Three crowd pleasers and a pair of dramas loaded with modern social relevancy – all of them European – find themselves vying for the coveted Oscar for Best Short Feature this year, and overall it’s a strong line-up and a diverse mixture of stories.
Of the two socially conscious nominees, Selim Aazzazi’s French language period piece Enemies Within makes a greater impact. A two-hander, Aazzazi’s film, set in 1996, centres around a French-Algerian Muslim man (Hassam Ghancy) finally applying to become a French citizen, something he dragged his heels on because he was born in France and lived in Algeria while it was under French rule. He finds himself interrogated by a police official (Najib Oudghiri) as a necessary part of the application process. The officer believes that the applicant has attended meetings hosted by a terrorist organization, and he demands the prospective citizen to name names.
Aazzazi escalates the drama gradually here, and in the process mounts an intriguing treatise on French history and race relations; something that’s compounded by Oudghiri’s increasingly underhanded officer also being dark skinned. Enemies Within constantly asks of its protagonist “What does The Republic mean to you?” It’s a question that becomes as complex as it becomes meaningless. That’s not a knock against it, but rather what Aazzazi hopes to illustrate.
The far less successful of the more timely shorts is the uncomfortable and muddled Silent Nights, from Danish filmmaker Aske Bang. Here, an black immigrant from Ghana desperate to send money back to his wife and child while living on the streets and scrounging for bottle money begins a romantic relationship with a white woman who works at the local Salvation Army shelter. She’s unaware that he has a family, and matters are further complicated when he steals a large amount of cash from the homeless shelter to send back home.
On one hand, Bang tries to look at how desperate people can be drawn to desperate ends, but Silent Nights comes across as uncomfortably racist and nihilistic, when I’m sure that’s not the tone the filmmaker was trying to achieve. It’s understandable that Bang would like to show Denmark (glibly referred to here as one of the nicest countries in the world as a joke) can be as racist and unwelcoming as any other country in Europe, but ultimately the only lesson about race and class relations being conveyed here is “don’t trust anyone for any reason.” I squirmed my way through watching Silent Nights, but not in any sort of a productive way. Add to the equation a reprehensible attitude towards women (the immigrant’s wife in Ghana is shrill, the shelter worker naive, the shelter worker’s mom is a racist alcoholic), an implausible sense of pacing (taking place over only a couple of weeks around the holidays), and a wholly unearned “happy” ending, and you have a truly wrongheaded effort. This is hands down the worst of this year’s nominees, but there are some good performances and technical credits in here. It’s just a shame that in our current culture of distrusting immigrants, Silent Nights feels dangerously irresponsible.
Thankfully, there are a trio of entertaining, relatively uplifting shorts that will wash the nasty taste out of viewers’ mouths.
The slightest of the three entertaining nominees is Juanjo Gimenez Pena’s Spanish produced Timecode, a warm and subtle tale of two parking lot security guards who stumble upon a common interest. Day shift worker Luna (Lali Ayguade) notices while going through security camera footage that overnight worker, Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), likes to dance while making his rounds. They barely communicate verbally in passing, but they start having a unique, back-and-forth dance off across their shifts. Timecode isn’t much, but as a short film concept, it’s pretty solid, and it builds to a resplendent piece of movement between the two leads and an unpredictably funny final punchline.
Award winning actress Jane Birkin stars in Swiss filmmaker Timo von Gunten’s La Femme et le TGV, the story of a lonely, struggling, widowed baker living on the outskirts of Monbijou who wakes every morning at just after 6am to wave a Swiss flag and smile at the passengers on an express train that runs through her backyard, and she races home at the end of the day to do the same thing on their way back. One day, she discovers a letter on her lawn from the train’s conductor thanking her for being a highlight in his life for the past decade. They begin an unlikely correspondence and friendship – he sends her cheese, she makes him chocolates – and despite never meeting, the woman begins to develop a crush. Bolstered by Birkin’s great performance and based on true events, this one unfolds naturally and with a sense of genuine kindness, building to an unexpectedly bittersweet conclusion.
Also inspired by true events and the most rousing of this year’s nominees is Kristof Deak’s Sing, a Hungarian produced short set in the 1990s that subverts the clichéd “inspirational teacher” narrative. After transferring to a new school, the shy Zsófi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) finds friends and a purpose by joining the school’s award winning choir, run by the outwardly kind Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi). It’s not long before Zsófi has her performing dreams dashed by the conductor, who instructs her and several other children to mime instead of singing because their voices aren’t good enough to win awards.
Sing builds to a poignant moment of true friendship where a fellow student (Dorka Hais) leads a rebellion on behalf of Zsófi, and it doesn’t work out in ways that audiences might be expecting. It’s a nice film, and such films rarely win awards in this category, but of all this year’s nominees, it also has the strongest vision, performances, and execution. It’s a small film among a bunch of other small films, but it hasn’t left my mind since I watched it.