Human Connections Thread Through Oscar Live Action Shorts Nominees

The  Oscar-nominated live action shorts come from filmmakers based in the U.S., U.K, and the Mideast. They all center on the human desire to be seen as people.

Feeling Through

Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski
Roland’s entry into the deaf-blind community came through a chance meeting about 10 years ago with a man holding up a sign asking for help to cross the street late one night in New York City. He was so struck by the encounter that he wrote the script for “Feeling Through” and completed it in 2019 with the help of the Helen Keller National Center and its now CEO, Ruzenski, who is nominated with him. Authenticity matters to Roland, so he cast Robert Tarango, whom he discovered working in the cafeteria at the HKNC. “I’m really happy that there is some strong disability representation this year,” he says, referencing his fellow nominees like “Sound of Metal.” He is happy to share his story, “which is ultimately a universal story about the power of human connection despite whatever differences we have.”

The Letter Room

Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan

When she heard a podcast about prisoners who were catfished, Lind got the idea for “The Letter Room.” She wanted to marry the topics of loneliness and the U.S. prison system, she says. “It gives us a chance to understand the scope of it in a different way without having to tell the big story.” Producer Sondervan says she and Lind “plotted it together” and wrote “The Letter Room” script side by side. They finished shooting the short in 2019 just before Lind gave birth to her daughter. Starring Lind’s husband, Oscar Isaac, who also produced, “The Letter Room” centers around a guard who censors prisoners’ incoming mail. The film was accepted at Holly Shorts, where it screened, and Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride and other festivals where it did not. “We got caught in COVID,” Lind says. That was a huge disappointment, but it’s been offset by the Academy nomination.

The Present

Farah Nabulsi

U.K. native Nabulsi has Palestinian roots and “The Present” was born from a visit during which she witnessed Arabs at Israeli checkpoints. A man’s purchase of a refrigerator and his struggle to get it home is at the center of her movie. Production in Israel was not easy, with guerrilla shoots at an actual checkpoint for an early scene. Casting was also interesting. One of her actors was cast at the last minute and caused a production delay by oversleeping on the first day of the six-day shoot. While her star was veteran Saleh Bakri, she wanted someone who had his striking blue eyes to play the daughter. Multiple auditions later, she returned to her first choice, her production manager’s daughter Mariam Kanj. “She speaks Arabic like a grandma, which is like perfect,” Nabulsi says. She tried out several endings before settling on the one in the film. “It is fiction, but it is based on a more absurd reality that does exist on the ground,” she says.

Two Distant Strangers

Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

The impetus for the short was police shootings of Black people. Joey Badass stars as a man who tries to return home after spending the night with his girlfriend, but every time he has a run in with police that ends badly for him. “It started with the thought that this feels like the worst version of ‘Groundhog Day’ imaginable, and that turned into something that I could probably do something with,” says writer and co-director Free. Although their budget was tiny, co-director Roe says they managed to get together a cast and crew when New York reopened after the COVID shutdown and shot it in five days. Keeping to a couple of close locations helped and everyone wanted to participate. “We had one thing going for us, because of the nature of the script, we were repeating scenes, there was some economy there,” he says.

White Eye

Tomer Shushan and Shira Hochman

Shushman was on the way to meet with a mentor when he spotted his bike, which had been stolen. “White Eye” was based on that incident, which had a happier ending than the one in his film, he says. In the short, the Eritrean buyer of the stolen bike is taken away by police.
“Everything was very, very fresh from the incident. I just remembered clearly all the details, and all the feelings that I had, and I saw how this story got escalated so quickly because of stupid bikes.” He found Dawit Tekelaeb washing dishes at a Tel Aviv hamburger stand one evening. And despite his never having acted, Shushman found his eyes so compelling that he decided to cast him. “He said, ‘I want to do this for my community because this film doesn’t put our community and our people in a bad or like a miserable way. It puts us in a place that says, This is us, we have rights, we’re human like everyone.’ So he really liked that.”

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