On Short Films, and the Value in Feeling.

So before moving in with my roommate K this year, I had never met her boyfriend B. K and I know each other from our college days, but she and B hadn’t started dating until after K and I had roomed together the first time around. It wasn’t until B started coming around to our apartment on weekends this fall that I got to know him better. Thankfully, it turns out we get along swimmingly. We’re both pretty nerdy human beings who have a love of art house film, food, and generally using our powers of sarcasm for good, not evil.

This has been an especially good turn of fate recently, as K is in the midst of studying for a wildly important exam. So while she holes up in her weekend study cave, B and I hang out (when we can’t convince K that a relaxing drink or stroll will do her good). B texted me last week to ask if I was interested in checking out a screening of this year’s Oscar nominated shorts at our local independent theater. In a move that will surprise exactly no one, I responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

In a more surprising turn of events, we convinced our 3rd roommate R — who is exponentially cooler and less nerdy than K, B, and I — to join us too. So, today the 3 of us traipsed off in the unexpectedly balmy February weather to marathon 5 short films in a little over 2 hours.

This year, the nominees hail from 5 different countries, although all of the films are of European origin. With work from Hungary, Spain, France, Switzerland and Denmark, these films boast a diversity of characters, aesthetics, and themes. If you live within driving distance of an art house movie theater (find a list of venues here), I highly encourage you to enjoy a showing. While they may not be lengthy, each of these movies packed an emotional punch in a very short period of time.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

1. Mindenki (Sing) — Hungary

Mindenki (Sing) -- Copyright 2017 Sing
Mindenki (Sing) — Copyright 2017

I know I’m giving it away early, but this film was my favorite of the bunch. The 25-minute stunner follows the developing friendship between elementary schoolers Zsófi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) and Liza (Dorottya Hais). Zsófi, the new girl in town, is enthralled by the rapturous sounding choir she encounters while touring her new school. Assured by the principal that the choir is open to all, Zsófi excitedly anticipates her entrance into the award-winning ensemble. Unfortunately, while her friendship with Liza grows unimpeded, her hopes to succeed as a choir member are dashed when beloved teacher Ms. Néni (Zsófia Szamosi) informs her that she’s not good enough to actually sing — she’ll have to mouth along with the lyrics and stay silent. If not, her teacher informs her, the choir’s hopes of once again taking top honors at a national competition will be dashed.

Fortunately for Zsófi, her loyal new bestie Liza realizes something is afoot. After coaxing the secret from her friend, Liza discovers that Zsófi isn’t the only member of the choir who has been forced into silence. When Liza confronts Ms. Néni during rehearsal, the teacher publicly humiliates both Liza and the lip-syncers, and shames them all into remaining in the choir.

Ms. Néni, however, isn’t as much of an authoritarian as she thinks she is. Liza and Zsófi come up with a plot to include all of their classmates in the choir’s performance, and get rid of their dastardly teacher in the process.

This film, rooted in the hyper-realistic European film aesthetic, is pure joy. As viewers, we feel for Zsófi. We ride a rollercoaster of emotions as she digests her lingering shame, and eventually blossoms, quietly triumphant, through Liza’s unwavering friendship.  These kids — dirty, bedraggled, hyperactive, and perfectly imperfect in the way real children are — bring us inexorably into their world. Aided by simple but deliberate camera choices and natural narrative transitions, author and director Kristóf Deák tells a simple tale of ingenuity, acceptance, and growth. If you’re looking for a sweet diversion to remind you of the good parts of the human condition, go see Sing. I doubt it’s going to win the Oscar, but I wish it would. This movie is the kind of escapism we need — real, believable, and honest, but unfailingly hopeful, too.

2. Silent Nights — Denmark

Silent Nights -- Copyright 2017
Silent Nights — Copyright 2017

This film, a narrative dissection of the current climate towards immigration and refugees, was my least favorite of the bunch. Silent Nights tells the story of Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), a Ghanian immigrant, and Inger (Malene Beltoft), a Danish Salvation Army volunteer. Over the course of a gray Danish winter, the 2 fall in love. Of course, it turns out that Kwame has a wife and children back in Ghana, a fact he has failed to disclose to Inger, who herself is dealing with an alcoholic mother.

Over the course of half an hour, we watch Kwame struggle with racism, both blatant and insidious, on the streets of Copenhagen. In fact, it’s his being mugged in a park that serves as the catalyst for his and Inger’s relationship, something that drapes a pall of White Saviorism over the remainder of the narrative. Indeed, when Inger is telling her boss about the attack, she first exclaims about how shocking it is that racism still exists in Denmark, and then remarks that “a group of Arabs” attacked Kwame. It’s a jarring juxtaposition whose intentionality I couldn’t fully ascertain.

