Short films, long reach
We take a look at the 2019 Academy Award-nominated short films, which have now been released on the big screen for the first time in India
Short films are generally thought of as stepping stones for filmmakers. But the medium is an art form in its own right. There are examples aplenty of shorts that make a big impact despite the budgetary and runtime constraints they are made under. And this year, we get to see some of these films thanks to the Oscar nominated shorts being shown on the big screen in India for the first time. The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films are being showcased as two separate theatrical releases — a Live Action short nominees compilation and one for the Animation short nominees.
Interestingly, the majority of films in both categories centre around children. However, the two compilations are poles apart when it comes to tone. While the Animation selection is heartwarming, the Live Action shorts are, by and large, disturbing. The other, more specific thread among the Animation nominees is the parent-child relationship, with four of the five shorts dealing with this theme.The lone exception is Animal Behaviour, a comical short featuring anthropomorphic animals in a group therapy session. Incidentally, some amusing jokes aside, this is also the least impressive of the lot.
Pixar’s Bao, the Oscar winner in this category, is a touching allegory of a Chinese-Canadian mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome, featuring a Bao that comes to life. It’s also one that most of us have likely seen before as it was released along with Incredibles 2. Another short with an Asian and a Disney connect is One Small Step. Produced by Taiko Studios, a Chinese/American company made up of Disney alumni, it tells the story of a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut, and her relationship with her cobbler father. Though the plot and the message are not particularly special, and indeed, pretty much what you would expect from a Disney product, the execution is lovely, and the result quite affecting.
The beautifully animated Weekends too has a Disney/Pixar connect. It is made by Trevor Jimenez, a Story Artist at Pixar, who developed this short as part of the animation company’s shorts co-op program, through which his colleagues helped by donating their time and skills. Drawing from his own childhood experiences, Jimenez has created an extremely personal and evocative picture of a child dealing with splitting his time between divorced parents. This, in my opinion, ought to have been the winner in this category.
Having said that, the short I found most affecting personally, was Louise Bagnall’s Late Afternoon. Featuring an old woman with dementia and her caretaker, Bagnall brilliantly uses animation to depict the shifting sands of the former’s fading memories. The poignant conclusion is sure to move you to tears.
Speaking of poignant stories, the Live Action short Marguerite is the only one in that category which fits that description, without also being distressing. It is also about an older invalid (the eponymous Marguerite) and her caretaker. The former comes to know that the latter is a lesbian and this evokes memories of her own love for a woman in the past. The exquisite performance of Béatrice Picard as the protagonist and the sensitivity displayed by the director, Marianne Farley — the only female nominee in this category — completely won me over.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the short that actually won the award. Skin, much like the other three nominees, puts children in distressing circumstances at the forefront. But unlike those other films, which, though disturbing, have a sense of honesty to them, Skin comes off as a cheap attempt at sensationalising a serious issue — racism. It’s about a boy raised by neo-Nazi parents, who becomes an instrument of what is meant to be poetic justice. While it starts off interestingly enough, halfway through it switches gears to ridiculous and there’s no turning back. It also perpetuates the ‘both sides share the blame’ narrative. Enough said.
Detainment, meanwhile, is a short that is firmly rooted in facts. A re-enactment of the true story of one of the most horrific crimes in history — the abduction and murder of a toddler by two 10-year-olds — that is based on interrogation transcripts and police records, and anchored by two brilliant child performances, this film is equal parts harrowing and absorbing.
Those same adjectives can also be applied to Madre, which too features a commendable child performance, only this time it’s a voice-only part. A mother gets a call from her 6-year-old son, who has seemingly been abandoned by his father in a lonely beach in a different country. With a bravura act by Marta Nieto as the mother, the director ratcheting up the stakes as the story progresses, and the use of single-take cinematography to up the tension even more, this is one hell of a breathtaking thriller.
The last film in this category is Fauve. What starts out as a silly game of one-upmanship between two young boys alone in the middle of nowhere, turns serious. I don’t want to give away any more and ruin this in the slightest. Suffice it to say, the setting adds wonderfully to the effect, and this film features one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, which only makes the sucker punch of an ending all the more gut-wrenching.
As if to make up for all that darkness, the Live Action compilation also includes the documentary short winner, Period. End of Sentence, which was filmed in India. This documentary is textbook uplifting. About women in a village making strides towards self-sufficiency after being given a pad-making machine, its empathetic portrayal gets us genuinely invested in the women featured. I was heartily cheering for these women by the end of the 25-minute runtime. A worthy winner indeed.
The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films compilations are currently playing exclusively in PVR Cinemas across India.