Oscars Miss the Mark in Failing to Honor Short Film “Watu Wote”

In recent years, the film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself have grown progressively more political, a change which has manifested itself in positive ways (this year the Oscars were perhaps #marginallylesswhite). Much like many of the big name films that vied for Best Picture this year, four of the five films nominated in the Live Action Short Film category had some sort of political bent or message to them.

The nominees included the eventual winner “The Silent Child,” “DeKalb Elementary,” “The Eleven O’Clock,” “My Nephew Emmett” and “Watu Wote: All of Us.” However, some of these films pull off their political commentary with more nuance and artistic merit than others.

The “Silent Child” took home the Oscar on Sunday night, but it was the most preachy and heavy-handed of all of the nominated films. It tells the story of a four-year-old deaf girl, Libby, and her bond with her sign language coach. Libby’s caricaturish-ly villainous and negligent mother, Sue, ultimately separates Libby from her sign language coach because she wants her daughter to be “normal.” Sue places her daughter in a “normal school,” refusing to try to get Libby any special accommodations because she wants Libby to learn how to speak (something she may not be capable of) instead of using sign language.
In the last shot of the film, a wrought iron fence stands between Libby and her sign language coach, as Libby is trapped inside her new school and her coach, for some undisclosed reason, is unable to go in or to wait for school to be dismissed. Across this inexplicable barrier, a despondent Libby signs the words “I love you.” It is certainly an emotional scene, and it even jerked some tears out of me, but it was so lacking in nuance that I felt as if I had been conned into caring for Libby. The film feels more like a PSA (albeit one advocating the extremely important cause of raising awareness and support for the issues deaf children face) and less like an actual film.

Instead of “The Silent Child”, I believe that “Watu Wote” was the most deserving nominee. This short tells the story of a 2015 terror attack on a bus near the Kenyan-Somali border. This film also has a political message, and if one were to boil it down to its core, the film tells us that Muslims and Christians can and should come together in the face of religious extremism. But, unlike “The Silent Child,” “Watu Wote” is artistically justified in its political statement.
The film’s protagonist is a Christian woman named Jua, who takes a 31-hour bus trip from Nairobi to the majority Muslim city of Madera, near the Somali border. Jua, whose family was killed in a terror attack by Muslim extremists, is highly islamophobic and distrustful of Muslims.

The film invites its audience to see the world from Jua’s point of view and share her prejudices. When two Muslim men board the bus carrying a package, director Katja Benrath uses a combination of shaky-cam and ominous music to make us feel like Jua — ill at ease with their presence.

But when the bus is suddenly ambushed by terrorists from the East African jihadist group Al-Shabaab, who have come to find the Christians onboard and murder them, it is in fact these two package-carrying men who act the most courageously in order to save Jua.

Jua may be the protagonist, but the true heroes of the film are the passengers who refuse to reveal Jua’s identity as a Christian even in the face of death. These heroes quote the Quran to the Al-Shabaab militants at gunpoint, explaining that it is haram (against Islamic law) to take life. They beseech Allah to guide the terrorists “on the straight path of those who have received [his] grace. Not on the path of those who wander astray.”

While giving the audience a perspective into Jua’s fears, the film also humanizes the terrorists themselves. It gives us a glimpse of the desperation that led some of the militants to join Al-Shabaab, most notably so when one of the terrorists screams in a trembling voice, “The whole world is out to get us.”

“Watu Wote” is a film that aims to expose our own hidden prejudices and subvert our expectations. It addresses one of the most charged contemporary political issues — terrorism — by exposing the underlying humanity of the victims and, even to some extent, the perpetrators.

The final scene of “Watu Wote” consists of Jua walking hand-in-hand with a Muslim woman and child into the sunset. After a film full of thoughtful craft, Benrath earned her sentimental last shot, and the emotion it evokes does not feel as though it is being aggressively squeezed out of the viewer — it feels real.