Looking at the films nominated in the Academy Award categories of best live-action shorts and best animated shorts, we see barriers, conflicts and divisions – some overcome, some not. There are gender gaps, generational gaps and culture gaps, and ethnic tensions and exhibitions of humanity. All are on display at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where a pair of concurrent programs (running Jan. 29 to Feb. 4) showcase the five films up for the golden statuette in each category.
If war is a defeat for humanity, a film about war can be a victory for the same. Of the Oscar-vying live-action shorts, three are set in conflict zones, each with acts of compassion, loyalty and selfless bravery. We see death, too, as we should. "It is well that war is so terrible," said Robert E. Lee, the Southern hero of the U.S. Civil War (and, given his age and complexion, possibly an Academy voter), "otherwise we should grow too fond of it."
In Shok, which means "friend" according to Albanian dictionaries, themes of camaraderie and childhood innocence are explored in a potent 21-minute drama set in Kosovo in 1998, at the dawn of the Kosovar War. Boys will be boys, but mischief involving a pair of Albanian chums and their fraternization with cold-blooded Serbian soldiers can't possibly end well. A friendship is tested, strengthened and not a casualty at all.
On the comedy front, Ave Maria is a delightful quarter-hour of West Bank fun. A car accident leaves a bickering trio of Shabbat-observing Israelis – husband, wife and cranky mother-in-law – at the mercy of five silent nuns in a remote convent. Directed by the Palestinian Basil Khalil, the quirky short shows the triumph of co-operation and conciliation over a seemingly impossible situation.
The lone American entry in the category is Day One, an inspiring 25 minutes from director Henry Hughes about an Afghan-American woman who, after enduring a painful divorce, joins the U.S. military as an interpreter and is sent to Afghanistan. Nothing her recruiter would have told her could have prepared her for what happens on her first mission there. Without giving away the plot, we'll say that when called upon, she delivers.
Moving away from war zones, the German half-hour drama Everything Will Be Okay is a bit of a downer, with little arc. A divorced father takes his small daughter on a weekend trip that is increasingly worrying to the eight-year-old. Papa is desperate and sad; when he tells the girl that everything will be okay, his assurance is more wishful thinking than a promise.
The shortest of the five Oscar contenders is Stutterer, a big-hearted romantic comedy about an Irish man who is eloquent online and in his mind, but made reclusive by his socially crippling speech impediment. He is full of self-pity, but his possible paramour will hear none of it. Great ending to this one.
Moving to the program of animated shorts, Sanjay's Super Team is a tight, seven-minute slice of Pixar magic. While a big-eyed boy is an enthusiast for Western pop culture, his father is frustrated in his attempts to introduce his son to Hindu traditions. They find marvellous middle ground, though, as dad and boy each share a belief in superpowers.
On the surface, Gabriel Osorio's awing Bear Story is sad tale about a melancholic bear, roped into circus servitude, who misses his family. On an another level, the film is a heartbreaking parable in which animals represent the families ripped apart during Augusto Pinochet's long, brutal rule over Chile.
The other animated Oscar contenders include World of Tomorrow (a wry, stick-figure look into the future), We Can't Live Without Cosmos (a Russian cartoon about cosmonauts) and Prologue, six minutes of intense animation involving swords, blood and the Spartan-Athenian wars. Because of its nudity and blatant gore, Prologue is not suitable for young viewers, and will be screened as the last entry in the 91-minute animated program at Bell Lightbox.
The 2016 Academy Award nominees for best live-action short and best animated short screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Jan. 29 (tiff.net).