In the Oscar shorts category, stories of fraught relationships in Israel
This year’s five Oscar-nominated live action shorts are strong, disturbing and concise (the longest is 45 minutes). Among the issues they explore are law and order, immigration and interracial relations.
“Two Distant Strangers” examines police brutality and the African-American’s nightmarish anxiety that he will inevitably encounter it. “Feeling Through” explores the unlikely bond between a Black homeless teenager and a deaf and blind white man. “The Letter Room,” centers on the ambivalent experiences of a correctional officer whose duties in the prison’s mail room entail reading letters to and from death row inmates.
The other two films, “White Eye” and “The Present” were made by an Israeli and a Palestinian director, respectively, and they delve into complex moral issues that characterize a region awash in anguish and ambiguity.
“The Present” is the more openly political of the two films, probing the Palestinian’s demeaned, marginalized status in Israel. It recounts the experiences of Yusef (Saleh Bakri), an ordinary working class family man, and his wide-eyed affectionate young daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj), who want to cross into Israel to purchase a refrigerator — a gift for Yusef’s wife on the occasion of her anniversary.
At the checkpoint, the baby-faced Israeli guards wave the Israelis through, while the Palestinians are, at best, treated in a cursory rude manner. Some, for reasons that seem arbitrary, are caged and strip-searched. Yusef is among the latter. His suppressed rage is palpable. Nevertheless, he attempts to reassure his frightened child that all will be well.
Ultimately, he and Jasmine are allowed into Israel where Yusef buys the refrigerator; he and his daughter head on back to the border, wheeling the cumbersome fridge on a dolly. The trek grows increasingly torturous for Yusef who has serious back problems. To make matters worse, it begins to rain. Once again he is ritually humiliated at the checkpoint. He opens the fridge to reveal some Arab foods. The guards hold their noses, wincing. One quips, “You people are disgusting.”
As the unsettling interchange continues Jasmine slowly rolls the dolly through the checkpoint. The guards stop and stare, allowing her to go through without further intrusion or even comment. The film ends there.
It is a powerful humanistic moment on the part of the Israeli guards in a movie that has worked hard to paint them as the villains and the Arabs as hapless victims.
“White Eye” is a subtler film. Omer (Daniel Gad), an Israeli, discovers his stolen bike in a bleak industrial back alley where prostitutes pick up Johns who drive through the neighborhood in search of a trick.
The bike is chained to a pole and an enraged Omer calls the cops who show up insisting they can do nothing because Omer never filed a formal complaint. Omer is determined to break the lock and retrieve his bike at which point Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb), a Black worker in a nearby slaughterhouse, surfaces maintaining that it’s his bike. He bought it he says, though has no receipt to prove it.
Omer cannot be appeased and once again contacts the police. They ask Yunes for his papers, and it turns out that he has overstayed his visa. Yunes is arrested and faces deportation. Suddenly, other characters appear, including the owner of the slaughterhouse and Yunes’ African co-workers who watch, but remain removed from the policemen’s view. Suddenly, the whole bike episode becomes irrelevant, even as it paradoxically remains the cause of everything that has transpired.
Yunes is driven away and Omar is unsettled. Is he experiencing guilt or shame or something else altogether? He has created a crisis that has taken on a life of its own and spun out of control. In one of the more vivid scenes as he wanders through the slaughter house he spies a group of African workers hiding in a refrigerator. They are the casualties, but in director Tomer Shushan’s autobiographical film, effectively shot in one take and told in real time, there are no individual culprits. The unwitting players have simply found themselves in a wretched no-win, no-exit world. Like a Greek tragedy inevitability is everywhere. The film is wonderful.
Still, it’s highly unlikely that it will walk off with the statue Sunday night. I suspect the award will go to “The Present” or “Two Distant Strangers.” They’re in touch with the zeitgeist in a blatant way that a multilayered film like “White Eye” is not. It’s also possible that the Academy will give its golden man to “Feeling Through” — after all, it’s the controversy-free, feel-good choice.
Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” In 2019, she received a first place prize from the Los Angeles Press Club for “Reviews-TV/Film, All Platforms,” at the Southern California Journalism Awards. Most recently she received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards and three 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.