Film in Oxford: Short-Sighted

On February 22nd, the 87th Academy Awards came and went, with a few surprises and, as always, a few controversies. Many rejoiced after the success of 12 Years a Slave and Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o last year, announcing a major step forward in the ongoing war against Oscar discrimination. 2015’s choices, unfortunately, put an immediate stop to such celebrations: all eight Best Picture nominees have male protagonists; all twenty of the acting nominees were white.

This inequality and misrepresentation, an issue that the Academy urgently needs to address, is coupled with the limit in variation of the films on show. Take four of this year’s Best Picture nominees – American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything all biopics, a genre that continues to be popular come awards season. All eight films were also, as is overwhelmingly the case (the occasional Amour aside) British or American.

These issues have been voiced time and time again, and will continue to be highlighted as long as the Academy’s choices remain so problematic and marginalising. This column takes a slightly more positive tack, focusing on one of the ceremony’s categories that is, in terms of diversity, ahead of the pack: the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. In 2015, three of this category’s five films (Aya, Butter Lamp, and Parvaneh) are not in the English language; three have a female protagonist; and two have a non-white protagonist. This is precisely the kind of diversity that Oscar detractors are calling for in the feature film categories, yet those nominated here have been entirely ignored by the mainstream media. The notable absence begs the question, why is short film seen as so insignificant?

For one, the short film has been burdened with a reputation as a junior sibling to the feature film. Parallels exist here, it can be argued, in the worlds of literature and classical music, where the titans of each art form are predominantly celebrated for their novels and symphonies respectively. But, while masterful short-story writers and musical miniaturists are still widely admired, their works read or performed, those involved in short film face a rather less hopeful prospect. There are two choices: either use your short-film success as a springboard to move into the feature film realm; or remain in relative obscurity. This mentality distorts the fact that the short film is not an inherently lesser medium; it is a viable alternative to the feature film, an entirely different beast, with different conventions and different results.

Short film, then, is unfairly seen as a training ground for the feature directors of the future, amateurs, experimenters, and film school students. And with good reason; many previous winners of the Live Action Short Film, including Andrea Arnold (Wasp) and Michael McDonagh (Six Shooter), have experienced cinematic success, but only with their feature film debuts, Red Road and In Bruges respectively. Another route to take is adapting a short film for the big screen: this year’s Best Picture nominee Whiplash started life as a short film of the same name. The film’s electrifying direction, and J. K. Simmons’ powerhouse performance, would barely have had an audience if not for its feature-film incarnation. How many incredible performances, scripts, and so on, have slipped under the radar purely because the film they were attached to had a diminutive running time?

The principal reason for the short film’s struggle to appeal to the mainstream can be attributed to its lack – or, the perceived lack – of commercial viability. There exists the notion that short films are somehow worse value for money, because of their duration: short films aren’t popular because they’re short. But cinematic convention and media formats have evolved in a manner that marginalises the short film, if not rejecting it completely. While animated short films often find an enthusiastic audience as opening acts to animated feature-lengths – Pixar shorts being the obvious examples – this practice has long been extinct in the realm of live action. Similarly, home media such as DVDs, which could be – and, again in the case of Pixar, have been – used to release short film compilations, instead tend to hide short films away in the bonus material of feature films (such as Wasp, included as an extra on the DVD for Fish Tank, another film directed by Andrea Arnold). The argument, then, is still a cyclical one: short films aren’t popular because they’re not seen, because they’re not money-makers, because they’re not popular.

But all is not lost for the short film; changes in viewing habits, catalysed in no small part by the rise of online streaming might be on the medium’s side. As we push further into the Netflix era, film viewing is moving away from a pay-per-view mentality. Charged a flat rate for a month’s worth of movies, we no longer experience the same opportunity cost that faces us when purchasing cinema tickets or DVDs. This is not the only advantage; as online streaming and smart TVs become the norm, film watching is becoming increasingly fragmented and disrupted. Shorter-duration visual media is well suited to this change. Sites like Netflix, Love Film, and Mubi – an alternative streaming site that focuses on independent and foreign film – can change the way that we view short film, in a manner that would be mutually beneficial. By giving viewers the opportunity to test the water, to have a feel for what short film is and does, these sites can effect a tectonic shift in the cinematic landscape.

This week’s column, then, is not so much about Film in Oxford, but about film conspicuously not in Oxford. While the city’s thriving student film scene produces many excellent short films each year, feature-length films continue to fill its cinemas. Although it remains exceptional, cinemas elsewhere do show compilations of short films; Bristol’s Watershed screened all of this year’s Live Action Short Film nominees, for example. We can hope that Oxford’s two independent cinemas, the Phoenix Picturehouse and the Ultimate Picture Palace, might follow suit in future. In this case, the issue of how much short films are ‘worth’ is turned on its head: why not watch five films for the price of one?

For those wishing to watch more short films, previous Academy Award nominees are listed here, from Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Peter Capaldi (yes, the current Doctor Who), to West Bank Storyhttp, a parody musical and irreverent comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict. While some of the links given are unfortunately broken, the list nonetheless serves as a suitable starting point from which to move on to countless other short films, scattered across YouTube and Vimeo, waiting to be discovered.

J. Wadsworth

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