The relative lack of space for short films on the viewing public's radar stands as one of the media industry's odder truths. At a moment in which YouTube, Vimeo, the Criterion Channel, and other platforms ought to make their distribution simpler — and one in which viewers put up with undercooked material that runs longer, uglier, and more pointless than even many rougher shorts (here's looking at you, vlogs) — brief narratives, both fiction and non-, often get lost in the morass of life online.
Easier to make than they've been for ages, the trouble consuming short films — let's pick a number and call them any films under 45 minutes — likely stems from a confusion of context. Should shorts be heavy? Light? Does their curtailed format reflect a natural lack of import or create an urgent pressure to establish a broader scope? Maybe their structures could imitate longer movies, taking the form of baby features that stuff all they can into their brief running times — or would they survive better before an audience as open, free-form experiments? When sampling a short, one often doesn't know whether to expect a snack or a heavy meal, the result of a widely disparate form that still eludes a consistent frame in presentation, running time, or anticipated heft.
All this puts some pressure on the Academy's Oscar Shorts selections, one of the few venues in which audiences regularly engage with non-amateur shorts. Divided into Animated, Documentary, and Live Action categories, they trend toward the "baby feature" variety, some feeling like concise, finished objects on their own, while others leave disparate threads open-ended, biting off more than they can chew and implying a desire (a "need," they'd tell investors) for the story to inhabit a larger space.
To my eyes, the best shorts embrace their format, treating it less as an audition for something longer than what the format suggests to me: a lower-stakes chance to do something interesting. Succeeding this way in the live-action category, there's the smartly economical Belgian thriller A Sister, shot in just two locations with able performers who elevate a kidnapping scenario to frightening heights. Depicting a hostage woman's feigned call to a relative from the passenger seat of her captor's car, director Delphine Girard visually abstracts its car-bound characters, shooting them largely in silhouette. The effect renders the individuals hazy, introducing them to viewers in a role-based context before granting us a fuller picture. Lighter but also finely done, there's Nefta Football Club, which finds two young Tunisian brothers stumbling across a drug cache, an opportunity they seek to make the most of. With its scenic road scenes, good-humored modesty, and a script with just the right amount of give to it, it offers up a string of surprises alongside an awareness of political reality without feeling burdened by it.
Such is the trouble with many of the other selections, which showcase the Academy's bias toward favoring work that challenges by being a drag instead of in the more productive sense, of really wrestling with or provoking some substantive ideas or themes, be they new or old. From the live-action selection, there's Saria, which gives up on its narrative course — a story of a friendship between two orphaned girls — partway through to let the viewer know it's based on some real events. More committed and engaging, but messy and frequently out-of-focus, Brotherhood takes on the story of a prodigal son returned from fighting in Syria with ISIS, having gone against his family's wishes and now returning with a young bride in tow. While its family drama is admirably heated, the film's uneven lensing leaves an already messy story underserved; its political ramifications are of interest but ineffectively established, leaving it flailing with many a loose string unresolved. If shot and cut far better, it might make for a great feature — for its cast is rather strong.
On the documentary side, there's no shortage of confrontation with political reality. Each and every selection addresses some hefty matter, from Life Overtakes Me, St. Louis Superman, and In the Absence's po-faced examinations of migration, Black Lives Matter, and Korean political scandal, to Walk Run Cha-Cha and Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)'s strained attempts at uplift — one concerning a romance between Vietnamese expats, the other set at a girls school in Afghanistan. While the first three prove both formally leaden and straightforward even as their subjects are worth examining, Walk and Learning lean heavily on music and the ironies of political history for emotional resonance. For me, both failed resoundingly — cloying and transparent in their emotional appeals. (The live-action short The Neighbors' Window suffered similarly, spoiling a juicy, voyeuristic setup with a tin-eared recounting of white middle-class marital strife and a windy, overextended montage to the National).
It's in the animated section that the Oscar shorts might have the greatest capacity to surprise. Even in works left underwritten or haphazard, there's still ample space for visual invention and flourish. Some proof lies in both Siqi Song's Sister and Daria Kashcheeva's Dcera (Daughter), two harshly pretty works enriched by attention to their textures. In each film's gray world, some sense of the cute, or childlike, belies the realities of a more adult world. The faces of the puppets in Kashcheeva's Daughter are almost as easy to stare into as actors; the broad, cartoonish simplicity of their forms is layered atop with little, feeling touches, evidencing something rough but painstaking in their making. Her shooting of them is less imaginative — it's as though she recast her impeccable puppets in a typical live-action film (in an interview with the New Jersey Stage, she acknowledges the Dardennes brothers and Von Trier as artistic models). In each work, experimentation feels like it hits a ceiling due to their respective downbeat moods — something that doesn't get in the way of Memorable, which uses dementia and a shifting, disorienting rendering style to offer up a tour through its protagonist's dissolving mind and marriage, citing European art-historical styles along the way. Reflecting the tastes of the character as much as the director, there's a case for the obviousness of the texts it cites.
Sweet, but more limited are Kitbull and Hair Love, two affectionately drawn portraits of relationships that don't know quite where they should end. Strangely, it's Kitbull — about a cat and a dog's evolving relationship — that feels richer, making the liveliness of its animation (a frantic, electrified-looking cat, a hulking, outwardly stoic dog) its center in a way that most always serves it well. Finding a way in its limited time to imbue its world with a unifying sensibility, it's only when it veers from it that it goes wrong. Though there's no rule for making a short work, it's this kind of unifying, holistically thought-out vision (whether the story is modest or ambitious) that seems to animate the best of all these works. It's what signals the presence of creative voice.
Screenings run Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (times vary) at the Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7963; dia.org. Tickets are $9.50 and $7.50 for seniors and DIA members. See website for full schedule.
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