Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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2020 Nominated Oscar Shorts - Discussions and ratings


Director: Daria Kashcheeva
Synopsis: The bond between a father and a daughter is imperiled by matters that go unspoken and hurts that are slow to heal.
Country of Origin: Czech Republic
TRT: 15 minutes
Language: None


Dcera/Daughter: Like discarded objects come to life[/size]

This fim by the Moscow-born filmmaker Kashcheeva, made for graduation from Prague's FAMU film school, is formally innovative, but may be too off-putting for some, yet is gets at haunting feelings. It chronicles a woman's reunion in the hospital with her estranged, dying father in the hospital, where she is invaded by childhood memories. In particular there is a bird. . . But the striking thing is the up-close shallow-focus stop-motion images, combined with shaky handheld camerawork that fakes you right there, even though the rough papier-maché puppets used may seem like discarded remnants. It's a very odd combination. I found it ugly, but still memorable. Eric Kohn, whoseIndieWire descriptions and evaluations I again rely on as I did last year (they're perceptive, and the only ones out there), rated this #2 in the series. I don't know. . .

Directors: Matthew A. Cherry Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith
Synopsis: Hair Love is an animated short film about an African American father trying to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 7 minutes
Language: English


Afro-re-textured hair

This is Sony/Disney, so it's the opposite of Kashcheeva's intensely artisanal effort, bland looking, cute - and black, because it's a celebration of black people's hair, it's body, durability, unruliness. A little girl wants her wild hair to be nicely fixed for a visit to her mother. Her young, long-haired, tattooed dad does it, using a video. Then they go to see her mother, who is bald - in the hospital. A slight effort, but if you were African American you might not rank it #5 as Eric Kohn does? It read like a commercial to me, though. But it has a lotta love.

Directors: Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson
Synopsis: An unlikely connection sparks between two creatures: a fiercely independent stray kitten and a pit bull. Together, they experience friendship for the first time.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 9 minutes
Language: English


Inter-species ghetto love

This frisky, aggressive kitten is crudely drawn, taking us back to the origins of commeric American animations. She looks more like a rate - or a mouse. The setting is rough, almost ghetto. She befriends an abused pit bull, and they become inseparable partners, and find sweet masters to take them into their home. I liked this a lot. It shows how powerful and touching even the simplest animations can be. It's Pixar, surprisingly, because it looks much more artisanal. Made by a group of breakaways there, no doubt. I would not rank this #4 as Eric Kohn does. But I think he knows better than I what the world and the Academy like.

Directors: Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre
Synopsis: Recently, Louis, painter, and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism.
Country of Origin: France
TRT: 12 minutes
Language: French


An artist husband getting dementia

Stop-motion clay mation style figures sometimes swirl like the paintings of Van Gogh, often alluded to here because this aging artist whose mind is rapidly being swallowed by dementia may have been a visionary but now confuses a cucumber with a pistol: his grasp on reality is disappearing. As his wife stands by, we see through his eyes as the forms of things change in this sad, visionary, highly imaginative film. Kohn ranks this #1. I can go with that - though it is awfully similar to a previous Oscar nominated short. Full of ideas, and the figures are wonderfully well used. The slightly crumbly texture of them parallels the crumbling away mind where even the delusions, sadly breaking off from reality, still are those of an artist. If Kitbull gets #1 as I'd give it, this could be #2.

Director: Siqi Song
Synopsis: A man remembers his childhood memories of growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?
Country of Origin: CHINA/USA
TRT: 8 minutes
Language: Chinese


Axe to grind?

Stop-motion, with fluffy doll-like puppets. Makes use of animation's affinity for fantasy and the surreal in depicting a sister whom a man remembers as giant and invasive. Use of natural baby sounds make the artificial images have reference to reality. Brother pulls out her umbilical cord, and she shrinks back from giant size (of her invasiveness as he as a child imagines her) to normal baby - a brilliant thrust Freud might delight in. But - spoiler alert - this is a film with a bone to pick with the Chinese government for its one child rule period, and so it's about an imaginary, lost sister his parents were forced to abort. So, is it a good film? Yes. But was it chosen for its political significance more than for that? Maybe. Kohn ranks it #3. A sad, and pointed little film. Kohn points out three out of five of the animations were directed by women. So that too adds resonance here.

