Film Review: 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action

This year's Oscar-nominated live-action shorts are an eclectic mix of romantic tales, with one politically relevant film on the effect of xenophobia, and another on bullying.
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The live-action shorts competing for an Oscar this year are all from countries other than the United States. Each of them is a worthy contender, but the standouts are the shortest ones: Sing, a 25-minute film by Hungarian writer-director Kristof Deák (Hungary, 2016), and Timecode (Spain, 2016), a 15-minute short by Barcelona native Juanjo Giménez that picked up the top award in the shorts category at Cannes in 2016.

Sing opens with Zsofi, an adolescent girl, wandering the halls of her new school. She becomes entranced by the sound of voices raised in song, and finds the school choir at practice. Zsofi decides she wants to join, and the school administrator explains that anyone can become a choir member. When Zsofi attends a rehearsal right before the group is due to perform at a state competition, the music teacher tells her she must just mouth the words. Devastated at being judged as having no talent, she is further diminished when the teacher instructs her not to divulge the nature of her participation to anyone.

Zsofi’s friend Liz, who has a lovely voice, finally gets her to confess what she is so unhappy about. Liz then threatens to leave the choir and unexpectedly reveals the extent of their teacher’s wrongdoing. In the end, the child performers craft a terrific comeuppance for their bullying choirmaster. Through wonderfully nuanced performances from the lead characters, and an excellent screenplay, Deák celebrates the small triumphs over injustice that renew everybody’s faith in life.

Timecode also honors the human spirit, in this case the irrepressible desire for creative expression that pops up in the most unexpected places and in people whose jobs are so dull they are barely noticed by anyone. Luna and Diego are car-park security guards whose customers mostly use electronic payment machines, and rarely approach their glassed-in booths. The two employees, who greet each other briefly at the change of shifts, stare at a computer screen that displays real-time camera feeds. Sometimes, they access archived video by punching in timecodes.

One day, Luna’s boss asks her to search the video footage for the cause of a broken taillight on a customer’s car; she enters the timecode and sees Diego dancing in the starkly lit car park. As he moves across the space, his foot hits a taillight. Luna tells her boss that nothing happened. Because Giménez highlights the dehumanizing nature of Luna’s job at the start of the film, including having to change into her masculine uniform in a locker room, her response to Diego’s modern-dance performance is all the more delightful. An unusual romance ensues, although Timecode ends smartly, on a humorous note, rather than a romantic one.

Unexpected romance is the theme of Timo von Gunten’s 30-minute short La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland), about Elise (Jane Birkin), an aging bakery shop owner. Each morning, she rises at 6 a.m. to wave a tiny Swiss flag at the TGV (a high-speed train) as it passes her house. The otherwise curmudgeonly Elise lives alone in her two-story stone cottage, but her son wants her to retire and to move into elder housing. By the time he visits her, Elise has received a letter from the conductor of the TGV thanking her for waving at him each day. The two begin a correspondence, and Elise imagines a budding romance. Von Gunten’s short is quite beautiful to look at, but half of it unfolds before the audience learns why Elise waves flags at trains. In a befuddling deus ex machina conclusion that involves a minor character, Elise is seen for the first time in a baker’s cap, apparently having gained a new lease on life.

In Aske Bang’s Silent Nights (Denmark, 2016), an unlikely romance develops between a Danish woman and one of the men she serves at a Salvation Army shelter. Kwame is a homeless refugee from Ghana who tells Inger that he came to Denmark because he thought it was the best country to live in, but he had not anticipated how cold it would be. Inger’s mother is an alcoholic and a racist, and objects to Inger’s relationship with Kwame. After the lovers move in together, Inger learns something about Kwame that leads her to end their relationship, but not to abandon him altogether. While the performances are very good, the short is flawed by the writer-director’s inability to sustain point-of-view; Silent Nights is nevertheless favored for an Oscar because it marks producer Kim Magnusson’s sixth nomination.

In the subtext of Bang’s 30-minute film is Europe’s lingering refugee crisis, and the ways in which it often touches the lives of that continent’s citizens. One might also see it as a comforting rescue story, another version of the age-old tale of whites liberating black folks who are in need of saving because of white colonization. The Danes were active in the slave trade, in Ghana in particular, although their former empire in Africa can hardly be compared to those of other European countries. Rather than illustrating Kwame’s life in Ghana, Bang should have stuck to Inger’s inner struggle that led to a compassionate act in the face of a great disappointment.

Lastly, the only live-action short to directly address a political issue is sound editor Sèlim Aazzazi’s directorial debut, Ennemis Intérieurs (France, 28 minutes), set in the 1990s. It is about a middle-aged, ethnic Algerian man (Hassam Ghancy) applying for a French passport. The entire short is an interrogation of the man by a policeman, and except for the protagonist’s memories that unfold in flashback, it is set in a darkened room. Aazzazi’s inspiration arose from several stories: his Algerian father’s experiences in France, and those of his mother’s family in Franco-era Spain, as well as by a character he portrayed in a play set during the McCarthy-era. Unfortunately, the filmmaker never provides a motive for his character; while it is clear he is applying for a passport, as the film unfolds and the man is forced to give the names of his friends and neighbors, the audience may wonder why he is so desperate for that document.

Algerians are French by virtue of France’s colonization of their country, although as a result of the long and sanguinary Algerian War (1954-1962), they are still the target of xenophobia in France. Aazzazi’s rabidly nationalistic policeman in Ennemis Intérieurs is also not of white, French ancestry, introducing yet another sad fact of the marginalization of ethnic minorities—the tendency to accept the colonizer’s culture and to perpetuate its discrimination against newer waves of immigrants. Although Aazzazi’s short is sometimes heavy-handed and theatrical, it is timely, at least for Americans, who have recently had their President announce a discriminatory policy against Muslims or Arabic people seeking asylum or citizenship in the U.S.

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