The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts: Process and Politics, by Dayne Linford
The Oscar-nominated live-action shorts being their theatrical tour tomorrow.
Perhaps the most unwatched category of the Academy’s nominated films, the shorts nevertheless often feature some of the most inventive, responsive, and interesting filmmaking of the year. For this year’s live action crop, that promise is variably fulfilled, some shorts tending in a typical, Oscar-friendly direction, while others live up to their potential, utilizing their time well and delivering innovative filmmaking on a small scale. This year is rather interesting in that the nominated films are all mainland European, perhaps reflecting international politics and the activism latent throughout this year’s nominations in other categories. The content of each film can be viewed in that same sense, two of them dealing with immigration and social violence, three concerning stratification and criticizing social predation, three concerning the invasive, or democratizing, or alienating, effects of modern technology. They’re surprisingly deep films considering their short running time, though, with one exception, they’re generally quite straightforward, not in keeping with the iconoclasm of the best of the genre.
The two films perhaps most explicit in addressing current international politics are Sélim Azzazi’s “Ennemis Intérieurs” and Aske Bang’s “Silent Nights,” the first a tense interview between a French-Algerian policeman and an Algerian émigré who, after living in France most of his life, is seeking naturalization; and the second the story of a romance between a Danish volunteer and a homeless Ghanaian immigrant struggling to make money for his family back home. “Ennemis” is a quite successful film, portraying the back and forth between the officer and the émigré superbly, particularly in the performance of Hassam Ghancy as the émigré, an older man with a long history as a despised member of France’s once-colonized people. As the interview deepens, and the high demands of the French state on the part of the officer become clear, the tension slowly builds, along with the mystery of what Ghancy’s involvement really was in some “meetings” he attended over the course of two years. Beyond Ghancy’s incredible performance, shaded with pride, humiliation, anger, and sadness in equal measures, the strength of the piece lies in the questions surrounding the nature of terrorism vs. the state, the creation of these enemies, and what happens to those, unwittingly or not, caught in the middle. Regardless of his culpability, in order to be accepted officially though never completely by French society, Ghancy must sacrifice his own dignity, am impossible bind and a telling distillation of the dilemma of social movement, solidarity, and change.
In contrast, “Silent Nights” is told in more of a slice of life style, fitting the subject matter, and the issue of religion is never really addressed, though Racism (yes, with a capital R) has some showing. Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) is a Danish girl who’s recently started volunteering with the Salvation Army, where she comes across Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), an illegal immigrant scrounging up cash by picking up bottles and cans during the day, and sleeping there at night. Over time, a romance between them develops, only to be shattered by the revelation of the family he left behind in Ghana, to whom he still sends money and hopes to return. While “Ennemis” starts from broad strokes but soon closes in on character specifics to a strong conclusion, “Silent” never quite overcomes the impulse to generalize, which is especially common to immigration love stories, the usual dialectic going as the country (a woman) finding love and acceptance with its immigrants (a man). “Silent” tries to overcome this, but it never really seems to be able to devote the time necessary to do so. All in all, as strange as it sounds, it seems this would be much stronger as a feature film, allowing time to be spent with the characters as themselves, and not as symbols. When a piece like this is really strong, the “symbolism” is latent, occurring to the audience at the end of the film, naturally, inspiring theater goers to more carefully consider those around them, and perhaps think differently, eventually, of national policy. The difficulty of such a goal is obvious enough, but this film dwells too far on the other side to really be successful, especially since an initial reading ultimately tends in a direction against free immigration, which doesn’t strike me as the intended goal, and leaves the piece feeling strangely bifurcated.
