Due to scarcity of screens, we rarely get a chance to review some of the more obscure Academy Award categories. Luckily, Frontier Cafe in Brunswick Maine has been picking up the slack, showing the collected short films: animated, live-action, and documentaries, all neatly packaged. Last weekend I got a chance to watch the live-action shorts, and here’s my feelings on which one is going to walk away with the gold.
Director: Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont
Tensions flare when an Israeli family crashes their car into a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a convent of nuns. Outside of the safe zone, the family fears they will be mistaken for Palestinians, and must rely on the help of the nuns. The sisters only want to be rid of their unintended guests and return to their quiet life. In a comedy of errors, religious devotion prevents the Israelis from using a phone, and the nuns are all sworn to a vow of silence.
My Take: I’m not really sure I found much that was enjoyable in this film. The two groups are prickly, selfish, and unlikable. They are only interacting with each other out of pure necessity. When push comes to shove, both violate their religious convictions just to be rid of each other. One doesn’t get much of an “Aha!” moment where they actually consider each other as fellow humans. The film is pretty enough, but there’s very little else to make this something I’d recommend to others.
Director: Jamie Donoughue
A grown man finds an abandoned bicycle on a country road and remembers his youth in Kosovo, where as a young child he made a close friend due to a bicycle on the eve of the deadly racial conflict between Serbian and Albanian fighters. As their lives devolve into pure survival, can they remain friends through the danger and horror they experience?
My Take: This is an excellent film, through and through. Hard to watch, but excellent. The cast is wonderful, especially the actors who play the protagonist, both grown and as a child. The setting is richly evoked, giving a real sense of the clash between domestic everyday existence and the brutality that hides around every corner. With war as the backdrop, the human story of two children is allowed to shine, and the culmination of the story arrives with a gut-wrenching impact.
Alles Wird Gut (“Everything Will Be Okay”)
Director: Patrick Vollrath
Michael picks up his daughter Lea from his estranged wife in order to spend the weekend together. Quickly things become tense and disturbing as Michael has a very different agenda for his daughter than a fun filled weekend.
My Take: This film is full of tension and understated menace, but plays its hand a tad early. By the halfway point, you know damn well that Michael is going to abduct the girl and attempt to flee the country. Up until the scene where he cons some officials into creating an emergency passport, there is a delightfully understated low menace where you wonder why Michael is so ready to jump out of his skin. The acting is strong, giving you a real sense of the two leads as more than just the stereotypical aggrieved father and innocent child. Had the director chosen to elide the passport scene and keep the inevitable conflict implicit instead of directly stated, I think this would have been not just good but amazing.
Director: Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage
A young man suffers from a stutter so pronounced that he feigns being mute instead of reveal his secret. Despite a career and accepting family, he is daily humiliated by the simple tasks he cannot perform. His dual life comes to an inflection point when an online love interest requests to meet in person.
My Take: I was profoundly moved by this film. The strong emoting of the lead actor coupled with interior dialogue is excellently used to show how deep and fluent the protagonist’s mental life is as compared with how stilted and stunted his verbal interactions are. We get a rich and complicated psychological picture of an impediment that is rarely presented in media as anything other than comical.
Director: Henry Hughes
On her first day on the job as an interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan, our protagonist experiences the gamut of wonder and horror that life in a war zone presents, to both the occupying force and native population. A raid on a bomb maker turns into an emergency medical situation, hampered by the divide of language and culture, when the bomb maker’s wife goes into labor.
My Take: Beautifully shot and well acted, this film never really grabbed me. Perhaps we have seen this conflict so often in media that it has started to lose its emotional heft. There isn’t much ambivalence shown towards the role of the invading forces, who come across as mostly heroic and well intentioned. Despite its merits, this ultimately felt like a very well done episode of a medical/police drama you would find on TV, one that never really questions why such decent people are in such a morally fraught situation to begin with.
I think Shok has this competition running away. As much as I was moved by Stutterer, the scope and delivery of Shok will resonate with a much wider audience, and it deserves to be rewarded for its excellence in pacing, acting and directing.