The Academy Awards’ three categories for short films are infamously the butt of jokes and the bane of prognosticators, and for the same reason: general audiences don’t get much of an opportunity to see most of the nominees. There is always a gulf between the tastes of Oscar voters and those of the public — dug by industry insularity, class differences and demographic disparities — and nowhere is that more evident than in these selections.
For 13 years now, ShortsTV has attempted to rectify this problem by releasing the Oscar-nominated shorts in theaters (their program of the 2018 nominees was released on March 9). The practice hasn’t seemed to build much esteem for the shorts categories, but it does at least afford people in certain markets the opportunity to see precisely what the Academy is on about this year. And while analysts don’t generally include these nominees in their broad surveys of each year’s trends in voter preferences, the picks in the documentary and live-action categories often reveal just as much as the major ones do.
This is most obvious in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. Like its sibling category for features, this is where the Academy most loves to prove that it is wise to the social issues of the day. Creating either a reasonably informative snapshot of a relevant topic or a suitably inspirational portrait of some individual overcoming adversity is key to getting recognition in this category — outrage or uplift. On the outrage side are Heroin(e) (about the opioid crisis) and Traffic Stop (about a black woman pulled over and manhandled by police). On the uplift side are Heaven Is a Traffic Jam On the 405 (a bio of artist Mindy Alper and her struggle with mental illness) and Knife Skills (about a fine dining restaurant staffed entirely by ex-cons). Straddling both sides is Edith+Eddie (about an adorable elderly interracial couple facing separation by unaccepting family members).
Formally, Traffic Stop is the only doc that stands out, cutting between dashcam footage of the police encounter and current interviews with the victim explaining her life and the aftereffects she’s experienced from the incident. The other films adhere to talking heads and/or fly-on-the-wall approaches. None are bad, but that’s because they don’t risk being bad by trying to be distinct. The choice most revealing of the Academy’s general wealthy liberal worldview is Heroin(e). As its entryway into the opioid crisis, the film uses three women “fighting on the ground” — a paramedic, a drug court judge and a street missionary. The latter two of those three are participating in institutions which enforce the criminalization of drug addiction and thus are helping to perpetuate the problem, but they are presented as, well, heroines.
Attempts at timeliness also seep into the nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, most obviously with DeKalb Elementary (a would-be school shooter is talked down by a clerk), Watu Wote/All of Us (Muslims shield Christians from Islamic militants who attacked a Kenyan bus) and My Nephew Emmett (about the night Emmett Till was taken from his uncle’s house by the men who would lynch him).
Notably, these three are also each based on true stories, though the ways they tackle their material are different. Watu Wote includes the broad strokes of the real event but features mostly fictional characters. My Nephew Emmett likewise sticks to the facts but also makes room to explore lead character Mose Wright’s psychology as he reacts to his nephew’s death. But DeKalb Elementary futzes the line between adaptation and outright reenactment, its script often taking verbatim exchanges from the real incident, which was captured both on security footage and phone call recordings. The result is dialogue that accurately captures the awkward cadence and word choices of people in crisis, delivered to sometimes surreal effect. It feels bigger than a mere grab for attention. While nearly all Oscar-nominated shorts are doomed to eventual obscurity whether they win or not, that’s the key to one’s artistic staying power.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.