Kristof Deák and Anna Udvardy’s “Sing” in another way altogether addresses the social stratification, latent in the politics of immigration, explored in the previous films. Zsófi (Dóra Gáspárvalvi), a shy ten year old girl, has recently moved to a new school renowned for its choir and, when she expresses an interest, is informed that school policy allows any student with an interest to join; she does so immediately. Taking her aside after their practice, the choir teacher, Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi), has Zsófi sing a refrain or two alone, then instructs her to mime – to only pretend to sing, and therefore preserve the choir’s award-winning streak. “Sing” begins beautifully, in that kind of wholesome filmmaking you expect from films starring children, leaving you completely unprepared for the revelation behind Miss Erika’s success, a simple and humiliating fix to the basic problem of varying talent levels amongst the children participating. The subtext here – social positioning based on arbitrary “talent” and the whims of an adult – never overcomes the basic humiliation felt by Zsófi in response to this, each building into the other easily and effectively. Deák and Udvardy make particular use of sound here, as they should in film where some sing and others don’t, and it’s very effective throughout. I thought I was in a for a hallmark movie about kids trying hard to sing and eventually being good at it, but “Sing” builds to a surprising and effective conclusion that becomes all the more stunning not for the use of sound, but for its absence. Both in filmmaking and politics, it’s incredibly potent.
It’s probably in comparison, then, that the weakest film of the lot, Timo von Gunten’s “La femme et le TGV,” suffers. Starring Jane Birkin, who turns in good work as Elise, the film concerns an elderly woman, baker, and chocolatier who, in a habit started with her son as a child, has waved a little Swiss flag out of her window at the passing TGV train twice every day, just past six in the morning and five in the evening. “TGV” is one of these Amelie European films, very quirky, perfectly constructed, and completely lifeless. It’s rather charming, and Birkin quite strikingly plays out the small and large disappointments in Elise’s life, enlivened suddenly by letters and packages from the train driver, who has watched her wave every morning and evening for years. The film itself hews religiously to a brown and blue color palette, with little splashes of red (first seen in the flag), and similarly hews to the strictures of quirky filmmaking – a cute house in a strange location, some symbolic depiction of routine and technology, and a small shop, offering only the very best in home-spun, traditional quality, and thus sadly, tragically losing out to some cheaper, foreign (in this case, German) shop down the way. It’s rather obvious, the symbols rather boring, and the conclusion rather predictable, but I don’t suppose it’s a terrible way to spend twenty minutes. It just doesn’t fair very well against the other films nominated and is ultimately kind of bland, though charming.
My favorite of the nominees, Juanjo Giménez Peña’s “Timecode,” similarly concerns technology as “TGV” and, to a lesser extent, “Silent” do but in addressing it comes out as the most inventive film of the lot. Luna (Lali Ayguadé) works security at a car lot and, though we don’t ever get a sense of her life outside of work, it’s pretty clear she hates life inside of work, like the rest of us, so we like her immediately. One day, her boss calls in about a tenant complaint that a taillight was broken during the night shift and she checks the cameras to see her coworker, the night man, Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), dancing around the complex on his rounds and subsequently accidentally smashing the light. Entranced, Luna tells her boss that the light was fine and, visiting the spot later in her shift, she finds some of its fragments, hidden behind a column. Approaching the camera, she leaves Diego a message on screen, and trades shifts for him in the morning with a small note containing the timecode where he can see it. During the night, Diego responds likewise. Thus begins a rat-a-tat between the two coworkers, which slowly crescendos into a beautiful and stunning climax over the course of a breezy fifteen minutes. “Timecode,” for being as short and experimental as it is, for eschewing dramatic dialogue scenes and character revelations, and for being completely apolitical in very political times, is perhaps the most human and the most beautiful of the lot, as Diego and Luna transcend the technological and economic limitations of their circumstances to make something truly wonderful. All the more, what they create appears to be made entirely just to be made, an expression of love and humanity, purposeful in itself, and beautiful without outside reference. I found it very winning, hilarious, and deeply moving.
All in all, though only one film felt special to film, it’s a good crop of contenders for live action shorts, touching on hot button issues and addressing deep human problems throughout, and largely doing so successfully. Even if it is politics that gave some the light of the nomination, we’re the better for having them and I hope to see good work from all these filmmakers in the future.