There are few chances to see accomplished short films outside of the major festivals, which means that even devoted film fans remain largely unfamiliar with the unique pleasures of the form. Just as short stories contrast sharply with novels, short films lend themselves to subject matter and modes of storytelling different from those of feature-length films. The best short films celebrate their freedom from the large scale and commercial pressures of features, transporting viewers with self-contained stories of new worlds and unseen lives. In the right hands, brevity can be a powerful asset.
For proof, look no further than the five unusually strong films found in the live action program of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films, screening at the Prytania Theater through Feb. 4. (Prytania also screens Oscar-nominated animated and documentary shorts.) Culled from global submissions, the nominees represent the cultural diversity lacking in this year's nominated features, a trend that has brought calls for boycotting the Oscars from prominent artists of color working in Hollywood.
The live action program begins with an unexpected blast of fresh air in director Basil Khalil's comedy Ave Maria. A Jewish family traveling in Palestine's occupied West Bank crashes their car into a convent, beheading a statue of the Virgin Mary. Mayhem ensues as the Sabbath arrives and the Orthodox family no longer can operate machinery — including telephones — and seeks help from five Palestinian nuns trying to maintain their vows of silence. Khalil, who was raised in Nazareth, the "Arab capital of Israel," by a Palestinian father and an English mother, mixes visual, situational and character-driven humor, which is no small task in a 14-minute film — particularly one that depicts Arabs and Israelis in conflict.
Writer/director Jamie Donoughue's relatively somber Shok illustrates the range of tone and subject matter in the Live Action program. Set during the Kosovo war of 1998-1999, it tells the story of two Albanian children who start a dangerous business relationship with enemy Serbian soldiers. Based on true events, this harrowing but beautifully shot film manages an intensely personal take on a highly political war.
At 30 minutes, German director Patrick Vollrath's Everything Will Be Okay has the most leisurely pace of the program's films. It thrives on building tension and dread as a part-time father plots to kidnap his daughter and start a new life abroad. It's a prime example of the small-scale, slice-of-life storytelling ideally suited to short films.
It's not hard to imagine why Irish filmmaker Benjamin Cleary's affecting Stutterer has won major awards at nine international film festivals. The story of a reclusive young man with a challenging speech issue, Stutterer becomes easily relatable when an online romance crosses over to the real world and forces him to confront his fears. It's a pleasure to see how much can be achieved in a well-crafted 12-minute film.
Former U.S. Army paratrooper Henry Hughes drew on personal experiences to co-write and direct the 25-minute Day One (pictured), which tells the story of an Afghan-American military interpreter and the unpredictable events of her first day on the job in Afghanistan. In a time of widespread anti-Muslim hysteria, Hughes' film builds an artful case for tolerance through an engaging story grounded in real-world complexities.