Oscars 2019: Academy's selection of short film nominees shows regard for potent storytelling
As others continue their obsession with all things mainstream, nominees of one of the quietest categories at the Oscars, the short film category, are gearing up to take home the greatest honour
The Oscars turn 91 on Sunday and true to tradition, this year’s lead up, too, has been brimming with predictions and speculation about who will be going home with the golden statuette. There continues to be much noise, as always, about the golden snubs, wherein this time on the receiving end are not only big mainstream Hollywood names, but also the post of the Oscars host. Yes, we are about to see the world’s biggest awards night unfold without a host. But even as the media and social media continue their obsession with all things mainstream, nominees of one of the quietest categories in the ceremony, the short film category, are gearing up to take home the greatest honour.
Short films are always a box of interesting surprises and this year is no different. The Academy, however, seems to have made a thematic selection in the nominees, as the mood is strangely homogenous between the films in each category. While a sombre thread ties the live action shorts, their animation counterparts are fluffy, sometimes funny, and emotional, bordering on maudlin even. Childhood and parenting emerge as leitmotifs across both sections. Holding the darkest lens ever to the tender years is Dublin-based director Vincent Lambe’s Detainment (30 minutes), a retelling of the notorious 1993 UK tragedy where two ten-year old boys were tried and convicted with charges of torturing and murdering a toddler, making them the youngest murderers in the history of crime in the UK. Shot on real location, the film utilises the verbatim police transcripts as the two suspects are questioned. Twenty-six years on, the subject continues to be hugely controversial, and there has been a furore over the film’s making and its eventual nomination. Unlike usual true crime stories, it’s hard to isolate Detainment from the real incident. Nevertheless you remain shaken by the performances of child actors Ely Solan and Leon Hughes as prime suspects Jon Venebles and Robert Thompson. Lambe cleverly steers away from the explicit and keeps the narrative suggestive and thus terrifying. The camera uses close-ups to focus on every single twitch on their faces as the boys are questioned. Occasionally, it veers into flashback to retrace their steps towards the moment of the crime. The film will compel you to go down a rabbit hole of Google search, but be warned. This one is one of those films that’s not likely to leave you soon. Or ever.
Another grim offering in this year’s live-action is Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre. Films shot in a confined space have their own brand of potency and Sorogoyen uses this technique well. The 19-minute thriller traces a mother’s reaction when she receives a call from her six-year-old son, who’s supposed to be on vacation with his father, telling her that he’s alone on a desolate beach somewhere in France. Except for two shots of a fearfully empty beach, the camera never leaves the room of the mother’s apartment. At first it’s a happy call which in a matter of seconds turns into a nightmare. Marta Nieto is spectacular as a shocked, helpless, hysterical mother, and the tension is heightened by what’s unfolding off-screen. We only get hints from what her son is trying to tell her and in effect feel as helpless and terrified in not being able to piece together the puzzle. Madre is one of the finest cinematic displays of the power of the unseen.
Taking a softer turn is Marguerite that explores a bond that develops between an ailing octogenarian and her caregiver, which seems to be her only source of human contact. It’s a story of compassion and lost love enacted beautifully by Beatrice Picard and Sandrine Bisson, through minimum dialogue and a lush cinematography. Like Madre, this film too unfolds in a confined space but uses the frame beautifully to depict loneliness and longing. Just under 20 minutes, Marguerite is a French film directed by Montreal-based Marianne Farley, and is certainly a far cry from its hard-hitting co-nominees.
A 'bonus' entry is a 26-minute documentary by Reyka Zahtabchi, titled Period. End of Sentence, which explores a quiet revolution led by women in a village near Delhi when they start learning how to use and make sanitary pads. There’s no escaping the foreign lens that tries to capture the stigma associated with menstruation in India. But it does manage to put together an absorbing cluster of reactions, confessions and aspirations that throws light on centuries of patriarchy led social conditioning.
In the animation category, the mood becomes ten times lighter, much like their happy pastel shades. Things take a hilarious turn in David Fine and Alison Snowden’s Animal Behaviour when a diverse group of a cat, a grasshopper, a leech and a pig attend a joint therapy session conducted by a dog. The actions and reactions appear to mirror human behavior in this laugh-out-loud riot, reminiscent of old-school animation. And in its core of course, lies a message. Two different shades of parenting are explored in Bao and One Small Step. Domee Shee’s Bao tells a fantastical story of an ageing Chinese mother grappling with empty nest syndrome, who gets another shot at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a giggling dumpling boy. The eight-minute Pixar short raises questions about the extent of a parent’s possessiveness, but doesn’t really take a stand on how much is too much. On the other end of the spectrum is another US-Chinese production, One Small Step, about a poor father who does all he can to fly his daughter to the moon, literally. The story arc of aspiration and dreams is standard and is a sentimental capsule, but the magic lies in the telling. You’ll need those tissues.
A common perception is that short films feed esoteric tastes. We couldn’t be further from the truth. When there’s no luxury of time and budget, craft needs to be superlative. And this year’s curation contains brilliant examples of potent storytelling, where you hit the ground running. The superlative production make each film theatre-worthy. While distribution remains a mammoth hurdle for shorts, closer home an initiative by Shorts TV, of Shorts International Ltd., a leading short film entertainment company, is making it possible for viewers to catch these little gems in theatres, starting today. Even as you continue rooting for your favourite biggies, try and make some time for these little capsules of cinematic genius.
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