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War Was Not Over at the 2024 Oscars

Clad in gowns and tuxes on the morning of Oscar Sunday, journalists from around the world board shuttles that transport them from the Cinerama Dome to a point near the complex that houses the Dolby Theatre—where the big event takes place. This year, however, the logistics had to account for the expected pro-Palestine protests in the vicinity. 

As the shuttle I was on approached the drop-off area around noon, four hours before showtime, a small caravan of cars bearing “Free Palestine” on their rear windshields slowed down traffic on the corner of Highland and Sunset, where a sizeable group of protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza congregated. The demonstrations occurred just a couple blocks away from where some of the world’s most influential people gathered to celebrate the films of 2023, several of which dealt with past and ongoing conflicts. 

Inside the Oscar interview room, where winners speak briefly to the press moments after their onstage speeches, no surprises were expected. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” started the night with 13 nominations, seven of which turned into wins by the time Al Pacino unceremoniously revealed that, as predicted, it had received the Best Picture Oscar. 

But whether on site, in the periphery, or watching from home, the fog of war was inescapable at yesterday’s ceremony. Not only because the frontrunner and eventual victor chronicles the creation of a weapon of mass destruction, or the fact that hundreds of individuals were right outside denouncing a genocide happening in real time. Throughout the night, multiple winners invoked a desire for peace amid a reality in turmoil. 

Early in the evening “War Is Over” was named Best Animated Short. Produced by Peter Jackson’s Wētā FX, the film was inspired by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and written by their son  Sean Ono Lennon (who spoke on stage). The win is a first for director Dave Mullins, a Pixar Animation Studios veteran with animation department credits in beloved titles including “The Incredibles,” “Coco,” and “Up.”  

Backstage I asked Mullins and producer Brad Booker about their thoughts on how the anti-war message of their honored work resonates with the current state of the world. 

“When we started the film, there were no conflicts—there's always conflicts but the major conflicts that we all track every day were not underway yet. We met with Sean in June of '21. And then Peter Jackson came aboard two weeks after the war in Ukraine broke out, and we finished our film in October of this last year, and that was right when the stuff in Gaza went completely sideways,” Booker explained. 

“The takeaway from it is that there's a lot of fighting, there's a lot of war, there's other ways to solve it,” Mullins added. “And that's what I think John and Yoko were trying to say. Is like maybe talk a little more, kill a little less. That's the idea and that's what we tried to show in the film.” 

”It sounds naïve, but if you want it, we can all make it happen,” Booker concluded. 

On stage, the only person who mentioned Gaza by name was British director Jonathan Glazer, whose cerebral, German-language Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest” became the first win for the United Kingdom in the Best International Feature Film category. 

“Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.

Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist? Alexandria, the girl who glows in the film as she did in life, chose to. I dedicate this to her memory and her resistance,” he read. 

Glazer didn’t visit the interview room. But Johnnie Burn and Tarn Willers, the surprising yet utterly deserving winners of Best Sound for “The Zone of Interest,” did make an appearance. I asked them how they thought their movie was relevant to the ongoing tragedies happening now, considering that Glazer mentioned Gaza in his own speech. 

“This film doesn't say, ‘Look at those people. They were awful. How abhorrent that was.’ What the film says is, ‘They're so like me. This is so unusual, and this was humans doing this to other humans.’ So that's almost quite a normal thing,” said Burns. “For me it's incredibly relevant, and it's super important that this message of this film and this little thing here [raises the statuette] means that so many more people are going to watch the movie and that message about let's treat people with respect and do things like cease fire would be more important these days than ever.” 

“The message of the film is about we choose to build walls, and then sometimes we choose not to look over them, and I think that's a crucial part of what we have in this film,” added Willers. 

With a pained expression, Ukrainian war correspondent, photojournalist, and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov walked into the interview room holding the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his harrowing account of the early days of the 2022 Russian invasion “20 Days in Mariupol”—the first Oscar ever for a Ukrainian production. 

I asked him about the jarring experience of being part of Hollywood’s awards season while his homeland continues to be under siege over two years after Mariupol was first occupied. Chernov noted that for him and his team it was never only about Mariupol, but rather about using the spotlight the film has granted them to bring attention to the other towns that have also been ravaged including Bakhmut, Mar'inka, Avdiivka, Soledar, and Popasna. 

“It's been a privilege, but it's been a strange, painful experience at the same time. Because I'm standing here, [but] my heart is in Ukraine,” Chernov said. “My heart [is] with all the people who are now suffering and losing their lives and losing their homes and fighting for their land. Those who are in the jails. I don't know how I can fix it. I don't know whether I should try. But I hope that this win will just elevate this story to more people, and they will see us, and we will hear Ukrainians.” 

The most invigorating thrill of the event came when, against most prognostications, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I’m almost certain my audible cheer, one of true shock and disbelief, resonated through the room.  An artist concerned with the horrors of armed conflicts,  Miyazaki famously skipped the 75th Academy Awards, where “Spirited Away” received the same honor, to protest the Iraq War. 

In his latest Oscar-winner (and perhaps his final feature), the protagonist, 12-year-old Mahito, loses his mother to firebombing during World War II within the movie’s first few minutes. That catastrophic loss haunts him for the rest of his journey through a fantastical realm where both the dead and the unborn reside. Yet, even when given the chance to forego our troubled world for that more whimsical kingdom, Mahito chooses to return home, to bet on the flawed humanity of those he loves rather than giving in to despair. 

That sentiment seems to be shared by all these stories about war, “Oppenheimer” included: if we humans are capable of causing so much suffering, it’s also on us to course correct.

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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