I think if I ever got to be a part of the Academy, I’d probably end up in the Writers Branch, as that’s my biggest forte, and you never know when you’ll be lucky enough to sell a screenplay that actually gets an insane amount of recognition and praise. But if there was some sort of general admission path where you got to choose your branch, I think I’d go for the Short Films/Feature Animation Branch, as that typically has the most creative and entertaining output year in and year out.
I mean, imagine how fun their job must be, sifting through the countless submissions that they must get for the Short categories. The vast majority of the films don’t get any kind of theatrical release, and only a small amount end up on accessible streaming services like Netflix. So for the bulk of entries, eligibility and exposure is only gained through acceptance and screenings at various festivals around the world, and the membership adjudicating these disparate works of art do so without any fanfare or heavy marketing. Or at least, if they do get pitches, they’re easily ignored.
But basically, you just get an absolute GLUT of films from around the globe, all tackling different issues and stories, all presented in unique ways, and it’s your job to narrow them down to a shortlist of 10 before watching them AGAIN to get down to five. How impossibly difficult, yet extremely rewarding, must that process be? Not only are you exposed to an endless supply of techniques, artistic styles, and performances, but given how many creatives get their start on short films, when you cast your votes and make your nominees, you’re changing people’s lives. These are the categories where it really is an honor just to be nominated, because there’s no way to tell from one year to the next what the prevailing motivations will be for the entire Academy when they vote, so no matter who wins, all of the nominated filmmakers, as well as those shortlisted but not nominated, are having their visions and ambitions validated by the highest authority in cinema. How amazing would it be to even be a single voice in the room during such a process?
All five of the nominees this year offer something truly engaging, from the heartbreaking, to the surreal, to the downright shocking. I can honestly say that my preferences here are by a matter of degrees, and any one of these would make a worthy winner. They’re highly creative, impeccably shot, well acted, and a testament to the joy and necessity of unfettered speech.
Which is of course why Disney mandated that they be shunted off to the side in favor of categories where they might win instead.
This year’s nominees for Live Action Short are…
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run – Maria Brendle and Nadine Lüchinger
Set in everyone’s favorite hard to spell country, Kyrgyzstan, Ala Kachuu is a local term to describe the main event of the film, bridal kidnapping. Kyrgyzstan is one of the few nations on Earth where forced marriage is still a legal practice, particularly in remote areas where law enforcement and women’s rights are lacking to say the least. This film is a blunt and visceral depiction of this human rights violation.
The film revolves around Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova), a young and intelligent student from a small village who wishes to move to the capital Bishkek to study at university. She has an exam in a few days to qualify for a scholarship, and she has a secure place to live with her friend and former neighbor, Aksana (Madina Talipbekova). However, Sezim’s mother (Taalaykan Abazova) is having none of it, demanding that Sezim abandon her education and find herself a husband, lest shame be brought upon their house like it was for Aksana’s family.
Seeing the end of her freedom on the horizon if she stays (perfectly encapsulated by Sezim’s rapport with her sister, Aygul, played by Aybike Erkinbekova and their pet goat), Sezim goes off to Bishkek on her own, moves in with Aksana, takes her exams, and even gets a job in a bakery. Things are looking up for her as she awaits her scholarship results, until one day when a young man named Dayrbek (Nurbek Esengazy Uulu) comes by the shop with some friends asking after one of Sezim’s coworkers, who had just left. Suspicious, she tells them that she’s new and doesn’t know where her colleague has gone, only that she isn’t in today.
That seems to solve the situation, with Dayrbek and crew leaving. However, when Sezim closes up shop later that day, the group violently kidnaps her in broad daylight, absconding with her in the trunk of Dayrbek’s car and taking her to their village, where she’s immediately draped in wedding garb and forced to marry him. Under the watchful, tormenting eye of Dayrbek’s mother (Sheker Joomartova), Sezim watches as every hope for escape is dashed, including her own family coming by to sign off on the marriage rather than take her home. As her humanity slowly expires, only the potential sympathy of Dayrbek’s grandmother (Jandat Djamanbaeva), who was also married in similar fashion, offers any chance of salvation.
