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Short Films, Big Messages: Oscar Nominees Take On Social Justice Issues (Video)

“I’m really happy I could touch lots of hearts,” says filmmaker Tomar Shushan, who explores the issue of privilege through the story of a stolen bicycle

The creators of this year’s crop of Academy Award-nominated live action and animated short films are packing big issues into small packages. Police violence, incarceration immigration, and school shootings have all made their way into the work of an eclectic international group of nominees.

“I’m really happy I could touch lots of hearts, and maybe change something,” said Israeli filmmaker Tomar Shushan of “White Eye,” a film set in the streets of Tel Aviv exploring the issue of privilege through the story of an immigrant wrongly accused of stealing a bicycle and the damage done by bringing the police into the matter.

Shushan told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman that his film is based on a true story, when Shushan happened upon his stolen bicycle in the possession of an illegal immigrant. He was shocked by his own accusatory rage. “The anger working out of me, I couldn’t control it,” Shushan said. “To see the fear in his eyes and know I caused it was horrible…the way I can deal with it is to make a film about it.” Shushan added that Israel faces a crisis over immigration like the U.S.,  and immigrants there are often “like see-through people, no one can see them…it really is an international issue.”

Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe of “Two Distant Strangers,” a sci fi drama written by Free and directed by Free and Roe, described their film as “The worst version of ‘Groundhog Day’ ” when a violent police encounter forces cartoonist Carter James to relive the same horrible event over and over again. “(He) just wants to get home to his dog,” Free said. “I am grateful (that) we get to tell these stories about authority and violence in this country in a brand new way.”

Elvira Lind, Danish writer-director of “The Letter Room,” appearing on the panel with producer Sofia Sondervan, said she made a film about the prison system because she was inspired by hearing a podcast about how much inmates missed the letters in their lives. She described the character of a prison guard who tries to help by getting involved in a private communication as inhabiting a “gray area” of morality: “When are we doing something good, and when are we doing something because we want to feel better about ourselves?”

The animated film “If Anything Happens I Love You,” written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier, slowly reveals the reality facing two grieving parents as they struggle to deal with the death of their daughter, killed in a school shooting. McCormack said they had a hard time getting the film made: “Everybody said it was just too sad, and they said no…we refused to stop, (but) we were hearing a lot of no.”

Madeline Sharanan’s colorful animated short “Burrow,” populated by a rabbit community, provides a more upbeat story than the rest, but even that film in its own way deals with the issue of struggle for one young rabbit. Sharanan said she based the problems of her rabbit character on her own difficulties as a young animator when she first came to Pixar.  “I refused to let anyone know that I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “You reach the point when you are finally forced…to just ask people for help, and let people know when you’re in trouble.”