I think, of the three short film categories, the animations have always been my favorite.
Pixar’s latest entry in the documentary shorts category is “Piper,” about the day in the life of a sandpiper chick who must, at his mom’s coaxing, face to world. This little piper, it turns out, learns a special gift, becoming the provider for the flock. All I can say is “Awww!” in a lovable way, just like I did with so many Pixar animation shorts. Everyone will love the little guy.
A girl child is born with a very special gift – or is it a curse? Her left eye sees only the past and the right the future. For her, named by the villagers as “Blind Vaysha,” life is a torment as she sees her suitors only as young and hopeful and old and dying with no world between. “Blind Vaysha” is reflection of how we look at life.
An aging sheriff stands near the precipice of a mountain where a tragedy took the life of his beloved father. The memories of that day have haunted the man his entire life and he has come to his crossroad of life. The lawman must, after years of lament and remorse over what could have been, find the strength to, finally, move on with life.
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes”
Robert receives a letter from his old childhood friend, Techo Stype: “I’m dead if you read this.” This animated film noir begins an examination of friendship as Rob narrates his view of the life and death of his best friend who lived on “Pear Cider and Cigarettes.”
This is a parable of the rise and fall of a man who had it all – and blew it. Seen through narrator Rob’s eyes, we see all of Techo’ strength and ability that made him larger than life. As he turned more and more to his precious pear cider and cigarettes, Rob watches Techo’s foibles bring him to ruin in his quest to find a replacement for his destroyed liver. Love, friendship and acceptance are all themes here.
“Pearl” is about the life, and life choices, of a free-spirited street musician who raise his precocious young daughter, performing together for coins on the streets, living out of their little hatchback car. We see the girl’s life as she follows her father’s dreams. The ending, with Pearl bringing her father back to the thing he loved, is quite touching in its father/daughter bond.
Theodore Ushev's "Blind Vaysha" utilizes a unique style that suggests animated wood cutting to tell the fable of a girl who was born with a right eye that can only see the past and a left one that only sees the future. Driven almost mad by her predicament, Vaysha believes she must pluck one out, but which one?
Pixar animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj are nominated for "Borrowed Time," the Western tale of an old man haunted by his past and the pocket watch which represents a great loss. This short, simple story is easily identifiable as a Pixar product, but faces stiff competition from its own studio.
Using Photoshop, Canadian Robert Valley has crafted an ode to a reckless daredevil now in dire straights. "Pear Cider and Cigarettes" suggests Ralph Bakshi by way of Frank Miller in telling the tale of Techno Stypes, a man who lives to drink and smoke, now awaiting a liver transplant in China. This melancholy tale of a fallen idol is brash and flashy yet heartfelt. It also grows a bit repetitive during its 35 minute running time.
Patrick Osborne, who won this category in 2015 for "Feast," presents a musical memory montage in "Pearl." A single, busking father and his beloved daughter live a hardscrabble life in an old hatchback, but when the adult Pearl finds the old car with dad's cassette player still in it, it brings her back to him in unexpected triumph. This one's a charmer, but if it were live action, it would play like a car commercial.
"Piper," which was paired theatrically with "Finding Dory," tells the tale of a hatchling bird being weaned by mom into feeding itself. Fearful of incoming waves, the little sandpiper learns a trick from a hermit crab. Pixar animator Alan Barillaro has crafted six minutes of pure joy, a humorous, stunningly animated short (it began as a proof of concept for a new animation tool) with a huge 'awwww' factor. This one looks unbeatable.
Live Action Shorts:
All the live action shorts hail from continental Europe, with France and Denmark's commenting on immigration and refugees while Hungary sends a message of inclusion and Spain and Switzerland both offer unusual epistolary romance. The live action shorts comprise the strongest overall of the shorts categories.
From France comes "Ennemis intérieurs," a powerful first film from Sélim Aazzazi. An Algerian born Frenchman applying for citizenship faces hostile, accusatory questioning. A game of wills ensues, but after the applicant delivers a strong takedown of his assessor, he finds that power is no match for justice. This one is a very strong contender.
Timo von Gunten's "La Femme et le TGV" from Switzerland is the starriest feature with Jane Birkin as Elise, a small town bakery owner who never misses the twice daily passing of the TGV express train as she waves a Swiss flag in greeting from her upper floor window. One day, the possibility of a late blooming romance is suggested when she finds an appreciative letter from the train's conductor in her garden and the two begin an ardent correspondence, but her life isn't really changed until she finally sees an annoying teenaged customer for what he is. This one's like a more whimsical take on "The Lunchbox."
