As the pandemic continues and institutions like The Academy push back the dates of their ceremonies, how awards season will play out in 2021 — if it plays out at all — is a question mark; doubly so for the minor categories. Take Best Animated Short for example, most years the category is composed of one or two studio releases (Disney or Pixar normally), with the remaining slots being filled by indie films. With the festival circuit disrupted, however, the conventional route for indie shorts to the awards circuit is obstructed. And this is to say nothing of what the rules surrounding qualifying screenings will look like.
Despite that, many great animated shorts are still being released. At MIFF, there were ten in particular; ranging in style and content but unified in quality. With their visibility and awards prospects uncertain, taking the time to celebrate the efforts that went into making them is essential. Over the coming months, each will likely show up at virtual festivals before becoming freely available on YouTube or a similar platform.
The only documentary on this list, Flesh (directed by Camila Kater) uses animation as an expressionistic tool: making images to accompany voice-over testimonials. These testimonials are given by women of all ages, ethnicities, and sexualities. They discuss their relationship to their body, and how others view, respond to, and in some cases, try to control, this relationship. A young girl talks about her weight and how that complicated her bond with her nutritionist mother. A teenager talks about the power of menstruation. A black trans woman talks about how her body is commodified, on account of the color of her skin. A lesbian discusses her excitement over entering menopause: “it’s springtime”. Flesh celebrates the female experience while bucking against the parameters society wishes to put around it.
A raven watches a couple mill about their house. They do nothing in particular and have conversations about nothing much. The day drags on and they begin to investigate each other; she crawls into his brain to talk to the woman who lives there; he pulls her to pieces then call’s her fragile. The raven says nothing, does nothing, it’s an omen, we already know what kind. Writer-director Park Jee-youn layers increasingly surreal and gothic images over romantic listlessness, examining how relationships fail with an almost sick interest.
8. He Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Something that the protagonist of Konstantin Bronzit’s science-fiction-drama, He Can’t Live Without Cosmos, and I have in common is that as children we both wanted to be astronauts. I did not become one (obviously), and arguably, neither does he; it all depends on how you read this moving, metaphorical short. The story follows a mother and son, following how their connection strengthens and weakens as their visions for his future grow irreconcilably apart. Bronzit blends the fantastic and mundane beautifully, a particularly striking visual merit being the decision to always depict the boy wearing a spacesuit — indicating that even though he and his mother exist in the same world, he lives elsewhere like all children do.
7. Human Nature
When it comes to activist art, it doesn’t get much more to-the-point than this. Just under two-minutes long, Human Nature (directed by Sverre Fredriksen) is a collection of tableaux’s documenting the day-to-day abuse of animals. The twist? All the animals are replaced with people. It is not a whale beaching, but a woman, not a raccoon rifling through trash, but a small boy. Human Nature is as unambiguous as a film can come, ending on a shot of the earth, alone in a void — the film might as well be shaking you by the shoulders screaming: “THERE IS NO PLANET B!” But that is not a strike against it, there is a time and place for art like this, and I’m sure it will find its way to protests and classrooms where it will be put to good use.
More experimentation with form and style than narrative-short, Inés focuses on the impact of everyday moments, exploring how they can change the course of our lives in unexpected and often profound ways. Directed by Élodie Dermane, Inés deconstructs the boundary between physical and mental realities through simple hand-drawn animation, using a freeform style to depict the two as fluid. In four minutes Dermane manages to perfectly communicate the way humans think and feel with affectation.
In recent years, the act of retelling has fallen into critical disrepute. Co-opted by large studios content with revisiting the same stories over and over, “retelling” has become practically synonymous with the corporate greed that often drives it. But Kapaemahu is a reminder that retelling has a legacy that runs far longer than studio tentpoles; it’s how we keep our cultures and myths alive — envisioning them for each new generation. Written and directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson, Kapaemahu retells the story of the māhū, androgynous god-like healers that lived on Hawaii for a time. The short retells the myth of their arrival, their impact on the local community, and how their meaning was eroded by the arrival of colonial rule. Through sublime 2D animation, Kapaemahu elevates First Nations and gender diverse people, reinforcing their importance in shaping history.
4. Mother Bunker
Philip K. Dick meets Paris is Burning in George Metaxas’ science-fiction-comedy, Mother Bunker. The premise is surreal: humans and robots are embroiled in a war that has forced everyone — creatures and computers alike — into underground bunkers. To keep spirits high in one bunker, a robot performs for the rest of their platoon in human drag. At play throughout are questions of technology, gender, and where the two intersect. What, for instance, does it mean for an agender robot to wear female skin, but then dress up as if it were a man in drag, to lip-sync a song sung by a woman? Mother Bunker is the perfect balance of absurd and thought-provoking.
3. Something to Remember
Swedish musical short Something to Remember, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, asks big questions: What does it mean to live a good life? What is the value of a life lived in the wake of a loved one’s death? Are we, in our consumer-driven capitalistic society, fully living? And, the most pressing of all, what is the difference between a musical short film and a music video? These questions are explored through a series of dark-comedy vignettes featuring anthropomorphic animals, soundtracked by a lullaby about the devil. Lindroth von Bahr has her particular brand of stop-animation down to a fine art at this point.
The premise of Wade (directed by Kalp Sanghvi and Upamany Bhattacharyya) is simple: a Kolkata family, climate-refugees fleeing rising sea levels, have to survive an encounter with a pack of Bengal tigers. The battle, which could easily devolve into straightforward slasher-horror, instead becomes a class critique through the addition of well-utilized magical-realist elements. Sanghvi and Bhattacharyya craft a parabolic narrative loaded with importance. Of the animated shorts screened at MIFF, Wade is the timeliest and most primed for adaptation into a feature-length film (studios take note).
1. Wood Child and Hidden Forest Mother
Wood Child and Hidden Forest Mother is one-half Un Chien Andalou and one-half Bambi. What starts out as a relatively straightforward mood piece — a garish, naked huntsman shoots forest animals in a heavy-handed environmentalism metaphor — takes a left turn into the surreal when he shoots a colored, Thumbelina sized version of… himself? He leans down, looks through the bullet wound, to see the forest reimagined through a psychedelic lens. What follows next is inexplicable. The proceedings quickly unravel into a sonic-visual extravaganza about the cycle of life and the dualistic co-dependency of humanity and nature. Director Stephen Irwin fills the frame with references and symbolism; Wood Child and Hidden Forest Mother is as much a puzzle as it is a short film, and while it may not ever be solved, it’s hard to suppress the urge to try.