DIRECTED BY: Bryan Buckley (“Asad”), Shawn Christensen (“Curfew”), Yan England (“Henry”), Sam French (“Buzkashi Boys”), Tom Van Avermaet (“Death of a Shadow”)
FEATURING:Gérard Poirier, Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Matthias Schoenaerts, Harun Mohammed, Fawad Mohammadi, Jawanmard Paiz
PLOT: Five short stories (each approximately 20 minutes long): a dead soldier works for a shadow collector in the afterlife, an elderly composer struggles with his memories, a suicidal drug addict is pressed into watching the daughter of his estranged sister, two Afghani lads hope to grow up to play Buzkashi, and a Somali boy must decide between becoming a pirate or a fisherman.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the presence of the fantastical, steampunkish “Death of a Shadow” provides an excuse for us to review 2012’s crop of Oscar nominated live action shorts, none of the nominees are of sufficient strangeness to challenge for a spot on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. It’s still well worth your time to check out this slate of shorts if you get the chance.
COMMENTS: You might hope the Academy Awards would rename their “Best Short Film” category to “Best Realist Narrative Short Film” to reflect the fact that experimental, abstract, and surrealist films are not eligible to compete in the category (for boundary-pushing styles, you’ll have to rely on 366 Weird Movies Weirdest Short Film awards). The truth is that Academy probably considers the concepts of “narrative” and “realist” to be inherent in the definition of “Best.” When we think back over the most memorable and influential (post-silent era) short films of all time, titles like “Meshes of the Afternoon,” (1943), “La Jetee” (1962), and “Scorpio Rising” (1964) spring to mind. Naturally, none of these classics were acknowledged by the Academy, who instead consistently nominate competent but boring shorts that disappear into the mists of time. (Even 1956’s “The Red Balloon,” the sentimental story of the friendship between a boy and his helium-inflated buddy, was too “out there” for the squares at the Academy).
That’s why this year’s inclusion of “Death of a Shadow” is an encouraging departure: “Death” is still narrative and realist, but at least it’s magically realist. None of this year’s bundle of shorts innovate much or deviate from standard filmmaking techniques in any meaningful way. And, with the possible exception of “Henry,” none of them are really tuned in to the unique possibilities of the short format—they all look like stunted feature films, or standalone television episodes with artistic ambitions. This is not to say the assembly is bad—far from it, all of the films are of exceptionally high technical quality—but merely to point out that the Academy considers the short film category the minor leagues of feature filmmaking, a place where directors can demonstrate that they have the talent to someday helm a Hollywood movie.
We’ll tackle each of this year’s nominees in the order they appear in the program; by coincidence, the movie of most interest to our readers, “Death of a Shadow,” just happens to be first in the lineup. The premise verges on weird: after his death in WWI, a soldier goes to work for a mysterious shadow collector. He is given a camera he uses to snap photographs of people at the moment of their death, capturing a negative image of their spirit at the moment it leaves the body. Once he supplies the hobbyist with 10,000 postmortem shadows, the ghostly photographer will be allowed to return to the world of the living. He select his subjects from a giant database, half microfiche reader and half primitive punchcard computer. The film’s look is described as steampunk (although it’s not, technically); the in-story explanation for the retro-technology might be that the dead protagonist perceives afterlife magic consistently with the early 20th century technology with which he’s familiar. The film’s hereafter interiors are rendered in gloomy, dark sepia and tarnished gold hues; the world of the living is brightly sunlit by contrast. Elegantly morbid in tone, “Shadow” can be a bit confusing to follow at first, but as the soldier’s backstory is revealed, it drifts into a tale of love and sacrifice. Although the acting is good and the story satisfies, it’s the bizarre concept and production design that rule the day here: what you’ll leave the theater remembering is the long corridor housing silhouette trophies of the dead.
The Quebecois “Henry” is wonderfully acted by Gérard Poirier, who sympathetically conveys the faltering confidence and mental slippages of a man rapidly nearing his final days. A semi-retired concert pianist whose wife is a semi-retired concert violinist, Henry leaves his flat one day, engages in a conversation with a stranger who accosts him at a cafe, then receives a warning from another stranger that his wife is in danger. All is not as it seems, and although the mystery is quickly solved and hardly qualifies as a “twist,” I won’t reveal it. Suffice it to say that the story is told from an intensely subjective perspective, and Henry’s memories of the past are given equal (if not greater) weight than his present experiences. With its numerous flashbacks, “Henry” is the closest thing to non-linear storytelling you’re likely to see in this category. The tear-jerking climax may appear a bit on-the-sleeve, but it’s real and heartfelt, the acting is brilliant, and it hits you in the empathy center like a bag of very sad hammers. “Henry” is currently available online (this seems like a legitimate link from the director, but don’t blame me if the video is taken down by the time you read this).
