The five live-action short films vying for the 2020 Oscar either dance on the border of tragedy or fall headlong into it. Though one has cheeky fun with the very notion of borders.
Tunisian-Canadian writer-director Meryam Joobeur depicts a son’s sudden return to his small Tunisian village after having left against his father’s wishes to join the Syrian conflict. In examining how assumptions and misunderstandings can potentially break a family, it has incidentally challenged prejudices.
“I just wrote the characters I know,” Joobeur said. “Now, hearing how people are reacting, I realize the stereotypes it’s breaking — that Muslims are not all extremists. That’s my reality in life. I was just portraying what I know.”
On location in a village without consistent access to running water and in unexpectedly frigid “camping” conditions, the crew bonded through belief in the work. Joobeur felt free to explore personal themes in a politically charged story.
“I think, in that time in my life, I was really struggling to communicate with the people around me and I think that subconsciously informed ‘Brotherhood.’ ”
‘Nefta Football Club’
Even the lightest-hearted of the nominees bears the shadow of suspense. But the kids in “Nefta” are so disarming, the dialogue so bluntly amusing, that viewers will likely come away smiling.
“It’s a comedy that denounces the nonsense of boundaries drawn between countries, and it’s about the absurdity of the adult world in opposition with the innocence of childhood,” says Yves Piat.
The French writer-director says several elements come from real life, including the kids’ sneaky adventures, living by two nations’ border, mysterious contraband and even smugglers training donkeys with music.
“You know, we often say not to shoot a film with children or animals. I told myself that was not enough, so we [also] shot in Arabic,” he joked in an email.
“Actually, I cast two donkeys in ‘Nefta.’ The whole team preferred the other one but I had a strong feeling for the one that was [used] ... and a big connection began between us. Sometimes love cannot be explained. We kept in touch.”
‘The Neighbors’ Window’
Marshall Curry’s tale of a couple who realize they can see into the window — and the lives — of their beautiful, younger neighbors was inspired by a true story he heard on a podcast.
“This woman became obsessed with watching her neighbors,” he said, noting his film also took the podcast’s primary plot twist, but everything else in “Window” is invention. Curry has earned three previous Oscar nominations, all for documentaries.
“When I’m directing a documentary, I do a first pass of the edit and then we work hard to make it feel like a fiction film. We try to make the narrative arc. ... When I was working on this, I worked hard to make it feel like a documentary. In the edit, I tweaked lines to make them feel less pat. With documentaries, everything wants to be chaotic. With fiction, everything wants to be cliché. I [wanted] to make it feel more naturalistic and organic.”
Note: This film deals with a real event that we won’t reveal here to avoid spoiling the film; those interested in reading about it can find news stories online.
The force of an unthinkable real-life tragedy pushed director Bryan Buckley to make the shattering orphan story “Saria.”
“I was sitting in my apartment and got a news update on the anniversary of the [event] — that was the first I’d heard of it. I lost myself in an afternoon reading about it, and it just got more and more tragic,” said the filmmaker, whose mother was an orphan.
“These kids were really under the worst conditions. What the kids were shouting on the roof [in the film] is what they were really shouting … I don’t understand how it could have happened. It’s just beyond comprehension,” he said. “I just said, ‘We’re going to give them a voice.’ ”
Noting the film’s cast is made up of kids from another orphanage, Buckley said, “Given a chance, they can produce … look where we are. It’s an Academy Award nomination.”
Delphine Girard’s thriller about an emergency dispatcher trying to help a kidnapped woman is also based on a real incident (in Provo, Utah, in 2010).
“I heard the recording of the emergency call on YouTube and it stuck with me for months,” said Girard. “I started to create a back story to every character so I could understand them and find their own particular way to deal with the situation ...
“The woman in the car who is experiencing a terrifying event but can’t express it, the emergency operator who is trying to [help] without being able to see her, and then the man, disconnected from it all, struggling with himself and with what he has done earlier in the evening. The story gave me the opportunity to make, against a violent backdrop, a film that would address sorority and empathy.”
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