In many years, this one included, the short films nominated for Academy Awards are more affecting and polished than their feature length counterparts. Economies of budget and time encourage an efficiency of story, yielding compact yet powerful films. I’ve already considered the nominated animated shorts. Here, I will work through the live action shorts.
The winner, of course, was Curfew, but each short is worthy of your attention. You can purchase all five films from iTunes for $6 standard definition or $8 in high definition. That’s less then the price of a matinee showing of anything at the multiplex.
Death of a Shadow
Death of a Shadow is a steam punk fairy tale about a WWI veteran who is tasked with photographing men and women at the moment of their death, capturing their shadow, which is then displayed on the wall of his master, a man who, I assume, is Death himself. In exchange, the man will be allowed to escape death (he, apparently, has already died) and live in any time of his choosing. The photographer is in love with a woman he saw just before he was killed, so his hope is to return to her.
If you purchase the Live Shorts package from Shorts International, this is the first film you will see, and it is a perfect way to begin watching live action shorts. The film exemplifies the kind of imagination typical of short films.
Death of a Shadow features beautiful production design. Short films don’t usually have the budget to overwhelm the audience with a stampede of CGI effects. Instead, they hinge on the visual quality of a few objects. In Death of a Shadow, those objects are the shadow capturing camera, Death’s gallery of tapestries, the machine which produces the next target, and the device which enables the man to travel through time. By never showing all of the object, the filmmakers allow the audience to fill in the gaps with their imaginations, thereby making the world seem more real than it is.
Death of a Shadow, because it is short, compacts its narrative and thematic power into a tighter package, so it hits you in the gut with more force than it would if it were a ninety minute feature. Like many fairy tales, Death of a Shadow is a story of self-sacrifice for the sake of love, and we can use as many encouragements to make that our story as we can get.
One film being highly praised this year (and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the most insulting prize the Academy awards, in my opinion), is Michael Haneke’s Amour about a husband and wife facing death together at the end of their life. Henry is cut from the same narrative cloth and manages to be both more terrifying and more heartwarming than Haneke’s unflinching feature.
The short is predicated on a quote from the director, Yan England’s, grandfather, Maurice: “The worst thing about old age is the awareness of being an old man losing his memory.” The short attempts to show what that would be like and to engender sympathy for both the aged and those who care for them.
One way to understand the present is to think of it as a tower built of bricks composed of the past. Like a game of cosmic Jenga, we are perched in the present on top of the tower. Our memory then is the way we make sense of where we are standing. Memory is looking down and seeing the blocks. If we lose our memory, it’s as if blocks are being removed from the tower. It begins to sway and eventually falls. We tumble to the earth grasping frantically for whatever blocks are left.
When that happens, our only hope is each other, in the patience we show and the memories we share. That’s what storytelling is, whether the stories we tell are from our lives or from our imaginations. Stories told are shared memories that enable us to work together to build a better future.
While Henry is a very dramatic and personal story, its terror and truth are broader. As each generation dies, we lose their memories. Unless we take the time now to hear their stories, we lose those building blocks and cannot learn from their past. Our future will be nothing but what we make of it, and it will be built out of the stories we tell today.
Curfew is the darkest short film of the bunch. As is often the case with dark films, Curfew is also the most comedic and heartwarming. This tension, along with a hefty dose of visual references to acclaimed films of the past, garnered Curfew the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. I was glad to see that, because it is also my favorite film nominated this year in any category.
The story concerns a young drug addict, Richie, in the midst of (graphically) committing suicide. He receives a request from his sister to watch her daughter for a few hours. So, he postpones his death, takes the girl bowling, and gets her home by curfew. Along the way, there are plenty of surreal touches, snappy dialog, and shots borrowed from Taxi Driver and The Big Lebowski, among others I’m sure I missed.
The Taxi Driver references thrilled me most, because both films feature a broken young man desperately in need of help. Travis Bickle never really gets the help he needs, and the question of what we can do for people like him has long haunted me. Travis is a lonely man whose desperate need for something to live for and someone to love drives him to self-destructive violence. By the grace of God, I’d argue, his actions still work for the good of those around him, but in the end, Travis, tragically, is lost.
Richie is a similar mess and the last person one might consider trusting with an important responsibility like taking care of a child. But out of his sister’s desperation, he gets that chance anyway. He gets what Travis needed. Someone loves richie enough to give him something to live for and someone to love. We can learn a lot from this film as we strive to love those trapped in addiction and other self-destructive patterns. To love another is to trust them to love you and those you love.
Some films are about the action of the plot – what happens, how, and to whom. The where, when, and why is almost inconsequential. Die Hard, for example, happens in L.A., and while that matters a little, the following installments in the series have proven the basic action and at least one key character can be transplanted anywhere with minimal impact on the movies. We decry bad Die Hard films not because they’re not in L.A., but because they abandon the more important whats, whys, and whoms of the first film.
Other films are more about the world of the story – where, when, and why (culturally) the story takes place. The events of the plot sometime seem arbitrary in these kinds of films even if they can also be harrowing. There aren’t very many “world” films in popular Hollywood cinema. The Lord of the Rings films are probably the most visible example. The plot meanders as the world expands.
Buzkashi Boys belongs in the later category. The short film is an exploration of the world of Kabul, Afghanistan. It centers on two boys – one the son of a blacksmith, the other an orphan living on the street – and their relationship as they dream about who they will become when they grow up. The title refers to a game popular in Afghanistan called “buzkashi.” It’s kind of like rugby on horseback using a headless goat carcass instead of a ball.
Buzkashi Boys is the only one of the five nominated shorts that I wished was longer as it ended. This is a side of Afghanistan I’ve never seen. In that, it is a deeply humanizing film. It makes a people whom I’ve been told is my enemy more human, and it makes me more human as it engenders compassion in me toward them. It’s the most important of the films nominated this year for that reason. It is also a deeply affecting story, full of real tragedy and triumph.
There is a boy on a beach helping slightly older boys load guns and ammunition into row boats. The boy wants to go with them. He claims he was born to be a pirate. He certainly has enough swagger to suggest he could stand toe-to-toe with all manner of mercenaries. That’s a good quality, because this is Somalia, and there are many kinds of mercenaries lurking about.
Asad, notably, features an all Somali refugee cast of non-professional actors, although the short’s titular hero, the previously mentioned boy, gives the best performance of any actor in any film nominated for any Oscar this year. The film clips along with as much narrative tension and comedic relief as any film made by Quentin Tarantino and with a more pertinent conscience.
We are too quick to vilify the Somali pirates who take over oil tankers and hold them ransom. We allow the potential couple of cents spike in gas prices to make us callous to the real economic and social distress these young men and their families face. We shouldn’t allow violence of any kind, and that includes supporting acts of violence against the pirates by our military. Instead, we ought to work to solve the problems that leave the Somali citizens with no recourse but piracy. Piracy is protest, and protest is meant to get our attention that we will work to bring peace to unjust situations.
Asad makes a case not in favor of piracy (quite the contrary), but in favor of seeing Somalis as people like all other people, prone to stupidity and nobility, leachery and larceny, humor and heroics. Asad is an urgent film, both in style and in subject. It screams, “PAY ATTENTION!” because these men commandeering your oil tankers are really just boys, and they’re less terrible and more magnificent than you will ever know unless you take the time to look a little closer.