While writer-director Aske Bang created a compelling love story, I wasn’t impressed by his societal commentary. His choppy camera work and abrupt transitions only added to the sense of unease pervasive throughout the film. Inger’s constant positioning as Kwame’s savior was both jarring and unnecessary. It would have been nice to see a story about refugees where the black man wasn’t villainized and the white woman didn’t save him. While I’m glad Silent Nights highlighted an important cultural crisis, I wish it could have done so in a way that didn’t buy-in to damaging and archaic stereotypes.

3. Timecode — Spain

Timecode -- Copyright 2017
Timecode — Copyright 2017

Clocking in at only 15 minutes, Timecode is a sweet and surprising story of security guards in Spain. The film opens as Luna (Lali Ayguadé) strips off her feminine summer street clothes and transforms into a sexless and staid security worker in a corporate parking garage. Greeting night-shift worker Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) on his way out, nothing seems amiss. Eventually, however, Luna’s boss makes her check the security tapes regarding an unrelated incident, and she discovers that Diego has been using the parking garage as an impromptu nighttime dance studio.

Soon, Luna and Diego are performing for each other all over the place. Over time, they become duet partners. With this delightful exploration of individuality and collaborative spirit, director Juanjo Giménez created the perfect display of whimsy. Timecode is intriguing, engaging, and guilelessly fun. With well-choreographed but believable amateur dance moves, it’s no wonder Giménez’ movie took the Palm d’Or Short Film prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. If you have 15 minutes to spare, you should absolutely watch Timecode. It was B’s favorite, and likely to win the Oscar this year.

4. Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within) — France

Enemies Within - Copyright 2017
Enemies Within – Copyright 2017

Of all the films we saw today, Enemies Within definitely packs the biggest emotional punch in only thirty minutes. Though most of the film takes place in a small office, it spans much of France’s turbulent relationship with Algeria through the judicious use of brief and poignant flashbacks. The film opens as a middle-aged man (Hassam Ghancy) is speaking with a young French bureaucrat (Najib Oudghiri) regarding his citizenship. The man seems perplexed by the nature of the bureaucrat’s questions — he’s lived in France all his life. Indeed, though he was born in Algeria, it was, at the time, merely an offshoot of France. Thus he seems confused by plethora of questions regarding French history and culture.

As the conversation progresses, it steadily becomes more of an interrogation. Soon we learn that the man has a police record, which is why he has to go through this questioning in the first place. The bureaucrat is eventually revealed to be an interrogator, who is convinced that the man is involved with — or at least aware of — Algerian terrorist activities.

Enemies Within made me think. It filled me with the impotent sort of rage that I feel everyday as I read the ways in which the world treats immigrants, refugees, and Muslims with seemingly endless prejudice. It filled me with the desire to work harder, smarter, better, to create a more welcoming world for all people. It reminded me that erecting walls to keep people out doesn’t help us. That assuming an attitude of mistrust with our fellow man only begets violence. Poor behavior on the part of the government begets poor behavior on the part of citizens. I am intensely grateful to this film for reminding me of that. This is a must-see movie for any one who cares about the future of global immigration and hyphenated cultural identities.

5. La Femme et le TGV (The Railroad Lady) — Switzerland

La Femme et le TGV - Copyright 2017
La Femme et le TGV – Copyright 2017

The Railroad Lady combines a whimsical, French-aesthetic with sweeping cinematography and soaring shots of the Swiss countryside. The film quickly introduces us to Elise (Jane Birkin), a lonely older woman who — along with her pet bird — greets the TGV that runs outside her window by waving the Swiss flag as it passes. Her daily ritual spawns a correspondence with a man, Bruno (Gilles Tschudi), whom Elise assumes is the train conductor. Their exchange of letters and packages invigorates Elise, who has been going through the motions of life. Elise’s son, Pierre (Mathieu Bisson), is perplexed by her burgeoning romance, and determined to get his mother situated in an old folks home.

When the train service alters the TGV route through Zurich instead of Montbijou, Elise’s routine and relationship are shattered. She recruits local hooligan Jacques (Lucien Guignard) to drive her to Zurich in the hopes of catching her pen-pal, Bruno. Though she makes the train, it turns out Bruno is not only merely a passenger, but also traveling with another woman.

Jacques appears to comfort Elise, and — as shown in a ‘3 weeks later’ scene — becomes her new bakery assistant. The development of platonic relationships that still lead to Elise’s fulfillment are a glorious exploration of the nature of aging. Alongside the gorgeous scenery and well-defined characters, The Railroad Lady is a intelligently sweet look at what it means to love and be loved. It reminds us that living life means being a participant in it, and when one door closes, another one is sure to open.

So there you have it: 5 short films in 1 short day. If you’re lucky enough to live near an art house theater, I highly encourage you to give these movies a try. They’ll make you think, they’ll make you fell, and they’ll help you be the most likely to win the pool at your Oscar night party.

— S

Day 48: February 18, 2017

 

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