2021 Oscars Shorts Review: Animation and Live-Action

Last year, I was only able to see the Oscar-nominated short films online through VIFF Connect. This year, they returned back to the theatre. I had the good fortune to see the nominated films for both the Animated and Live-Action categories. All the films are unique and deserving of their nominations. Here’s my review of the nominated films for Animation and Live-Action:

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Affairs Of The Art (dir. Joanna Quinn) – Beryl is a struggling artist. She comes from an eccentric family. She has a sister whom, as a younger child, had a fixation with deceased animals and dissecting them. It paid off for her as her sister has done a very profitable post mortem business in Los Angeles and has attracted many big name celebrities. Beryl has always had an obsession with drawing and colors and has a goal of being an ‘artiste of note,’ but it’s only paid off very humbly for her. How can she make it work?

This is a charming animated film. Full of quirky drawings with a quirky story and charming characters. Not to mention very colorful 2D animation. It’s a story that will get you either laughing or weirded out. You will find yourself liking it in the end.

Bestia (dir. Hugo Covarrubias) – This stop-motion animated film tells the story of a Chilean woman. She has a good relationship with her dog. The outside world on the other hand, she is savage to. She is cold and calculated in every move she does. She cuts her meat in sinister fashion. Whenever she plays music, it’s in cold fashion. And she’s cold to the people she meets. She just comes as a very sadistic emotionless person.

The character is inspired by a female prison guard who is one of the most infamous Chileans ever. The film in stop-motion is done excellently giving a cold feel of the story. Although most of us outside of Chile may never know this person, it does an excellent job in capturing someone cold, merciless and emotionless. Also a reminder of how Chile still harbors silent wrath over some of its past infamy.

BoxBallet (dir. Anton Dyakov) – The film is a story of two people. One is a female ballet dancer, slender and graceful. The other is a male boxer, rough and laden with visible scars. Boy meets girl and opposites attract. But can it result in love? What unfolds is a love story between two people that one would not expect to see happen.

This is another charming 2D animation story. It has its own quirky style of animating and telling the story. The visuals are comedic and entertaining to watch. The story does seem odd at first, but the relationship and the story does come across as right in the end. Very enjoyable.

Robin Robin (dirs. Dan Ojari and Mikey Please) – This is a sweet fable of a robin who is raised by mice since birth. The mice have a habit of stealing from humans houses. But every time they attempt stealing, the robin gets the ‘who-mans’ angry and after them. It happens every time. The Robin breaks the top rule of their stealing: “Don’t attract attention.” And now they’re down to the last house in the neighborhood. On Christmas, the robin wants to prove to the mice, and a cat who’s pursuing her, that she can be a good mouse and steal the Christmas Star. In her attempt she fails again, but she later learns a lesson of self-acceptance.

This is a charming story, a fable put to good visuals, Kind of what most of us expect of animation. Aardman Animations, the studio famous for the Wallace and Gromit and Shaun The Sheep movies, does an excellent job in telling the story with great visuals and great characters in its short time. A charming delight for all to see. It’s because of this I give it my Should Win and Will Win picks.

The Windshield Wiper (dir. Alberto Mielgo) – Inside a cafe, a man is smoking a whole pack of cigarettes and reading a newspaper. Then he poses a question he asks all of us: “What is love?” The film then goes over his narrative of how humans view love along with visual images of dates, encounters and even dating apps.

The film is a 2D film full of visuals that are key to telling the story. It gives us colors and various images that we can identify with and also add more significance to what the man is talking about. Funny thing is in these 2D images, we can see us. Sometimes it makes it look like humans nowadays are more clueless about love than ever!

To sum up the five nominated films, all are good in their storytelling. Some are 2D and some 3D. All have their own different style. No two are alike. What’s most surprising is that none of the films shown before the Disney Studios or Disney Pixar films were nominated this year! Most years, one of the films is nominated. That’s a surprise!

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM

Ala Kachuu: Take And Run (dir. Maria Brendle) – Sezim is a young girl in a village in Kyrgyzstan who dreams of going to college. Her friend Aksana is supportive of her and arranges an interview with the college for her. She even gives her a brief driving lesson. This does not sit well with Sezim’s mother who wants her to be more traditional. One day while working at the bakery, three men come looking for one of her female co workers. The co-worker is absent for her shift. They first leave, but then return to abduct her and have her married off to a man she never met before. This breaks Sezim’s heart because she had so many future goals. Her mother is very approving. The village is supportive of this and her husband acts loving to her. However Sezim is frustrated and needs to find a way to escape. Can she seize the opportunity?

