Written by Ben Platko
I have seen a lot of short films. Many of them were mediocre at best, steeped in their creator’s overflowing pretension. Others were genuine and heartfelt, and touched on the very core of human experience. This year’s class of Academy Award nominees had a little of everything.
Asad is the story of a young Somalian named Asad with conflicting interests. On one side are his friends – the older boys in the village – who have joined up with pirates and spend their days raiding yachts (you remember all the news reports). On the other side is the old village fisherman, who despises the pirates, but has faith that Asad will catch the greatest thing the village has ever seen.
The film features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and a score and story to match. However, the story is told to the audience through the characters’ dialogue, and as a result we don’t get a real sense of who these characters are. Not only is the dialogue sub-par, the delivery is fast and flat. We can give it a pass though, because the entire cast is made up of Somali refugees.
Death of a Shadow
From the first shot, we are transported to an oversaturated, borderline steampunk reality. I had my doubts – I’ve seen a lot of very pretentious films with the same visual styling. I was in for a surprise. Death of a Shadow follows Nathan Rijckx, a soldier who died in World War I, through the last days of his journey through a very peculiar afterlife. Mr. Rijckx has been tasked with capturing 10,000 deaths – as shadows – for an ethereal art collector. Make no mistake, this is indeed a masterful film. Its take on death is as unique as anything I have ever seen, and the love story that brews under the surface is wonderful. The universe that we are dropped into takes some time to get used to, but it is worth it.
Curfew was a bit strange for me. It felt like an amalgam of stuff; of things that on their own are good, but should have no business being in the same place together, yet somehow they create something beautiful. I suppose it is rather allegorical of the main character, Richie. He is a suicidal drug addict who has not seen his niece, Sophia, since she was a baby. Suddenly, Sophia needs a babysitter for the night, and Richie is the last resort. The early dialogue feels forced. Eventually though, interactions between Richie and Sophia find a groove to sit in, and it starts to feel natural. Fatima Ptacek (Sophia) is, without doubt, the film’s saving grace, and Richie’s. Curfew is a mishmash of songs from indie soundtracks, generic indie shots, occasional poor delivery, and sweetness; genuine sweetness.
Henry is about Henry, an aged pianist struggling to work his way through his own dementia in a series of flashbacks. Honestly, it’s old hat. It’s predictable. It’s mediocre. Despite all of that, though, I still felt very drawn to Henry. The character was developed astonishingly well, but the execution of everything else left much to be desired.
The first five minutes felt like a student film – overacted, poorly paced, an unexciting action scene that came out of nowhere and had no score to match it. The absolute worst thing about this film was the sheer volume of handheld shots. One of the first things you’re told in film school is this, “You’re going to want to shoot handheld. For the love of god, don’t shoot handheld.” There is a very sound philosophy behind this: handheld, when done improperly or carelessly, looks terrible; when it is done right, and with attention to detail, it can evoke an emotional response from the audience. Yan England did it wrong. I am sure that will be protested (Especially when Henry inevitably wins the Oscar. It’s French, and it’s about dementia – the other films didn’t even have a chance.) as many will say: “The shaky camera is supposed to reflect Henry’s mental state.” I can accept that, but it would have been a thousand times better if England had reined it in a bit – toned it down just a touch. The emotional response would have been so much stronger, and the message would remain intact.
I know I have been hard on Henry, but it is only because I know it could have been so much better. Honestly, it’s not all bad. It was far from unpleasant to watch, and the soundtrack was lush and flowing. Unfortunately, if something feels like a student film, it does not deserve the Oscar.
This is the one. Unpretentious, honest, skillfully filmed, and universally touching. Easily the best short film I have seen all year, and possibly one of the best I have ever seen. “Set against the dramatic landscape of contemporary Afghanistan and the National sport of Buzkashi – a brutal game of horse polo played with a dead goat – tells the coming of age story of two best friends, a charismatic street urchin and a defiant blacksmith’s son, who struggle to realize their dreams as they make their way to manhood in one of the most war-torn countries on Earth. Shot on location in Kabul city by an alliance of Afghan and international film makers, Buzkashi Boys is a look at the life that continues beyond the headlines of war in Afghanistan.” That is the official synopsis, and you have probably already read it a hundred times on a hundred websites. Unfortunately, I cannot summarize it more elegantly. I can tell you, however, that this film is better than a few of the Best Picture nominees.
Sometimes it takes a story about children for us to look inward and examine ourselves. Perhaps because we have all been in their position. True, we have not all had to grow up in war-addled regions, but we have all had to grow up. In some way or another, we have all had to face similar challenges, and we can build a sense of empathy with these characters. This is truly a testament to Sam French’s writing, and masterful direction. I cannot wait to see what he does next.
To find a theatre near you where the Oscar-nominated shorts are playing, visit the ShortsHD website.