From Denmark is Aske Bang's "Silent Nights," in which a homeless shelter volunteer falls in love with African illegal immigrant Kwame. Both have struggles unknown to the other and when Inger discovers Kwame's, she feels betrayed. After talking with her manager, Inger makes a startling decision. Bang's film may be judged a fantasy by the cynical, but this is an expression of the purest form of love. If "Ennemis Intérieurs" doesn't take the prize, this one might.
In "Sing" from Hungary, we find more injustice when a choir director suppresses the voice of Zsofi, a young girl trying to fit in at a new school, in order to win a competition. When Liza befriends Zsofi, she not only uncovers Zsofi's shameful secret, but a larger conspiracy. Kristof Deák's film is a delightful and surprising twist on resistance that uses sound in inventive ways.
Spanish director Juanjo Giménez Peña "Timecode" follows a parking garage attendant, Luna, who takes over from the night shift's Diego. When her supervisor asks her to check a report of a broken tail light on security video, she makes a startling and humorous discovery about her coworker. Inspired out of her boredom, Luna responds to Diego, until one morning, he walks out without a word. A new hire discovers the duo's incredible courtship.
This is a powerful and timely tale of the interrogation, in 1996, of a man, born in Algeria but who lived his life in France. Seeking a passport, he must justify his good intent in becoming a French citizen to his interrogators as an “Ennemis Interieres.”
“Extreme vetting” is becoming a frequently used phrase, now, in our vocabulary. “Interior Enemies” is about just that subject and strikes a real note about the current world immigration plight and the governments’ paranoia in the name of state security.
“La Femme et le TGV”
Every day, a lonely woman waits expectantly for the passing of the high-speed TGV train. When the train speeds pass, she always waves her tiny Swiss flag in greeting. One day, a package is thrown from the speeding train. In it is a note thanking her for her daily kindness as he races by at 300 kilometers per hour in “La Femme et le TGV.”
There are equal parts of loneliness and hope in this little story of a woman and her love for her daily TGV passing. Her unseen admirer, who packages a round of cheese with his letters, cheers up the lady’s day, becoming a long distance suitor. The rerouting of the TGV, rather than being a tragedy for the woman, is the beginning of a new life.
An immigrant from Ghana moved to Denmark to earn the money to take care of his family back home. But the land that he saw as his salvation is anything but. Homeless and penniless he goes to a local shelter and one of the volunteers, a young woman, decides to help him out during the Christmas holiday in “Silent Nights.”
This is a Christmas fable that has all the fixings for a fairy godmother story about a man at his wits end in despair until the kindness of another turns his life around. The film extols compassion to our fellow man and how it helps us all.
A young girl, Zsofi, arrives at her new school where the choir draws her interest. She joins and finds out the school choir is heading for the championship in Stockholm. The ambitious master, Miss Erika, after auditioning, tells Zsofi that she must only mime, not sing, to make sure only the best “Sing.”
This little parable begins as a miscarriage of justice as Miss Erika’s iron handed control of the choir becomes more and more apparent to one of the kids. There is a surprise and crowd pleasing finale that I will not spoil for you.
Luna is the daytime security guard a parking garage while Diego mans the night shift. A report of vandalism prompts Luna to examine CCTV recordings and finds out the culprit is Diego who was performing an elaborate dance, alone, in the garage. This begins a Post It notes correspondence between the two in “Timecode.”
This is offbeat love story that takes place via the many surveillance cameras around the garage. Diego’s dances spawns a silent response from Luna, the note telling her colleague to watch a certain camera recording at a certain time, making for a silent film that extols movement.
Documentary films, whether feature length or short, turn our eye to those parts of the world where life and possible sudden death are a daily event. Sometimes, though, there are also rays of hope and the Oscar nominated documentary shorts show both worlds.
A Greek Coast Guard team is on constant vigil to rescue the Afghan refugees making the harrowing trip, on overloaded and leaking boats, from Turkey to Greece to freedom across “4.1 Miles.”
Earlier this year, the Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea” also delved into the Mediterranean refugee rescue crisis. But, to me, “4.1 Miles” better brings to light that plight in its concise and graphic look via the eyes of the dedicated rescuers.
Life, we know, inevitably ends in death. This end, for elderly and terminally ill patients, is a frightening place and compassionate medical professionals helping see their wards to the end in “Extremis.”
Sooner or later, all of us face the death of a loved one. Fortunately, for most, there is family around them to help their passage. But, there are many who have no home or family and, in the end, they are alone. But, “Extremis” shows, through the actions and sympathy of those who assist their patients, whether alone or surrounded by family, the compassionate care of the medicos as the end draws near.
A 91-yrar old Holocaust survivor donates his precious. 70 year old violin to a school program distributing the instruments to school students in the Bronx. His violin is given to a 12-year old girl who wants to meet the man who changes her life with “Joe’s Violin.”
