After previously discussing the short films of Bong Joon-Ho, Alma Har’el, Céline Sciamma, and the Safdies, this new batch of early shorts comes from the minds of new Oscar winners and should-be nominees. These directors have burst onto the scene in the last five years with feature debuts or follow-ups that were adored audiences and critics alike. Barry Jenkins and Taika Waititi won Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Moonlight” and “Jojo Rabbit,” respectively, while Lulu Wang"s "The Farewell" and Mati Diop's "Atlantics" put the directors firmly into people’s minds with their own cultural touchstone stories.
From student films to initial successes, all of these directors followed a different, winding road to rise from obscurity to independent notoriety. By and large, these directors write and direct stories that affect important swaths of society, millions of people that look to film to laugh, cry, and see themselves represented. When you trace these filmmakers’ shorts to their most recent features, you find similarities and early indications that each of them has a knack for crafting stories that matter.
Barry Jenkins: from “My Josephine” (2003) to “If Beale Street Could Talk”
After winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars for “Moonlight,” Jenkins made “If Beale Street Could Talk,” earning him another Oscar nomination, and one his actors another win (Regina King for Best Supporting Actress). His distinct style of making resonant films with unseen stories (and underrepresented characters) has created a loyal fan base in the extended film community. Jenkins’s first short, “My Josephine,” continues this stylized intimacy often found in his features. Made in college at Florida State, Jenkins’s short also features his first collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton, who went on to shoot both “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
“My Josephine” centers on Aadid (Basel Hamdan), a young man working in a local laundromat post-9/11. Released in 2003, the nine-minute short explores Aadid’s relationship to his co-worker, Adela (Saba Shariat), as he compares her to Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife Josephine. Colored to perfection with hues of green and blue, Jenkins’s first definitive stab at filmmaking relies less on story or plot, and more on intimacy. The student short features an effective time-lapse, absorbing yet simple visuals, and the same brand of closeness we associate with the Oscar-winning director.
The driving force of the film is Aadid’s love for Adela, as they wash and fold American flags each night, a free practice they began some time ago. Jenkins uses voiceover from his protagonist to explain his feelings and his would-be partner, talking only when it’s necessary, and leaving bunches of soundless time. “My Josephine” even has the signature Jenkins character-looking-through-the-camera shot, a visual staple that bounds him to the understanding and personal nature of love. And that remains the key to “My Josephine” and to Jenkins’ movies: a harmonious way of portraying love in simple terms for complex people.
Lulu Wang: from “Touch” (2015) to “The Farewell”
Lulu Wang's second feature “The Farewell” brought the writer/director to prominence in 2019, winning her an Independent Spirit Award, and being snubbed in most’s eyes by the Academy. Her film portrayed an incredible clash of cultures, as a Chinese-American family grappled with the handling of a matriarch’s diagnosis. “The Farewell” is so strong because it explains the intergenerational divide among families, especially among immigrant fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and grandparents. Wang’s movie gave her a chance to showcase her ability to craft narrative features from true stories, splicing together a piece of art that packs an emotional punch while asking questions of how we handle illness, death, and familial decisions.
Her 2015 short “Touch” explores similar concepts. Produced through Film Independent's Project Involve, "Touch" made the festival circuit and established her careful direction as a filmmaker to watch. “Touch” follows an elderly Asian man (Ben Lin) after he touches a young American boy in the restroom, due to cultural confusion and misunderstanding. Again, Wang explores the clashing of two cultures, Taiwanese and American ideals in how we talk, touch, and care for children. Focusing on the aftermath of this event, including the impending arrest and trial, “Touch” looks at the relationship between this older man and his son (Joshua Chang), the latter feeling shame for what the former has done.
Wang asks many questions of her audience both in “Touch” and “The Farewell” about how we act and respond as a society. She looks at the difference in opinion between us and our fathers, us and our sons. Though controversial and difficult to watch, “Touch” is based on fact, not fiction. Like “The Farewell,” it's a true story that hits with another level of impact knowing that this man, and his lack of guile, ended in a guilty verdict. “Touch” works as a fascinating short on its own, with a solid cast, gorgeous visuals, and a script that mirrors real life in all of its innocence, tragedy, shame and miscommunication.
