If animated shorts are the most popular of all short films, and if documentaries are the least glamorized category, then live action short films occupy this awkward space of not being widely sought after or distributed. Live action shorts are most prevalent at festivals and act as proofs of talent and concept for the filmmakers who produce them. Shorts are how many feature directors get their start, but even if we weren’t to consider them an investment for future talent, short films are an artform all their own that is distinct from the familiar feature-length narrative we’ve been conditioned to accept as a “movie.” This year’s Best Live Action Short nominees, like all shorts, are no less worthy of recognition than their feature counterparts. After all, compared to The Irishman, everything is a short.

Brotherhood

Brotherhood is probably the most somber and meditative of this year’s live action shorts. It follows a Tunisian family whose rural farming life becomes upended when a prodigal son returns with a Syrian wife in tow. The family’s patriarch is incensed that his son went to fight for ISIS rather than stay home and support their family, and the film explores the tension between the father’s sense of betrayal, the other sons’ relationship with an older sibling they aren’t sure if they should look up to, and the returning son’s shallow justification that he was doing what was right for Islam. It’s a microcosm of Tunisian family life that offers no easy answers to the conflicting senses of duty it presents or the frustrations the absent son feels with the life he willingly left behind, and watching these conflicts come to a head is quietly tragic in how it pushes apart people who love one another.

Saria

Saria, meanwhile, explores another tragedy a world away, in Guatemala. Based on real events, the film follows a pair of teenage sisters, Saria and Ximena, in their life in an orphanage, where they are subjected to indoctrination, beatings, and rape to ensure their compliance. Though the film does culminate in a riot where all the orphans make a violent bid for their freedom, Saria is more concerned with how one emotionally copes as a teenager in such an impossible situation. The sisters talk about boys, tend to each other’s injuries, hold each other at night, and find beauty in things as small as a spider caught on a soap bubble. It’s ultimately a tragic story, but it’s one that focuses on the ways in which these girls fought back and kept their humanity as it was constantly threatened.

A Sister

A Sister chronicles a telephone call between an emergency services operator and a woman who has been abducted by a man she knows. Though the woman is sitting in the front seat with her abductor and does not know where they are going, she gets on the line with emergency services under the pretense of calling her sister to check up on her child, and the operator must covertly get information about the caller’s probable location and condition without alerting the abductor. Tense from the first line of dialogue and unrelenting in the escalation of its stakes, A Sister is a snapshot of a real tactic women use to survive instances of domestic abuse, and it’s that reality which elevates this short from dramatically intriguing to educationally vital. Sometimes the gravity of a short film is in its simplicity, and this short is a brilliant example of that principle in practice.

NEFTA Football Club

NEFTA Football Club is the only entry that could rightly be considered a comedy, and the gag it unfolds is a pretty funny one. The film opens on two men upset that they’ve lost their mule, which has been set loose in the Tunisian wasteland but did not return as planned. Two boys playing football (i.e., soccer) come across the mule, only to discover that the mule’s packs are full of bagged white powder. The older brother recognizes it as drugs, though the younger does not. The older brother decides they will keep the drugs with an intent to sell, and what happens from there is too fun to spoil. Replete with plenty of absurd misunderstandings, NEFTA Football Club is a clever little comedy that loses nothing to translation and makes for a cute diversion from the other nominees’ more serious contemplations.

The Neighbors’ Window

The Neighbors’ Window is my personal favorite of the live action shorts. A married couple, Alli and Jacob, with three children notices that they can see directly into the apartment of the couple across the street. This couple is free-spirited and young, having sex without the blinds down and seemingly carefree in their lives. Alli starts to make a habit of watching them and becomes envious of their lives, but things are perhaps not so idyllic for the neighbors as Alli imagines. The Neighbors’ Window is a tenderly sad look at envy and empathy, told through a triptych of window panes that inaudibly tell a story of first impressions and traumatic realities. Director Marshall Curry (who has previously won Oscars for documentary shorts) shows himself to be someone to keep an eye on as a narrative filmmaker, as he uses a scant twenty minutes to immense emotional effect.

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The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts are screening in theaters starting today.

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