Though the Oscars ceremony celebrating films released in 2020 was pushed back to late April, 2021 due to the pandemic, everything else about the annual Academy Awards is much the same as ever. That includes the three short film categories honoring the best in live action, documentary and animated films with runtimes below forty minutes. These films typically don’t find a wide release before they are given the distinction of an Oscar nomination; instead, short films qualify for the awards by screening through film festivals specially selected by the Academy to be qualifying events. So unless you happen to attend (even virtually) one of those—and unless you happen to seek out short films if you do—chances are the first chance to check out these short-form productions is when they are released annually in the run-up to the Oscars ceremony.
With just a few week to the Academy Awards (they take place Sunday, April 25), that time is now, as all three programs (each features the five nominees in their respective categories) are screening in select theaters and via virtual cinemas nationwide. If you decide to experience all three programs, you’ll be treated to a wide variety of filmmaking styles, subject matters and emotional journeys, all of which confirm that though these short films don’t get the same attention as their feature-length counterparts, they are just as deserving of attention.
This year’s nominated animated shorts program presents the widest range of filmmaking styles of all three categories, as each film uses different styles to tell its story. Burrow (pictured; directed by Madeline Sharafian and Mike Capbarat) is the brief but touching story of a bunny just looking for a place to make his home; as he discovers just how many other creatures call the earth under our feet home, he despairs that he’ll never be able to make a home out of a hole for himself. Erick Oh’s Opera is a symbolically rich meditation on the cyclical nature of life and the societies we build. Filmed as a single shot of an intricate sort of machine with life unfolding inside, there’s almost too much rich detail to catch on a single viewing.
Similarly exploring the connectivity of all things, Genius Loci (directed by Adrien Merigeau) is a surreal French drama that draws on the chaos and bustle of the city to create an abstract world full of emotions. From Iceland, Yes-People (directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson) is a sweet and charming stop-motion animation short that glimpses the ordinary lives of everyday Icelanders in all their simple routine and fun. And easily the most affecting of all the nominees is If Anything Happens I Love You, a sparsely illustrated story of parents grieving their lost child directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier. How they lost their child, of course, is the real gut-punch of this 17-minute film, and to share more would spoil the emotional impact.
Live Action Shorts
The five films nominated in the Live Action category are not exactly easy to watch; each deals with difficult, traumatic moments in life and their protagonists are confronted with choices they never thought they’d have to make or can’t seem to find a way out of. None of the five films is a comedy or even relatively light-hearted, but every single one of them is rife with memorable imagery and strong performances that prove the length of a film is not indicative of its overall quality.
In Two Distant Strangers, filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe take police brutality against Black people head on in the form of a time-loop narrative. Carter James (Joey Bada$$) wakes up from a successful one night stand and just wants to get home to his dog, but an encounter with a white cop that escalates quickly turns into a nightmare he can’t seem to escape. Though the approach is familiar, the way the filmmakers put this very real experience front and center, no holds barred, creates not only a strong narrative film but a strong case for police reform and/or abolishment, too.
Israel’s White Eye, written and directed by Tomer Shushan, uses a case of petty theft as an entryway to a conversation on immigration, refugees and privilege, issues not unique to the current societal climate of the United States. Conversely, Farah Nabulsi’s drama The Present shifts the story to the Palestinian experience as a father takes his daughter on an errand across the border to pick up a new refrigerator; they’re forced to face the harsh scrutiny of the soldiers manning the dividing line on both their way there and back, and lead actor Saleh Bakri does remarkable work as a man just trying to provide for his family in a reality where the world seems stacked against him.
Featuring the highest-profile cast of the five live-action short films, Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room (pictured) stars Oscar Isaac as a corrections officer who’s eager to transition to a job that doesn’t have him interacting with prisoners every day. When he’s assigned to the communications office (essentially in charge of reviewing and censoring incoming and outgoing mail), he discovers the intimate conversations between inmates and their relations on the outside, going so far as to seek one particular letter writer out (Alia Shawkat). It’s a less brutal narrative than the likes of Two Distant Strangers, but it’s nevertheless an insightful exploration of life in a cell and those in its orbit.
Doug Roland’s Feeling Through has the distinction of featuring the first blind/deaf actor in a starring role as a man finding his way home late at night and depending on the kindness of strangers to get him there safely. Robert Torango stars as Artie, a kind and gentle soul encountered by Steven Prescod’s Tereek as the latter young man finds himself without anywhere to lay his head for the night. Their connection is minimal at first but soon Tereek sets aside his own troubles long enough to realize that really, all of us are just trying to get by with a little help from our friends, whether we realize it or not.
Historically the most robust category in the short film nominees, this year’s documentaries are again a selection of impressively made, important subject matters that honor and explore those stories that deserve to be told. Like their live-action counterparts, none of the documentaries are exactly easy to watch, but all of them are compelling and well-made.
A Concerto is a Conversation, directed by Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, explores Bowers’ own family history and his journey as a Black man to the world of classical music. In conversation with his grandfather, he (and we) learn much about the lineage that brought him to where he is today. Directed by Anthony Giacchino, Colette similarly explores the past as a French nonagenarian visits the German concentration camp where her brother, part of the resistance against the Nazi invasion, was sent into slave labor and to his eventual death. With a young historian by her side, Colette’s long-suppressed trauma is unearthed to gut-wrenching effect, and the filmmaker doesn’t hesitate to feature archival footage that drives home just how horrific this phase of our shared history really was.
The unjust (and unprosecuted) murders of Black Americans are nothing new, as depicted in A Love Song for Natasha, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison. Natasha Harlins was murdered by a convenience store owner who thought she was stealing a bottle of orange juice (the money to pay for it was found in her hand as she lay dying); Allison’s film gives those who loved Natasha most the chance to remember her and the life she might’ve lived while reminding us that the trauma of a life cut short never truly heals.
With startlingly direct access, Do Not Split goes inside the late 2019 and early 2020 demonstrations in Hong Kong against China’s effort to implement a law that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited back to that country for trials and punishment. Between filmmaker Anders Hammer’s stark and remarkable access to the protestors and their fight and the clear breakdown not only of the issues but the progress (or lack thereof) since, Do Not Split will do more to make audiences care about this moment in Hong Kong’s history than any news report or other coverage.
Above all, Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward (pictured) will be the film hardest to shake after experiencing this documentary shorts program. In war-torn Syria, Fitzgerald zooms in on two clinics at the center of a devastating plague of childhood malnutrition and the doctors and nurses scrambling to save the most dire cases. Heartbreaking does not even begin to describe the images of children wasting away with nothing to eat or the burden the healthcare providers carry anytime they lose one of these innocent victims of the war. As difficult as it is to watch, it’s also a call to action to get involved in changing the way things are for our fellow humans.
The Oscar-nominated short film programs are now streaming via virtual cinemas (including with Music Box Theatre) and playing in select theaters as well. Follow all CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending screenings indoors.
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