The most diverse and diverting group of Oscar-vying short films this year, the Live Action program now touring theaters offers social relevance and whimsy, chuckles and frights. And unlike the other groups of contenders (docs and animation), there’s nary a U.S. or U.K. production in the batch.
Opening and closing with crowd-pleasers, the program begins with Kristof Deák and Anna Udvardy’s Sing, set in a Hungarian elementary school where a new girl’s excitement at joining the award-winning choir soon turns to disillusionment. Essentially a long, pleasing setup for a punchline many viewers will see coming, it works quite well. Less sure-footed is Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff’s set-ending La Femme et le TGV, a showcase for Jane Birkin, whose identification with an elderly woman’s loneliness leaves her looking slightly demented. Conducting an odd correspondence with the TGV train conductor who blazes by her house every day, Birkin’s character lives in the past and an unlikely future simultaneously; character development takes a back seat to feel-good wishful thinking as the half-hour film finds a way for her to reenter her small Swiss community.
A varied and satisfying lineup with an emphasis on culture clashes.
Denmark’s Silent Nights, by Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson, observes European attitudes toward immigration via a love story between a homeless Ghanaian man and a volunteer at the shelter where he seeks refuge. Built on reversals and conflicts that would benefit from a longer running time, the well-acted film plays like a prospectus for a feature.
A more of-the-moment look at immigration issues comes in Sélim Azzazi’s immediately involving Enemies Within, which may be set in the late 1990s but couldn’t possibly be more relevant today. An Arab who has lived most of his life in France (and was born in Algeria while it was a French colony) sits in an underlit office for an interview with the paper-pusher evaluating his application for citizenship. The official’s questions start off nit-picky and gradually grow worse, taking the applicant aback. For those of us who’ve never faced such scrutiny, the morally complicated encounter illustrates how easily the innocent details of a life can be twisted into cause for suspicion; Hassam Ghancy, as the man suddenly being asked to give the names of Muslims he used to socialize with, makes one wonder how anyone enduring such treatment could not start to resent the country he previously saw as his home.
If Enemies Within were to somehow avoid the Oscar, one hopes it would be because voters saw Timecode and were overcome by something no other nominated short this year gives them: the wholly unexpected. The less said about the plot of Juanjo Giménez’s modest charmer, the better. But this look at two security guards isn’t as lacking in politics as it may appear: Here, members of the working class’s lower rungs share something unknown to those whose gruntwork they perform, using a depersonalizing workplace for their own expressive purposes. They plot no revolution and commit no crimes, but they get away with something wonderful.