After a year that forced the world to confront the toughest issues before it, many of the contenders in the 2021 Oscar short film categories explore those issues in 40 minutes or less. Six of those contenders joined TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series to discuss their work on topics from Black Lives Matter to sexist abuse around the world.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Travon Free and rapper Joey Bada$$ are gunning for a nomination with their live-action short “Two Distant Strangers,” which follows in the vein of “Groundhog Day,” “Palm Springs” and the “Twilight Zone” episode “Rewind” as it follows a Black cartoonist who is forced to relive his George Floyd-esque murder at the hands of multiple cops over and over. Free wrote the film in five days just weeks after Floyd’s death and was filmed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was really important to tell this story and get it out into the world because it was an expression of what myself and a lot of people I know were feeling at the time, the repetition of seeing Black people being murdered and having to live through the trauma of processing those feelings over and over,” Free said. “It was a visceral, direct response to what we were feeling last summer.”
A more tender piece of Black filmmaking comes from Camrus Johnson and his animated short film “Grab My Hand,” a personal message from him to his grieving father who was mourning the loss of his brother. The short came as Johnson was working on another animated project and the sudden loss left Johnson wanting to do something for his family.
“I found myself not knowing how to communicate with my dad,” he said. “My dad lost his best friend…they would call each other every day, and it was the first time really seeing my dad speechless and heartbroken. So the only way to really communicate what I want to say is filmmaking, and the thing with animation is I like to explain it as…I can put my heart on screen in the way I exactly imagine it.”
Em Weinstein put a little bit of themself in their LGBT film “In France, Michelle Is A Man’s Name.” Having been raised in rural Oregon before moving out to the East Coast and still loving the countryside despite the cultural conflicts, Weinstein made the American West the center of his tale about a trans man who comes back home to his estranged parents after years of separation.
“I really wanted to make a movie about a young trans man coming back from the city where he’s made his home and returning to the country where he was raised,” Weinstein said. “I wanted to look at what American masculinity is and masculinity in general because I think it is something so absurd and beautiful and pathetic and something I still don’t understand even though it has such control over our world.”
On the international side is Seayoon Jeong and her film “Breaking the Silence,” which is based on the true story of the decades-long fight for justice for comfort women, the sex slaves forced into prostitution by the Japanese Empire during World War II and thousands of whom were slaughtered during the Asian Holocaust. Jeong was inspired to speak out through the stories she heard growing up from her teachers and her grandmother, who died five years ago, and wanted to ensure that the stories of these women — even the most harrowing parts — were not forgotten.
“When I talk to people about comfort women, they understood what sexual slavery was, but they didn’t really understand what these women went through,” Jeong said. “I wanted people to truly understand what being a comfort woman was like, and that meant including a torture scene.”
Shaan Vyas, who co-produced the Oscar-winning short documentary “Period. End of Sentence,” has returned with “Natkhat,” a story about a mother who has suffered the abuse of domestic violence for years within her marriage and sees India’s culture of machismo starting to influence her impressionable young son, Sonu. Determined to stop the cycle of abuse, she begins to tell Sonu bedtime stories to make him sensitive to the plight of women, until one day Sonu accidentally discovers the truth of his mother’s suffering.
“Every bit of reform we have in this country to resolve [rape culture] has been palliative in its nature, happening after the abuse has taken place, and this is not just in India. This is around the world, the #MeToo movement was happening right around the same time,” Vyas said. “Young kids the age of 10 look around and they see the biggest sports stars, the soldiers, the policemen are all men, and so they begin to think that men are the superior gender. So I thought it would be nice to showcase parenting as a solution…to try to nip patriarchy in the bud where it starts from.”
Finally, there is “Foreigner,” a short set in Spain that shows what happens when the opposite ends of class hierarchy collide. The film follows a British tourist who is enjoying a luxurious vacation on the coasts of Spain, only for it to be turned upside down when a strong current draws him out to sea until he is rescued by a raft full of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
“The inspiration for the film came from a vacation on the Cadiz coast,” director Carlos Violade said. “It has beautiful beaches, great food, tourists everywhere…but at the same time there are people dying as they are trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. I was there and all the people told me about the danger of the current to migrants, and I felt like it was a story I had to tell.”
For more from the filmmakers about their work, check out the full interview with TheWrap founder/editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman above.