Maria Brendle pulls no punches in showing just how brutal and inhumane this – again, STILL LEGAL – practice can be, emphasizing scenes where Sezim’s anguished cries fall on deaf ears, or worse, are brushed off as a growing pain all women must go through, and that she’ll see in time it was for the best. Turdumamatova gives a wonderful performance as Sezim, making sure we feel every pang of her fear, disgust, and grief as all of her agency is stripped away over the course of a half hour. There are even some great visual metaphors in the forms of Sezim and Aygul’s goat and the act of kneading dough with fists.
My only true complaint is that the film plays like a setup for a revenge fantasy that never pays off. The way the movie ultimately unfolds is fine, don’t get me wrong, but Brendle goes to great lengths to show how intelligent and resourceful Sezim is, yet she initially acquiesces to the marriage based on the threat of family shame, and despite many opportunities to exact bloody vengeance against her captors (there can’t be more than 20 people in the entire village), she never takes what is a relatively easy chance, despite her protestations that she’d rather die than conform. You’re telling me that in all the scenes where she’s expected to cook and clean in a small hovel with plenty of knives, machetes, and guns around that she never once figures out that she can quickly slit some throats in the dead of night and make her escape? Thematically, it may not be the best way to resolve the story, because arguably answering violence with more violence might make her no better than them, but even a scene of Sezim entertaining the thought would have served the purpose and not left me wondering why a fairly viable option was left on the table. Still, that’s a minor gripe in a very compelling bit of devastating human drama.
The Dress – Tadeusz Łysiak and Maciej Ślesicki
This doomed romance from Poland is one of the saddest, and most predictable, stories of the set. But that doesn’t make the revelations any less of a gut punch when they happen. In a roadside motel popular with truckers, an achondroplastic dwarf named Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka) works as a maid along with her longtime friend Renata (Dorota Pomykala). Julka’s life is a rather dull routine of cleaning rooms, chain smoking, and spending her free time sitting at the hotel bar’s slot machine. She goes about her business, suffering the normal withering stares and snide comments of guests and passersby drawing attention to the fact that she’s a little person.
Everything changes when she meets Bogdan (Szymon Piotr Warszawski), a trucker who regularly comes through the area, and who takes an interest in her. They get to know each other, share some jokes, and even flirt a bit. For the first time in her life, as Julka notes to Renata, she’s attracted to another person, and he might be into her as well. She has faith in humanity and romance that’s she’s never felt before.
Julka and Bogdan make arrangements to go on a proper date when he returns through the area in a few days. Wanting to look her best, Julka scrambles to find a new dress (hence the film’s title), because she doesn’t have one, and has never cared about projecting an image of beauty to the rest of the world that judges her for her appearance.
Sadly, the date with Bogdan unfolds pretty much as you’d expect, with all the false hope and tragedy our jaded worldview has conditioned us to sense. But that doesn’t stop it from hitting extremely hard when it happens. It’s like those videos of trains hitting cars caught on the tracks. You know what’s about to happen, there’s no way to avoid it, but you can’t look away, and you only pray that the injuries aren’t permanent when the moment happens. Julka is a deeply sympathetic character because of her cynicism, something we all experience, and because of her desire for someone in this world to see her as beautiful, also something we all know. She’s a universally relatable character, which makes her bad ending all the more palpable, even though we can all see it coming a mile away.
The Long Goodbye – Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed
Hey, remember last year when Riz Ahmed got nominated for Best Actor for Sound of Metal, where he played a really good drummer? Turns out he’s a pretty decent rapper, too! The Long Goodbye is a companion film to his 2020 concept album of the same name, and continues to show how versatile of a performer he is. Watching his career evolve has been nothing short of fascinating.