This is an excellent film from director Maria Brendle. It deals with the taboo of marriage-by-capture or “bridenappings.” This is something that is happening in many countries. In most of them, they’re illegal, but law officials are too laxed to enforce the law. Traditionalists often embrace it as the way to be. Often the woman is pressured to stay in the marriage by the society and even her families. This story puts a human image to this taboo issue. Even seeing of how her mother is approving of this sends a message of one of the barriers to stop it. That scene where Oksana is searching for Sezim, but her mother talks scornfully to her about her independent way of living also adds to how traditionalism adds to this problem. Even the attitude of traditionalists to “city girls” says a lot about this issue. It’s because of how a hot but taboo topic is tackled is why I give it my Should Win pick.

The Dress (dir. Tadeusz Lysiak) – Julia is a woman with dwarfism in her thirties who works cleaning motel rooms. She’s been single all her life. Her best friend, Renata, her co-worker for years, is a full-grown divorced woman and the mother of three. Julia often confides to Renata her personal feelings. Julia hates feeling like a misfit. She strongly feels if she was “normal-sized,” she’d have a man in her life. One day, she attracts a patron named Bogdan. She later learns Bogdan lives in the same building as her. Bogdan has been showing attraction to her, but it’s hard to date since he has a trucking job where he frequently goes to Kyiv and back. Could she finally have a chance at love? Julia always dreamed of having a nice dress. Renata helps assemble a dress for her for the big night. The big night between her and Bogdan finally happens, but it turns out to end not how she expected at all.

This is a story you want to have a happy ending. Like finally Julia meeting the man of her dreams. Finally Julia’s in love. Instead, Bogdan turns out to be a misogynist. The ending of the film leaves you wondering if the overall message of the film is about the way women are treated. Julia learned Bogdan gets misogynist in his lust, but Renata has an abusive husband. Maybe the message is saying that it doesn’t matter whether a woman is full sized or small like Julia. Women share the same struggle with their treatment from men. I mean the story appears to be one about a woman with dwarfism searching for a purpose or a belonging but maybe it was meant to be something else.

The Long Goodbye (dirs. Aniel Karia and Riz Ahmed) – The film begins with an Indian family in the UK getting ready for a wedding. Everyone in the house is excited and panicking at the same time. They all want to look their best but will they be ready? However the simple concerns about being dressed properly end as they notice a group of white nationalists enter their area with a van and a gun. Riz is the first to notice and warn the family, but it’s too late. The nationalists enter and demand the family get out of the house where they are lying down on the street. Then one of the men shoots five of his family. Riz gets up and does a rap full of anger about British imperialism and how his people have been treated by the UK in history.

White nationalism is on the rise in many countries, including the UK. Something that many were hoping to see become a thing of the past has seen a recent resurgence as many right-leaning politicians in the world have help embolden racists and stimulated in them a will to be more vocal. Most threatened are the racial minorities. Like families from India who come to settle in the UK. And this is where Riz starts his angry rap about where he’s from. They came to the UK to get a better life only to get this racist incident. He doesn’t know whether to see the UK as a country of opportunity or this monster who’s constantly running his people through the mud time and time again. The mix of drama and Riz’s rap really makes a strong angry statement. He concludes it well when he says “Where I’m from is not your problem, bro.” That’s why I give it my Will Win pick.

On My Mind (dir. Martin Strange-Hansen) – It’s morning in a bar in Denmark owned by a husband and wife named Preben and Louise. Louise doesn’t have too many customers to serve which allows Preben to do accounting of all the receipts from the previous night. A depressed-looking disheveled man comes into the bar and asks for a large amount of a whisky. His name is Henrik. As he’s drinking, he notices the bar has a karaoke microphone. He asks Louise if he can do a song for his wife: the country song “Always On My Mind.” The problem is the karaoke system isn’t on until the evening. Henrik can’t wait until the evening. He has to do it now. He even gives the two 500 Krone to do it. Preben is stingy about it, but Louise is more willing. Preben begrudgingly allows him one chance. Henrik starts singing and Louise records his singing on his smartphone, but it’s interrupted by a message. Henrik attempts to do it again, but Preben cuts the power to the screen. He’s had it with him, especially since running the karaoke machine is costly. He even gives Henrik his money back, but it’s there when Henrik explains the reason why this is so important; his wife doesn’t even have an hour to live. It’s there when Preben is willing. Henrik is finally able to complete his rendition of the song and play for his wife to hear, even if she’s brain-dead when he plays it for her.

