‘2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action’ Review: A Cross-Section of Cinematic Activism

Often a showcase for up-and-coming directors, this year's shorts ballot seems unusually political, suggesting a level of engagement by nominees and Academy members alike.

Two Distant Strangers
Courtesy of ShortsTV

Law and order, and the lack thereof, were impossible to ignore amid last year’s “defund the police” protests, and the same tensions are reflected in the Oscar-nominated live-action shorts lineup. Some of the entries predate the George Floyd killing, while another was shot in direct reaction to that tragedy last summer; two more were made abroad, on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, touching on themes that transcend borders. It’s not unusual for finalists in this category to come pushing a political agenda, and yet, this crop doesn’t feel like agitprop, but sincere, activist storytelling, well worth seeking out in theaters or on demand, as ShortsTV has once again made possible.

In “The Present,” which won top honors at the SXSW Film Festival, Palestinian Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj) must cross an armed checkpoint in order to fetch a refrigerator for his wife’s anniversary. As depicted by director Farah Nabulsi, the Israeli-enforced border control is far more than an inconvenience: Guards barely old enough to be trusted with weapons treat their Arab neighbors with suspicion and contempt, while waving Jews through by the main road. The young soldiers can detain, strip and search whomever they please, forcing Yusef to wait in a cage while Yasmine wets her pants on the sidelines. A canny demonstration of power dynamics and the dangers that arise when we define ourselves by difference, “The Present” is so effective at amplifying the humiliation that audiences may find themselves losing their cool long before the character does — when the officers cruelly order him to wheel the oversize gift through a tiny security portal. The climactic tension feels forced, though it’s clear no one should have to risk his life for such an errand.

The lone entry that doesn’t involve authority figures — just two New Yorkers trying to get by — Doug Roland’s “Feeling Through” depicts a tentative (at first) but ultimately profound connection between Black teen Tereek (Steven Prescod) and deaf-blind adult Artie (Robert Tarango), whom he meets standing patiently on a street corner late at night. Artie holds a sign asking for help to find the nearest bus stop, and though Tereek has plenty of his own problems (having spent a good part of his day trying to line up a place to sleep), he decides to help. Hollywood loves stories where a “special” “other” transforms a lost soul: Picture “Scent of a Woman” or “Rain Man” in miniature, as the chance encounter makes an impression on Tereek, expanding how he sees the sightless man. While superficially formulaic, the movie challenges stereotypes, including how these two communicate. Tarango is not a Method actor flaunting his range but an actual deaf-blind man, simultaneously independent and appreciative of the kindness of strangers.

There’s no such amity between the two main characters in “Two Distant Strangers”: just-got-lucky Carter (Black rapper Joey Bada$$) and Merk (Andrew Howard), the racist cop who kills him over and over, times a hundred. Screenwriter Travon Free and his co-director Martin Desmond Roe do in half an hour what “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” fumbled to achieve at feature length, using the time-loop trope (by which a character keeps dying until he figures out how to break the cycle) as a metaphor for the murders of unarmed civilians by American police officers. If you’re tired of the “Groundhog Day” genre, just imagine how Black people feel about a pattern that continues without the institutional changes needed to prevent it from repeating. Free and Roe are fed up and don’t pretend to have the answer, making a film that raises questions in flip, if sometimes upsetting, ways. No matter what Carter does, Merk winds up killing him, which challenges the oft-cited defense that such incidents are accidents, as opposed to hate crimes waiting to happen. That’s a confrontational thesis, executed with style and wit by two very savvy filmmakers (in the midst of the pandemic) trying to get through to a resistant public.

The cops in Ayn Lavana’s single-shot Israeli micro-drama “White Eye” are no use to Omer (Daniel Gad), who spots the bike that was stolen from him a month earlier chained to a post in his neighborhood. He calls the police, who tell him to file a report. Without it, they can’t intervene. But Omer wants justice, so he proceeds to steal the bike back, at which point, its new owner Yunes (Dawit Takelaeb) discovers him, claiming that he bought it. What to do? We know what Solomon would say, but neither man is willing to surrender the bike, and so the situation escalates, with Omer involving the police again. Yunes is an Eritrean immigrant with an expired visa, and when the authorities arrive, things get complicated — which is the meticulously calibrated intention of a film that introduces various moral dimensions to its seemingly straightforward premise. It’s not clear why Lavana decided to stage everything in a single extended take, though the choice works, making us arm’s-length witnesses to the misunderstanding as it turns tragic.

Whereas “White Eye” maintains a kind of objective distance from its characters, Elvira Lind’s “The Letter Room” takes the more intimate approach, shadowing a corrections officer named Richard (“Star Wars” star Oscar Isaac, playing it paunchy and with an unidentified accent) who’s almost too soft for the job. If the other shorts are critical of police taking their authority too far, Lind’s film finds it cute, or perhaps merely pathetic. Depressed by Death Row, Richard begs for a new job, winding up reassigned to director of prisoner communications, a responsibility that involves scanning and censoring inmates’ mail. Easy enough, right? Well, Richard’s a lonely guy — as glimpses of his home life suggest — and he finds himself drawn into the private-life intrigues hinted at amid the incoming correspondence. At 32 minutes, the short slightly overstays its welcome, but not before suggesting that there’s an alternative to overly harsh police officers. “The Letter Room” shows us one who cares too much.

‘2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action’ Review: A Cross-Section of Cinematic Activism

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, March 30, 2021. Running time: 130 MIN.

  • Production: A ShortsTV release. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Stephanie Charmail.