Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts call us to tap into our ability to care

2020 Oscar Shorts — Live Action

FilmScene—Chauncey — various showtimes

Blue Carpet Bash

FilmScene—Chauncey — Sunday, Feb. 9 at 5:30 p.m.

Saria — video still

There is a moment during The Neighbors’ Window, a heartfelt, existential twist on Rear Window, where the protagonist spying on her neighbors views something more intimate and personal than she had bargained before — more intimate than fights and raucous sexual encounters. She witnesses genuine, honest pain and sadness. In an odd justification of voyeurism, director Marshall Curry’s 20 min Oscar-nominated short film reminds us that seeing someone’s vulnerability, viewing their experiences through the lens of ourselves, is at the very core of what film taps into: our ability to care.

In his remarks following his Walk of Fame dedication, Roger Ebert stated, “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes.” I think of this quote often. Recently, it has not left my mind since viewing this year’s program for the Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films.

The Neighbors’ Window — video still

There is a strong sense of danger among this year’s nominees, with life threatening experiences across the spectrum — from social to religious to bodily harm. This slate reminds us, as Ebert did, that our ability to grow, change and care need not be limited by our own experiences, but can be nurtured by opening ourselves to the experience of others. The Neighbors’ Window finds two tired, middle-aged parents accidentally discovering that their high rise apartment window looks directly into the apartment of a young, vibrant couple, creating in them a small obsession and desire to vicariously regain their former lives.

Though it cuts thematically to the overall sense of the nominees, it struggles with tone and doesn’t find its footing until its final moments. That being said, it’s clearly the front runner in the pack, due to its (mostly) uplifting premise and, sadly, because it’s the only nominee in English. But don’t count those chickens, as it still has some steep competition.

A Sister — video still

Among the competition is A Sister (16 min.), a tight, real-time thriller about an emergency phone operator assisting a woman who is being kidnapped by the man who assaulted her, and who is driving while she talks on the phone. The tension is very real and director Delphine Girard’s choice to shoot the occupants of the car as though he was sitting in the back seat creates an immersive sense of urgency, casting the viewer as accomplice, victim or even both. It’s a very honest danger, and viewers should beware of content, as the threat of this man and the bravery of the woman sitting next to him do not feel detached or sensationalized and may speak to the every-day experience of being a woman in this world.

It really only falters in its representation of the emergency worker — well-performed, but generically presented, a tool the victim uses to save herself, but given most of the credit. It’s a strong, effective piece, that could do a bit more to flesh out the key players and emphasize the stakes at play. Its rapid pace and urgency could make it an easy choice for voters, but it’s ultimately forgettable among its peers, even if not the weakest.

Nefta Football Club — video still

The bottom of the list would be Nefta Football Club (17 min), directed by Yves Piat, about two brothers from a tunisian village who unintentionally thwart the ill-doings of a drug heist, finding themselves holding a lot of illegal drugs. The tone in this potential crowd pleaser is all over the map, from feel-good brothers on a road trip, to life and death drug deals, to a cutesy-cute conclusion that feels convenient and dissatisfying.

The performances are well done, and there is genuine territory to mine regarding the real life danger children face around the world. But to utilize the film’s football (soccer to most of you reading this) framing, this short makes great effort to dribble around its opposition, rather than take any sort of skillful shot.

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Brotherhood — video still

In contrast, Brotherhood (25 min.), directed by Meryam Joobeur, speaks volumes through silent looks, allusion and prickly relationships. Mohamed is a Tunisian sheepherder who, along with his two sons, discovers the slaughter of one of their sheep. He returns home to find his own “black sheep” son has returned from fighting in Syria with a new wife. Never heavy handed, the dialogue avoids exposition or soapboxing, to a devastating result, and the tension is ever palpable. The film knows what so many over-verbose ones seem to forget: It’s what is not said that is most destructive.

Mohamed’s ire is as striking as the sheep’s blood on his shirt, stained and aging. His judgement of his son’s politics, of his new daughter-in-law’s religious beliefs and of himself, for so many things left unsaid and assumed, is unreasonable. And in this tale of family crossed with our socio-political world, it has consequences. His critical choice in the film, and subsequent realization, is one of 2019’s most gut wrenching and unrelenting moments, transcending that small farm in Tunisia to global awareness.

Saria — video still

Though Brotherhood would be a worthy victor, the final film encompasses the best parts of all the nominees, making it the primary contender in an unpredictable category. Saria (23 min.), directed by Bryan Buckley, is based on actual events that occurred at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala in 2017, where a 41 female orphans tragically lost their lives in a fire. The film leads up to this singular event through the hardships of two sisters at the orphanage and the daily injustice of their environment.

Saria — video still

Facing oppression and abuse from the staff, an escape plan is devised to flee from the prison-like orphanage to America. The film itself is a haymaker, a blindsiding punch to American sensibilities. That previously discussed sense of danger culminates in this film: fear and hiding in a place meant to keep you safe and dreaming of a place that would most likely put you in a cage upon crossing the border. Director Buckley, an American, treats his characters with respect and wisely utilizes the clipped runtime to demonstrate the intersectionality of injustice and the cavalier nature by which we handle our own privileges.

In one, off-hand moment, as the girls are being marched into their “prison,” Saria spots a TV news report on the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and blankly looks through it, seemingly wondering how far she has yet to go. For this reviewer it was the programs most engaging, thought provoking and affecting installment and one demanding further recognition.

The program as a whole, though the most uneven of the three Shorts categories, is a winner. A meditation on danger, safety and choices, it presents itself to the viewer only occasionally with judgement. The strongest argument for the short film format is right here in front of us within this programming: It’s in the variety of scale and scope, the personal and the global. It’s in fear and relief, danger and safety, but it’s also in change and understanding.

As Ebert also said in that same speech, “We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we’re going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow and we will never change and things will never get better.” I encourage you to engage with this program and with its films; step out of your own box of space an time, and allow yourself the chance to change. Allow things to get better.

The Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts are playing at FilmScene now through Feb. 6. Read all about the 2020 Oscar Shorts — Documentary and look for 2020 Oscar Shorts — Animated in the coming days.

The 92nd Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. on ABC. FilmScene will be screening the awards during their annual Blue Carpet Bash, free to the public and presented at the new Chauncey Location.