The dark comedy/drama “Curfew” is the cheeriest of these melancholy offerings, and it begins with a suicide attempt. Richie (director Christensen) is a despondent drug addict called up at the last minute as an emergency babysitter for the niece he’s never met. The wary kid/crusty adult dynamic is a trusty one, as long as the tyke’s got charm, and Fatima Ptacek (who’s also the current voice of “Dora the Explorer”) has it in spades. Darling Ptacek makes the picture go, doing whatever is asked of her; she’s prematurely cynical or lonely and vulnerable, as the situation requires. The two melt each others’ hearts and redemption is found, as expected. “Curfew” is a little bit predictable but it’s executed very well, and there is a surprise happy hallucination sequence that’s proven something of a crowd-pleaser. There’s nothing new to be found here, but it’s good entertainment and is well-placed in the program; the lighter touch of “Curfew” is a palette cleanser after the despondency of the first two offerings.
Although shot in Afghanistan, “Buzkashi Boys” is an American production with native actors, partly paid for by a grant from the State Department. It’s a bit of a travelogue piece, and although the story doesn’t really work, the scenery is stunning. There are rooftop vistas of the sprawling city nestled within purple and white mountains, majestic crumbling ruins, and even a graveyard for buses. That’s not even counting the (too-little) footage of swarthy men in turbans playing buzkashi, a terrifying game contested on horseback using a dead goat (!) as a token. The Kabul Chamber of Commerce should use this footage in its “vacation in sunny Afghanistan!” ads. Third generation apprentice blacksmith Rafi and orphan beggar lad Ahmad climb across this picturesque landscape and dream of becoming buzkashi players someday. The boys are good actors, but they seldom seem to be having much fun, and their doleful attitudes spill over into the audience. The ending leaves us wanting something different. Although “Buzkashi” is the least of the offerings in this anthology, it does feature the best cinematography, which makes it watchable for its brief running time.
“Asad,” also brought to us by an American director with amateur local actors, features another young boy in a war-ravaged country, this time Somalia. Asad wants to become a pirate, but the older kids tell him he’s too little, and they’ve got automatic rifles. An old fisherman, on the other hand, has taken him under his wing and taught him more about the sea than the junior buccaneers will ever understand. Asad is laboring under a curse, however; he hasn’t been able to catch any fish lately, a fact known to the people of his insular village. Although it treads much of the same coming-of-age-in-an-impoverished-exotic-locale territory as “Buzkashi,” “Asad” marches with a brisker step; it feels much snappier and more alive than the Afghani feature. “Asad” also features an ambiguous and somewhat bizarre ending. The symbolism of the boy’s final catch is opaque—you’re not sure whether you’re meant to laugh—and yet it feels resonant and fulfilling, almost (as the fisherman says) “legendary.”
Maybe I’m a softie, but the heartrending “Henry” was my favorite of the bunch, even though “Death of a Shadow” is the only entry that fits into this site’s mission statement. The field is strong enough that I would not be disappointed with any winner (except “Buzkashi,” which is a notch below the others). “Henry” seems to be a popular favorite. “Death of a Shadow” is without a doubt the most ambitious and expensive looking of the set, not to mention the weirdest. Variety makes “Asad” their pick. Still, the British oddsmakers have named “Curfew” an almost prohibitive 1/3 favorite. The two likeliest beneficiaries of the Oscar nominations are director Tom Van Avermaet, who has shown that he can create an expensive looking sci-fi/fantasy world on the cheap (imagine what he might do with a Marvel superhero sized budget!) and actress Fatima Ptacek, who you’ll be seeing much more of in coming years so long as her cuteness holds up (keep your hands off her, TeenNick!) Seeing these shorts in a theater makes for a refreshing change of pace, and it’s encouraging to see that audiences are actually turning out to see a short film program—this is the second year HDShorts has been able to send the nominees on tour, and hopefully the program will become a well-established annual tradition. It’s nice to see filmgoers stepping out of their comfort zone, even if it’s really only in relation to run times.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a dark fantasy that looks and feels like a Steampunk collaboration between Terry Gilliam, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in ‘City of Lost Children’ mode.”–Jeff Shannon, Chicago Sun-Times (“Death of a Shadow”)