Thursday, January 28, 2016

Plenty of creativity in 2016 Oscar shorts

One of the few things I consistently enjoy about the Academy Awards is the spotlight, however fleeting, Oscar shines on short films, still one of the most creative outlets for aspiring and even established filmmakers.

Although it's impossible for me to describe and analyze all 15 entries, I'll make this generalization: Much of what you'll see will leave you with more to talk about than many of the features you've probably paid good money to watch throughout the year.

If longer films sometimes seem short on substance, the same can't be said about the live action shorts that have found their way onto Oscar's shortlist.

Ave Maria, for example, mixes humor and heft in a 15-minute look at the culture clash that results when the car of a family of Israeli settlers breaks down outside a West Bank convent as the Sabbath approaches.

-- Day One takes on us on an unsettling journey when a new translator, an Afghan-American woman, joins US troops searching for terrorists in Afghanistan. Authenticity seems guaranteed: The movie's director, Henry Hughes, served two combat tours in Afghanistan.

-- The German entry, Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay) deals with a desperate, divorced father who's trying to cling to a relationship with his eight-year-old daughter.

-- Shok tells the emotionally affecting story of the remembered friendship between two boys during the Kosovo war.

-- Although most of the shorts take place against a backdrop of war or turmoil, Stutterer (the UK and Ireland) charts the inner journey of a stuttering young man who has been involved an on-line relationship with a young woman. He faces a deep crisis of confidence when she suggests that they meet in person.

The animated shorts can be sorrowful and poignant (Bear Story from Chile) or artistically ambitious (Prologue, which takes place during the Spartan-Athenian wars). They also can be culturally significant: Sanjay Patel's Super Team introduces us to an Indian-American boy who's caught up in the conflict between American popular culture and his family's Hindu background.

The Russian entry, We Can't Live Without Cosmos revolves around the unbreakable bond between two cosmonauts.

Not surprisingly the documentaries are equally good -- and in some cases better that their fictional counterparts.

-- Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman team for an usual entry. Employing hand-drawn cells, Last Day of Freedom focuses on the heart-rending story of Bill Babbitt, a man who turns his mentally disturbed brother over to the police when he suspects that his brother has committed a terrible crime. Personal and provocative, the documentary also manages to speak to broader social issues, including the plight of veterans. We hear Bill's voice, but see only drawings of the story he's telling.

-- Chau, Beyond the Lines, from filmmakers Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck, tells the story of a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy born severely disabled after his mother was exposed to agent orange. Chau dreams of becoming an artist and fashion designer. There's no direct critique of the US for its use of Agent Orange, but the point proves inescapable as we realize that the effects of this toxic defoliant are still being felt in Vietnam.

-- Body Team 12 (David Darg and Bryn Mooser) takes us to Monrovia, Liberia, for a look at the work of Garai Sumo, the only woman on a team devoted to collecting the bodies of those that have died from Ebola.

-- Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah from filmmaker Adam Benzine is built around interviews with Lanzmann, who recalls the 12-year struggle to complete Shoah, a 9 1/2 hour documentary that's arguably the most important Holocaust film ever made. Unlike this illuminating short, Shoah never was nominated for an Oscar.

-- In A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness , director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy introduces us to 18-year-old Saba, a young Pakistani woman whose father and uncle disfigured her face in a botched honor killing. Saba made the mistake of marrying a man who didn't meet her father and uncle's standards.

Obviously, each of these films could (and should) lead to lengthy conversations, and all of them demonstrate just how much filmmakers can accomplish in when working in the short form.

*In Denver, shorts packages -- including animation and live action -- will be playing at the Mayan. The documentary shorts will be available in two packages at the Sie Film Center.

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