Ahmed plays himself in the film, largely cast with friends and family, that begins with a rather funny bit of controlled chaos with him navigating a get together at his parents’ house. He helps set the dinner table, rearranges furniture, bonds with his nephew, and even gets in a few good-natured digs at his lazier relations too busy looking at their phones to be bothered to help.
Things then take a drastic left turn as Riz notices some unmarked vans pulling up on the street. At that point it becomes instant panic mode as masked racist extremists ransack not just the Ahmed residence, but every house on the road that has brown people in it, accusing them of being terrorists while themselves committing an act of terrorism. No help is in sight, police actively aid the assailants, and white neighbors quietly shield themselves behind their curtains as the carnage unfolds.
When the dust settles, only Ahmed remains to take stock of the situation, which he does through some brilliantly-written spoken-word rap. In a few scant moments, he acknowledges the extreme nature of his dramatization, but contextualizes it perfectly as part of the constant fear Islamaphoboa subjects people like him to on a daily basis. Racists, fascists, and white supremacists have gained power worldwide due to a general backslide away from democracy and towards nationalist authoritarianism disguised as populism. And as they’re emboldened in the U.S., U.K., and around the world, the results can only get worse. The graphic nature is necessary to get the audience to understand just how palpable this is to everyday people who just happen to look a little bit different. It’s a crucial message, expertly delivered.
On My Mind – Martin Strange-Hansen and Kim Magnusson
Last year, Denmark won the International Feature category with Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a life-affirming film about drinking culture that became a profound statement on the value of humanity after the death of Vinterberg’s daughter a few days into filming. Similarly, On My Mind takes inspiration from personal tragedy in director Martin Strange-Hansen’s life, unintentionally creating a trend of gorgeously emotional Danish dramas born from the worst of circumstances.
At a tiny, empty dive bar, a detached man named Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) enters for a drink while walking around running errands. He says almost nothing to barmaid Louise (Camilla Bendix), and is completely ignored by the bar’s owner, Preben (Ole Gorter Boisen). After two deep glasses of whiskey, Henrik notices a karaoke machine, and asks if he can sing. Preben declines, as it’s a weekday afternoon, and the machine only gets turned on during weekend nights for the sake of cost-effectiveness.
Through a series of pleas, arguments, attempted bribes, and eventual tearful confessions, Henrik is able to convince the stodgy Preben and the sympathetic Louise to activate the machine and film him on his phone performing “Always On My Mind,” which is inarguably one of the saddest songs ever written. Initially explained as a “gift” for his wife, Henrik is on an immovable timetable where he has no other real options to create this performance, his desperation winning the day, albeit for the most tragic of reasons.
Aside from the genuinely moving story, this short is something of a triumph of pandemic filmmaking, as the entire project was done with a crew of less than 10 people, and half of them were the actors. There’s only one location apart from the bar, yet the emptiness aids the general lonesome malaise that pervades the entire affair, enhancing the need for human connection while noting in very poignant detail how fleeting it can be. This is a big movie on the smallest of scales, and it’s just achingly beautiful.
Please Hold – K.D. Dávila and Levin Menekse
The one American entry in the field, Please Hold plays its surrealist satire like the best episodes of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, only with a social justice twist rather than science fiction. If you’re up to date on current affairs, especially with regard to the criminal justice system, you might find this film downright scary.
While walking to work, a young man named Mateo (Erick Lopez, best known as Hector from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) is on his phone when his morning is interrupted by an automated alert that he’s been arrested. Before he can even process what’s going on, he’s accosted by a police drone that orders him to handcuff himself while it escorts him to a nearby automated jail, where all his possessions are confiscated, including (in a rather hilarious sight gag) his half-eaten banana.
