Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Live Action

'Ave Maria' is the standout in this year’s quintet of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts.
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This year’s Oscar-nominated live-action shorts include an imaginative 15-minute film, Ave Maria (France-Germany-Palestine), by Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont. It is set in the West Bank, and begins with a half-dozen nuns seated at a table, eating in silence. Their quietude is suddenly interrupted by a bang and then by the insistent ringing of a doorbell. The novice answers the door to find a Jewish couple, and the husband’s wheelchair-bound mother; all are emerging from a car that has crashed into the monastery’s life-size statue of the Virgin Mother. The car is stalled, and the family is upset by the prospect of not getting home in time for shabbat, which begins before sunset. They are invited into the monastery to use the dial telephone.

The nuns, who speak several languages, maintain silence for that portion of the day. This makes it impossible for them to use the most natural form of communication under the circumstances, and from calling the Arabic-speaking taxi close to the monastery. The Jewish family refuse to touch “machines” because it is the holy day, including the telephone that holds the promise of rescue. A delightful farce about what might happen if a religious icon were destroyed, Ave Marie takes aim at the social and religious traditions that limit communication and understanding, in the West Bank and elsewhere. The Mother Superior finally insists that they pray, and in the characters’ contemplation of their shared humanity, the true purpose of prayer, a resolution is arrived at—in keeping with the spirit of farce.

The other live-action shorts are narratives equally well-suited to the short form, and they broadly express the Motion Picture Academy’s aesthetic in this category, namely linear storytelling. Jamie Donoughue’s 21-minute long Shok (U.K.-Kosovo) is a good example. Set in Kosovo in 1998, it is about the friendship of two Albanian adolescent boys in which the protagonist, Petrit, learns a valuable lesson from his friend Oki. In the name of “business,” Petrit sells cigarettes to the soldiers who are the greatest threat to Albanian Muslims, but Oki considers his actions immoral. While the two young actors give credible performances, Donoughue’s backward glance, like that of his protagonist’s, stays with the “shock,” with a boy’s coming-of-age, rather than the archetypal nature of the story, an object lesson in how the world failed to avoid yet another diaspora.

Henry Hughes’ Day One (U.S., 25 minutes), inspired by his experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan, begins with a pretty female interpreter in a makeshift shower. The scene, intended to lend authenticity, has the opposite effect; bearing no relationship to the rest of the narrative, it is clearly intended to titillate. Implausibly, Freda, the interpreter whose predecessor is also female, is unaware that showers on the military base are taken in shifts according to gender. Chronicling her “day one” assignment, and shot from her point of view, at first the short has the appeal of an insider’s tale—for instance, depicting the vagaries of climbing Afghanistan’s mountain peaks. Then the platoon that Freda accompanies arrives at the home of an alleged bomb-maker and his pregnant wife. Instead of the moral conflicts felt by a Muslim female in the employ of the U.S. military, Day One devolves into melodrama.

Patrick Vollrath’s Everything Will Be Okay (Germany-Austria) is a taut, 30-minute drama about a father and his eight-year-old daughter, Lea. To say anything more would be to give away the plot, but the short begins with the father picking up his daughter at the home of his former wife. Because he never reveals the underlying motives of the father, it is difficult to know whether Vollrath intends the short as the story of a parent teetering at the edge of sanity after his divorce, or a critique of Germany’s child-custody laws, or both. Despite the screenplay’s shortcomings, Everything Will Be Okay is the work of a promising young director. Vollrath gets outstanding performances, especially from his younger actor, and the short is notable for its excellent handheld camerawork and its skillful picture edit and sound mix.

Stutterer (U.K.), a 12-minute short by Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage, is about an online romance with, you guessed it, a hitch. The eponymous typographer’s thoughts are heard in voiceover, which makes it apparent that he is actually a clear-thinking young man named Greenwood. His stutter is no barrier to online chats with his “girlfriend” Ellie. Trouble in paradise begins when she decides to surprise Greenwood by traveling to London and inviting him to meet her. Cinematic confections should be brief, and this one is, but perhaps one scene too short at the end. The Academy’s penchant for awarding prizes to romantic comedies makes Stutterer a contender for the Oscar, although Ave Maria remains the standout in this category for its originality and its wry humor.