For the last few years, I have made it a tradition to attend a screening of the Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films which are compiled by Shorts International and shown in my local independent cinema. Watching a series of short films is a very gratifying film-going experience and if you get the chance to go, you should take it. A well made short film can often be more powerful than a feature because it is easier for the audience to digest and discuss after a viewing. This makes them ideal instruments for sharpening the film vernacular of any interested party.
The shorts range in length but are generally between ten and thirty minutes. For a short film to be successful, the audience needs to make a connection to the story they are seeing in a very finite amount of time. The most successful short films are those with well-defined characters and this puts a great deal of emphasis on the actor’s performances.
Overall, I did not find the selection of films in this year’s program as impressive as it has been in the past. Certainly, there were some great moments but the films were not as engaging as shorts need to be. My two favorites were Kavi and The New Tenants. Following are miniature reviews of all five shorts films:
Kavi: Kavi is a nineteen minute film made by Gregg Helvey about modern day slavery that is carried out in the slums of India. The title character is a young boy who wishes to go to school and play with other children but is forced to work in a brick kiln with his parents. Eventually he is given the chance to make an important decision as to whether he should speak out for his freedom or try to stay with his parents and the life he knows.
The film has some extremely powerful imagery. This is especially evident in scenes that depict the living conditions of Kavi and his family. They sleep in a small shed and each morning are awoken by their owner banging on their door with a large stick. The world of the brick kiln is clearly illustrated and suitably cheerless.
The character of Kavi is well defined and sympathetic without feeling manipulative. Over the course of a day we watch as Kavi realizes the seriousness of his situation and loses his optimistic innocence through the freedoms he is denied. Overall, this is the most successful of the short films nominated this year.
The New Tenants: The New Tenantsis a twenty minute short film from Denmark which tells the story of two men who discover that they have entered a dangerous world after moving into a new apartment. The film is a dark comedy that all takes place over the course of one day. The two main characters have strongly defined personalities that are quickly established; this dramatically enhances the effectiveness of the storytelling.
The two tenants express a lot of emotion through facial expressions. As character after character parades through their apartment, they stare them down with a mix of fear, bemusement and disbelief. Eventually they learn that the previous tenant of their unit was shot in a drug related homicide. Many unexpected twists work their way in as the characters find themselves surrounded by his unfinished business.
The Door: The Door is a film from Ireland which examines the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on one particular family. The film is loaded with strong imagery and has the potential to be a powerful story but at seventeen minutes there is not enough room for effective character development.
The film attempts to use voiceover to help the audience feel a connection to the main character but it is not fully successful. The story is familiar but that is not the problem. It is still has the potential to be moving but the short format does not give it room to breathe.
Miracle Fish:Miracle Fish is an Australian film which tells the story of a young boy who is picked on in school. On his birthday he goes to sleep in the clinic only to awaken to a mysteriously empty and eerily quiet building. This leads to one of the most jarringly brief montage sequences I have ever seen. Over the course of what feels like three minutes, we see all of the activities which a child would partake in when presented with an empty school building: riding a skateboard down the halls, looking through his teacher’s desk, etc.
Shortly after the unimaginative ‘blink and you missed it’ montage, the audience starts to notice that something is incredibly wrong with the empty building. Bloody hand-prints are found on walls and a SWAT team is seen waiting outside. I believe that the film is trying to juxtapose the horror of a violent event in a school building with the innocence of a child. When we find a clearly unstable man holding a gun and talking to himself, we are supposed to wonder if the little boy is going to grow up to be a disturbed individual due to the abuse from his classmates. The problem is that the tone of the film is too uneven.
The audience is left wondering what the intention of the filmmaker was. Ambiguity can be effective but this film is clearly trying to make a point. The audience should not feel as if they are left wondering what that point is supposed to be.
Instead of Abracadabra: Instead of Abracadabra is a quirky Swedish film about a twenty five year old wannabe magician who lives with his parents. The film is very stylized and pretty amusing. All of the performances (especially those of the young man’s parents) are strong. The characters are well developed and likable. The only problem is that the film seems too redundant.
The character feels just like that ‘out of place weirdo’ that we have seen so frequently in American cinema since the advent of Napoleon Dynamite. The meticulously styled sets and costumes recall the films of Wes Anderson. It is impossible not to think of the character Gob Bluth from Arrested Development when watching an incompetent magician. Clearly, this film does not seem all that unique. In summation, while it is good at what it does, I have seen it all before (and so have you).
If the short films are playing in your area, check them out. You can also purchase them on iTunes or watch them on demand. For more information, click here.