Amherst Cinema is currently offering a film series featuring all five Oscar nominated live action shorts. The series starts off with the well-acted and tense “A Sister,” directed by Delphine Girad, before heading into Meryam Joobeur and Maria Garcia Turgeon’s quietly beautiful and haunting “Brotherhood,” allowing the viewer to ease into the captivation of the latter without drowning out the intensity of the former.
The next short, Marshall Curry’s “The Neighbor’s Window,” provides some relief from the heavy opening films while maintaining its own voice. The penultimate “Saria,” directed by Bryan Buckley and produced by Matt Lefebvre, stands out as the most jarring and gut wrenching of the shorts. It is followed by Yves Piat’s ultimately lighthearted “NEFTA Football Club” which brings the film series to a close.
The films are in English, Spanish, French and Arabic with English subtitles and take place in several locations all in the near-present. This year’s live-action Oscar nominated shorts offer incredible performances, stunning visuals, and insights into the darker side of humanity. With a run-time of about two hours, there is no reason to miss them. Spoilers ahead.
The screening starts off with “A Sister”. Set in Brussels, this incredibly disquieting short film tells the story of the protagonist Alie’s 911 call. Selma Alaoui (caller) and Veerle Baetens’ (dispatcher), bring the film to life. Most of the film takes place either in the car with the caller or in close-up shots of the dispatcher. These tight perspectives make the film feel claustrophobic and add to the intensity of the caller’s desperation. The short does an excellent job of maintaining grim suspense, but because of its lack of development, it can feel like a snippet from a larger film rather than a substantial short.
The next film in the series, “Brotherhood,” stands out as one of the most visually beautiful in the roster. Set on a farm in rural Tunisia, the landscape becomes its own character. You can feel the breeze and the grass and the loneliness of the mountains all feel tangible in the home of the protagonists. The film focuses its story on a family shaken by the return of its eldest child, Malek, who has brought with him a mysterious, Syrian wife. Malek had previously left to join ISIS against his family’s wishes, and his return forces his father to decide whether he should call the authorities.
He eventually does, and only afterwards, he discovers that Malek has fled ISIS and that Malek’s wife is actually the child bride of another fighter who he decided to rescue. In the end, the father runs to the beach to search for his son, only to discover that he has once again been taken from him. Heartbroken, he screams his son’s name which eventually blurs into the breeze and once again the desolate sound of the wind and the rustling of the trees takes over the auditory landscape of the short.
Third in the line up is “The Neighbor’s Window,” which takes place in a New York apartment. The parents of three young children discover that a new, young married couple has moved into the apartment just across from them. The parents, and in particular the mom, develop a voyeuristic fascination of the young couple, watching their youthful escapades with envy. The parent’s dryly funny comments about the young couple in comparison to their own lives make the short appear to be a relatable comedy at first.
But the husband across the street soon falls seriously ill, and the mother watches with mournful curiosity as he slowly succumbs to his illness. She confronts the young woman as coroners remove her husband’s body, and the young woman recognizes her. Apparently, watching the young family actually gave the young woman and her late husband joy. The film ends from the young woman’s perspective, as the mom looks out at her, covered in shadow while her family plays joyfully in the background. This short stands out as the sloppiest in the line up, killing off the neighbor across the street in order to force its rather on-the-nose point. But despite its shortcomings, it stands out as among the most lighthearted, and it offers some of the funnier moments in the otherwise heavy film series.
These brief moments of comic relief will be much appreciated by audiences as they head into the next short, “Saria”. This short film, directed by Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebrve, is based on a 2017 tragedy in which 41 orphans were killed in a fire after failing to escape a Guatemalan safe house where they lived. It is, by far, the saddest of this year’s Oscar nominated live-action shorts. The film follows two orphans, Saria and her sister, Ximena, as they endure the daily abuse inflicted upon them by the safe house, the very institution designed to shelter them. Ximena meets a boy, Appo, at a dance and the sisters enlist him in devising a plan to escape to America.
But soon after they manage to escape the orphanage, the children are captured, brought back and locked into a windowless cell. In one of the film’s most heart-breaking moments, Saria tells Ximena that watching her with Appo has made her realize that she looks forward to one day falling “stupidly in love.” Seconds later, those hopes are irreversibly dashed as a fire engulfs the room, and the desperate cries of the girls are ignored by the woman tasked with keeping them locked up. The film ends with a list of the names of the 41 girls who perished in the 2017 tragedy.
After the gut wrenching ending of “Saria,” viewers may, at first, find it particularly difficult to invest in the final short film, “NEFTA Football Club,” as it seems to continue the theme of children in danger. Directed by Yves Piat and Damian Megherbi, the film follows the story of two young Tunisian brothers who come across a donkey wearing headphones and carrying saddle bags full of white powder. The elder boy, Mohammed, decides to try and sell the white powder. He hides the stash under his couch and tells his younger brother, Abdallah, to stay put while he goes out. Abdallah is annoyed, and Mohammed comes home empty-handed to find that the drugs are gone. The film cuts to Abdallah dragging the bags to the soccer field to show off to his friends. Mohammed frantically runs to the field and asks where the powder is. “Here,” the brother replies, and points to the lines drawn on the field with the white powder. Relieved laughs could be heard throughout the theatre.
The film was compelling enough to keep the viewers’ attention and provided enough comic relief with a much-needed happy ending to make it the perfect close to the film series.