A Review of 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films

Written by Ian Berke. Posted in Arts/Entertainment, Opinion

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Published on February 21, 2017 with No Comments

By Ian Berke

February 21, 2017

Even dedicated film fans are often stumped at the Academy Awards when it comes to the ‘short films’ categories. When and where are they ever shown, and who has the chance to see them?

Well, each year, for the past ten years, a few theaters have screened the final list of Oscar nominated short films. Short films are defined as less than 30 minutes (slightly longer for documentaries) and divided into three categories: live action, animation and documentary.

Most are highly accomplished; the documentaries are often some of the most powerful films screened in any given year. This is not to suggest that live action and animated films are less accomplished – they often show the talent it takes to tell a story, develop characters and resolve the action in 20 minutes, a challenge to do well. These films are rarely seen individually since few theaters are prepared for screenings of such short duration.

But a distribution company has bundled the award nominees together in all three categories, five films each, with a total screening time (this year) running from about 130 minutes for the live action, and 153 minutes for the documentary shorts. The Clay, Opera Plaza, the Shattuck, the Rafael and the Camera 3 (San Jose) are all screening the live action and animated films, but only the Rafael and the Camera 3 are showing the documentaries because of their extended length.

All opened last weekend and will probably continue to screen for another two weeks. Don’t miss them: they are gems. This year the documentaries are particularly powerful and timely, often focusing on dark topics, each an example of accomplished filmmaking. These will stay in your head (and heart) for a long time. The live action shorts are outstanding as well, but the animated films, with one exception, seemed a bit tame.

The first documentary is Joe’s Violin, a 24-minute US film about a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who has donated his treasured violin to a Bronx high school for girls. The school district solicits fine old instruments, which they lend to their students for a year or so. A contest determines the recipient, this time won by a young Latina, who becomes friends with the donor. The music class, replete with some very talented young musicians, is led by a charismatic teacher. This very upbeat film is just what we need to counter our post-election blues.

The second film, Extremis, takes a close look at the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. It focuses on four dying patients and the agonizing process of deciding how much longer they should be treated before being allowed to die. These are patients who have a very low probability of recovery, even with the best medicine. Most would die quickly without the breathing machines and none have advance directives to guide the family. The doctors try to help the families with difficult decision making. Some family members are reluctant, feeling guilty that if they agree to pull the plug, they might be throwing away that miracle recovery. This 24-minute film is intense and emotional, with frequent dramatic close ups. It’s reminiscent of a Frederick Wiseman film but in color with dialogue. The head of the ICU and its doctors can only be described as beyond dedicated.

4.1 Miles, a 22-minute American film, looks at a captain in the Greek Coast Guard who is trying to rescue refugees attempting to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. The title refers to the distance between the two. We’ve seen lots of photos but here the visuals have a power well beyond newsprint stills. Hundreds of refugees are crammed into small, leaking boats, many of which are literally sinking as we look on. The water is cold and rough, and the refugees are terrified. It is a struggle to maneuver the coast guard craft in the choppy waters while also trying to save survivors and retrieve bodies. This is nearly all hand-held camera work, much aboard a wildly pitching small boat. Greek islanders help when the refugees come ashore. There are children, babies and adults so exhausted they can hardly walk. The captain is haunted by this never-ending flow of people and by those he couldn’t save. This is an extraordinary documentary of heart-wrenching, mass tragedy.

Watani: My Homeland is a 39-minute United Kingdom film about a Syrian family attempting to escape the horror of war in Aleppo, Syria. Four children live with their parents, but the father has just been captured by ISIS, and the mother realizes that their only hope is to leave. This is no easy task as the city is being bombed and shelled daily. Eventually, months later, the mother and her children reach Germany. They are grateful and stunned to be in a place that’s clean, without gunfire and bombing. This is another very accomplished film, every bit as emotional as you would expect. It made me ashamed that the US has done so little to help these refugees compared to other European countries and Canada.

The final documentary is The White Helmets, a 41-minute United Kingdom film about the White Helmet organization in Syria. This group of unarmed volunteers rescues people from bombed and collapsed buildings. Ill-equipped, they work with more heart and courage than can be described. Filmed mostly in Aleppo, the cinematography is astonishing. We see Russian jets bombing and Syrian helicopter dropping barrel bombs, clearly designed to kill civilians. The sight of crushed bodies being excavated from the ruins is horrifying, although survivors are pulled from the wreckage, as when the White Helmets find a baby just weeks old, covered with cement dust, which is dug out alive when his cries are heard. Everyone in the rescue crew is crying, and the child is named ‘the miracle baby’. Three hundred of these volunteers have been killed and there is no question that some of the footage was shot by cameramen who did not survive. Still they persist and have succeeded in rescuing about 50,000 people in Syria. These are astonishing numbers, and if we are looking for heroes, here they are. The Russians and the Assad regime are surely evil, but the refusal of the US to enforce a no-fly zone, makes us complicit.

The live-action shorts are also very impressive. They total 130 minutes and include Sing (Hungary), about a new member of a school choir, her good friend and the less-than-kind choir director.

Silent Nights (Denmark) is about a desperate illegal immigrant from Ghana and his interaction with a worker at a shelter.

Timecode (Spain) is a hilarious look at two security guards in a garage for an upscale development, where cameras are everywhere.

Ennemies Interiors (France) looks at an interview in a French security agency with a long-time resident of Paris who wants to become a citizen. This intense, harrowing film is like something out of 1984, extremely well acted and very timely given our new obsession with domestic terrorism.

La Femme et la TGV (Switzerland) opens with a woman of a certain age who waves at the TGV train engineer with a Swiss flag from her stone house next to the tracks. She runs a bakery in her small town but is worried by cut-rate competition from a chain store selling ordinary pastries at discounted prices. The story is sweet, surprising, and an altogether very enjoyable film.

This year the documentaries are probably the strongest; all examples of accomplished film making about important issues. I don’t mean to slight the live-action shorts because they too are very fine. All are imaginative, well done and substantive. The animated shorts, however, with one exception (The Blind Vaysha), are weaker, albeit more upbeat, than the other two categories.

Seeing all of the shorts is the equivalent of a fine film festival compressed into a number of hours rather than days. You will be astonished by the power and quality of these films. They are greatness on screen. I’ve used the word “powerful” often here because nothing less describes these films.

Ian Berke

Ian Berke is a real estate broker in San Francisco who loves films and writes occasional reviews. Ian, who served in Vietnam and collects American folk art, sees about 100 films/year, always in theater. He particularly loves Indy, foreign and documentary films.

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