Baftas 2020: Short film nominees review

This year’s Baftas ceremony is mere hours away and with a host of strong, if largely homogenous, feature contenders for the big gongs most eyes are on these nominations. Nevertheless, the short films up for recognition offer an equally compelling catalogue of cinematic excellence, both animated and in live-action. Here we offer a round-up of all the British shorts in contention.

This year’s line-up is uniformly strong, with pictures set in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent dominating the live-action entries. Told from the split-perspective of the young Azaar (Aashima Mehra) and her mother Hadayat (Kiran Sonia Sawar), Myriam Raja’s Azaar depicts a tribe of women in nineteenth-century South Asia awaiting their husbands’ return from war. The blasted yellow of the landscape is contrasted against the blood-red of the women’s headscarves, lending Raja’s mise en scene a rich and almost surreal visual intensity. The red of the women’s dress is linked both to death and their menstruation, the latter of which undoes Azaar’s mother after she is tempted by a seductive interloper.

Contemporary femininity in oppressive societies is the order of business for Sasha Rainbow’s Kamali and Carol Dysinger’s Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl). Both, curiously, are about the challenges girls face in pursuing the hobby in societies where girls are seen and not heard, and women barely seen at all. Both documentaries are structured as a series of “lessons” on skateboarding, Rainbow’s film incorporating archival footage of Kamali, barely older than a toddler, trying out her first skateboard, contrasted with contemporary footage – still at her tender age – of her incredible skills. Kamali is told from her mother’s perspective, a woman of incredible resilience who claims she “gave up dreaming years ago”, but is able to reflect on her husband leaving her as the best thing that could have happened to her and her daughter. Her realisation that if not for being left on her own, Kamali’s life would have been characterised by the same suppressed yearning as her mother is melancholy and powerful.

A similar tenderness is visible in Learning to Skateboard, in the anecdote of a set of sisters who moved from selling tea to going to school at “Skateistan”, the school-cum-skate-park set up by a group of women determined to pull young women out of the hole of predetermined illiteracy and theocratic indenture. The context of the Taliban and Western intervention in the Middle East is ever-present, but the heart of the film is in the inspiration of its subjects. Both Maryam Mohajer’s Grandad Was a Romantic and Kathrin Steinbacher’s In Her Boots deal with the relationships between daughters and grandmothers with irreverence and charm. The figures in Mohajer’s animation, told second-hand by the narrator (Maya Narahi) from her grandmother’s memories, are semi-transparent spectres, dancing in flowing colour and movement. The film’s soft edges are sharpened somewhat by an unexpected but hilarious expletive-laden conclusion.


Meanwhile, Steinbacher’s film about a grandmother suffering from dementia, obsessed with hiking boots and dancing naked in her living room, is an affirming portrayal of caregiving and familial love. But it is Naaman Azahri’s The Magic Boat that truly wrenches the emotions in the animated category. A monochrome, rotoscoped odyssey of a woman preparing her son for a treacherous boat journey to asylum, the cross-cutting between their life at home and the kind lies she tells him to assuage his fears and the reality of their journey is emotionally shocking and politically urgent.

Elsewhere, Hector Dockrill and Lena Headey offer different takes on contemporary life in Britain, with their respective films, Goldfish and The Trap. Coming not long after last year’s Blue Story, Dockrill’s film is the newest in a burgeoning line of films dealing with the epidemic of knife crime, social deprivation and the crisis of masculinity in South London. Brandon Banton is a magnetic presence, bringing tenderness and macho posture to his role as himself. The goldfish of the title works better as a narrative device than a metaphor. Nevertheless, a touching scene with his “sister” is a subtle and moving reminder of the human cost of the wilful and sustained neglect of black communities by the British establishment.

Headey’s film, set in an unnamed Northern suburb, depicts a hermit car mechanic (Michelle Fairley) living on the edge of society, wooed by Ford Mondeo-in-human-form, played with pathos by Steven Waddington. Excitement arrives in the form of Joe (James Nelson-Joyce), a radgie, young plumber with an edge of danger that is as alluring as it is unnerving. Director Headey nails the film’s textures, which sit somewhere between Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows, and her depiction of naff suburban life and the characters that sit at its margins is bang on. Fairley and Nelson-Joyce, too, are incredibly magnetic screen presences, variously revealing layers of damage and raw bitterness. Sadly, an entirely unnecessary last-act twist overwhelms the drama with distracting ickiness, made all the more conspicuous by being tacked on at the end.

The EE British Academy Film Awards take place on Sunday 2 February 2020 at the Royal Albert Hall. The ceremony will be hosted by Graham Norton and will be broadcast exclusively on BBC One, BBC One HD and BBC iPlayer. The ceremony is also broadcast in all major territories around the world. On the night, will feature red carpet highlights, photography and winner’s interviews, as well as dedicated coverage on its social channels including Facebook (/BAFTA), Twitter (@BAFTA / #EEBAFTAs) and Instagram.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm