Why You Should Care About The Oscars' Short Film Selection
The Oscar’s… why do we care?
Try as we might, Gen Z are not immune to the magic of one of Hollywood’s most reactionary homes of taste-making. Indeed, as the critical event par excellence of the American Film scene, it’s hard to imagine a world in which the Academy Awards could be anything other than a gatekeeper of quality filmmaking. Even among critical events it is less of a showcase for new work (think Cannes or the Berlinale) and more of a sort of US Top 40 for the film industry. Like a chart show, its supreme importance lies not in its critical assessment of the best new cinema, but in the making of stars. It’s showbiz. It’s Twitter stans rooting for their favourite actor in real time. It’s your mum crying into her pink gin as Meryl Streep gives yet another acceptance speech. Or it’s the long history of protest that goes along with it, from Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech in 1976 to the #justiceforflint fundraiser in 2016.
Unsurprising, then, the short film category doesn’t tend to get much attention. This is partly down to the short film’s relative obscurity as a genre. Your college boyfriend might be getting into the magic of a Murakami short story with the help of a UNIQLO t-shirt, but when was the last time you watched a short film that wasn’t at the start of a Pixar movie?
But as the New York Times points out, this year’s short film selection marks a distinct departure from the classic diet of comedy shorts that usually flood the category. Instead, it’s almost a newsreel – with works from across the globe tackling the most difficult topics of the past twelve months. Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the conservatism of the Oscars as an institution casts a cynical light on the selection, which seems curated to appeal to a self-consciously liberal audience. On the other hand, suggesting that the films are simply selected to posture to a white liberal audience does a huge disservice to the films themselves. The Oscar’s may be broken beyond repair, but the short films themselves outstrip the platform they’ve been given. Crucially, they are not simply vehicles for a political message, but important works of art in their own right.
Here are three nominees available on Netflix to get started with:
The Present (dir. Farah Nabulsi)
Coming in at 24 minutes long, Farah Nabulsi’s The Present gives us the story of Yusef, a Palestinian man who must cross the West Bank border with his daughter to buy his wife an anniversary gift. The trip is a vehicle for small humiliations. Stopped at the border by a pedantic gang of soldiers, they must wait so long that Yasmine wets herself. “Don’t worry Dad,” she says as they trudge down the road to the shop, “there was nothing you could do.”
The shop is no better. The cashier informs us, with a dismissive wave of a manicured hand, that the pharmacy is closed due to a death in the family. No painkillers. Sold out. The only moment of human connection outside the family unit comes in the form of Amjad, the workout-obsessed Amjad. He is warm and spontaneously funny, casting the inhuman encounters with the guards and cashier into sharper relief. Together, they drive the fridge to the border. Closed. “Is there another way?” asks Amjad. “There is no other way,” is Yusef’s fatalistic reply.
Here the miserable coincidences of the film start to take on symbolic importance. A long shot, slightly tilted, of Yusef pushing the fridge up a hill on a trolley. The sun beats down. Here is Sisyphus pushing his boulder. He pauses, in pain, and it starts to rain. Yasmine has forgotten her coat, back down the hill. It might as well be a million miles away. By this point, the tension building in Yusef is palpable. Without a single dramatic moment of score (the film is entirely diegetic), their return to the checkpoint after dark feels loaded with danger.
What until this point has been a rather traditional portrait of emasculation comes to a climax and then is beautifully subverted in an almost silent final minute. Humiliated again by the guards, who reject all reason in a stomach-churning mixture of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and overt racism, Yusef looses his cool. The camera, too, seems to lose its footing, lurching between close ups of guns and shouting people at confused angles. It is Yasmine, who thus far has been something of a pawn to move Yusef’s between self-sacrifice and rage, who cuts the Gaudian knot of machismo. It is understated and unsentimental – she is not even on-screen –but without spoiling it, the final sequence elevates a straightforward tale of the daily humiliations of life in the West Bank into something brilliant and subtly hopeful.
A Love Song for Latasha
A Love Song for Latasha is a contender for the documentary category, though you wouldn’t guess it from the opening credits. Shaky, sepia-toned camera work suggests a home film reel: artistic shots of waves crashing in reverse on the beach, a family posed on a porch and endless lines of LA palm trees evoke the eternal sunshine of nostalgia. The charming artlessness of home film, replete with cross cuts of LA minutiae – basketball courts, cars hazy with heat on the highway, a tap dripping in an empty room – might seem a strange choice for a documentary about Latasha Harlins. Shot and killed aged just fifteen by a shopkeeper who falsely accused her of stealing an orange juice, her death was a catalyst for the 1992 LA riots.
But A Love Song for Latasha isn’t interested in the riots. It is interested in Latasha, and in trying to preserve her, in the fallible mediums of home movie and oral history. Her friends and family narrate first her life, then her death. As Latasha’s cousin Shinese tells us, “she just tried a little bit harder. She just didn’t want to end up a statistic.” The structure of the film grapples with the problem of describing a person defined by her murder. In an inventive answer to the media’s obsession with Black death, director Sophia Nahli Allison uses a three-part structure. Latasha’s death stands at the centre, but it is both preceded and followed by her life in the words of those closest to her.
