From a Kosovo war crime to redemption on the Afghan front, this year's Oscar-nominated shorts tackle serious issues, with a light romantic comedy thrown in for good measure.
In a year in which the best picture presenter could conceivably announce, “And the Oscar goes to … ‘The Big Short,’” will the little shorts get any love? The answer is: They already have. Thanks to an 11-year effort by ShortsHD to bring Oscar’s least-seen categories to audiences, the 2016 nominated short films have collectively out-earned previous editions (surpassing $2.4 million) — which is more a testament to the company’s dedication than any one of its individual nominees. The live-action shorts themselves represent a range of solid if somewhat calculated calling cards from helmers who’ve studied at film schools around the world, now enjoying exposure across nearly all conceivable platforms.
Though amusingly irreverent, Basil Khalil’s nonsensical “Ave Maria” serves up a comedic detente between Arabs and Israelis, centered around an implausible crisis in which a Jewish family’s car breaks down outside a Palestinian convent in the West Bank. Mixing broad caricatures (such as the ornery Jewish matriarch, who chides her son for taking the short cut) with dark humor (a shattered Virgin Mary statue is first shown “bleeding” motor oil and surrounded by flies), the 14-minute film looks great, but defies logic: Though he had no problem driving on Shabbat, the Israeli driver boorishly implores the nuns — who have inconveniently taken a vow of silence — to place a phone call on his behalf. After a few goofy scenes, the two sides manage to figure out a feel-good solution.
Contrast that cheeky approach to violent conflict with Jamie Donoughue’s relatively dour Kosovo-set “Shok” (or “Friend”), an earnest retelling of a downright unpleasant anecdote. Beginning in the present, an abandoned red bicycle found in the road triggers a flashback to the days of the Serbian occupation some two decades earlier, when schoolboy best friends Petrit (Lum Vesili) and Oki (Andi Bajgora) were oblivious to the danger of running errands for the occupying soldiers. All goes well until an officer confiscates Oki’s bike, which proves to be the first and least horrific injustice in a story that, while difficult to endure, actually happened to producer Eshref Durmishi, a local actor who plays one of the soldiers. Shot in digital widescreen and color-timed in grim Eastern European grey, the film is effective, but ultimately begs the question, “Why now?”
Equally tough going, but far more timely, “Day One” was inspired by U.S. paratrooper-turned-helmer Henry Hughes’ own experience — or rather, that of his translator — in Afghanistan. Subsequently mentored by George Lucas (whichwould explain its Skywalker Sound mixing and ILM-produced visual effects) and trained by the American Film Institute, where the impressive Student Academy Award-winning short served as his thesis, Hughes imagines an intense initiation to the field as macho American troops and unpredictable Afghan civilians make things tense for his female protagonist (Layla Alizada). Though a smidge manipulative as a soldier’s visit shocks a pregnant local woman into labor, the professional-looking short (which convincingly recreates Afghanistan just north of Los Angeles) offers a refreshing change from more explosive war stories — a rare case where a soldier faces the chance to save a life, rather than deciding whether to take one.
In terms of sheer cinematic value, German director Patrick Vollrath’s 30-minute “Everything Will Be Okay” is the standout, reminiscent of Xavier Legrand’s exceptional 2014 nominee, “Just Before Losing Everything” — a white-knuckle drama in which a desperate mother gathers her children and attempts to escape her abusive husband. Stripped of exposition and told from the uncomprehending p.o.v. (and disconcerting eye level) of an 8-year-old girl (Julia Pointner), Vollrath’s handheld, dare-to-breathe thriller flips the custody-battle scenario in favor of the father, asking audiences to identify with a divorced dad (Simon Schwarz) who has decided to kidnap his own daughter. A student of Michael Haneke’s at the Filmacademy Vienna, Vollrath presents an emotionally challenging, morally complex character study that takes audiences on an uncomfortable journey whose outcome is anything but “okay.”
The program wraps on a welcome romantic note with Irish helmer Benjamin Cleary’s charming “Stutterer,” which might as well be the opening scene in an early-2000s date-night indie movie. Reclusive typographer Greenwood (Matthew Needham) has the hots for Facebook pen-pal Ellie (Chloe Pirrie), though he’s terrified that if they meet, his broken-record stutter will scare her off. The short’s solution is a bit too convenient, though Cleary wins us over during the in-between moments, which Greenwood narrates in the clear-eyed, stammer-free voice he hears in his own head. Reinforcing our identification via quiet observations and the bold choice of shooting in closeup, “Stutterer” builds to the big moment when he sees Ellie for the first time — a long, wordless moment where a rush of music and bold, unbroken gaze cues the swoon. If a perfume brand or online dating service logo followed, sales would surely skyrocket.
