Oscar-Nominated Shorts Filmmakers Are Fearless When It Comes To Tackling The Most Challenging, Controversial Issues Across The Globe
From social justice to adolescent romance, this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts filmmakers don’t take long to make their points. The 2023 field of nominees include films from virtually every corner of the world, including Ireland, Iran, India, Norway, Italy and, of course, the U.S.
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An Irish Goodbye, written and directed by Tom Berkeley and Ross White, is a dark comedy that follows a pair of estranged brothers who must learn to get along after their mother’s untimely death. Berkeley’s own views of loss inspired the film’s exploration of love and grief. “It’s about reconnection, redemption and the idea of how, in the darkest moments for those two characters, they end up finding each other through their commitment to their mom and their mom’s memory,” he says. “Grief is something that we think of as a very personal, individual journey, but it’s something that you don’t necessarily have to go through alone, and grieving with another person can lead to healing.”
For Iranian director Cyrus Neshvad, bringing the story of The Red Suitcase to life was urgent. The film follows the harrowing journey of a 16-year-old Iranian girl as she attempts to flee an airport undetected by the man that she’s been sent off to marry. An instrumental scene involves the girl removing her hijab for her safety, but at the risk of defying her culture. “Women are disappearing and never coming back, sometimes because of how the hijab is worn on their hair,” Neshvad says. “I was terrified, but I wanted to talk about it because it’s also my home country. When I did this movie, I said, ‘I want a woman who has the choice to take this off, even if it’s for her freedom, for her free will.’”
Eirik Tveiten’s Norwegian short Night Ride begins after a late-night mishap. Ebba accidentally steals a local tram, and along the way, she picks up Ariel, who attracts the attention of a man sitting nearby. Things get hostile when the man uncovers that Ariel is a transgender woman. Along with witnessing passengers, Ebba must decide if she’d rather stay out of the kerfuffle or risk getting involved. “Norway is the best country in the world to live in, but we struggle with the same issues of prejudice,” producer Heidi Arnesen says. “Eirik came to us with this idea about social responsibility, and we have to act when someone is being treated unjustly.”
The Greenlandic tale Ivalu focuses on a young girl searching for her missing older sister. Adapting a story centered around the sexual abuse of children was a delicate matter for director Anders Walter. “Taking on a story like this, you’re very much aware that you’re dealing with something that affects a lot of young people, and it’s a very sensitive subject matter,” he says. “It’s always a balance because you don’t want to come across as naïve, because that would be the worst thing if the victims couldn’t recognize themselves in the story. And by talking to people working with children in this situation, they talk about the community around these victims.”
Le Pupille, an Italian religious comedy, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is set at an all-girls Catholic orphanage during 1940s wartime. While on Christmas break, the girls face the greatest temptation, trying not to eat a delicious zuppa inglese cake. “I wanted to create a film that was out of time,” she says. “That was classic but also handmade. I wanted to show the girls that you can have something magical without incredible things.” —Destiny Jackson
After receiving such a positive response to his 2019 book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, creator Charlie Mackesy was excited to bring his book to life and allow the story to affect people in a more “stimulating” way. “Strangely, before I even made the book I felt they could move,” he says. The animated short follows a boy searching for a home. Along the way, he meets three animals who are also looking for a place to belong and begin to develop a bond. “The inspiration was the desire to make people, friends or whoever, feel better about things,” he says. “All of us were struggling at the time with things and it seemed good to be able to lay out those issues in a conversation.”
Filmmakers Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis were inspired to make The Flying Sailor from a small blurb about a sailor they found while researching the Halifax explosion of 1917. “He was launched and flew for two kilometers and landed unharmed and naked except for one boot,” says Tilby. As they were captivated by the flight aspect, their animated short takes a slowed down look at life flashing before a man’s eyes as his “balletic” movements are underscored by a beautiful piano. The animation style blends 2D and 3D elements, which Forbis says created a “cartoony” opening sequence that contrasts the tragedy of the situation.
