taken somewhere dark.
Even in Ave Maria, a comedy set in the West Bank, there is the sense of a lingering threat despite the light, humorous tone; the Israeli family, when presented with a vehicle by the silent nuns, worries about passing the checkpoint in a car that looks “too Arab,” saying that the guards “would shoot [us] on sight.” In the end, the family transforms the “Arab” car into a Christian one, roping a neon cross on top and blaring hymns from the windows, and the threat of violence disappears in the sheer silliness of the image.
The other films, for the most part, offer no such relief. More often than not, things seem to go from bad to worse; children get shot, mothers die in childbirth, a father clings, sobbing, to his young daughter as the police try to rip his hands away. As a fellow theatergoer said, “My takeaway is that everything is definitely not going to be okay.”
Still, this level of emotional drama may be somewhat par for the course for short films like these. Shorts require far less funding than feature length films (although most of the budgets were not yet available online, Stutterer’s listed budget is a meager $7,200; a small sum, compared to movies like Brooklyn, which has a budget of roughly $10 million); this means that the filmmaker has a bit more creative freedom to do as he (or she, in other cases) pleases. With longer films, it’s hard to sustain the intense misery present in these shorter pieces: for one thing, two hours is a long time for a filmmaker to stay on one painful note; for another, the audience simply wouldn’t stand for it. With films as short as these, however, there is enough stamina to maintain a somber attitude, and less of a need for a film to be friendly to a broad audience.
Because each of these films is truly the vision of its director, they are quite different from one another. Still, if there is anything that ties these many films together, it is their searing humanity. If the material is at times familiar (the two boys in Stok make perhaps an overly likely pair, with the one being too big for his britches, and the other playing the innocent who dies in the end to teach the former a lesson; in Day One, divorcee Feda begins by proclaiming that she never wanted children, but emerges from the movie singing to a stranger’s baby with a rapturous look on her face), it is never unconvincing. Because of the elevated stakes, the fast pacing, and frankly wonderful performances (I found the child actors particularly impressive), I could forgive the things I could not understand about each film. Even those pieces that left us with an unresolved ending, as Alles Wird Gut did, felt persuasive; in fact, the fractured, brief nature of these stories mimicked life almost more effectively than a longer movie could. The form felt true to the disordered pace of life in the ‘real world’, where stories don’t always arc perfectly, and there often isn’t a discrete ending.
As I have learned from the above films, sometimes it is better to be brief, so I’ll leave you with this: the short film, though it may seem intimidating at first, is a medium well worth exploring, and the nominated films this year are especially impactful. To quote the Bard, “though [they] be but little, [they are] fierce.” You can watch the 2016 Live Action Oscar Shorts in theaters now (if you’re in Baltimore, the Charles has been showing them nightly!), or wait until February 23rd, when they will be available online. Be sure to bring some tissues with you when you go.