If there’s one thing to be certain of with the Oscar’s short film categories, it’s that these nominees are far from the year’s best. This is less of a knock on the Oscars themselves than it is an inevitable result of the marketplace. For the many people watching these annual compilations of live-action, animated, and documentary short nominees, these might be the only short films they’ll see in a year. There really isn’t an easy, accessible, or (most importantly) desirable form of exhibition for short films, nor is there much press given to shorts aside from film festivals or this annual tradition. Academy rules state that titles are only eligible under three scenarios: a one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles, a “qualifying award at a competitive film festival,” or a top prize at the Academy’s student short film competition. In other words, to be considered requires money or a propping up by other, flawed systems.
So the shorts categories operate much like the feature-length films do, but on a much smaller scale that makes it easier to point out where things are rigged. That’s why it doesn’t come as a big surprise that almost all of the live-action shorts aren’t particularly good, but in order to stay positive I’m going to start from the top and make my way to the bottom. Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary takes inspiration from a 911 call at an Atlanta school in 2013, where a secretary (played here by Tarra Riggs) has to deal with a young, male shooter (Bo Mitchell) walking into her office brandishing an AK-47. Van Dyk keeps the camera still and distanced from both characters, letting the events play out in real time with a frankness that recalls a similarly compelling standoff in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. With no cinematic tools to rely on for familiarity or comfort -- no close-ups, no score, no crosscutting, just a basic, linear series of shots and edits -- DeKalb Elementary stays unpredictable and tense throughout, before concluding with a call for empathy over hostility when facing the unthinkable.
Chris Overton’s The Silent Child feels like an odd pick for the category, given its specificity. Shot in a rural, foggy town somewhere in the UK, Overton’s film follows social worker Joanne (Rachel Shenton, who also wrote the screenplay) as she helps a four-year-old deaf girl learn sign language before starting school. Joanne makes progress over a short period of time, but the girl’s family (none of whom are deaf or know sign language) interfere, insisting she stick to lip reading as they can’t be bothered learning to sign. Title cards at the end give grim facts about the lack of adequate educational tools for deaf children, and while this isn’t the sort of issue Academy voters typically glom on to, it’s a little refreshing to see a different kind of extended, sentimental PSA pop up in this category.
The odd film out in this year’s batch is Derlin Seale’s The Eleven O’Clock, a comedy whose effectiveness will depend on whether one finds its central concept funny (I didn’t). A therapist sees a patient who thinks that he’s a therapist, and when the two of them have their eleven o’clock appointment, a weak "Who’s on First?" variation goes on for far too long. A quick mention of the therapist’s secretary being a temp worker sets us up for the twist ending, and by the time it comes the twist is welcome, since it signals that the film is over.
With the final two nominees, the Academy’s penchant for rewarding morally odious works for their “relevance” and “power” makes its usual appearance. In Watu Wote: All of Us, director Katja Benrath uses the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Kenya to adapt a real-life incident where a bus full of Muslims protected a Christian passenger from execution by a terrorist group. No need to search for the point of Benrath’s film as it’s right there in the title, but it’s hard to swallow her message of unity when she’s too busy trying to gag viewers with her crass methods of manipulation, like slaughtering extras to raise the stakes or pointing a rifle at a child’s head to ratchet up tension.
As offensive as Watu Wote: All of Us might be, it still has some sort of positive message to impart. The same can’t be said for NYU student Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett, a reprehensible and opportunistic take on the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Wilson Jr. retells the day’s events through the perspective of Till’s uncle, a decision that lets us know he felt bad about handing his nephew over to racist murderers. Like a visually slick reading of a Wikipedia article, My Nephew Emmett offers little to no artistic value or insight as it goes over the basic facts of what happened. Emmett Till has been described as many things over the decades since his murder: a child, a victim, a symbol, and an icon, just to name a few. Kevin Wilson Jr. has the very distinct and gross honour of adding ‘calling card’ to that list.