Oscar Live-Action Shorts Unleash Poignancy

While this year’s live-action shorts nominees feature a trio of feel-good films, “Ennemis Interieurs” and “Silent Nights” stand out as they comment on the immigrant crisis in Europe and racial profiling.

“Ennemis Interieurs” probes questions of national identity and racial prejudice by focusing on an Algerian man trying to obtain his French citizenship. First-time director and long-time sound designer Selim Azzazi says the story is based on both his own experiences growing up in a tough Paris neighborhood, and those of his Algerian father, who tried to gain French citizenship in the 1990s.

“I come from the difficult suburbs of Paris, and there are lots of immigrants and people from Algeria,” Azzazi says. “These people’s fathers, they don’t usually talk very much, especially because many of them, my grandfather and father included, have been through the war with France and they also had a civil war. Those people killed other Algerians, and they went mute, they would never talk to their sons. The reason I wanted to write this film was that I wanted to have them speak, to have them think of their experiences as Frenchmen, how they adjusted, or not, to French society.”

The racial prejudice the interrogator demonstrates is also in Danish short “Silent Nights,” directed by Aske Bang and produced by six-time Academy Award nominee Kim Magnusson, who last won in 2014.

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“Nights” centers around Inger, a young woman who works as a volunteer in a soup kitchen for illegal immigrants, much to the disdain of her racist, ailing mother. Inger falls for one of the immigrants.

“We live in an area in Copenhagen where there are a lot of immigrants, and very close to where I live there is a shelter for illegal immigrants and that was where it started,” Bang says. “The idea is from just around the corner. We went to this shelter, we did a lot of research, and one of the people who works there told us about how these immigrants get abused in the street by all kinds of people from many different races.”

While the other three shorts in the category deal with lighter subject matter, they are nonetheless poignant. A touching performance from Jane Birkin anchors the nostalgic center of Swiss “La Femme et le TGV,” which is based on real-life events. She plays Elise, a widow who daily watches the eponymous high-speed train pass her by. Her life changes when a letter from a passenger flutters out into her garden.

The film deals both with aging and, as director Timo von Gunten puts it, the elderly’s “struggle to keep up with the rapidness of today’s world.” Von Gunten came up with the story when he “miraculously” read about Elise’s story in the newspaper while riding home in the train.

“It fascinated me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about and making a movie about it. When I got home I Googled the name of that lady and I found her phone number and I called her up and I said I want to make a movie about her life,” von Gunten says. “At first she thought I was some kind of weirdo, but eventually she invited me to her place and told me everything about it, and from that interview I wrote the screenplay.”

Hungarian director Kristóf Deák also struck gold for his film “Sing,” a short about two girls in an elementary school choir and their power-hungry choir mistress. “The actual story came from a friend of mine who joined a very successful choir in her childhood, only to be told a few rehearsals in that she had to mime along instead of singing, and that really captured my imagination: the injustice of it and the paradoxical fact that in order to enjoy the benefits of being in a group, you have to give up doing the very thing you joined for in the first place.”

In “Timecode,” Juanjo Giménez channels the medium of dance to convey the characters’ emotions in the almost wordless Spanish short. The film centers around two parking-lot security guards, who communicate through the previous day’s security tapes and let their dance moves do the talking.

“We wanted to use security cameras in a different way,” Giménez says. “Normally in films you have them in sordid spaces, in crimes, but not this time. We wanted to use them for personal communication in a way that is unexpected. I think that’s the most powerful point in ‘Timecode,’ because we’re using a tool that is not designed for communication in an unusual way.”

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