Film Review: Academy Award Nominated Live Action Short Films 2013

With 'Asad' as the standout, several of the newly Oscar-nominated live-action shorts have a human-rights focus, a welcome departure over previous years.

“Asad” (South Africa, 18 Mins.)
Academy Award nominees in live-action are often produced as downsized feature films, so great screenwriting in this category is rare. Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura’s “Asad” is this year’s exception. Set in a present-day Somali village, the film is outstanding for its original story, perfectly suited to the short subject, and also for its excellent cinematography and skillful editing. A good score, competently mixed, never shouts emotions at the audience. The filmmakers, who obviously wish to draw attention to the human toll of Somalia’s internecine conflicts, avoid romanticizing the native culture, and they never compromise the dignity of their characters, all of whom are portrayed by Somali refugees.

“Asad”’s eponymous character is a charismatic, fatherless boy (Harun Mohammed) who must choose between two very different lives at sea in order to ensure his survival and the safety of his family. We first see him on the beach as he runs toward a group of pirates. Asad begs them to take him onboard their boat, but luckily, he is called away by Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim), a fisherman. While Asad looks back longingly at the pirates, Erasto hands over his day’s catch and tells Asad that one day he, too, will be a great fisherman. In the brief span of 18 minutes, the filmmakers provide a glimpse of life in the devastated country, and an illustration of the compassion and human dignity that often rather miraculously survive the onslaughts of political and social upheaval. In the end, Asad finds an artifact of sorts from a crime on the high seas, and with Erasto’s help, he uses it to claim his identity.

“Buzkashi Boys” (Afghanistan/USA, 28 Mins.)
Sam French and Ariel Nesr’s film about two Afghani boys provides uncompromising portraits of children living in dire circumstances in Kabul. While “Buzkashi Boys” undoubtedly reflects real circumstances, its air of death and unrelenting despair feels imposed, rather than driven by the emotions of its youthful characters. The title refers to the Afghan national sport, a version of polo; in place of the ball, a headless goat is dragged around the field of play. Fortunately, we get only brief glimpses of the dead animal, although the filmmakers should have given the audience an appreciation for the horsemanship the boys admire, which plays an important role in the narrative.

Rafi (Fawah Mohammadi) and his best friend Ahmed (Jawammard Paiz), who is homeless, have little time to be children. Rafi works long hours at his father’s blacksmith shop, and Ahmed is preoccupied with survival. During a brief intermezzo, at a buzkashi game, the young actors are given too little screen time to communicate their excitement. In the scenes that follow, when Ahmed climbs the ramparts of a ruined castle, the direction fails to signal the mix of boyish bravado and pathos that would have provided dimension to the characters and the action. Dashed hopes lie at the core of “Buzkashi Boys,” but the audience needs to feel the child protagonists’ natural sensibilities and resiliency in order to comprehend the extent of their despondency—not the adult filmmakers’ conclusions about it.

“Curfew” (USA, 19 Mins.)
With one notable exception, death and dying is this year’s leitmotiv in live-action—and the grisly opening shot of Shawn Cristensen’s “Curfew” does not disappoint. What may turn the heads of Academy voters in Christensen’s direction is the presence of a significant female character, the only one in this category. She is played by Fatima Ptacek, best-known to the young set for her TV show “Dora the Explorer.” Her character in “Curfew” is Sophia, the daughter of an abused mom. The 12-year-old beauty is reminiscent of a young Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street; practical and confident, she also does not believe in miracles. Sophia’s mom, in desperate straits, asks Richie (Christensen), her estranged, drug-addicted sibling, if he would accompany Sophia to the bowling alley. Richie is in the midst of a suicide attempt and, rather improbably, climbs out of his blood-soaked bath.

The pint-sized dynamo at first ignores her uncle, a guy she has never met and has already sized up as not worth knowing. Although Richie yearns for a pick-me-up drug, he instead decides to charm Sophia with a flipbook of his own making. It works, and the two begin a tenuous relationship just before Sophia’s evening curfew. Christensen’s deadpan performance here does not bode well for his future as an actor, nor are his screenwriting skills in top form here (he’s written several feature screenplays), but Ptacek’s performance may cement his reputation as a director. Christensen has a good eye, and "Curfew," despite its flaws, is entertaining.

“Death of a Shadow” (Belgium/France, 20 Mins.)
Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele’s creepy story about a photographer forced to shoot pictures of people in their death throes leaves unexplained the matter of why he is in this position in the first place. Nathan (Matthias Schoenaerts) works at the behest of a collector of “shadows” (Peter Van Den Bede). These are the silhouettes which result from his photographs. The collector grants Nathan an extra hour of life at the very end of the short, after 15 minutes or so of the audience wondering who Nathan is, or why he continues to work at a job that is obviously the cause of his unrelenting misery. Equally bereft of characterization is the collector, who may or may not be the Devil. One wonders at the Academy voters’ obsession with shorts about dying, especially in this case—while "Death of a Shadow" is handsomely designed and shot, it’s a pointless, lightly scripted spook show.

“Henry” (Canada, 21 Mins.)
This melodrama aimed at aging baby boomers is about an elderly concert pianist. Directed and written by actor Yan England (I Witness), “Henry” is beautifully shot and scored, although the story is sprawling and overly sentimentalized. It is propelled by two incidents in the musician’s life that should have taken far less time to unfold. At the beginning of the short, Henry is seated at a café table; a woman approaches and says “Hello.” It is immediately apparent that something is wrong and, given Henry’s age, we suspect he knows this woman but does not recognize her because he has lost his memory.

Not trusting that the audience will grasp the situation, England keeps explaining long after he should have revealed the identity of the woman. She holds the key to Henry’s evanescent personality, and is the character upon whom the plot would normally turn. Pressed to wallow in the pianist’s confusion and misery as each memory plays in his mind’s eye, we begin to wonder whether “Henry” is England’s pitch to direct the Hollywood adaptation of Amour.