Here's my ranking of the five, though 3 and 4 are on a par:




Here everything changes, because we move from films that are, for me a bit on the dreary, dry, or superficially glib side to a group that alternately delight, shock, involve, or move.

Directors: Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi
Synopsis: In a Tunisian village, children are playing football on a wasteland. Meanwhile, Abdallah and Mohammed come across a donkey with headphones on his ears and bags full of a white powder on his back. The two young brothers decide to bring those bags back to their village.
Country of Origin: France - Tunisia
TRT: 17 Minutes
Language: Arabic


Miraculous, and great fun

So much is going on here!And its all so funny. We have a sports story, a drug deal story, a comical mistake, and a droll collection of characters, and all in a unique vernacular setting of a sandy part of Tunisia where there are kids playing football in need of line markings, a pair of men looking for a drug mule that's literally a donkey, and two boys on a walkabout who find it by accident. It's loaded with plastic bags of white power. They think it's laundry detergent. The donkey is wearing headphones that are supposed to make it hone in on a contact point, but the headphones are set to the wrong tune and it goes wandering. Back at home, one boy takes the power to men who know what it is, and are very interested in getting the whole load. But while he's off with them, the other boy shows the powder to his mates on the football team, saying it's just useless laundry soap. It makes you feel good when drugs get put to a practical use - like marking off the sides of a village football field. Meanwhile, I can barely understand more than a word here and there of the Tunisian dialect, but it sounds very succinct and tasty, as North African Arabic does. And that adds a great deal to the wit and the flavor of the film. Brilliant. #1.

Director: Marshall Curr
Synopsis: It tells the story of a middle aged woman with small children whose life is shaken up when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move in across the street.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 20 Minutes
Language: English


New York apartment living

I understand from kate Erbland of IndieWire that Marshall Curr is a winner, and has done fine shorts before. For me, it's between this and A Sister for the #2 spot, but this somehow has more heart. It's based on an award-winning "Love + Radio" podcast story from Diane Weipert called "The Living Room," which it expands, especially at the end, also rearranging the facing window where the neighbors see an attractive young couple with no curtain having sex, and observe their lives, which expand and fulfill theirs which is full of raising young kids, one of which is a baby, and work. The young neighbors across the way make love, party, dance - and then tragedy strikes, as the handsome young man gets mortally ill, and dies in bed, in front of them. The sequence of events is obvious - we're one step ahead. But still there's the fascination of voyeurism extended into something somehow more humanistic and caring. The actors and scenes in the foreground of the "voyeurs'" apartment are so well done they're worthy of an episode of HBO's "High Maintenance" (my current favorite TV show). Oddly, a respondent to "Love + Radio" went on at considerable length about how implausible Weipert's story was, clearly not her real experience (as she pretends it is) but fabrication, not believable. But you know what? If you weren't there, you should think twice about making that kind of accusation. The implausible part is what the film adds, where the wife runs to the widow and comforts her down on the street. But we deserve that satisfaction, that rounding out, don't we? This is in some ways a sentimental and obvious tale, but it is also richly satisfying.

Director: Delphine Girard
Synopsis: A night. A car. Alie is in danger. To get by, she must make the most important phone call of her life
Country of Origin: Belgium
TRT: 16 Minutes
Language: French


A tricky 911 rescue

This Belgian film, in French, is as deserving of the #2 slot as "The Neighbors' Window," but there's something off-puttingly chilly that doesn't fit the generally humanistic slant of the Action Shorts nominees as well, and it also doesn't quite fulfill the promise of its expansion on the Danish 85min. film it seems to grow out of, Gustav Moller's Guilty (ND/NF 2017). That film is entirely shot at police headquarters showing visually only the desk duty cop, who takes a call from a woman in danger on a highway from a menacing driver, who asks for help by pretending to be calling her sister. Here, we flash back and forth between the 911 call operator and the interior of the car, where we dimly glimpse both the driver and the terrified caller. In principle we thus see the whole dynamic much more fully. But there is a certain pleasure of tour de force in doing it entirely from the police station call operator, and the images of the car interior, while they heighten the immediacy of the danger for us, don't expand our sense of the main thing, which is how in the heck the cops are going to pinpoint this car from the fragmentary, guarded conversation. Still, it's neatly done, with great concision to make it feel complete somehow in only 16 minutes of film. Rank: #3.

