The five Oscar-nominated films contending for this year’s best live-action short film remind us, like watching the films’ tidy narratives in succession, that even brief encounters with strangers can net unexpected points of view, connections and outcomes we never thought possible. Mostly international efforts featuring unknown actors from up-and-coming filmmakers in Switzerland, Ireland, France, China, Israel and Great Britain, the nominees include another star turn from Sally Hawkins, nominated last year for her performance in Blue Jasmine and the leading voice of last year’s animated short nominee, Room on the Broom.
Talkhon Hamzavi‘s Parvaneh, which opens the theatrical screening, centers on a teenaged immigrant from Afghanistan who is marooned in a refugee boarding house in the Swiss Alps. She is desperate to send her meagre earnings back home to help her sick father and decides to travel to Zurich to wire them money. Wrapped in a wool hijab scarf and carrying her belongings on her back, Parveneh reverses the alpine ideal by heading away from the harsh and isolated mountainous town on foot, then train, to Zurich. Once in the city, Parvaneh’s transformation, and the film’s color palette and pace, begins when a seemingly surly young woman she turns to for help becomes both her friend and defender.
Butter Lamp, a France and China co-production written and directed by Hu Wei features a scrappy, young photographer and his assistant who offer to photograph passing Tibetan nomads in front of full-screen backdrops of varying cultural significance. We only get a single, fixed camera’s perspective but soon understand that he’s just starting out and is also itinerant; the persistent ambient noise suggests a windy, outside location, not a studio, and we hear him gently cajole his future customers from a local road just off camera. The contrasts between his ruggedly beautiful, natively dressed subjects and the kitschy screens of China’s Imperial Palace and Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong’s Disneyland, Tibet’s Potala Palace and an American McMansion give the film its cumulative heft, made most clear by the final, arresting shot.
The Phone Call
Written by music video director Mat Kirkby and James Lucas and directed by Kirkby, The Phone Call is in some ways a truncated, British version of the 2013 Oscar-winning film Amour. This story about losing one’s longtime partner late in life, however, is framed by the stranger at the other end of the crisis hotline who must comfort a grieving man during his potentially final moments on earth. Sally Hawkins gets the call from an off-screen Jim Broadbent, still bereft two years after the death of his wife, and the two formidable talents forge a lovely and tender connection across the wires, with lasting reverberations.
Aya is also about strangers connecting in startling ways, although the tone of this Israeli-French co-production is much more mysterious by design. Co-written (with Tom Shoval) and co-directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, the nearly 40-minute film is longer than the other nominated shorts but it also feels almost like real time. When a woman picks up a stranger at the airport who thinks she is his driver, the slow-burn of questionable motives and mistaken identity builds with every turn of the wheel.
Boogaloo and Graham
Boogaloo and Graham, directed by Michael Lennox, is a charming, darkly edged fable about two young brothers who adore their pet chickens as others might more conventional pets. Set in 1978 Belfast in the war-weary midst of the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland commonly known as “The Troubles,” the film features the muddy, saturated tones of the 1970s and plenty of delightful pluck from the child, adult and feathered cast. Patrolling British soldiers slink by on foot and in tanks, providing just enough tension beneath the family tale, strangers and neighbors at home and in a strange land. Livia Serpa’s editing keeps the lightness and terror in perfect balance.