Oscar Live Action Shorts Highlight Connection and Inclusion

La Femme et le TGV
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The five films in this year’s pack of Oscar-nominated live action shorts are a lengthy bunch. They’re good, mind you, but with four of ’em each coming in at nearly half an hour, the full programme is akin to binge-watching a few weeks’ worth of a sitcom, except that only two of them are comedies.

The live action Oscar shorts, while not quite as strong overall as the animated nominees or docs, are mostly notable for the worthy topics of human connection and inclusion at the core of their tales. As with the documentary short nominees and some of the animated shorts, these films indicate that the Academy members are a lot more in tune with the times than people give credit for. They’re listening and looking for films that reflect the sentiment of the day.
Ennemies Intérieurs
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Just look at nominee Ennemis Intérieurs (dir. Selim Aazzazi; France, 28 min.), a timely two-hander on racism and Islamophobia in which one French-Algerian born man defends his wish for citizenship in France. The film couldn’t be more relevant as the man requesting citizenship (Hassam Ghancy) finds himself in a casual, friendly conversation quickly that become an accusatory, invasive interrogation when the immigration officer (Najib Oudghiri) finds a nugget he believes will expose the man’s true secretly loyal to Algeria. It’s all fool’s gold, though, as the conversation, which remains consistently tense and engaging with the terse back and forth between the two actors, ultimately reveals the interrogator’s prejudice. This resonant chamber piece is a bit low-key and on the nose for an Oscar nominee/possible winner, but its authenticity and conviction are bound to resonate.
Silent Nights
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Another story of migration comes in the well-intentioned but wildly problematic Silent Nights (dir. Aske Bang; Denmark, 30 min). Danish girl Inger volunteers at the Salvation Army and falls in love with Kwame, a homeless illegal immigrant from Ghana, who takes advantage of her kindness when he hits hard times. Malene Beltoft Olsen’s performance as Inger is extremely good in Silent Night and one can see how the film got the nomination since her interpretation of the character’s eagerness, naïveté, suffering, and selflessness make for a compelling presence even though Inger sometimes falls into white saviour mode while helping Kwame. Kwame, on the other hand, isn’t exactly the kind of image the world needs with stories of migration right now. While he has his struggles, he also checks every cliché that narrow-minded folks might consider for immigrants and refugees: he’s lazy and unambitious and the film doesn’t tell audiences anything about his journey to Denmark. Kwame also has a wife and three kids back in Ghana and all one sees him do in Denmark is bang the white girl, break her heart, and rob the institution that supports him. He is—sorry—a bum and the film really risks simplifying the current global migration crisis, if not doing refugees and asylum seekers a disservice, when general audiences shake their heads at Kwame.
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The apolitical number of Timecode (dir. Juanjo Gimenez Pena; Spain, 15 min.) offers an appreciable laugh to the shorts. Even if it’s apolitical, it’s a welcome escape. Last year’s Palme d’Or winner for Best Short Film Festival at the Cannes Film Festival, Timecode is a wonderfully quirky dance flick about communication and connection, all told with barely a word of dialogue and only the funky dances moves of its two stars. Things go bump in the night at a parking garage as security guards Diego and Luna use the off hours to bust a move. The cameras of the garage’s CCTV system capture everything and Timecode adds a comical spring to its step as the guards let loose and insert at least one beat of human contact into a day spent staring at a monitor. This refreshing and enjoyable lark probably makes a fun dance partner with La La Land.
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Dancing naturally goes hand in hand with singing and the dramatic nominee Sing (dir. Kristof Deak; Hungary, 25 min.) highlights a director with a talent for helping new stars find their voices. Sing offers a nice little parable about standing up to bullies as young student Zsofi has a hard time fitting in at her new school and gets an unexpected setback after joining the choir. The film delicately tasks a cast of mostly young actors to play a class of students who stand up to a mean teacher, and director Kristof Deak helps the children carry the film with natural performances. For such a young cast, they’re all quite wise and Sing gives kids the spotlight without being too cutesy. Sing is nicely balanced and inspiring, much like the nice little songs one hears at school.
La femme et le TGV
The spirit of warming one’s heart and melting one’s shell brings the fifth nominee to life. La femme et le TGV (dir. Timo von Gunten; Switzerland, 30 min.) stars Jane Birkin (Blow Up, Twice Born) in a quirky and amusing love story about a frumpy baker who finds one daily bit of solace in her small Swiss town. Every day when the TGV train goes whizzing by, she rushes to the window and waves her flag. For such a grumpy sourpuss, the baker completely melts with joy each time the train passes. She’s as happy as a kid in a candy store—doubly so when a pen pal from the train starts pitching gifts and notes out the window. Birkin is lots of fun and gives La femme et le TGV its sprightly bounce and offbeat charm. Of all the shorts nominated here, La femme et le TGV is the most complete picture. With its economy of storytelling, upbeat tone, and underdog spirit, this fun comedy is a refreshing reminder that lightening up and being good to one’s neighbours is the richest truffle of all.

The Oscar-nominated live action shorts open in select theatres including TIFF Bell Lightbox on Feb. 10 and ByTowne Cinema on Feb. 17.

 Also reviewed: Oscar nominated animated shorts and short docs (at POV)