The plight of the immigrant casts a long shadow over this year’s Oscar-nominated short films, which start screening Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Bow Tie Harbor 9 (live-action and animation) and Landmark’s West End Cinema (documentary). Five of the 15 nominees — two in the live-action category and three in documentary — grapple with such of-the-moment themes as refugees, “extreme vetting” and the humanitarian crisis in Syria, making for an acutely timely selection of stories.
The most compelling of the immigration-themed films is “Silent Nights,” a Danish short that has emerged as a heavy favorite in the live-action category. Set in Copenhagen, the contemporary drama centers on a tentative romance between Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen), an idealistic Danish volunteer in a homeless shelter, and an impoverished Ghanaian immigrant named Kwame who is one of her clients (first-time actor Prince Yaw Appiah). Guided by Beltoft and Appiah’s achingly vulnerable performances, writer-director Aske Bang packs more hope and heartbreak into 30 minutes than many full-length films are capable of.
“Nights” is a powerful companion to “Ennemis Intérieurs” (“Enemies Within”), which listens in on a fraught conversation between two ethnic Algerian Frenchmen: one, a middle-aged man applying for citizenship after a lifetime of residency in France (Hassam Ghancy); the other, his suspicious civil-service inquisitor (Najib Oudghiri). Set in the paranoia of the 1990s — a time when the former French colony of Algeria was beset by terrorism, and France was on edge — Selim Azzazi’s film feels startlingly relevant.
Unrated. This program contains nudity, sex and brief violence. 134 minutes.
Although the nonfiction nominees have been broken into two programs, you’ll want to see both in order to not miss “Watani: My Homeland” and “4.1 Miles.”
The first film profiles a Syrian refugee family: a mother and four children who move to the small German village of Goslar after the father — a commander in the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army — is captured by the Islamic State and presumed dead. The second film follows Kyriakos Papadopoulos, the overworked captain of a coast guard vessel on the Greek island of Lesbos who is tasked with rescuing refugees when they find themselves foundering in the Aegean Sea, a mere 4.1 miles of which separates Turkey from Greece.
“The White Helmets” looks at the volunteers who staff the Syria Civil Defense force, a humanitarian agency that works to rescue victims of Aleppo’s devastating violence. Along with “Watani” and “4.1 Miles,” the film delivers an urgent reminder of just what is at stake when governments plays politics with people’s lives.
Unrated. Program A includes “4.1 Miles,” “Joe’s Violin” and “Extremis.” 76 minutes. Program B includes “Watani: My Homeland” and “The White Helmets.” 85 minutes. Both programs include mature thematic material.
The animated nominees include some tough — but cute — competition this year, including Pixar’s “Piper” (you might have already seen this charmer about a plucky baby sandpiper, since it played before “Finding Dory”). But the clear front-runner in this category is no kid’s stuff.
At 35 minutes long, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” stands head and shoulders above the other nominees, none of which cracks 10 minutes. Created in PhotoShop and marked with a contemporary, neo-noir style, this autobiographical mini-memoir comes courtesy of acclaimed Canadian illustrator, animator and graphic novelist Robert Valley — known for his Gorillaz music videos — who narrates a wild reminiscence of his alcoholic friend Techno’s last days on Earth. It’s dark, R-rated stuff, and a refreshingly unflattering homage to an imperfect yet indelible character.
Unrated. The program, which includes three non-nominated films, is appropriate for ages 8 and up, with the exception of “Pear Cider,” which contains nudity, sex, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout. A title card will appear before this short — the last film in the program — allowing parents and caregivers the opportunity to usher children out of the screening if desired. 87 minutes.
Last-minute Oscar shorts at the National Archives
On Oscars weekend, the National Archives will host its annual free screenings of nominated shorts in the William G. McGowan Theater (use the Special Events entrance at Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street NW). Register online at archivesfoundation.org/events or call 202-357-5924. Theater doors open 45 minutes before the start time for each program: Feb. 25 at noon (live-action); Feb. 25 at 3:30 p.m. (animated); and Feb. 26 at 11 a.m. (documentary). Walk-ins without reservations will be admitted 15 minutes before start time, depending on available seats.