All words: Alan Pyke
The Academy Awards may be more than a month away, but we’re starting our coverage early. In addition to the whiskey-soaked live-tweeting you know and love, BYT is reviewing all the short film nominees. Starting this Friday, animated and live action shorts will be screening at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, while the documentary shorts will be at West End Cinema.
Butter Lamp, directed by Wei Hu
Four of the 2015 nominees treat the short-film category as a simple time constraint, approaching their stories with the same visual and narrative techniques that a feature-length project might. Butter Lamp does not. A photographer is shooting commissioned pictures for several different groups of Tibetan villagers, and the entirety of the film plays out from the perspective of his camera. His set-up includes large pictorial backdrops that let customers pick a fake custom background for their shots, and that backdrop fills the entirety of the frame. When one group of customers is done, director Wu Hei’s camera goes to black, then clicks back up as the photographer is readying the next group. Some of these vignettes are very short and others linger for minutes. The whole thing builds toward an inevitable, largely-satisfying visual reveal when the photographer eventually closes up shop and retracts all the backdrop images.
It’s a very clever design, to be sure, and it allows Hei to build audience curiosity. And it is very brief, which is good, because if it were any longer it might well collapse under the weight of its own cleverness. The end result is a slightly moralistic take on questions of modernity and tradition. But by standing out so far from the crowd stylistically and trading subtlety for clarity of expression, Butter Lamp may well have done enough to snag a trophy.
The Phone Call, directed by Mat Kirkby
The Phone Call is a deeply optimistic piece of art, delivered through filmmaking that almost bubbles over with light. The visual triumph that director Mat Kirkby and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland deliver here succeeds in part because the story and performances are so potent that they distract the mind. You’re too busy hanging on every quiver of Sally Hawkins’ face as her character, a crisis hotline attendant named Heather, scrambles to help aging and emotionally bereft tenor sax player Stan (Jim Broadbent). Kirkby packs huge and complicated questions about end-of-life decisionmaking into less than 20 minutes of movie. He pursues that subject by zooming in on a concrete, time-limited human interaction, allowing The Phone Call to sidestep some of the personal and political baggage audiences might naturally bring to the idea that there’s a right to die on one’s own terms.
The accompanying visual style of the film is potent and effective. Birkeland’s camera pans and zooms at a glacial pace, and the resulting slow grace of the piece suits the subject matter. With just a few key frames, The Phone Call establishes thematically-appropriate visual spaces. When Heather first answer Stan’s call, the camera is stationed just off her right shoulder, with a dark blue wall dominating the frame behind her, confining and compressing physical space to simulate the urgency and pressure of the moment at which a suicide hotline volunteer first answers a call. Moments later the camera takes her in from the other side, and the broad window over her right shoulder is so flooded with light that every surface in frame gleams with the sun: it’s a scene awash with natural light, open and empty, in stark contrast with the previous visual context Heather sits in at the start of the call. The same level of subtle craftsmanship and carefully controlled lighting appear in subsequent shots that establish what is either Stan’s home or the afterlife he seeks or both.
Describing a film as “airy” usually gives insult in a figurative sense, suggesting grandiosity and hollow blather. But The Phone Call seems meant to feel airy in the floating, leavening, gliding sense. It is a treatment of death designed to levitate, but without fancifully stripping its subject of its gravity.
Aya, directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
It’s starting to seem like complicated women and their choices may finally supplant the much-maligned Strong Female Lead in Hollywood’s understanding of how to portray non-dudes. Take Aya‘s nomination as evidence for that argument from the wilds of the short-film-art universe. The Israeli shaggy-dog tale follows a woman who gets cajoled into doing a favor and ends up impersonating a chauffeur at the airport arrivals area. Rather than devolving into some sort of hard-boiled neo-noir kidnapping story or a dark look at incivility, deception, or even sexual violence, the film just follows its initial event through to its payoff without trying to inject High Drama into the proceedings. There is joy in watching a person float through a giddy impulse, navigate it safely, corral it from a wild and risky thing into an Adventure, and then sail out of that adventure intact as the person she was when she set out.
When Aya (Sarah Adler) decides she’ll drive Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) to wherever he’s going in her decidedly unluxurious non-limo sedan, she kicks off both a will they/won’t they romantic arc and a personal journey. Writer/Directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis imbue the titular character with the mixture of gloom, neuroticism, and easy charm that reductionist critics sometimes dub the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But Binnun/Brezis don’t define her by those traits. Instead they show a disarmingly odd woman making decisions on her own terms, and use an appropriate mixture of filmmaking techniques – locating the camera inside the car and then cutting to shots that look into the car from just outside a window, for example– to give a visual dimension to their character development.
Aya’s music executive passenger proves game when it’s clear she’s no professional driver, and remains game even after she reveals what she’s done, and that she can’t explain why she did it. They bicker lightly, then bond gently, then glide into erotically-charged territory that makes Aya’s car feel even smaller than it is.
Parvaneh, directed by Talkhon Hamzavi
It would be far too harsh to call Parvaneh empty calories, because some piece of it it does linger in a vague, warm, satisfying way well after the credits come up. But the genre-blending tale of a teenaged Afghan emigre to Switzerland who lacks the official resources and cultural capital to find a way to send money home ultimately feels like less than the sum of its parts. It is a well-built remix of familiar plot elements. It is an immigrant’s story, a border story, a friendship story, an outsider-meets-insider-who-(ha!-ha!)-is-actually-herself-an-outsider story, and a coming-of-age story where maternal neglect and masculine aggression, as well as cultural obstacles, ultimately produce something lovely and meaningful. The film ends with a sense of promise and possibility for the titular migrant and her newfound pal.
To tell a story effectively among such narrative synthesis is impressive. Much of Parvaneh‘s success owes to the strong performances of its leads, Nissa Kashani in the title role and Cheryl Graf as her new friend. Its scenes are beautifully composed, and director Talkhon Hamzavi trots out lovely long shots of the cityscape alongside carefully chosen framings and colors. It shows and doesn’t tell, using tiny snippets of dialogue to establish Parvaneh’s life and personality. It is objectively good filmmaking, which makes it all the stranger that the giddy feeling it produces could fade so quickly.
Boogaloo & Graham, directed by Michael Lennox and writer Ronan Blaney
The only short among this year’s nominees to focus on male-male relationships, director Michael Lennox and writer Ronan Blaney’s charming story of an Irish family that adopts a pair of chickens also stands out from the category for the relative lightness of its ambitions. The family’s two young brothers take to their new chicks with the open-hearted, simple, obsessive fervor that children can access so much more readily than grown-ups. They learn odd facts about chickens and carry the birds with them on walks around the neighborhood. Story without conflict is aimless, and Boogaloo & Graham finds something to get conflicted about, only to resolve it with minimal fuss.
It’s a fine and enjoyable little piece of movie, edited to move along quickly without seeming to rush. But it also bears the mark of cinematic self-awareness, in a sequence where the boys try to jailbreak their chickens and nearly stumble into a fatal crossfire between soldiers – one of whom earlier gave an approving glance to the chicken-wielding children – and a nonspecific crook they’re chasing. The filmmakers conjure a cloudy, bright-blue lighting haze around the scene, a too-tangible act of technical scene-crafting that distracts more than it adds. Groping for grandeur and coming up a bit short can be worse than never reaching for it in the first place.
AND THE WINNER IS…
The Phone Call should win, hands down. Not only does it cram considerable urgency its running time, it also has the best cinematography and lighting. Still, I think Butter Lamp or perhaps will Parveneh will ultimately win the Oscar.