Every year, the Academy Awards show off the best of film. The stars show up decked out in dazzling gowns and shiny tuxedos, Hollywood shows off its best side, and viewers around the world remember why they enjoy cinema. It’s quite the spectacle every year. March 4th will see the pomp and circumstance return to the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. And while the feature length films will get much of the spotlight, short films also deserve their time to shine.
A shorter running time allows for a more condensed message and tighter focus on particular motifs than a longer film gives. They frequently leave as big an impact on viewers as their more famed counterparts. This year, five live action short films were nominated for Best Short Film. Let’s take a look at each one before the Academy announces the winner.
First up is a painfully timely film, DeKalb Elementary. This is based on real events that happened in 2013 when a mentally disturbed man walked into an elementary school in DeKalb County, Georgia, with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition. What followed was unexpected. The school’s bookkeeper talked him down and helped stop him from harming anyone. There were no deaths, or even a single injury in the whole event. The only damage was some broken windows.
This story translates nicely to film. It’s 21 minutes of tension mostly surrounding the interaction between the would be shooter, played by Bo Mitchell, and the school bookkeeper, played by Tara Riggs. Riggs’ character talks Mitchell’s down from killing himself or anyone else while relaying everything to a 911 dispatch officer. Their interaction in one place, the school’s main office, carries the whole film. There’s no scenes outside this one location, so the actors get to shine. And it’s only at the beginning and the end when any other characters enter the office. As a result, there’s plenty of time for these two complex characters to develop and offer their experience and perspective to the situation. This is the cheapest of the shorts to film and make, but it is not cheaply made.
Reed Van Dyk directed this movie to perfection. There’s no music for almost the whole thing, so the scene feels visceral and raw. The camera work is simple, but to the point and shows everything you need to see, nothing more or less. The set and production elements were simple, but effective and believable.
The success of this movie is in getting a filmgoer to watch the situation play out with no sense of what the shooter is going to do. He is a loose cannon, but has just enough humanity to listen to someone backing him away from the edge. He can still be forgiven because he allows the people around him to help him. It’s a needed moment of forgiveness I think this country needs to see following the events in Parkland and the ensuing toxic discussion.
From depressingly realistic in Georgia, we move to a painfully real problem in Great Britain, shown off in The Silent Child. This is about a fictional child in a fictional British family struggling with a real problem, deafness. Six year old Libby, played by Maisie Sly, is isolated from her family because she can’t communicate with them. Her concerned parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) call in a social worker named Joanne (Rachel Sherton) to help her out.
Sherton also wrote this movie and her work is beautifully realized. The interactions between Libby and Joanne are the best parts of the film. They show an innocent little girl who finally has someone she can communicate with through lip reading and, most prominently, sign language. Libby sees development but then struggles when she enters a regular elementary school. And it’s not her fault, she just can’t hear.
These scenes hit me because I have friends who are speech pathologists and others who work with the deaf. They don’t do Joanne’s work exactly, but from their description it’s pretty close in some circumstances. I can’t help but imagine my friends working through similar circumstances to Joanne while watching this.
Throw in some stark realities painted against a foggy, British set, directed beautifully by Chris Overton, and you have an enlightening yet sobering display of a child struggling through a distancing physical disability. It’s an eye and ear opening film.
From a present painful situation to a horrid reminder of past ills, we turn to 1955 Money, Mississippi, with My Nephew Emmett. This shows one of the most well known examples of 1950’s American racism through the perspective of Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s uncle.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Emmett Till was a black child from Chicago who traveled to visit family in Mississippi in August, 1955. On August 27th, Till was accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Her husband found out, and with the help of a neighbor named J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant went to Mose Wright’s house in the early hours of August 28th, dragged Emmett out of bed, and proceeded to beat Till to death, leaving his mangled body in the Tallahatchie River. It is a tale of raw evil that generated controversy and served as a spark for the Civil Rights movement for the rest of that decade and the next. If you are brave, then seek out the photos and details of the events. The story is truly horrifying. I cannot look at the pictures from the event, they’re too disturbing.
