Mini Features – The 2020 Oscars Short Films (part 2)

Fikri Jermadi concludes his look at the short films from the 92nd Academy Awards.

‘The Neighbor’s Window’, directed by Marshall Curry, tells the story of Alli (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Keller). Middle-aged parents to three young children, theirs is a life seemingly devoid of fun and excitement, exacerbated by their constant viewing of their neighbours’ life, a young, early 20s couple who seems to spend much of their time having the time of their lives. This is a voyeur’s journey made possible by the apparent lack of curtains in New York, making things a lot more open than you might find comfortable.

Not that this is an uncomfortable film to watch. Far from it, for the focus is primarily on the reactions of Alli and Jacob. At its core is a consideration about desire. On one level, we’re talking about a physical, more sexual desire that, in this film, is awakened by the neighbours’ active sex life. The more pertinent focus, however, is a look at that which we do not have. A question of what if, rather than what is; in peeking into the life of others, Alli and Jacob (but particularly Alli) find themselves feeling (even more) dissatisfied with that which they already have.

Even though they are, in many ways, ahead of the curve, the yearning for their youth beget a feeling that it is wasted on the young. However, I like how this film can be thought of as a critique on millennials and their ilk. This common refrain is often based on how modern technology like Instagram and Facebook have led to pointless distractions. Not particularly constructive to begin with, this can also lead to a diminished self-esteem, making us desire more of what others have.

This is a problematic assertion, of course, because while the above may not be all that helpful in forming a firm sense of self (at least at a certain age), they merely amplify that which already exist. For instance, Alli’s constant scrutiny of her neighbours is simply a more analogue method of processing the same insecurity often seen in the digital world. One particular scene stands out, with Alli’s wondering about her neighbours’ life being contrasted by Curry with Jacob looking at his phone.

Emerging from that deep dive, ‘The Neighbor’s Window’ is actually a fun ride. While there is little that truly surprises, I can imagine it being a hit for those whose definition of a good film dependent on whether there is a ‘good’ message baked into the narrative. There are also several moments of humour, puncturing the initial impression that this is a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. If anything, given the publicity with which much of the actions are carried out, the film considers the front we project to others.

Continuing the relative bonhomie is ‘Nefta Football Club’. It is a Tunisian story following two brothers, Mohamed (Eltayef Dhaoui) and his younger, more naïve sibling, Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari). Keen football fans, they spend of their time arguing over who is the best football player of all time; while Mohamed’s choice of Lionel Messi is not particularly controversial, Abdallah’s constant support of Riyad Mahrez (from neighbouring Algeria) is more questionable, to put it mildly.

It is in Algeria that we meet Salim (Lyes Salem) and Ali (Hichem Mesbah), two drug traffickers who had hinged their hopes on a donkey crossing the border to carry their goods. Predictably, this is a plan with many holes, one of which would lead Mohamed and Abdallah to the donkey instead. This is where much of the film’s hilarity begins, aided with cuts of a local football match played between kids on a dusty plain in their working class neighbourhood.

This is a bigger picture footballing context which adds another layer of joy here; Mohamed’s assertion that all players take dope is a cue not only for my snarky mental comment (“Don’t be silly, they haven’t played for Juventus!”), but a foreshadowing tool for the rest of the plot. However, I wish to focus on the pacing of the story. In watching these films, I was initially a little dispirited by having to watch films clocking in around the 20-minute mark, requiring a reworking of my schedule for a comfortable viewing session. However, both ‘The Neighbor’s Window’ and ‘Nefta Football Club’ are enjoyable enough that the minutes breeze by, which is always a good sign.

I also find the idea of borders interesting. This can be seen in the football match, where the kids bicker over the lines on the pitch. It reminded me of similar excursions back in secondary school, when the jumpers for goalposts culture can lead to similar problems. Such grey areas are also replicated in the demarcation between Tunisia and Algeria, with one particular scene highlighting just how nebulous these concepts may be. I don’t know whether that is what Yves Piat, the film’s writer and director, had in mind, but they remain food for thought all the same.

What is better defined is both films above not being devoid of humour. I can’t say the same for ‘Brotherhood’. Directed by Meryam Joobeur, we initially take the perspective of Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaa), the patriarch of a family of four: his wife Salha (Nasraoui) and his two sons, Chaker (Chaker Mechergui) and Rayene (Rayene Mechergui). Of course, that is until his son, Malek (Malek Mechergui), returns from Syria with a new wife, Reem (Jasmin Lazid), a niqab-clad girl who is also pregnant.

The key term in that description is Syria. A brief radio report helps to set the table, but even without that, globally the country has unfortunately become synonymous with one concept: the Islamic State. There is a lot of tension in the family, brought about by Malek’s return and Mohamed’s dissatisfaction with his presence. There is a brief attempt to tackle the issue head on, especially in a telling dinner scene, but the logic of the film remains primarily emotional.

Much of this is brought about through the shots chosen by Meryam and her cinematographer, Vincent Gonneville. An unorthodox 4:3 aspect ratio primes us for discomfort in the widescreen age. This is enhanced by the focus on reaction shots: someone would be saying something in a scene, yet we remain transfixed on a single face or focus point. It could be that of Mohamed, maybe Malek, and maybe even the landscape. These close ups make it even more poignant; if a film like ‘The Neighbor’s Window’ is shot by Wolfgang Held from a distance, making it more suitable for a more comfortable big-screen experience, Gonneville’s extreme close-ups gets us close to the action, shifting us in our seats with unease.

That’s what ‘Brotherhood’ does. In terms of topic, it applies a more critical lens on the Muslim idea of brotherhood. For those not in the know, the concept of the ummah is a part of Islam’s foundation, regulating things such as fasting and prayer times. The idea of Malek abandoning his own family for the sake of his Muslim ‘brothers’ in Syria is interrogated. Though we may be aware of such extreme fundamentalism, this film forces me to consider the more personal cost incurred. The lamb sacrificed in the beginning also recalls the tale of Nabi Ibrahim’s sacrifice in Islamic lore.

All the above is ably aided by the actors. You will have noticed from my listing of the cast members above that nearly all of them use their own names in the film. Their key asset, however, is their striking physical features. Key characters like Mohamed and Malek, for instance, have such distinctive faces that you can’t help but feel drawn into the conflict swirling within their souls. Even a simple extreme close-up of a silent moment are imbued with such emotion that these shots may very well be the visual definition of screaming into the void.

At the end of the day, and whoever wins the award, the fact remains that once you get to this level, you are deserving of all the plaudits that come your way. Victories come and go, but I remain grateful that these filmmakers decided to share their films and make it available online. They are all enlightening and enjoyable in their own ways, and I hope that you make the time for these mini features to pleasantly and critically pass you by.

Read part one here.

Featured image credit: Science Source

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