At the end of the showing of the shorts, I was with some Danish students who said it’s very common in Danish student movies to have it set in a bar. I never knew that. Whatever the situation, this is a good story. You think it’s one thing but it turns out to be something more instead. You think it’s a simple karaoke song, but instead it’s Henrik’s last opportunity to tell his wife he loves her. Even though she’s brain-dead, he senses she got the message. The film gets you believing in the human soul and it convinces you the love between Henrik and his wife is eternal. Not just “til death do us part.”

Please Hold (dirs. K. D. Davila and Levin Menekse) – A young man named Matteo is just living his life normally when all of a sudden, a police drone, gun and all, has let him know he’s under arrest. He’s ordered to enter the automated police car which takes him to the automated holding centre. He’s instructed to go to his cell, where he’s unattended and supervised by video cameras. He can see a lawyer, but it’s through an online legal service where lawyers meet through Zoom-style meetings. Making phone calls to anyone is very costly and credits can be earned back through time or hobbies automatically delivered. That’s especially frustrating since Matteo is in danger of being sentenced to over 20 years in prison. He needs a lawyer bad. He takes a knitting hobby which he slowly earns credit. He does get the lawyer money he needs from his mother, but the appointment fizzles out, leaving him extremely frustrated. However there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a very unique “What If” scenario. We have computers and Zoom meetings taking care of a lot of our duties. Can we really trust an automated justice system or police drones? Sure, the flesh-and-blood police have lost a lot of our trust, but replaced by computers? This film seems to think computerized technology can’t replace human interaction. Also Matteo’s scenario of being in a prison where he can only communicate through automation could even remind a lot of people of the pandemic and of its tightest days of how people had to confine themselves to their houses. A lot of ways you can look at this film.

To sum up the nominated Live-Action Shorts nominees, all of them are very good films. There are a lot of stories that are well thought-out and some stories that end up being more than what one originally expects. Some have topics that are very relevant to what’s happening now, like about racism and sexism. There’s one that focuses on a futuristic topic and fancies what the future of justice will be like, which is nothing to fancy over. And there’s one about a universal topic of love beyond death that has always been one of thought and continues to be one of thought.

And there you go. This is my summary of the films nominated for the Oscars for Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film. Hope you’re lucky enough to catch them in the movie theatre like I did. Some may be seen on streaming services or YouTube, but the big screen experience can’t be beat.

VIFF 2021 Review: Flee

Flee is an animated documentary of Amin: an Afghani refugee living in Denmark who always felt he had to hide his true past from everyone. Including the man he loves.

Flee was the first time I was able to see an animated film at the VIFF this year. It isn’t just an animated film. It’s part-story, part-documentary that tells a lot about a remarkable story.

The story begins with a man named Amin. He tells the story of his life and his ordeal. He tells it in fluent Danish. He first tells of his story of how he had to flee as his whole family had been killed off. This is a story he also tells his boyfriend Kasper. This is on the verge of Kasper about to buy a house for him and Amin. Meanwhile Amin is undecided whether to accept living with Kasper or accept a teaching job at a university.

The interviewer then takes Amin to a private place. There, Amin can tell the true story. It starts when he reflects of his childhood in Kabul. His biggest memories are of being four in the mid-1980’s and running down the streets with a Walkman with pink earphones in his hand and wearing a dress! However the harsh realities hit Amin and his family in 1989 when Amin turns eight. The Mujahideen have taken over Afghanistan, just two years after the Soviets withdrew from the nation. Their father has been captured and they don’t know what happened to them. Fearing they’ll be next, Amin, his mother, two sisters and brother seek refuge on a plane. The plane takes them in Moscow as the USSR is one of few countries willing to take the family in because of their status.

Life is not very good for the family in Moscow. Even after the fall of communism, they can only do limited work, live in a cramped flat and constantly be harassed by corrupt policeman who heckle them for being different. They know they will have to flee to another country if they are ever able to be free for once. However their only hope depends on human traffickers. They all want to flee to Sweden. The eldest brother is the only one who can work. It is he who will have to provide the money for these trips.

The first trip, which involved being in a car failed and they found themselves back in Moscow. The second trip involved the whole family travelling at once. This involved a long walk through the woods with others right in the coldness of winter. It then led them all to a fishing vessel where they had to hide themselves in the fish trap. The feel of the boat trip was nerve-wracking with the water splashing. Then water started coming in, which involved the passengers coming out of the trap to get the water out. Fortunately a cruise ship discovers the boat. Unfortunately, the cruise ship calls Estonian police to rescue the passengers. That meant back to Moscow.

The long wait is frustrating. The mother is getting older, the siblings including Amin himself are growing and missing out a lot on their future, and the oldest brother is having the frustration of his future being squandered to saving up for these illegal immigration stings. It’s frustrating, but they can’t go on watching Mexican soap operas and being harassed by Moscow police forever. Finally the brother finds a new illegal immigration operation. It’s way more expensive than the ones in the past, but this has excellent chances of working. However this involves each of the family members to go alone.