That fear translates well to the screen. Mose Wright is the main character, not Emmett. It shows Wright as a caring, simple, yet dignified man who loves his family and wants to live in peace. L.B. Williams plays Wright and is the best part of the film. He shows every emotion possible in the situation; love for his family, concern when initially hearing the story, terror when the neighbors come knocking, fear for his life when Milam points a gun at his wife and then him, and shame when Emmett is taken away to his death.
Kevin Wilson Jr. wrote, co-produced, and directed this film and he did a superb job. The soundtrack features old spiritual songs, and reflects the struggle for freedom well. The film is beautifully shot and well paced. Wilson is unafraid of showing the story in brutally realistic ways and should be commended for that.
Of all the films on the list, this is the only one I don’t think I will ever watch again. It’s excellent, but it is a grim reminder of a story so horrible and terrifying that I’ve had nightmares from it. I can admire the film Wilson made and the excellent acting, and the perspective showing the terror’s effect on Till’s family. But I cannot help but shudder in horror everytime I remember this story. I should note that Wilson, correctly, does not show what happened to Emmett after they pulled away from the house. The reactions on Wright’s face are enough. This film is not for the faint of heat.
Moving from a terrifying story to a lighter one, we have a hilarious yet jarring psychiatrist story with The Eleven O’Clock, an Australian comedy. This film centers on the interaction between a psychiatrist and a man who believes that he is a psychiatrist. The premise is enough to get the laughs. The execution of this absurd set up is perfect and leaves the audience in stitches.
Josh Lawson wrote, produced, and stars in the film and his interaction with Damon Herriman are pricelessly funny, while also unnerving. At one point, you can’t tell who is who and who’s doing the job or which is delusional. Derin Seale directed this film and shows excellent comedic timing that works well with Lawson’s writing.
This is the easiest film to watch and the most light hearted. It may be my favorite. Because while being easy to watch, it subverts expectations and leaves the audience laughing and unnerved.
Seriousness returns for the final film of the nominations, with Watu Wote: All of Us. This is a German movie, directed by Katja Benrath as her graduation film from the Hamburg Media School. This film highlights a problem old as human conflict: religious wars.
Like DeKalb Elementary and My Nephew Emmett, Watu Wote is based on real events. In December 2015, a bus traveled from southern Kenya into northern Kenya, near the Somali border. When the police escort broke down, terrorists from Al-Shabaab junped the bus and forced Muslim and Christian passengers to separate, shooting any Christians on the spot. One such Christian is a woman named Jua (Adelyne Wairimu) who harbors. a deep sentiment of dislike towards Muslims after family members were killed by Al Shabaab. Jua is helped by peaceful Muslims to survive as the terrorists target those peaceable Muslims in a beautiful display of solidarity.
This is the only short In which the focus is on the ensemble rather than the few leads and it works well as a result. Wairimu is excellent as the main character, but Abdiwali Farrah as Sarah Farah, the most peaceable Muslim, steals the show. He highlights the desire to live in peace regardless of perspective and religious affiliation.
The rest of the cast is also excellent, but the best part of the film is the pacing. It opens in a desolate place in which the distrust between these two groups is entirely understandable, and ends with people sharing a common experience of wanting peace and sacrificing for that goal. Not one moment feels rushed or out of place. Benrath deserves praise for her efforts walking the audience through the story so well. The cinematography is also excellent, painting the poverty and fear in which these characters live with striking ease. It’s an excellent film with an uplifting message of religious solidarity.
So which of these films is the best? Well The Eleven O’Clock is absolutely the easiest to watch. Every other film has a message to get across and pain to show the audience. They all do it to certain degrees, and all deserve praise for how they elicit connections to present or past problems. Ultimately, I think DeKalb Elementary will win the Oscar. It creates tension, offers strong characters, and is relevant to recent events. All these films deserve the Academy’s praise, and I wouldn’t be shocked with whatever wins.