Guided to a cell in an empty hallway by a computerized voice (Dani Messerschmidt), Mateo is subjected to the “convenience” of computer-controlled justice by “CorrectiCorp.” His bank account is run dry while on hold with the police department trying to find out what crime he’s been charged of committing, as outside calls are automatically charged two dollars per minute, and Mateo agreed to that when he accepted the “Terms and Conditions” of his incarceration. Never mind he was given no other option. A TV screen in his cell advertises an expensive defense attorney he can’t possibly afford (played by John Alton, who has funnily enough appeared in thematically similar shorts called How to Get Out of Jury Duty and How to Get Out of a Speeding Ticket), while an animated, “Clippy”-esque free digital assistant named Justice Scaley (voiced by Greg Karber) gives him a hard sell that he should take a plea deal where he’ll “only” serve five years instead of the statistically probable 45 should he go to trial and be convicted.
In a last ditch effort to regain his freedom, Mateo “volunteers” for manual labor making textiles for pennies, eating only the most minimal of meals (which he has to pay for with his earnings from the automated canteen), until he can afford a two-minute call with his parents (Doreen Calderon and Daniel Edward Mora) in hopes of raising the legal fees for the expensive, human, attorney. But even if he survives his ordeal, what life can Mateo honestly return to? Having been picked up on the street with no warning, and no means to reasonably communicate with the outside world, it’s incredibly easy for every aspect of his life to be destroyed, perhaps irrevocably.
If you’ve ever watched one of John Oliver’s deep dives on the criminal justice system on Last Week Tonight (just this week he did one on how difficult it is to appeal convictions, especially for Death Row inmates), you know just how real all of this absurdity truly is. The criminal industrial complex thrives on exploiting inmates for what is basically slave labor, and a prison term is enough in most states – and at the federal level – to deny you basic employment rights for the rest of your life. The indigent have nowhere near the resources to challenge their incarceration, as public defenders are often in short supply and are known to underperform compared to highly-funded prosecutors. Defendants are often pressured into taking plea deals even when they’ve committed no crime, under the threat of a much harsher sentence if convicted at trial. It’s a tactic designed to close cases quickly, and they disproportionately target the poor and minorities, thus trapping them in a cycle of crime and poverty forever.
Combine that with the upswing in professional automation, and you get a situation that could play out exactly like Mateo’s. With no real human element, and therefore no empathy or practical defendant’s rights, anyone could be targeted and destroyed, even if it’s a simple algorithmic error. That’s genuinely scary, especially if you’re not part of a privileged social class.
The only aspect of this movie that’s technically unbelievable right now is the fact that Mateo never learns what crime he’s accused of, as he’s never read his Miranda Rights upon his arrest. But even then, the idea is not that far-fetched. Strictly speaking, the concept of those rights are due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona, a case where a man was convicted of rape due to a confession obtained during an intense interrogation where the defendant did not have a lawyer present. The Court held that Miranda’s fifth amendment right against self-incrimination was violated, as he was never informed by police that he could remain silent to protect himself or to have an attorney present for any statement he might give. That landmark decision only happened 56 years ago, and it was a razor thin 5-4 decision. Given how political interests have stacked the Supreme Court over the last few years – to the point that abortion rights are about to end despite no new legal theory other than, “We want fetuses to have more rights than women cause we think God wants that” – it really isn’t that hard to believe that the next so-called “law and order” leader might stack it even further to overturn Miranda and simply leave it up to laymen criminal defendants to understand their own rights without it being stated to them as a responsibility of law enforcement.
If literally just that one tiny change ever happens, this entire film – and the horror of Mateo’s ordeal – becomes 100% plausible, and arguably likely depending on the jurisdiction. This is biting satire at its finest based on extreme absurdities, but when the slightest degree of critical thought renders it all too possible, that’s effectively more terrifying than half the horror movies Hollywood puts out on a yearly basis.
1) Please Hold
2) The Long Goodbye
3) On My Mind
4) The Dress
5) Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, 138 were submitted, 15 were shortlisted, and five remain standing for the biggest prize in nonfiction cinema… that was probably already decided during last year’s ceremony due to built-in advertising. It’s Documentary Feature!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? Which one had the biggest effect on you? What’s the saddest song you know? Let me know!