Taika Waititi: from “Two Cars, One Night” (2004) to “Jojo Rabbit”
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has traversed the fine line between big budget action movies (like "Thor: Ragnarok") and smaller independent comedies, all the while increasing his visibility and likability as an actor. He teeters between auteur and comic book director, garnering a level of support in whichever genre he pleases. Though his latest film “Jojo Rabbit” resulted in more controversy than acclaim from every critics group, the stab at satire showed that Waititi can drive people to the theater.
Waititi’s first professional attempt at film comes in the form of “Two Cars, One Night,” a 12-minute, black-and-white short focused on two cars parked in front of a local hotel bar. The drivers are gone, and all that’s left are the young kids that were originally sitting in the backseat, two boys in one and a girl in the other. The short once again follows Waititi’s recent pattern of youth comedies, with the likes of the wonderful “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” This short ran through the festival circuit, winning awards around the world, and even earning Waititi an Academy Award nomination at the 2005 Oscars for Best Short Film, Live Action.
The short, which also features a healthy dose of time-lapses, focuses on the older boy and the girl, who start talking while sitting in their respective vehicles. It’s funny, sweet, and simple. The wit seen in Waititi’s later scripts is evident here, and you can see his infatuation with the pangs and loves of childhood. Starting off with the two kids flipping each other off, they then end up sitting in her car, talking about her plastic diamond ring and giving the smallest, softest smiles you can possibly give. “Two Cars, One Night” grows on you, much like the kids in the film, who play their parts with a sense of realism that’s hard to match. It feels like you’re watching (or remembering) one of your own memories, or seeing your friends’ kids, or even your own kids trying their hardest to flirt, to be cool, and ultimately to be sweet.
“Two Cars, One Night” deserves as much recognition as some of Waititi’s later works. Though it doesn’t have the same visuals as “Jojo Rabbit” or “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” it has a tone of genuine joy combined with juvenile innocence, and it shows that Waititi writes about large ideas and for wide audiences.
Mati Diop: from “Snow Canon” (2011) to “Atlantics”
The French-Senagalese director Mati Diop stunned audiences and critics with her future debut “Atlantics” in 2019, winning the Grand Prix prize at Cannes and ending up on President Barack Obama’s favorite movies of the year list. Diop began her career with a performance in fellow French filmmaker Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum” in 2008, followed by a documentary short “Atlantiques.” Her first initial journey into fiction rests with “Snow Canon,” a 34-minute short set in the French Alps.
“Snow Canon” has two characters, the younger and forgtotten Vanina (Nilaya Bal) and her American babysitter/housekeeper Mary Jane (Nour Mobarak). A quiet, meditative film about love, seduction, and sexuality, “Snow Canon” never feels rushed nor slow. Each scene builds to a non-climactic ending, one that’s rooted by a shifting power dynamic and a sense of isolation. The two women are stuck with one another, with Vanina being left by her parents, then by babysitter after babysitter, including Mary Jane at the end of the film. Though “Atlantics” relies more on mystery and folklore, both of these Diop-directed films focus on those left behind, those with nowhere to go.
Diop remains a master at directing body language and facial expressions, conveying a high amount of emotions, specifically empathy, in the characters of her works. The relationship in “Snow Canon” evolves into one of significance, not through long conversations or heart-to-hearts, instead due to physical touch, hidden glances, and meetings of the eyes. Nominated for the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival, “Snow Canon” represents the maturity Diop possessed as a filmmaker even with her first projects. While she flashes the ocean as a mystical creature in “Atlantics,” the Alps mountain ranges carry a similar, if not smaller, significance in “Snow Canon.” The peaks, and the accompanying caves, always watch the moments of everyday life, existing in the background but never unnoticeable. A comparison could be made to Céline Sciamma’s “Water Lilies” or even “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” as Diop’s short features the impulses and true awakening of those in the midst of loneliness. It serves as a warm welcome for Mati Diop as one of our finest filmmakers, a storyteller who gives us reason to be excited for future projects.
Here’s a clip from "Snow Canon":
"Snow Canon" and Mati Diop’s other shorts are available on the Criterion Channel with a paid subscription.