Oscar Nominated Shorts — Live Action

1.) Feeling Through (Doug Roland, USA, 19 mins, 2019)

“Feeling Through” aims to be poignant but gets dangerously close to being sentimental. Tereek (Steven Prescod) is a troubled teen trying to find accomodations for the night by texting his friends. In the middle of his search, he comes across a deaf-blind man named Artie (Robert Tarango) who needs help catching a bus. Artie communicates through a sharpie and notepad; to communicate with him, Tereek uses his finger to spell words on Artie’s hand. By the end, they’ve formed a bond, and Tereek has become a better person.

The best part of the film is that it’s authentic in its portrayal of the deaf and deaf-blind community. Both the Hellen Keller National Center and Marlee Matlin (as one of the executive producers) show up in the credits, and Tarango is deaf-blind in real life — a first for a lead!

2.) Two Distant Strangers (Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, USA, 29 mins, 2020)

Available on Netflix

The less you know about this short, the better, which is ironic considering how much I could write about it. Roger Ebert once wrote, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it” (Alone in the Dark: Forty Years of Reviews, Essays, and Interviews, xxviii). While this is the case here, it also has something to say.

Without giving too much away, Carter (Joey Bada$$) has a one-night stand with Perri (Zaria) and wakes up at her apartment. He leaves to take care of his dog, Jeter (Marley), but a chain of events occurs that prevents him from getting home. Both the importance of this message, and how it’s approached, is what makes this nominee worthy of an Oscar. And now I must delve into spoilers in order to do this short justice.

We see Carter killed at the hands of Office Merk (Andrew Howard), in a chokehold (and language) that directly parallels Eric Garner’s death. Then Carter wakes up, and both he and the audience think it was just a dream. But then it happens again. And again. And again. All while Carter listens to “That’s Just the Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby.

The film could’ve fallen into several traps. It could’ve made it seem like the cop was “just doing his job.” It could’ve used violence as a solution to violence, or gone the other route and shown that merely talking with Officer Merk would allow Carter to get home to his dog. But by having that one day repeat over and over again, Free and Roe show us that nothing Carter does will prevent him from being killed by the cops because he’s not the problem. Even when he decides to stay in the apartment with Perri, police in SWAT gear (including Merk) break in and kill him, believing it’s a different apartment. Not that Officer Merk needs an excuse. On the day when he drives Carter home, he has no reason to kill him. But he kills him anyway. Think about why, and you’ll understand that the problem is bigger than one cop.

I can’t tell whether it’s ironic or sad that I saw this short the day following yet another deadly shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop (in this case, 20-year-old Daunte Wright). His crime? Hanging an air freshener on his rearview mirror, with the ridiculous claim that the cop thought she was reaching for her taser when she reached for her gun. Other black men and women have been killed for equally innocuous things, many of whom are listed at the end of the short, and a few of whom have their names written on one of the roofs, which says, “Say Their Names” and lists George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor.

3.) The Letter Room (Elvira Lind, USA, 33 mins, 2020)

Oscar Isaac is the best thing about this short, which concerns a security guard named Richard (Isaac) whose cheerful demeanor is lost once he’s “promoted” to sorting mail sent and received by prisoners. While he’s supposed to scan them for any threats to the prisoners or the guards, he begins gravitating to love letters written by Rosita (Alia Shawkat) to a prisoner on death row — letters the prisoner never responds to. More a character study than a fleshed-out story, though it isn’t cliche proof. Luckily, the cliches are kept to a minimum.

4.) The Present (Farah Nabulsi, Palestine, 25 mins, 2020)

Available on Netflix

What must it be like to be treated like second-class citizens in your own country? Ironic that the two strongest nominees deal with this question, though while “Two Distant Strangers” deals with death at the hands of authority, “The Present” focuses on daily humiliations.

In this case, the humiliations are doled out to the Palestinian people by Israeli guards, who force them to walk through a small, crowded, fenced-in enclosure on the way to a checkpoint, while Israeli citizens can drive on the wide road next to it, joke with the guards, and be on their way.

On his wedding anniversary, Yusef (Saleh Bakri) goes into the city with his daughter Yasmine (Maryam Kanj) to buy a present and groceries for his wife, Noor (Mariam Basha). Due to the humiliations he receives at the checkpoint, he has to wait in a cage, in the hot sun, while the guards check his credentials. In the meantime, Yasmine has to wait, too, and ends up soiling herself.

More humiliations occur when he gets the present: a new refrigerator. The delivery driver tries to drive it to his house, but the checkpoint at the one road that leads there won’t let the car through, so Yusef must cart the refrigerator back through the checkpoint he passed through earlier that day…and then the fridge won’t fit through the “gate.”

This traditionally would be the type of film, both in message and craft, that would win the Oscar — and I’d be fine if it did, though I consider “Two Distant Strangers” to be the bolder artistic statement. The fact that Netflix is distributing both shorts (and the animated short “If Anything Happens I Love You”) means they’ll probably be streaming at least one Oscar-winning short come Sunday night.

5.) White Eye (Tomer Shushan, Israel, 20 mins, 2019)

We being by hearing Omer (Daniel Gad), a light-skinned Israeli citizen, calling the police. He’s found his stolen bicycle and is trying to cut through the bureaucracy so that he can cut the chains and take it home. Though he tries at several points to get the equipment he needs to cut the chains himself, he ends up having to wait until the bike’s current owner appears before he can act. That person is Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb), a black Eritrean immigrant who claims he bought the bicycle so he could get to work. Like “Two Distant Strangers,” the film deals with racism: only the country is different. In this case, Omer’s belief that the current owner must be a thief — combined with thinly-veiled racism — leads to a stronger result that he wished.

At one point, Omer makes a decision that seems unnecessary except to further the plot, especially when a non-police solution seems imminent. Then again, anger isn’t logical, particularly when it’s fed by fear of “the other.” I’m also not sure about the final shot in the film, though I understand where it’s coming from. Otherwise, this is a solid nominee, the bronze medal winner among the five live action shorts.

Oscar Nominated Short Films — Live Action plays virtually through April 29 at SIFF and Grand Illusion Cinema. Grand Illusion also has special pricing available for all three packages.