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In the Irish nominee Boogaloo and Graham, a pair of charming child performances give a rather forgettable coming-of-age tale a glimmer of personality. Set in Belfast during the 1970s, right when the Troubles were at their most troublesome, the story centers on two young boys (Riley Hamilton and Aaron Lynch) whose father gives them a pair of baby chicks to look after. The brothers are immediately enamored with their pets and raise them until they’re fully grown, at which point dad says it’s time for the animals to go—their mother is pregnant, and she doesn't want dirty farm animals around the baby. While a trivial familial conflict ensues, screenwriter Ronan Blaney only pays lip service to the very real and very scary conflict plaguing the country. The film opens on the barrel of a rifle, but otherwise Boogaloo and Graham is concerned with the Northern Ireland conflict insofar as it supplies trite dramatic stakes. Like the other period details on display (vintage clothing, home décor, pop culture, et cetera), images of gun-toting soldiers have a nostalgic feel and aren't at all horrific or threatening, at least until they're supposed to be. In the film's climax, the boys and their chickens run afoul—forgive the pun—of the violence and nearly lose their heads, but no thought is given to historical context.
Like Boogaloo and Graham, the Swiss drama Parvaneh's compact form intensifies the deficient storytelling and general lack of imagination. The title character (Nissa Kashani), a teenage émigré from Afghanistan living in a Swiss Alps transit home for asylum seekers, travels to Zürich to wire money back home, but Western Union won't accept her ID, so she enlists the help of a local girl who's her age. The office closes, so the two spend the night getting to know each other at a party; more importantly, the Afghan girl experiences life in a major, Westernized city, complete with ritzy shopping districts, bright lights, advertising, and busy streets filled with busy people. Kashami and Graf, both first-time actors, have engaging chemistry, and it's always nice to see a film pass the Bechdel test, but this story of culture shock feels maddeningly familiar. Talkhon Hamzavi, directing her own script, checks off all the important fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age boxes, dealing exclusively in hackneyed stereotypes and contrived scenarios. Hamzavi's visual prowess is also lacking: the film has what could be described as a "documentary aesthetic," presuming all one needs to achieve a "documentary aesthetic" is a shaky handheld camera and natural lighting.
At 38 minutes, the Israeli drama Aya barely qualifies as a short film, and the muddled narrative suggests the filmmakers removed a lot of stuff in order to meet the mark. A woman in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport (Sarah Adler) agrees to hold a cab driver's passenger sign while he steps outside; when the passenger, a Danish music scholar (Ulrich Thomsen), arrives, she's instantly smitten and pretends to be his driver. We're treated to various ultracutesy rom-com scenarios until about halfway through the film, when the story abruptly turns dramatic, the strangers divulging deep secrets to one another during a long drive to Jerusalem. It's a daring experiment in both tone and genre, but directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis completely miss the mark. The gaps in logic notwithstanding, a complete lack of meaningful character interplay makes the whole thing hard to buy and even harder to watch. As the film reaches its confounding conclusion, it's easy to see the directors straining to pass off their confusing and implausible story as ambiguous and artful.
Similar to Butter Lamp (more on that later), the British drama The Phone Call richly—and wisely—explores a single scenario. A woman working in a suicide prevention center (Sally Hawkins) receives her first call of the day. On the other end is a man, voiced by Jim Broadbent, who calls himself "Stan," but that's probably not his real name. He's sobbing uncontrollably, and it's Hawkins's job to get his story, but he says "it's already done," and writer-director Mat Kirkby spends the next 15 minutes slowly revealing what "it" is. This simple setup—a single onscreen character in a single room having a conversation on the telephone—invites intense character interplay. Without a plot to get in the way, Kirkby is free to direct Hawkins in an excellent performance and experiment with different kinds of framing and interior compositions. The rhythmic editing is also inspired: in more dramatic moments, Kirby cuts to a close-up of Hawkins foregrounding a window basked in early-morning sunlight. Just about the only thing Kirkby fumbles is tone: the film is tense in the beginning but grows increasingly mawkish before reaching a sentimental denouement. The ending might not stick, but getting there is rewarding.
Inspired by Michael Nash's photograph Warsaw, 1946, Beijing-born Hu Wei directed the Chinese-French coproduction Butter Lamp, an incredibly inventive and aesthetically probing exercise in cinematic tableau and image making that's by far the most deserving nominee. In the film, a photographer and his assistant shoot images of Tibetan nomads in front of various backdrops, and the unique arrangements provide an intricate link between nomadic life, world culture, and artist-subject relations. By using various fabricated backdrops, the film melds diegetic and nondiegetic time and space into a single image, presenting us with disparate locations and time frames—the Great Wall of China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tiananmen Gate, Disneyland—without ever leaving the central location. The backdrops stand in contrast to the villagers' modest lifestyles, spiritual customs, and shared personal histories while commenting on the materiality of cinematic space and time. When the final backdrop is pulled down, we're treated to an image of the village itself, and the experience is cathartic.
Hu's camera remains static, but there's a tremendous amount of movement here. As the photographer reorganizes his subjects, swapping in different-sized folks, the kinetic placement of bodies within the frame adds new and exciting dimensions to the mise-en-scene. More than just the villagers, the human form is the film's subject. The loose narrative revolves around each new pictorial setup, each tableau effectively a new "scene." When the shutter snaps, the film cuts to black, and then we're on to the next setup with a new cast of characters. The blackness is important: rather than show us the photographer's image, Hu treats us to the death of his own image, a testament to the inherently ephemeral nature of motion photography. This all might sound weighty, but Butter Lamp couldn't be a more effortlessly enjoyable experience. This is the rare short film that begs for a feature-length treatment; I could have watched it for hours.