Like many of his other films, João Gonzalez’s Ice Merchants began with an image from his subconscious. “It was an image of a tiny house attached to a cliff,” he says. “I knew the theme of the film was going to be about loss, but all the tiny details of the narrative are about finding joy.” The short follows a father and son living on a house attached to the side of a mountain. While animated digitally, the artistic style emulates a hand-drawn pencil on paper look with bold shadows and a limited color palette that contrasts the “human side of the characters with the cold, harsh colors of the outside.”
Based on a chapter of Pamela Ribon’s memoir Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public, My Year of Dicks follows a 15-year-old Pam on a comedic journey to find the right boy to lose her virginity to. “I was raised on romance novels and films in the ’80s,” Ribon says, “so I was ready to get it done because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do—you only became a woman once you lost your virginity.” The short was split into five different chapters, following different boys with unique styles of animation to simulate the “overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling” of a crush. “I always imagined him in a very different light than anybody else did,” she says, “in whatever phase I was going through at the time.”
Lachlan Pendragon began his work on An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It from a research perspective by questioning what he found appealing about stop-motion. “For me, stop-motion is all about those tactile qualities and imperfections,” he says. He admits that he went a bit too far with it and ended up creating a “ridiculously meta and very self-referential” short about an office worker spiraling after an Ostrich reveals that he is in a stop-motion animation. As Neil, voiced by Pendragon, learns of the nature of his world from an ostrich, he starts to notice things that confirm the suspicion. “It sounds very horrific when you think about a stop-motion character finding out their face can fall off,” Pendragon says. —Ryan Fleming
Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career in documentary without ever being honored with an Oscar nomination. He ended that drought last year with When We Were Bullies, and now finds himself an Oscar nominee for the second consecutive year, this time for another personal story, How Do You Measure a Year? The short film comprises interviews with his daughter Ella recorded as she grew up. Once a year on her birthday, from age two to 18, Rosenblatt asked her the same set of questions—like, what are dreams? What is power? “I had no idea this would be a film,” the director observes. “I didn’t even look at the footage [for 17 years]. Each year, I would just film it, put it away and just hope for the best.”
Joining Rosenblatt’s latest in the short documentary category are two films from Netflix—The Elephant Whisperers and The Martha Mitchell Effect. The latter film, directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, examines a woman who helped expose the Watergate scandal that ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency. As the outspoken wife of John Mitchell—Nixon’s former attorney general, and head of his 1972 reelection committee—Martha Mitchell was in a position to reveal secrets about the scandal. As a result, the president’s men deliberately besmirched her as an unstable alcoholic. “She was essentially a victim of a gaslighting campaign from the Nixon administration to silence her and stop shedding the spotlight on the Watergate scandal,” Alvergue says.
The Elephant Whisperers earned filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves her first Oscar nomination. It’s the story of a couple charged with raising orphaned elephant calves in a nature reserve in South India. Youngsters like the rambunctious elephant Raghu need a lot of affection and receive it in abundant supply from partners Bomman and Belli. “Raghu felt like he was with a mother, he had a father,” Gonsalves says of the relationship between the pachyderm and his human caregivers. “That gave him that family feeling, which they usually have because elephants are very emotional, sentient beings and they emote so much love and care toward their babies.”
Human and animal interaction of a different sort constitutes the theme of another nominated documentary short, Haulout. The film, directed by sister and brother Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, follows a researcher in a very remote outpost of the Siberian Arctic. Marine biologist Maxim Chakilev studies walruses, which congregate in massive numbers at Cape Serdtse-Kamen. Warming seas have placed enormous pressure on the giant creatures, who no longer encounter floating ice where they can take a breather while feeding. “It was just the three of us feeling our smallness, among this huge amount of animals,” Arbugaeva tells The New Yorker, which distributed the film. “Sometimes that line between human and animal was blurry. You start to tune into what they potentially could feel.”
The New Yorker also released Stranger at the Gate, directed by Joshua Seftel. It centers on Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. After he left the service, he harbored deep suspicion and hatred towards Muslims and hatched a plan to attack an Islamic Center in his hometown of Muncie, Indiana. But while conducting reconnaissance for his bombing plot, he met congregants and, somehow, they reached his heart, gradually transforming his fury into love. “This is a story I believe we need right now,” Seftel says. “It’s about America, and its deep problems. But it’s also about hope.” —Matt Carey
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