Alongside the hype and discourse surrounding Parasite’s well-deserved Oscar success, a topic that has been recently reignited by Trump’s inflammatory comments and telling desire for Gone With the Wind, award-nominated short films can sometimes go under the radar. This year five films of very different styles were nominated in the Live-Action short film category at the Oscars, and from a group of nominations offering genuinely subtle and humane reflections on a host of topics, ranging from voyeuristic desires to brotherhood and betrayal, The Academy still managed to drag the dullest, most humourless film from this rich selection as its winner.
The 2020 winner entitled The Neighbours’ Window is the first fictional short by multi-award-winning documentary director Marshall Curry. After creating several exciting and well-paced documentaries that won awards at Tribeca and HotDocs, among other festivals, his foray into drama promised to be an intriguing experiment. Drawing on the conceit of Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window, the premise centres around two frustrated parents as they become obsessed by the sexual antics of a younger, more agile, and evidently more likeable couple living in the apartment opposite. What begins as a potentially promising meditation on resentment fuelled by the unfulfilled desire slowly saturating this upper-class New York marriage rapidly reveals itself to be nothing more than a bland and moralising guilt trip. In the first ten minutes, we wait expectantly for a shift of tone; perhaps these long-suffering parents will find a new, shared pleasure in their voyeuristic tendency, providing sexual satisfaction for themselves (and desperately needed comic relief for the viewer) or, perhaps, the couple across the street gain a sense of humour and play upon the expectations of the unwitting spies across the street. Instead, we are given the sentimental ‘grass is always greener’ cliché paired with a bizarrely puritanical moral punishment for a couple who were really only wanting to feel desire and to feel desirable, which is surely not such a crime? Along with shots of their IKEA showroom -esque apartment, festive decorations acting as a clunky acknowledgement of time passing, and a script which becomes increasingly reliant on the father’s exclamations of ‘woah!’ every time his partner shows an inkling of emotion akin to anger, the work makes for an underwhelming short perfectly designed to win an Oscar. While this film’s win is predominantly just baffling, it might make more sense if we consider its potential to satisfy some masochistic longing for self-flagellation from those within The Academy who may see themselves in the older couple.
However, putting that most lacklustre car crash to one side, Curry’s short serves as a reminder of just how beautiful two of the other nominees were. This year, an irreverent comedy (Nefta Football Club) and a tender tragedy (Brotherhood) came from two Tunisian film directors with distinctive styles and equal dedication to detail. The comic tale directed by Yves Piat follows two brothers who stumble across a donkey with headphones on which, as it turns out, is a literal drug mule carrying masses of cocaine (or washing powder according to the younger brother). Piat imbues the story with a satisfying symmetry from the opening in which we see two drug dealers (also one older and one younger) argue about missing ‘the game’ if they can’t locate the mule, effectively mirrored in the boys’ debate moments later over the best striker, Messi versus Mahrez. The desert landscape bordering Algeria is not only a striking backdrop. It is also carefully utilised in Valentin Vignet’s sensitive cinematography with the mule’s introduction being played for full dramatic effect when we catch our first glimpse of it silhouetted against bright sunlight on the top of a sand dune, or when the transfer of narcotics from the sack to their cart is depicted almost entirely by a long shot focusing on their shadows against the warm sand. Piat’s short deserves praise for telling a tricky story with originality- instead of simply pandering to audiences’ pity and dismay. Yet, this refusal to cleave to a more predictable narrative that would have tied up a tale of narcotics with an unambiguous moral lesson also probably destroyed its chances of a win at this particular awards show.
Brotherhood is Meryam Joobeur’s examination of the tensions that arise within a small family when the eldest son and his new wife return from a period fighting for ISIS in Syria. Throughout this short, Joobeur positions moments of quiet in a way which allows them to convey as much meaning as the dialogue itself. In one instance, a silent, long-lasting look between the father and his daughter-in-law carries enough hostility for her to stand up and leave the room. Joobeur approaches her material with a refreshingly light touch. The subplot exploring the discomfort provoked by the son’s wife’s burqa (or ‘that thing’ as the father calls it) is handled with care, and when she is eventually asked to remove it we are given no sense of cliched unveiling. Instead, we are presented increasingly with shots of the families’ faces themselves obscured behind veils, created by walls or lace curtains. Like Piat, Joobeur is similarly attuned to the fine subtleties of colour, pacing and especially texture. Woollen jumpers are set against close-ups of bloody, sinewy meat, and our gaze lingers on sunlight cast on eyelashes and freckles. A tendency towards shots filmed in shallow focus (as with a frame of the mother’s hair blowing in the wind that slowly refocuses to the grasses swaying in the background) creates a soft and hazy quality that also works to great effect. Slow shots of hands cutting through sheep innards also reverberate in the dialogue itself as the wife asks at one point if the husband had not already spilt enough of his ‘guts last night’ after he has violently confronted the eldest son.
The way Brotherhood manages to move the viewer without falling back on gratuitous moments of violence or verbose dialogue marks another impressive feat from the Live-Action Shorts category. However, frustratingly, the foolproof method for a win this year – as is also proven by the unnecessary revelation towards the end of the otherwise charming animated short film Hair Love – is still a question of who can pull most successfully on The Academy’s barely-there heartstrings with displays of threadbare sentimentality.
The three films mentioned above are all currently available to watch for free in the UK via the following links.