(Palestine-France-Germany) An Incognito Films presentation, in co-production with Flying Moon Filmproduktion, with the support of Robert Bosch Stiftung. Produced by Eric Dupont, Eric Fantone. Co-producer, Helge Albers.
Directed by Basil Khalil. Screenplay, Daniel Yanez, Khalil. Camera (color, widescreen), Eric Mizrahi; editor, Khalil; music, Jamie Serafi; production designer, Bashar Hassoun; costume designer, Chris Issa; sound, Ibrahim Zaher; assistant director, Baoz Pesonzon. Running time: 14 MIN.
With: Maria Zreik, Huda Al Imam, Shady Srour, Ruth Farhi, Maya Koren, Sana Tanous, Maria De Pina, Raneen Bisharat Iskandar. (Hebrew, Arabic, English dialogue)
(Kosovo-U.K.) An Eagle Eye Films production, with support from Kosovo Cinematography Center. Produced by Eshref Durmishi, Harvey Ascott. Creative producer, Howard Dawson.
Directed, written by Jamie Donoughue. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Philip Robertson; editor, Sarah Peczek; music, Trimor Dhomi; production designer, Leonora Mehmeti; costume designer, Vesa Kraja; sound, Pellumb Ballata; sound designers, Oscar Bloomfield-Crowe, Michael Chapman; visual effets, Adam Lyons; line producer, Besnik Krapi; assistant director, Blerta Basholli. Running time: 21 MIN.
With: Lum Veseli, Andi Bajgora, Meihate Qena, Luan Kryeziu, Eshref Durmishi, Astrit Kabashi, Xhevdet Jashari, Armond Morina, Aurita Agushi, Sunaj Raca, Eni Cani, Kushtrim Sheremeti. (Albanian, Serbian dialogue)
Everything Will Be Okay
(Germany-Austria) (Original title: “Alles wird gut”),
Produced, directed, written, edited by Patrick Vollrath. Camera (color, widescreen), Sebastian Thaler; production designer, Momo Ehegartner; costume designer, Veronika Harb; sound, Matthias Ermert; sound designer, Nora Czamler; supervising sound editor, Rudi Pototschnig; assistant director, Michael Podogil. Running time: 30 MIN.
With: Simon Schwarz, Julia Pointner, Marion Rottenhofer, Daniel Keberle, Georg Blume, Gisela Salcher, Chrstina Scherrer, Thomas Sperl, Anton Hirn, Verena Wolf. (German dialogue)
An American Film Institute presentation.
Directed, written by Henry Hughes; story, Hughes, Dawn Devoe. Camera (color, HD), Kee Kyung; editor, Anisha Acharya; music, Omar Fadel; production designer, Benjamin K. Cox; art director, Sean Graham; set decorator, Elizabeth Boyle; costume designer, Ambre Wrigley; sound, Jim Thornton; sound designer/re-recording mixer, David Acord; visual effects supervisor, Lindy De Quattro; visual effects producer, Amber Wong; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; special effects supervisor, Josh Hakian; stunt coordinators, Pat Statham, James Hutchison; line producer, Jo Henriquez; assistant director, Kelly Stevens; casting, Becky Silverman. Running time: 25 MIN.
With: Layla Alizada, Bill Zasadil, Navid Negahban, Alain Washnevsky, Alexia Pearl, Yanellie Ireland, Shari Vasseghi. (English, Arabic dialogue)
(U.K.-Ireland) A Bare Golly Films production.
Directed, written, edited by Benjamin Cleary. Camera (color, widescreen), Michael Paleodimos; music, Nico Casal; production designer, Russell De Rozario; art director, Erin Larnder; costume designer, Francesca Turner; sound, Lefteris Savva; sound editor/re-recording mixer, Gustaf Jackson; visual effects, David Magnier, Paleodimos; casting, Irene Cotton. Running time: 13 MIN.
With: Matthew Needham, Chloe Pirrie, Eric Richard, Sophie Ellerby, Richard Mason, Calum Sivyer, Sophie Cotton.