Directors: Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon
Synopsis: Mohamed is deeply shaken when his oldest son Malik returns home after a long journey with a mysterious new wife.
Country of Origin: Tunisia | Canada | Qatar | Sweden
TRT: 25 Minutes
Language: Arabic


Family disunity

This too is in Tunisian Arabic but what a contrast with "Nefta Football Club"! It doesn't somehow move or involve very much, but it is richly topical and, again, vernacular. I loved the two actual brothers with red hair and acres of freckles, not something you see every day in the Arab world. The third, older brother comes home from Syria, where he has been fighting, we don't know for sure on what side, but his father suspects the worst. And he is very unhappy with the "wife" his son has brought back with him, who is in black and full niqab, at first anyway: she won't even show her hands. Then it turns out she is also pregnant. Well, what happened to Arab hospitality? That isn't quite as strong in the Magreb. The title is very ironic. The father is very unwelcoming. But suppose your son came back from fighting for Isis, and brought a wife pregnant with somebody else's child? How welcoming would you be? This ranks as #4 with Kate Erbland of IndieWire - and me: I agree with him down the line on the Live Action Shorts.

Directors: Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre
Synopsis: SARIA explores the unimaginable hardships faced by young female orphans at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, leading up to the tragic fire which claimed 41 of their lives in 2017.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 23 Minutes
Language: Spanish


A horrific event

Which happily is not shown in any detail. True story of events at a grim orphanage in Guatemala where 41 died as a result of a fire in 2017. They attempted to escape, and then when captured, the girls were all locked in a room with thin mattresses on the floor, and not much else. Then a fire broke out and nobody came to help them till many had been killed or mortally injured. The filmmakers give this focus by making it about two sisters who stay together and comfort each other with dreams of escaping to the USA. The grim conditions of the orphanage are illustrated with a lot of loud metallic clanging and the raucous voices of the mean supervisors. How can you dramatize such a terrible situation and such grim events in 20 minutes? This is a heartbreaking story, but almost inevitably the treatment seems inadequate. Sorry! Rank: #5

Here's my ranking of the five, which is also Kate Erbland's in IndieWire:




This category winds up being the purview of photojournalist types who gravitate to war zones - even when covering skateboarding. No Syria this year; that was an area already so brilliantly covered in recent years. . . But buckle up: some of this is going to be grim. These filmmakers go out in the world, and - let's face it - lots of the world, these days, is a sad and difficult place. But this was a great set of films. I was informed, shocked, moved.

Directors: Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
Synopsis: Documents the sinking of a South Korean Ferry. As a result of the ineptitude of the first response to the emerging situation, hundreds of people, mostly children lost their lives.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 28 Minutes
Language: Korean


The unspeakable scandal of the sinking of the Korean ferry boat MV Sewol

This documentary is almost too angering to watch. It thoroughly reviews the April, 2014 sinking of a large Korean ferry with 476 passengers, of whom only 172 survived. 325 were students on a school trip. Reportedly there are numerous films about this event, which led to the ouster of the president of Korea, Park Geun-hye. This is a country where the scandal was damning and the impeachment worked. This film about the events has really good, well marshaled documentation, including radio communications, video feed, and feed from lost cell phones. The government was more interested in a video feed from the disaster than in sending in rescuer boats, of which, incredibly, there was only one. The kids were told to stay in place, and made the mistake of obeying. They should hare run for the deck and jumped off or found the rescue boat but instead were trapped inside when the boat completely capsized. A government cover-up followed. In fact it was all a cover-up, an act of incredible passivity and indifference. Later we hear from subsequent civilian divers who worked hard to recover bodies and possessions, severely traumatized by the experience; from bereaved parents. We see brief excerpts from public hearings. A national shame for Korea. Enlightening. Laura Poitras co-produced.

