Reenactments of harrowing true stories dominate this year’s Oscar live-action short ballot, where three of the five nominees are retellings of real events, and a fourth (“The Silent Child”) is a dramatic re-creation of what happens when parents ignore the needs of hearing-impaired children. Such issue-oriented activism is a relatively unique phenomenon in the category, which typically favors first steps at original storytelling by aspiring feature directors over overt political messages, but this is a time of heightened engagement by both filmmakers and the Academy itself, and this year’s ballot certainly reflects that mindset.
The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, had not yet happened when “DeKalb Elementary” was nominated, but it was certainly on voters minds as they considered Reed Van Dyk’s remarkably even-handed re-creation of a case where a man walked into an Atlanta elementary school with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition, opening fire on police. Told in the sober, un-sensationalistic style of European art cinema (à la Michael Haneke or Ruben Östlund, minus the satirical edge), the film maintains an arm’s-length distance between audiences and its two principal characters, shooter Michael Hill (Bo Mitchell) and level-headed school office worker Antoinette Tuff (Tarra Riggs), who calmly places the call to 911, while relying on the pair of completely believable performances to do the work. Incidents like these are becoming all too common, and yet, the outcome here will surprise, as Van Dyk depicts a real-life situation that was defused by words, rather than armed school employees.
Australian director Derin Seale’s “The Eleven O’Clock” is the odd man out on this year’s ballot. While slight, this clever-ish calling-card film is perfectly consistent with past nominees (most notably “The Voorman Problem” four years back), being a wink-wink conceptual comedy with an O. Henry-like twist. Screenwriter Josh Lawson (who hilariously depicted George Lazenby in last year’s “Becoming Bond”) plays a psychiatrist whose next patient has a complex whereby he believes he’s a therapist … or is he the patient, and the man who claims to be a doctor (Damon Herriman) the actual therapist? And how to explain the secretary (Eliza Logan) who doesn’t recognize either of them? It’s all a bit irritating, but a fine showcase for a handful of talented actors, and ought to land each of them more work down the road.
By contrast, student Academy Award gold medalist “My Nephew Emmett” is a dead serious and deeply troubling affair about what happened to a young black man named Emmett Till while visiting his uncle in Mississippi back in 1955. Accused of whistling at a white woman, the 14-year-old was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night, hauled away in front of his family, and left for dead in the Tallahatchie River. Writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr. has been haunted by the story since he first heard it as a teenager, exploring the racial hate crime first as a play, and now as a student film, one that focuses on the terror black Americans feel in a country that considers them expendable. However much we like to think that times have changed, the chilling short — combined with fellow Oscar nominees “Strong Island,” “Traffic Stop” and “Get Out” — just goes to show how petrifying it must be to live in a country where white people can treat African-Americans however they please, with little fear of reprisal.
A similar sense of dread pervades “Watu Wote: All of Us,” which appears last in the ShortsTV-produced theatrical program. The lone foreign-language nominee in the mix, this German-Kenyan co-production depicts a white-knuckle scene in which a group of heavily armed Al-Shabaab militants swarm a bus near the Somalia border. Here, all the passengers are black, and the violence is not racially targeted, but religious in nature, as the jihadists threaten to kill the Christians on board. What happens next is deeply touching, as the Muslims with whom they had been traveling refuse to yield to the terror of the situation (which feels all too palpable, as orchestrated by Katja Benrath). Technically speaking, “Watu Wote” is the most accomplished of the nominees, bringing powerful performances and Hollywood production values to a real-life incident.
Twisting reality to serve its point, “The Silent Child” advocates on behalf of deaf children, 78% of whom “attend mainstream school with no specialist support in place,” an end-title chyron informs (all of the dialogue is shown with subtitles to assist the hearing impaired). That factoid caps a thoroughly depressing 20-minute short, in which a pair of modern, middle-class parents are too busy and too pompous to deal with the fact that their daughter Libby (Maisie Sly) has grown shy and distant. Do they even realize she’s deaf? It’s not entirely clear, although the movie commends them for engaging a gorgeous, deeply empathetic social/miracle worker (screenwriter Rachel Shenton), who makes significant progress signing to the four-year-old until their wicked mom (Rachel Fielding) changes her mind. Director Chris Overton wants to bully parents into doing what’s right for hearing-impaired kids, but a more nuanced approach might have felt more like a film, and less like a public-service announcement.