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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Character Techno Stypes in ‘Pear Cider and Cigarettes’ by Robert Valley

Film shorts, the long-ignored set of categories at the Academy Awards, fortunately are in the midst of a renaissance of the highest order. In the past, filmmakers with big dreams and modest means toiled away in obscurity, submitting their films to festivals in the hopes of garnering enough recognition to earn enough cash to do it all again on this small underground scale. Every once in a great while, a shorts director might capture the eye of a producer willing to support fleshing-out the idea into a feature, because the assumption has always been that nothing matters more than a feature-length project.

But narrative concision deserves respect, and movie houses are taking note. Over the past few years, theatres and programmers have been offering the Oscar-nominated shorts (animated, live-action, and documentary) prior to the awards ceremony, as a means of expanding interest in the telecast. In the end though, the films speak for themselves. And, the 2017 slate provides the perfect showcase for the power and cultural relevancy of the short film.

On the animated front, despite the presence of “Piper,” a Pixar selection, audiences will likely recall, it is time we (and I include myself in the mix) acknowledge that this format doesn’t have to cater strictly to the kid-centric, family-friendly crowd. There is a rich maturity in titles like “Borrowed Time” (a Western tale about a tragic event in the early years of a lawman); “Pearl” (a moving musical ode to a father-daughter relationship that could give “La La Land” a run for its money); and “Blind Vaysha” (a fable about a girl with one eye that sees only the past, while the other sees nothing but the future). However, the showstopper might be “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” which tells a noir-ish, rambling, rock story about the life and times of a legendary figure. In its hand-drawn glory, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” captures the hazy feel of binging on sex, drugs, and fantasy that puts adults back in touch with their wild youth.

The live-action nominees traffic in global experiences with a willingness to drift into the surreal. Two films—“Silent Nights” and “Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within)”—tackle immigration head-on. “Sing,” the story of a new student who joins a children’s choir and helps to upend an authoritarian choral director, goes for the heartstrings in the broadest sense. Along similar lines, “La Femme et le TGV” follows an aging baker who engages in a daily correspondence with a passenger on a train, but injects the tale with a sense of whimsy reminiscent of Best Foreign Language nominee, “A Man Called Ove.” My favorite, though, is “Timecode,” from Spanish director Juanjo Giménez, which uses motion and dance to establish connections in lonely times, but playfully tips its hat to the Netflix series The OA.

Intriguingly, it is in the documentary format where the shorts push the narrative boundaries the most. Embracing the handicap of time constraints, filmmakers like Daphne Matziaraki (“4.1 Miles”) and Dan Krauss (“Extremis”) waste little time with prologues and character introductions, trusting audiences to dive into the scenes of crises and sink or swim. “4.1 Miles” sets up among a coastal patrol crew on the Greek isle of Lesbos that races out multiple times a day to rescue Turkish migrants stranded in the sea. “Extremis” situates us in an American hospital where families and medical teams grapple with the complex decisions facing patients nearing the end of life. The central question—who decides how we die with dignity—has no easy answer, and the film shows the exacting toll the choices take on everyone involved.

The other films in this category—“Joe’s Violin,” “The White Helmets,” and “Watani: My Homeland”—grant us greater access to the subjects, and in the case of “The White Helmets” and “Watani,” extend our time in the challenging and dangerous realities of life in Aleppo, Syria. The former film teams us up with dedicated first-responders who rush in to rescue and protect innocents after bombing incidents throughout the war-torn city. Founded in 2013, they live by the motto “to save a life is to save all of humanity.”  But we see how difficult the work is and ultimately how not every life can be saved. The latter film zeroes in on a family’s efforts to survive and maintain connection to their homeland, once granted refugee status and eventual citizenship in Germany.

Is culture lost in safety? That’s a question posed to some extent by all of these shorts, and the answers may surprise, but ultimately encourage audiences.

The Oscar-Nominated Shorts program runs Friday, Feb. 10 at The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St. in downtown Dayton. For more information, please visit NeonMovies.com or call 937.222.7469.