Directors: Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreichev
Synopsis: Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You're A Girl) is the story of young Afghan girls learning to read, write-and skateboard-in Kabul.
Country of Origin: UK
TRT: 39 Minutes
Language: Dari


Exactly what the title says it is

Afghanistan is a grim and dangerous place, torn apart by war, where outside men stare at the camera in no friendly manner. And yet this is a joyous and hopeful film. It's about a school where some pretty, smiling girls, whose mothers under the Taliban were kept illiterate and house-bound, risk the dangers of the city, riding in a van to a school where they learn to read and write, do math, understand emotions, and - what the film particularly focuses on - to skate. They have a big indoor skateboard arena. Perhaps it is supported by the international skateboarding community. This is suggested at the end. Some of the film is rough and a little blurry, but the material is precious. This is a cool film because it balances the photojournalist angle, because it's indeed shot in a war zone - yet is thoroughly, encouragingly upbeat.

Directors: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Synopsis: In the grip of trauma, hundreds of refugee children in Sweden withdraw from life's uncertainties into a coma-like illness called Resignation Syndrome.
Country of Origin: Sweden | USA
TRT: 39 Minutes
Language: English


Traumatized refugee kids shutting down in Sweden

This film is sponsored by Netflix, and accordingly it's big and expensive looking. It runs for 39 minutes, longest of all the chosen Oscar shorts. Does the material require the greater length? It is beautifully filmed, with handsome, expressively chilly, Swedish winter landscape images in between footage of three families struggling with a child who has shut down and gone permanently to sleep for months, which is called by the odd, hardly relevant term, "Resignation Syndrome." These kids are not resigned: they're in revolt. Hundreds of kids in Sweden whose families are seeking asylum, and who are refuges from traumatic situations in other countries, are shutting down and going to sleep for many months, usually spurred by rejection of the asylum request or the stress of long delay. It's like a coma, but different; and it's coming to Australian refugee camps too. It results from the trauma, followed by adaptation to Swedish school and language, and then settlement in the new country being denied or delayed. The family applies again. Three cases are presented. One family, after reapplying, is at last granted permanent asylum, and the parents tell Daria (Dasha), and she returns to normal life - with no memory of what happened. The parents are encouraged to take the kids out in strollers, bathe them, exercise them, manimpulate them, carry them around, attempt to feed them. This apparently helps. Well, this is something to know about. Another offshoot of the trauma of war, ethnic cleansing, and the stress of being a refugee in limbo. Why are the nationalities of the families not made clear?

Directors: Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr. is a 34-year-old battle rapper, Ferguson activist and state representative from St. Louis, Missouri. Known as Superman to his constituents, he is a political figure the likes of which you've never seen - full of contradictions and deep insights, who has overcome unspeakable loss to become one of the most exciting and unapologetic young leaders in the country.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 28 Minutes
Language: English


Unusual man from the St. Louis 'hood

I found this film about African American politician and community activist Bruce Franks Jr. particularly heartwarming and moving. It concerns a gentle spoken man man with a five-year-old son he adores and mentors, who is a rapper and talks the talk and wears the clothes of the 'hood, yet became a state assemblyman. His two passion projects while there were to have his older brother's birthday declared "Christopher Harris Day" to honor his older brother slain at the age of nine; and to have youth violence declared a public health emergency. He resigned last year, after three years, to pursue his own mental health. He had grown depressed and stressed by the deaths by gun violence of his best friend, Sylvester, and his 16-year-old godson, Gerrian. Franks' voice is heard throughout, and his presence is warmly felt.

Directors: Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt
Synopsis: Paul and Millie Cao lost their youth to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they have become successful professionals in Southern California-and are rediscovering themselves on the dance floor.
Country of Origin: USA
TRT: 20 Minutes
Language: English, Mandarin


Dance is for everybody

This film left me speechless. Why aren't we all dancing? This aging Vietnamese couple who had such a hard time when young, who now live in Los Angeles and are successful professionals, are learning to enjoy life and celebrating their love in truly professional level dancing. This is their passion. Their daughter is independent, so they spend three hours a night four nights a week at a dance studio having training from an expert Ukrainian couple. He had to leave Vietnam before her, and they were separated for a long time and not sure the feeling would still be there. But she wrote him passionate love letters (and he was a hottie back then!) The film ends with a full dress dance by the couple that shows what they have learned - simultaneously a celebration of art, love, and maturity. Sometimes the material is priceless: you just have to not get in its way.

If we go by the emotion, here is the order:

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