Ty, Latasha’s best friend, is the first narrator. She describes her first meeting with Latasha, who rescued her from a group of boys trying to drown her in a pool. Ty’s memories of Latasha are defined by this moment – she is a protector, a help to her grandma and her siblings, a fierce friend and an ambitious student, “popping out them A’s” to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney. Most important to the opening sequence, though, is Ty’s simple statement about their childhood in South Central LA: “and we would have fun.” Here the camera work comes into its own. The hyper-specificity of home movie, following the story around the neighbourhood at waist height to show the burger joint where the friends hung out after school or feet shuffling on the basketball court is as close an approximation of teenage joy in the early 90s as this distance can manage.
Then the film reel darkens, depopulates. Latasha’s sister describes the morning of her death over a series of empty rooms. There is no news pundit or expert here to explain the broader significance of Latasha’s death. But there doesn’t need to be. In Shinese’s account, ‘personal’ and ‘political’ observations sit side by side. She wishes she had gone to get the orange juice. The detectives didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon. “Word got around that a young black girl got shot over $1.79 of orange juice. Everybody just broke down. Everybody.” Here, Ty takes over. We see the store – or perhaps just a store, any store – where it happened. But the camera refuses to take us further. Instead, Ty tells us what it was like to see Latasha’s murder on TV. She’s crying as she says “and I saw it. I never knew what terror was until I saw it. And they kept playing that video over… and over.” It’s an excruciating moment – the black static of the screen suggesting the trauma without any vicarious re-enactment. And, without any overt comparison, the parallels to the present day are obvious. The woman who killed Latasha had a history of pulling guns on Black children. The past and the present sit side by side - “this was something that we got used to. We got used to it,” she says. At the same time, “I told her. Why didn’t she listen?”
The final part of the film continues, as it must, in Latasha’s absence. But rather than focus on the riots or the political implications of her death, it follows the agonizing question, suggesting the shape of the life she could have had. “Had she been here,” Ty begins, “I would probably be a lawyer. “No,” she corrects herself, channeling some of Latasha’s self-belief, “I would be a lawyer right now.” The film’s insistence on oral history comes into its own here. It gives a resounding counter to the statement posed partway through, that “people just know that she was a young Black girl who was worth $1.79.” And it allows Latasha, finally, to speak for herself, as Shinese reads a poem Latasha wrote about her dreams: “three descriptive words my friends would say and probably give me are caring, sharing and very polite to others.”
The film shares Latasha’s life and death through the memory of the people who loved her, as she shared her life through her community. It’s a rare thing, the documentary that gives the direction over to the people being interviewed, rather than using them in service of another point. When Shinese reads the poem, she describes it as a clarification. “I even forgot that it was valid, that it was here.” As documentary, it’s quietly radical – the opposite of Louis Theroux’s approach, which lies firmly in the tradition of Joan Didion’s remark that “writers are always selling somebody out.” But this isn’t writing. It’s a love song. In a final turn, Shinise describes Latasha’s relationship to her Blackness. The past and the future happen at the same time; over Shinise’s memory we see other young Black girls, surrounded by flowers. They all share the final question. “We’re so strong. Where did that strength come from? And again, we’re kids. We’re children.”
If Anything Happens I Love You
A partially successful exploration of a couple’s struggle to come to terms with the death of their only daughter, If Anything Happens I Love You is a contender for Best Animated Short. It opens with an arresting shot of couple, sketched in pencil. They sit at either end of a long table, while their shadowy selves argue against the wall behind them. Memories as shadows populate the film, but it is not until five minutes in (of a total twelve minute run time) that the shadow of their dead daughter appears. It’s a well observed impression of grief, that the totality of the feeling – expressed in the greyscale, the slow movement, the hazy distance between points of detail – is immediately clear, while the person missed is hidden somewhere deep within it.
Objects relating to the daughter emerge gradually from the foggy background – a lick of blue paint on a wall, or a blue t-shirt sporting a picture of the Grand Canyon. This will become a gateway for a memory, but for now, the colour provides a route for the couple to come back to each other, and find their way through the shadow memories to the memory of the daughter. It evokes W. S. Merwin’s poem ‘Separation’: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.” But the memories themselves are disappointingly formulaic: a trip to the Grand Canyon, a football against the wall, a first kiss at a party. The family, too, are all-American in a narrow sense. There is an overweight father in a checked shirt, a mother with a flicked-out bob, both white, living in suburbia.
The memories themselves may be disappointing, but the ambiguous quality of memory is expressed beautifully. Points of external reference dominate the first part of the film, but as the daughter moves from shadow to reality, the parents, in turn, become shadows. In an inventive and moving sequence, their shadow selves – normally distant from each other or arguing fiercely – tie themselves desperately together in an attempt to stop their daughter from going to school the day she dies. The image of the school corridor, grey but for an American flag displayed prominently above the classroom door, begins to hint at political commentary. We hear children screaming, the only human voice in the film. The title – If anything happens I love you - is revealed to be the daughter’s last text to her mother. A final gunshot, then flashing sirens. But with only eight minutes of build-up, the sequence feels unearned and, like the all-American memories, almost cliché.
The final scene, in which the shadow of the daughter shakes the world up to bring the parents back together, is a hopeful end to the tale. But the film doesn’t do enough with the specificity of their grief to really work. The everyman take on a tragedy may be intended to make the unimaginable universal, but it misses the cause of the couple’s alienation. Everyone’s grief is specific. The film is weirdly futureless, and the formulaic memories of the past don’t feel enough to bring the couple back together. Factor in the saccharine piano music and the strange choice of pop song to accompany the memories (King Princess’ ‘1950’), and the film falls flat.
Cover image by Jakob Owens