It’s really difficult to pick a “best” or even a favorite among this year’s batch of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts… but I think a slight edge has to go to Meryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood” [IMDb|official site]. A joint Tunisian, Canadian, Qatari, and Swedish production, that global provenance is indicative of how the film opens up reductive notions of Middle Eastern cultures in the Western imagination while telling a moving story of family and forgiveness that is quite universal. Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ) herds sheep in rural Tunisia, and when his son, Malik (Malek Mechergui), returns home after a stint fighting with ISIS in Syria, the pair pick up what was already a fractious relationship, one suddenly made even more difficult by the fact that Malik has brought a young — a very young — bride home with him. Gorgeous cinematography and a startling visual ambiance, highlighted by the beautiful freckled faces of Malik and his brothers, underscore a tale that is, above all, about learning to accept that you might just be wrong in your assumptions about what drives others.
[watch at Vimeo]
The other nominees:
• “Nefta Football Club” [IMDb|official site], by Yves Piat, is another joint Western–Middle Eastern production… and this one is rather delightfully playful. Along the Tunisian-Algerian border, two boys (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) stumble across a mule wearing headphones blaring pop music and carrying baskets full of bricks of, *ahem*, a mysterious white powder. Suddenly we are in the midst of a comedy of errors that culminates in a delightful celebration of innocence that thinks it’s wise and resourceful… and actually, it is.
[watch at Vimeo]
• “The Neighbors’ Window” [IMDb|official site] is Rear Window, but nice. And funny and poignant. Marshall Curry’s New York City–set dramedy is a grass-is-always-greener story about a middle-aged woman (Maria Dizzia) exhausted by family responsibilities — she has three small, demanding children, and a husband who isn’t always very helpful — who finds herself entranced by the seemingly carefree young couple who’ve just moved into the apartment hers overlooks from across the street. Voyeuristic observation ensues… but is everything over there as peachy-keen as it seems? An ending that, in retrospect, seems obvious is nevertheless quite touching.
• “A Sister [IMDb],” from Delphine Girard, is a Belgian mini thriller that… well, it’s best to know as little about it going in as possible. Utterly gripping, this little slice of women helping women when men do us wrong could not be more of-the-moment, while also existing solidly in a cinematic tradition of suspense and mystery that goes back to Hitchcock, at least. This is an electrifying cinematic experience, with mesmerizing performances by Veerle Baetens and Selma Alaoui, packed in a quarter of an hour.
• “Saria” [IMDb|official site], from Bryan Buckley, is perhaps the weakest of the nominees; while still quite worthy, there’s a slickness to it that diminishes the impact it would like to have. The American commercial director takes on the based-on-fact tale of teen girls in a prison-like Guatemalan orphanage, and how they cling to ordinary teenage concerns, like getting a cute boy to notice them, amidst the depressing realities of their everyday lives. I like how dreams of escape exist on the same plane as that of cute boys, but the regular horrors of the lives of these girls are elided over to the point where they almost seem dismissed. These girls’ story perhaps needs more than shorts treatment.