Oscar’s live action shorts give us a chance to see something outside of the Hollywood system. Most of these films are made with no studio connection, many outside of the US, with only occasionally recognizable actors. Films not held by the restraints of studio marketing and stars’ contracts can often find a certain artistic freedom. This Tuesday’s screening at the Academy was a chance to see some of 2009’s best shorts from around the world. Here’s an overview of this year’s offerings.
In The Door, we open with a young man sneaking into what looks like an abandoned city. We soon learn that the city is one of those evacuated by the disaster at Chernobyl. The man has returned to bring back the door of his old home. The door is a piece of tradition; his father’s body was carried on it at his funeral. Now the young man brings the door home for the funeral of his daughter, lost to disease from the radiation. The film takes place in the Ukraine, but is written and directed by Irish filmmaker Juanita Wilson. She brings a very contemplative tone to the piece. Snowy landscapes, the evacuation in flashback, a somber funeral – everything gives a sense of the desolation of the family’s situation. It’s a slow, very beautiful film. However, it may suffer somewhat from the length; the pacing is consistent with the tone, but it may seem to drag for some viewers. All told it’s a very sad look at the effect the Chernobyl disaster had on individuals.
Instead of Abracadabra
Sweden’s Instead of Abracadabra (Istället för abrakadabra) is maybe the lightest film of the five, though not without its disturbing images. Main character Thomas is an unemployed aspiring magician who still lives with his parents. When a pretty young nurse moves in next door, he’s determined to impress her with his magic act at his father’s 60th birthday. The act isn’t without flaws, especially considering the style – “gothic, death, and mayhem” as he calls it. But he’s a lovable character, and we can hope the girl likes him as much as we do. This short really brings to mind the quirky indie sensibility of Wes Anderson or Napoleon Dynamite. It’s relatable, it’s awkward in a funny way; Thomas is a fun character to watch. The magic acts themselves are couched in the realism of the situation, so we don’t take them too seriously – we see the act as the folks in the room would. It’s lively and well-shot (really like the simplicity in the design of the opening titles). I’ll be excited to see more from director Patrick Eklund.
Kavi brings us the story of a young boy in India, who lives his whole life in bonded labor. Working with his parents in a brick-making kiln, he is a modern-day slave. He has glimpses of hope every day through local children who play cricket nearby, but his dreams of being one of them are always crushed by the cruel foreman. When a chance comes for his escape, he must decide whether to follow an uncertain dream, or stay with the only life he’s ever known. The making of Kavi is a big achievement. Written and directed by American filmmaker Gregg Helvey, it was shot in Maharashtra, India, in the local dialect. The film apparently had monumental obstacles to overcome (for more on the making of Kavi, listen to Gregg on episode 142 of Battleship Pretension), and the commitment pays off. Sagar Salunke, who plays the title character, is a fantastic find, precocious but not so self-aware. He seems much more natural than most child actors. His story may remind viewers of last year’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a hopeful story with a message behind it. Part of the film’s goal is to raise awareness about modern-day slavery, and its prevalence in the developing world. You’ll see many people on Oscar night wearing blue lapel ribbons to raise awareness of the issue, and maybe spur a change.
Another film starring a young boy, Miracle Fish follows schoolboy Joe on his eighth birthday. He’s an unpopular kid from a lower class family. The only present from his estranged father is the titular item – a novelty paper “fortune teller.” He sneaks away from the bullies to nap in the sick bay. He awakes to find everything quiet – school has let out, or has it? It leads to a surprising resolution that I don’t want to spoil for you. If you can get ahold of this one to see how it plays out, I’d encourage it. Miracle Fish is clearly helmed by very talented filmmakers. Australian writer/director Luke Doolan knows how to craft a story, to build suspense, and to keep us engaged all the way through. The short effortlessly moves from playful to disturbing, and the ending’s payoff is fantastic. One could make the case that there isn’t a lot of forward motion in the story, and that Joe doesn’t have much of an arc. But the short is a format where filmmakers should be free to work outside of traditional screenplay/character structure, and this film is effective nonetheless. Producers, take note of a talented newcomer.
The New Tenants
It’s hard to know how exactly to describe The New Tenants. To relate the plot makes it sound like a violent American Pie sequel, but it’s much more sophisticated than that. It involves murder, adultery, drug use, and heroin spiked cinnamon buns – all in a mere twenty minutes. Peter and Frank have recently moved into a new apartment when they find out it has a disturbing history. In the course of the film, the apartment’s dirty past unravels and drops at their feet as they sit and watch. As dark as it sounds, it’s definitely a comedy. Crisp, clever dialogue, some outrageous plot twists; it earns a lot of laughs. Some great acting here too from some of the only actors we’d recognize, specifically Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan. The dark nature might be off-putting to some, but it’s unquestionably entertaining. And though it isn’t doling out deep life lessons, it makes you wonder: when the whole world seems to collapse around you, what else can you do but dance?
There’s stiff competition this year, but I think my vote is going to have to go to Kavi. I should say that it’s not just because I was attending the screening as a guest of Gregg Helvey. Here’s why. Academy voters are usually looking for films that have a Hollywood sensibility to them. They like three-act structures, dynamic characters, and exciting settings. Kavi has all three, while many of the other films are small and less traditional. Many of the shorts feature violence or disturbing images, and Academy voters often shy away from violence (Pulp Fiction, Fargo) unless it’s in service of a noble cause (Braveheart, Gladiator). Kavi has an international appeal, shot in India in an Indian language even though it’s made by an American filmmaker. And it’s got a political message to boot; if voters have heard about Helvey’s push for modern-day slavery awareness, it could tip the scales. I think Miracle Fish is a strong contender as well, as I found it the most striking and maybe the most memorable of the films. But the scope, the story, and the themes aren’t as big as they are in Kavi.
As with any Oscar category, it’s a crap-shoot. Voters are unpredictable and anything could happen. Surprises often do. But at least now you can go to your Oscar parties slightly better informed in a category where people sometimes just predict the short with the coolest name. And if my predictions end up correct, well then I’ll feel pretty great, won’t I?