Amin is to go with one other teen male. The agent gives both boys strict instructions to obey. The trip starts with both of them being inside a van and lying down. During the trip, Amin senses a feeling he has toward the other male. The male gives him his gold chain. Before they board the plane, the agent gives the two plane tickets and passports: Amin for Denmark and the other boy for Switzerland. They all go on a flight to Istanbul. As the flight lands, the agent advises the two to do everything he instructs them to do and once they arrive in their country of destination to tear up the passport and tell officials their story. After the agent leaves, the two depart but not without one final goodbye.

Hours later, Amin arrives in Copenhagen, tears up the passport, and tells his story of being a completely orphaned Afghani refugee. As he’s transported to safety, he looks out the window of the car and sees freedom, but can’t feel it or sense it. He spent years living in a shelter living with various families and pursuing excellent grades in school. Then one day, he receives a phone call. It’s his brother in Sweden. Amin learns his brother found refuge in Sweden from his own trip from the trafficker.

Time would improve for Amin. Soon he’d learn all of his family including his mother had found refuge in various places in Europe with his two sisters also living in Sweden. His life has improved as he has been able to become a strong academic and even had lecturing jobs at American colleges. However he’s still had to keep his true life a secret from his boyfriend and his homosexuality a secret from his family as Afghani culture considers homosexuality to bring shame to the family. One day, when the brother and sisters get into conversation about Amin not being married, he then outs himself to the shock of all. The brother then tells Amin to get into the car. Amin is uncertain and fearful about what will happen next during the car ride. The brother takes him to a gay bar and hands him some money. They knew all along! Inside the gay bar, Amin discovers a freedom he never thought possible. The film then flashes forward two years later showing how Amin’s life has improved.

This is definitely a story about a current hot topic: refugees and illegal immigrants. It’s constantly an issue. As long as there’s political oppression and corruption, there are going to be people fleeing. Refugees and illegal immigrants probably feel they have something to hide about themselves. Even if they become legit citizens of their country, they feel they still have something to hide and they have to lie for their freedom. Roughly they’re still mentally ‘on the run.’ Even the fact that the subject has to tell his whole truth under the pseudonym Amin Nawabi adds to this factor. It becomes evident when Amin first tells the interviewer of his story of his family deceased. Then when he’s in a private room, he tells the truth. It’s also evident how he’s unsure whether to commit to marrying his boyfriend Kasper and instead accept an offer at an American university.

Amin’s story is definitely a story of intrigue. This is a story of a man who pretty much feels he has his ‘life on the run.’ He had to flee his home of Afghanistan with his family and first settle in Russia, only for all to find another nation to live in. This is a case of three attempts and the frustration of wondering if you’ll ever be free. This is about feeling that you have to hide the truth of yourself even though you’re now living in a free country. This is about even hiding a truth about yourself that is forbidden and seen as shame in your home country. I think that’s the point of the story. About hiding things. It starts off as a case that Amin has a lot to hide. However over time, he opens up. Hidden truths about himself no longer become a taboo. It’s a case as we see the story unravel over time just as we get to the part where he outs himself to his siblings.

This is a story of from a life of refuge to a newly discovered freedom. When you look at it, Amin’s freedom in Denmark is the best thing to happen to him. We all see he had to deal with life in Russia along with his siblings. Even without attempts to immigrate, Russia was no place for them. Not as they were constantly being harassed. Afghanistan was no place for them either as their father may had been killed and they would be in pursuit. It’s especially no place for Amin as his sexuality was obvious at a young age. If he had not fled from Afghanistan in his lifetime, he could have been executed for his homosexuality. That really gets you thinking. Especially when we recently heard about the return of the Taliban to power. It’s something how Amin is born in a country with the harshest attitude towards homosexuality and finds himself in one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage!

I give top accolades to writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. He’s done films about people’s struggle with homosexuality before. The story does a very good job as it goes from the interview to the re-enactments of Amin’s past. From running down the streets listening to Take On Me to the family forgetting their problems as they watch Mexican soap operas, it does a good job of telling the story while mixing other elements in the background. The images do a great job in capturing the drama of the time. The voice acting was also very good. The animation from Sun Creature Studio did an excellent job of depicting the story in both the present and the past. The addition of the music of the times and of the Mexican soap operas also add to the story.

Flee is a great animated film about a man who feels like he has always had to be on the run. On the run from danger, on the run from authorities, on the run to achieve freedom, and on the run from how he was meant to live and who to love. It’s an eye-opener and a delight to see at the same time.