Highs and Lows of the Oscar Short Films

Until recently, the short film portion of the Oscars was the section during which I usually went to get snacks because honestly, who cares about these unbeautiful people and their “movies” that no one has heard of. NOT THIS YEAR, FRIENDS! This year, I have actually seen the live action short films that are up for golden statuettes, and boy, do I have feelings about them.

Rather than waste time on the ones that registered only briefly, here are the first three:

1. The Voorman Problem  (aka A Few British Actors You Sort of Recognize Explore God Delusions and Make Belgium Disappear)

2. Helium (aka A Kind of Roald Dahl-esqe Story About a Dying Child and the Power of Imagination, James and the Giant Peach Meets Up)

3. Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa (Do I Have to Do Everything?) (aka 7 Minute Video Interpretation of the Ongoing Conversation ‘Can Women Have it All’?)

 So, this is where it gets juicy:

4. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) -  My initial feelings of distaste for this Spanish short about a generic bloody conflict in a generic Africa starring generic generals and generic child soldiers has blossomed into full-fledged fury that I was subjected to it for 25 full minutes. The more I think about it, the more wrong it feels and the angrier I am that rather than condemning it for it’s “single story of Africa” we are lauding it with nominations.

The film depicts two Spanish doctors trying to get past a road barrier in the African bush somewhere (seriously, they give us no clues as to where this is supposed to be or when), when [SPOILER ALERTS: I'm going to spoil everything and I don't even care] shit hits the fan and they are kidnapped, beaten, and forced to kneel in the dirt while the local homicidal maniac of a general instructs the local child soldiers on how to be real men and murder interlopers. When the male doctor is killed, his girlfriend/wife is raped by one of the leaders before escaping during a bullet-laden blitz that kills basically everyone in the camp except her and young boy. She handcuffs herself to the kid, drags him into a truck, and drives him off to the city. Cut to that boy, a decade later, reading to a large audience of presumably-Spanish students about his experience as a conscripted soldier. His white savior stares back at him with tears in her eyes as she witnesses her good works in action. Fade to black.

I’m being kind of harsh. Maybe too harsh, but it really was that bad. Torture porn plus an uncomplicated, unexamined white savior narrative = lazy and dangerous storytelling.

avant5. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Everything is Lost) On the other end of the spectrum from Aquel No Era Yo, I absolutely loved this French drama [SPOILER] about a mother in the last, desperate hours of planning and preparation before she leaves her abusive husband. While this could have skewed towards a general, reductionist overview of the Horror of Domestic Violence (kind of like how Aquel decided to address Horrifying Violence in Africa and How We Can Save the Children), Avant instead fleshed out the micro-universe of this particular woman, her children, and her friends. Under this super tight magnifying glass, her trauma is local and concentrated, amplifying the impact of the story far beyond the 20 minutes it was allowed.

Aquel felt like someone sat down and said, “I want to make a really dramatic, really suspensful, really terrifying, really emotional short film….hm…you know what would be uber terrifying? Watching a white doctor get raped by scary black men! And then she’ll overcome it, and oh man, the tears will be intense! Yes!”

Avant felt like the filmmakers did the reverse. They wanted to tell a very specific story of a suburban mom of two who, by all outward appearances, is living a perfectly ordinary life but secretly negotiates fear and pain every day. Turns out everyday violence can be every bit as suspensful as African warlords with big guns.

Related Post: On why “Strong female characters” is a useless designation.

Related Post: Your recommended viewing if, like me, you suffer immense media FOMO.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Highs and Lows of the Oscar Short Films

  1. Nate

    Amen regarding the last two short films you discussused in detail.

    I went to the theaters for my annual watch of the Oscar nominated shorts. I’ve been doing this for six or seven years now because I’m part of an Oscar party in which a gift is given to the one who correctly predicts the most winners of the Academy Awards.

    Avant Que De Tout Perdre was amazing. It was so well-executed in every category: writing, acting, direction, editing. That story was strong enough t support a 80 to 90 minute motion picture. It was easily one of the best of the short films that I have seen over the years and if it doesn’t win the Oscar that would be a disgrace.

    But Aquel No Era Yo? Ugh. Condescending, racist, white-savior bull****. Granted there are a lot of atrocities going on in the continent of Africa and there is no reason to not acknowledge that. But the vast majority of those atrocities are happening to actual black Africans, not the European visitors auditioning for sainthood. What made it worse was that the only sympathetic African was the driver who was cowering in a corner and crying after being captured while his white counterparts from the “war-torn’ nation of Spain were calm, cool and collective. The rape scene? That was something out of Birth of a Nation. Even DW Griffith would have said “hey, you’re going too far with that!” It was unnecessary but even if the filmmakers wanted to go there, did it need to be shown on screen? Better not have it implied with the actual action being off-camera? And the worse of it was that this rape victim, after escaping, decides to go all ambo by going back into the compound even though a brutal battle is brewing all around her. Such courage! Such balls! Such….what exactly were her intentions again. She ends up saving the little creep who killed her lover only to lecture him through tears about how he was wrong and she was going to save him (even if she didn’t feel he was worth it). How magnanimous of her. Of course she had to put a bullet in him first to keep it real.

    As one of the few black people in the theater for this showing, I got the impression that even the white audience members were embarrassed over how over the top and racist this whole storyline was shaping out to be. And were we supposed to feel good about that “happy ending”?

    Problem is this is the fourth or fifth African story that I have seen from these short film Oscar selections over the past half dozen years. They are all made by European filmmakers and they all had the same premise: brutal warlords, children soldiers, unspeakable violence, high body counts. No variety whatsoever when it comes to these African stories. And this one was the worst of them all. How did it get an Oscar nomination?

    I needed Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa, as a final film, to be much longer than seven minutes to waste the bad taste of No Era Yo out of my mouth.

  2. Pingback: 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Live Action) Review MovieMelt

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