What makes a short a short, and what makes it, well, long? Or only seem long? To qualify for the Oscars, short films have to run less than 40 minutes, including credits. Many short film filmmakers who want to qualify use up their entire allowance, utilizing (or wasting) every second in order to squeeze out every bit of story. But many times, it’s the films that don’t come within only a few seconds of the deadline that turn out to be more successful.
“Boogaloo and Graham” from Northern Ireland is the shortest of the Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts this year. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the film expertly makes its point within that concise running time. The story follows two young boys in 1970’s Belfast named Malachi and Jamesy, whose father gives them baby chicks to care for. As the chicks grow in size and annoyance, their mother grows weary of their presence. But as the film climaxes it becomes evident that the challenge of raising a couple of birds doesn’t compare to The Troubles surrounding them — it’s just that the family needed a little reminding. Filled with amusing quips, the short features lovely Irish cadences and unexpected vocabulary from charming young lads.
Only slightly longer is “Butter Lamp,” which has played at Cannes and Sundance, landing an impressive 70 awards from over 200 festivals. The visually intriguing piece follows a photographer and his assistant as they convince Tibetan nomads to have their picture taken. The entire film is told from the POV of a camera mounted on a tripod, as nomadic families go in and out of frame and the assistant changes the backdrop to various elaborate scenes — including the Great Wall of China and a pristine beach.
Stylistically, “Butter Lamp” calls to mind the experimental documentary “Manakamana,” which follows riders in a cable car going up and down the Nepal Valley — both films take their cues from a kind of visual poetry. Yet there’s still a story to “Butter Lamp”: When the mayor rides in on a motor bike to inexplicably inform the viewer of new Socialist Campaigns, you realize he’s making said announcement at that spot because everyone in town is there to get their photo taken, despite the fact that we can’t see them. The film is indeed visually stunning, with the most remarkable image arriving at the end.
Then there’s the UK’s “The Phone Call,” which — as Indiewire has repoted before, tells a wrenching story of loss and depression that somehow by the end is so uplifting you’ll wonder how it achieves the same thing in 20 minutes that many films struggle to do at feature length. The short stars Sally Hawkins as a woman who works in a helpline call center. Jim Broadbent is the caller — a man considering suicide after the recent death of his wife. Time also comes into play here, with watches and clocks ticking by as Hawkins’ character tries to talk Broadbent out of committing suicide. Yet despite its time taken, the film’s simultaneously urgent and patient approach fit the length.
Next up at 25 minutes is Germany’s “Parvaneh,” which chronicles the struggle of a young Afghan woman living in Switzerland. When she tries to send money back to her parents, she’s denied by Western Union for lack of ID, so she enlists a rebellious teen from the Zurich streets to help her out. It’s a typical story of a naive foreigner getting caught up with a dangerous cohort. It’s not long before she’s removing her headscarf, drinking and dancing at a nightclub. The plot is a bit expected, and the performances somewhat forced — but just when it seems like the film is going to end in a predictable downward spiral, the story thankfully arrives at a lovely climactic twist.
“Aya,” a joint U.S.-Israeli production, is the one unfortunate film that comes in at just under 40 minutes but frankly outstays its welcome. The story follows a young woman who, while waiting to pick someone up at the airport, allows herself to be mistaken for an arriving man’s driver in a sort of willful mix up. After seemingly hours in the car (and seemingly hours of watching them drive while engaging in aimless chit-chat), she finally confesses that she wasn’t his driver after all. One has to wonder for whom she was actually waiting at the airport. But the short is so dull that by the time it’s revealed at the end the secret is less of a shock than an act of mercy.
WHO WILL WIN? It’s a two-way race here between “Butter Lamp” and “The Phone Call.” But if too many Academy voters reject “Butter Lamp” as “gimmicky” (a criticism given to the two frontrunners for Best Picture, “Boyhood” and “Birdman”) then “The Phone Call” would be poised for a gracious win. However, that film’s star-studded cast could make it a target for rejection or a magnet for votes. Either possible winner deserves the prize.