Small Wonders

OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS

From Na Wewe

When the Oscars are handed out each year for best picture, actors, etc., you have the dubious pleasure of comparing your taste with the Motion Picture Academy’s. But the awards for short films are an announcement of pleasures to come, for you (and virtually everyone else outside Hollywood) haven’t seen them yet. In the five or six months after the nominations, select theaters show them and, not long thereafter, they become DVDs, easily available via Netflix and other venues. Because in the age of Pixar most short cartoons of quality can find a home on cable and the Internet, I would like to call to your attention the less ballyhooed live-action short film nominees.

In The Confession (UK, twenty-six minutes), two nine-year-olds—tender, solemn Sam and mischievous Jacob—are Catholic schoolboys about to make their first confessions in what at first looks like the American Midwest but turns out to be contemporary Ireland. Since it’s a matter of juvenile honor to have something sufficiently sinful to confess, the boys contrive a prank involving a scarecrow. It goes horrendously wrong and a woman is killed. What started as a whimsy out of Frank O’Connor darkens into Dostoyevskian torment. The children cover up their involvement, but Sam’s conscience won’t leave him alone. The parish priest has told the class that “you have to tell the whole truth” in the confessional. Will Sam?

At first I thought director Tanel Toom too much given to nicely balanced, perfectly framed long shots and heavy-handed symbolism (the scarecrow is strung up to look like a crucified man). But after the catastrophe the camera lodges itself close to Sam’s face and we begin to eavesdrop on the boy’s agony. (The child actor responds marvelously to the demands of the role; Toom obviously has a knack for directing kids.) Most of The Confession is so powerful that the heart sinks when Toom undermines this tragedy near the conclusion with melodrama. Though the climactic scene of confession is well done, it’s spoiled in advance by a preceding scene involving a second death. Still, The Confession is sufficiently unforgettable.

The Crush (Ireland, fifteen minutes) is about another Irish-Catholic schoolboy, this one in love with his pretty teacher. Since only our little hero can perceive that his adored one’s fiancé is a lout, he undertakes to rescue her by challenging his rival to a duel. And since the lad’s father serves with the police, a revolver is ready at hand. Are we watching a comedy? A tragedy? A thriller? Alas, director Michael Creagh wishes it to be all of these, so the film never finds its true tone—a disaster for a fifteen-minute movie. The role of the lout is extremely well acted, but that further queers the emotional pitch because we wind up rooting for the wrong character. Creagh wants to entertain us at all costs but he ends up merely jerking us about.

In God of Love (USA, eighteen minutes), Raymond, the male vocalist in a youthful band, wants to win the heart of the female drummer, who only has eyes for the guitarist. So Raymond prays to God for help. God turns out to be the gods of Mount Olympus,  who send him the weapons of Cupid. But there’s a catch: the darts of love are only temporarily aphrodisiac, so our hero must lead his girl from a mere erotic holding pattern into a state of permanent affection. Raymond finally comes to realize, like Spider-Man, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Writer-director Luke Matheny (who also plays Raymond) has apparently been influenced by Woody Allen, specifically “Oedipus Wrecks” (Allen’s segment of the movie anthology New York Stories), which, like God of Love, juggles myth, fantasy, farce, romance, and urban wryness. Though Matheny needs to work with better actors—he’s the funniest thing on screen; the others lack charm and camera-friendly faces—Matheny’s clever script and fluid direction carry the day. A nicely confected bonbon, but not deserving of the Oscar it won.

That should have gone to Na Wewe (Belgium, nineteen minutes). The title is Swahili for “with you.”  The presiding spirit of this masterly work is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, for it deals with the same self-deception, the same Big Lie: the barriers of ethnicity, tribe, nationality, or race that humans erect or embrace in their quest for the certitude of superiority, the self-righteousness that allows one to trample others.

In Burundi, bordering Rwanda, a van full of Tutsis and a white Belgian they’ve rescued from a car breakdown are captured by a Hutu militia during the Rwandan genocide, which has spilled over the border. The inevitable pernicious preparation begins: “Hutus, line up here. Tutsi snakes over there!” Naturally, all the prisoners scramble over to the Hutu side. So the soldiers begin interrogating. The Belgian, protected by his passport (the militia has been warned not to antagonize Europeans) and sweating in the van, wonders if he can at least save his Tutsi employee.

At this point, I thought that director Ivan Goldschmidt would stick to the point of view of the Flemish man, if only to keep his nineteen-minute film psychologically unified. But no, the director shifts from character to character and juggles a multiplicity of viewpoints, those of the victimizers as well as the victims. This might have fragmented the story, but such is Goldschmidt’s dexterity that we quickly grasp that we are watching a group protagonist struggling in the grip of an unseen and utterly evil antagonist. The protagonist is everyone onscreen. The unseen but profoundly present antagonist is the Big Lie that has taken possession of the soldiers and makes them hunt for those Tutsi characteristics that will give them permission to kill. But what are those characteristics? How Tutsi is a Tutsi who has Hutu relatives in one branch of the family? The militia tries to be exact in its ethnic cleansing and this exactitude undermines the racism. Even pop culture confuses the murderousness when some child soldiers, delighting in the music on a prisoner’s iPod, demand to know who the musicians are. “U2.” “Hutu?!” they scream upon mishearing. “Hey! He’s listening to Hutu music!”

This compact, perfectly modulated masterpiece made me think of the -Brecht poem in which the poet, gazing at a sculpted mask of a Japanese demon, notices “The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating / What a strain it is to be evil.”

Wish 143 (UK, twenty-four minutes) is a story that might easily have slid into sniggeriness or sentimentality. That it does neither is a tribute to director Ian Barnes’s taste and his skillful actors. A fifteen-year-old boy with inoperable cancer tells a social worker that his dying wish is to spend an hour with a naked woman. The news leaks out to the media with some hilarious results. But the cancer ward’s priest, superbly played by Jim Carter (last seen as the head butler on Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey), detects in the boy’s request something more than raging, dying hormones. First warning the teenager that sex without love is futile, he takes measures that might curl the toupee on Fr. Bing Crosby’s pate but that finally lead to a lot more agape than eros.

Afterthought: I’m struck that of the five films, three feature priests or take place in a Catholic environment—and that the one film that mentions neither God (or Olympian gods) nor a clergyman, Na Wewe, is the most spiritual of the lot. It first shows the human spirit in extremis and then believably dramatizes its triumph.

Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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