Like animated short films, live action shorts need to pack an immediate emotional punch. As a result, short films often tap into themes already loaded with drama, such as bigotry, bullying, and of course, death. The 2014 Academy Awards Live Action Short winner, “Helium,” about a young boy with a terminal illness and the hospital janitor who befriends him, preps your soul for a big, cathartic sobfest, while Tribeca Film Festival favorite “Listen” bubbles with tension as a woman in a burqa attempts to report her husband’s abuse.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, especially with the nominees for the 2017 Academy Awards. This year’s crop adds layers of complexity to to the immigrant experience (“Ennemis Interieurs,” “Silent Nights”) while dipping into the uniting power of some good ol’ song and dance (“Sing,” “Timecode”). These short films promote the power of communication and self-expression, as well as the importance of human connection.
The entire lineup of Oscar-nominated shorts will hit select theaters on Feb. 10, and the 2017 Academy Awards will air on Feb. 26. In the meantime, check out my thoughts on the nominees for the Live Action Shorts:
“Ennemis Interieurs,” dir. Selim Azzazi (France, 28 minutes)
“Ennemis Interieurs” (“Enemies Within”) takes place almost entirely within the confines of two interrogation rooms. The first is disguised as a bland office, but as the conversation between a French citizenship officer (Najib Oudghiri) and a middle-aged Algerian man (Hassam Ghancy) heats up, they relocate to a room that feels much more like a cell – and the animosity in the air reaches a fever pitch.
Nevertheless, “Ennemis Interieurs” swirls with ambiguity, and that heightens the drama even further. There is no good man and evil man, no victim and accuser; rather, inspired by the McCarthy Era in the United States, writer and director Selim Azzazi depicts a dominant atmosphere of fear. Based on his own life experience, Azzazi presents a man who grew up in Algeria while it was still a part of France – but since the French-Algerian war, many French citizens considered Algerians to be “enemies from within.” In this film, we identify with the Algerian man’s sense of victimhood, but also with the interrogator’s skepticism and desire for security. And that makes “Ennemis Interieurs” all the more effective, and all the more unnerving.
Find out more on the “Ennemis Interieurs” website.
“La Femme et la TGV,” dir. Timo von Gunten (Switzerland, 30 minutes)
There are relatively few films that feature someone of retirement age in a main role, and that scarcity extends to short films as well. “La Femme et la TGV” not only breaks that mold, but weaves a heartfelt story of a life lived and a whole life yet to live in just half an hour.
Longtime actress Jane Birkin shines as Elise Lafontaine, a woman who lives in a quaint, secluded cottage in the Swiss countryside and runs a failing bakery in a nearby town. What brings Elise the most joy is the daily routine she has engaged in for 32 years: twice a day, when the TGV commuter train zips by, Elise cheerfully dips her head out of her window and waves a tiny Swiss flag at the passing train. In a sort of reverse (and significantly less dour) Girl on the Train twist, the “lonely” TGV driver begins to wave back, in the form of letters and packages he tosses toward Elise’s house from the 300 km/h train. They begin a spirited correspondence – until the TGV is unceremoniously rerouted, and Elise must learn to overcome her fear of change in all areas of her life. “La Femme et la TGV” offers a charming vignette of small-town life and a reminder that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.
Find out more on the “Femme et la TGV” website.
“Silent Nights,” dir. Aske Bang (Denmark, 30 minutes)
Aske Bang’s tender film about a Salvation Army volunteer who falls in love with an illegal immigrant challenges preconceived notions about poverty, immigration and racism. Like “Ennemis Interieurs,” “Silent Nights” paints a portrait of nuance, providing many questions but few answers in a way that leaves the viewer contemplating the story long after the credits roll.
Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) is a picture-perfect saint, caring for her alcoholic mother and volunteering at a homeless shelter, while Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), soft-spoken and inscrutable, struggles to find funds to send to his family in Ghana. Though our sympathy is garnered for Kwame when he is verbally and physically harassed by some young Arab men, he is not merely a tragic “victim of the system.” His trustworthiness is further questioned when Inger discovers a secret that tears apart their relationship. And yet… despite it all, Inger and Kwame retain their innate kindness, and “Silent Nights” ends, against all odds, with a distinct sense of hope.
Find out more on the “Silent Nights” website.
“Sing,” dir. Kristof Deak (Hungary, 25 minutes)
Being the new girl in school is always tough… until you find your place in the school’s most coveted extra-curricular activity. Shy Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is thrilled to be a part of her new school’s famous choir, led by the well-respected Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi), but when Miss Erika politely asks Zsofi to “sing in her head” instead of singing out loud, Zsofi is crushed. Fortunately, her new friend Liza (Dorka Hais) has her back. Friendship is great, isn’t it?
To reveal Liza and Tzofi’s plan to confront Miss Erika would ruin the effect of its glorious execution, so I’ll leave you in the dark for now. But know that your heart will sing for these mischievous, fabulous, triumphant children, who teach the so-called adult in the room a thing or two about loyalty and responsibility.
Find out more at the “Sing” website.
“Timecode,” dir. Juanjo Gimenez Pena (Spain, 15 minutes)
Every morning, Luna (Lali Ayguadé) relieves Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) for her day shift as a parking lot security guard. Each evening, Diego arrives to relieve Luna for the night shift. They exchange mundane pleasantries, going about their jobs with stoic resoluteness. One day, a complaint over a broken taillight leads Luna to check the security footage. What happens next is an Upworthy story come to life – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
“Timecode” is a masterpiece of a simple concept carried out with zero frills and a pitch-perfect tone. It is pure, unadulterated joy.
Find out more at the “Timecode” website.