While this is a nice, uplifting little document as the titular violin changes hands across generations, it seems far too slight to be a contender for an Oscar. Still, it does have heart.
“The White Helmets”
Every day, we watch the news to see the horrific bombings of civilians still living in Aleppo. But, what happens after the carnage? This job falls upon the strong shoulders of the men who wear “The White Helmets.”
Take our hats off to the brave men to whom life is sacred and the filmmakers who bring their story to light. We are so used to seeing the horrors of the war in Syria that we neglect to bother watching the outcome – if the news media actually shows it. The White Helmets’ story is one of bravery, courage and dedication to saving the lives of their people and is the most powerful of the entries.
“Watani My Homeland””
While many Syrians opted to stay in their country, others, often under great pressure and fear, try to find a place where bombings and death are not a daily threat. We follow one family who suffered great loss at the hands of ISI and seek refuge in Germany in “Watani My Homeland.”
The filmmakers show us what life can be for those existing under the constant fear and danger of the battle for Aleppo. The contrast of that life and the one they move to in Goslar, Germany is startling. It is summed up by the youngest member of the family, a four year old who says “They aren’t dropping bombs, here.”
It's clear what kind of message the Academy is sending when one looks at their nominees for short documentary, three of which are about immigrants and refugees, another about rescue efforts in Syria. With the fifth considering the ramifications of keeping patients on life support, all are about compassion in one way or another.
Daphne Matziaraki's "4.1 Miles" refers to the distance between Turkey and the Greek Island of Lesbos and has already won a 2016 Student Academy Award Gold Medal as well as Vimeo's 2016 Best Documentary of the Year. Matziaraki returned to her native Greece from San Francisco to document the refugee crisis, spending three weeks with the Greek Coast Guard on Lesbos. These forty, used to patrolling their coastline for everyday emergencies, once thought it a big deal when, back in 2001, they'd pick up 20 Afghan refugees in one day, but on October 28, 2015, we see them respond continually to an influx, many escaping from Syria, than can reach 200 in one hour. These men are dedicated, but are battling exhaustion. As yet another boatload of refugees arrives in a harbor full of outdoor cafes, a voice can be heard yelling 'The world needs to know what is happening here. We cannot do this alone.' Matziaraki keeps her camera in the thick of the action (once being told to put it down as a rescuer attempts to lift toddlers onto their boat), her shots amazingly stable given the roiling ocean and chaos on board. "4.1 Miles" is a smaller, sister film to "Fire at Sea," more immediate, less poetic. (The film may be viewed on the New York Times website.)
"Extremis" follows Dr. Jessica Zitter at a California hospital as she tries to guide patients through the decision of whether to put their loved one on life support. We feel the burden on this caring woman as wrestles with ethics and the law when dealing with a homeless patient, but Dan Krauss focuses on two cases, one in which a son comes to terms with his mother's barely distinguishable wishes and another where a daughter stands against others in her family, determined to do anything to extend her mother's life. A well done, thought provoking piece. (The film is currently available on Netflix.)
Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen's "Joe's Violin" traces the donation of a Holocaust survivor's violin during a public school musical instrument drive. Joe bought the violin in a displaced persons' camp shortly after WWII, but hasn't played it in 8-10 years. It ends up with Brianna in a Bronx school and it is arranged for the two to meet. This is the most problematic of the nominees. We learn much more about Joe than Brianna and whether it was or not, their meeting feels staged. (The film may be viewed on the New York Times website.)
"The White Helmets" drops us into almost unimaginable feats of heroism in Aleppo. Orlando von Einsiede's film introduces us to Khalid, a young husband and father who is one of 2,900 civilians working at 120 centers to rescue Syrian victims while ISIS is on the ground and Russian bombers are overhead. Khalid is adamant that ordinary civilians are being targeted. Every missile strike (there are 200 air raids a day) takes out an entire neighborhood. In one of the single most stunning sequences from any movie in 2016, a week old baby is discovered and successfully saved from beneath a cement block under a pile of rubble. (This film is currently available on Netflix.)
Syria is also the subject of "Watani: My Homeland" and Marcel Mettelsiefen also introduces us to a husband and father, Free Syrian Army Commander Abu Ali, who agonizes that he has sacrificed his four precious children to the revolution. It is chilling watching 7 year-old Farah analyze a weapon by the sound it makes and witness her 'play ISIS' with four year-old Sara. After their father is kidnapped by ISIS (his fate is unknown), their mother decides to leave and the family resettles in Goslar, Germany, where they are welcomed and accepted. But mom and her eldest, Hammoudi, yearn for their homeland. This category is a tough call with "4.1 Miles," "The White Helments" and "Watani" all deserving and in the zeitgeist.
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