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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Oscar-nominated live-action shorts: review

Dominique DeMoe

DeKalb Elementary

The live-action short revolves around an armed man who enters an Atlanta elementary school, the receptionist at the entrance of the school who convinces him to give himself up and the 9-1-1 operator who acts as an intermediary between them and the police. It’s a poignant, touching story that seems larger than life in our violence-oriented world.

Reed Van Dyk’s disturbing short covers the increasingly relevant topic of mass shootings and school shootings in particular. Instead of focusing on the inevitability of these tragedies or the gun-control issue, however, Van Dyk focuses on how sometimes tragedy can be averted through empathy and understanding. The short film trades in carnage and cheap thrills for 21 minutes of understanding, discussion and surrender.

It’s not the most well-acted short ever made, but it’s a short, which brings the all too often ignored topic of empathy to life, which is admirable in and of itself.

The Silent Child

The British short film written by and starring Rachel Shenton and directed by Chris Overton chronicles the relationship between a 4-year-old deaf girl, Libby, and her sign-language mentor Joanne. The film progresses from Libby’s initial lack of ability to communicate with the world, to her growth in knowledge of sign language through work with Joanne and, finally, to her parents’ decision to abandon sign language in exchange for a focus on lip reading and cochlear implants, despite protests from Joanne. The film closes with a message about hearing-loss awareness.

While many of the shorts in this category collapse due to their lackluster acting, “The Silent Child” shines as a result of its brilliant actors. Not only does Shenton impress in her role of Joanne, but 4-year-old actress Maisie Sly portrays Libby with a calculated precision that in no way should be expected of an actress as young as she is. Their symbiotic relationship brings emotion and attachment to the topic of hearing loss and truly makes you empathize with Joanne instead of Libby’s oftentimes dismissive family.

It’s a film that doesn’t try to accomplish much more than sending a message. But send a heart-rending message it certainly does.

The Eleven O'Clock

“The Eleven O’Clock,” written by and starring Josh Lawson, is the sole comedy of the bunch. And it is also arguably the least straightforward of them all. It focuses on a certified psychiatrist and his appointment with a man whose condition is that he genuinely believes himself to be a degree-holding psychiatrist. With these conditions, their appointment inevitably devolves into mayhem and utter confusion for both themselves and the audience watching them. They both use the same tactics to diagnose each other; they both have their own secretary; and they both genuinely believe that they are the true psychiatrist.

It’s the only one of the five nominated shorts that evokes any laughs, and it does a stellar job at it. It’s a comedy, yet at the same time, it’s confusing and mentally stimulating. It contains twists and turns that aren’t expected, and it evolves itself from an innocent comedy to a complex, cleverly written black comedy in a matter of minutes.

It’s not the short that has gotten the most praise or will perhaps get the most awards due to its lack of seriousness. But seriousness and timeliness should in no way be a prerequisite in defining what a good live-action short should be. The short has shades of Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short “Six Shooter,” and although “The Eleven O’Clock” is inherently different and less clever than it, it should be getting the same kind of the praise that it got — praise for its humor and its cleverness.

Watu Wote: All of Us

The German/Kenyan collaborative short film “Watu Wote: All of Us” portrays a microcosm of the conflict between the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab and Christians near the border between Kenya and Somalia in eastern Africa. The short film zeroes in on a single bus carrying a miscellany of both Christians and Muslims across the border and the process of their bus being intercepted by a group of the terrorists. It does not focus, however, on the tragedy and hatred of the conflict. Rather, it emphasizes the solidarity among Christians and Muslims in the middle of the attack. It shows that terrorists are the genesis and the exodus of the problem, not a representation of the larger, empathetic Islamic populace.

The flair of the short film, however, comes in its subtleties and ability to evoke empathy. The film, although filmed in Kenya and spoken in Swahili and Somali, is aimed at a larger German and worldwide audience. With languages as distant to the Western world as Swahili and Somali are, this would seem to be a gargantuan task. Nonetheless, director Katja Benrath and the myriad of characters she manages make language and cultural difference an afterthought. Solidarity and empathy are the sole focus of the film as a result of the acting and directing, and unapologetically so.

My Nephew Emmett

“My Nephew Emmett,” a short written, directed and produced by NYU graduate student Kevin Wilson Jr., retells the story of the 1955 racially charged murder of Emmett Till in rural Mississippi. The story, however, is not told in a straightforward, Emmett-centric manner, but rather through the perspective of Emmett’s uncle, Mose Wright. In attempting a more convoluted take on the story, however, ambiguity and suspense are certainly added to the narrative, but not in a positive sense. The story becomes confusing and hard to follow. It also certainly becomes more artistic from this new point of view, but oftentimes at the expense of a cohesive, compelling narrative.

On top of the unnecessary changing of the story, “My Nephew Emmett” also profoundly lacks acting that evokes any sort of emotion. The African-American protagonists lack much depth and conviction in their dialogue, while the white protagonists in their small involvement are caricatures of any image that the mention of the enforcers of Jim Crow Laws conjures up.

“My Nephew Emmett” certainly had the subject matter and timeliness to be a great, memorable short film. But in its conviction to be different, it loses much more than it gains.