Meet the Filmmakers Behind Some of the Best Oscar-Qualifying Shorts of the Year

On December 9, IndieWire will showcase some of the best Oscar-qualified short films of the year, at an event in Los Angeles co-hosted by ShortsTV and National Geographic. The program, which takes place ahead of IndieWire parent company Penske Media’s LA3C festival, features around 90 minutes of shorts that have qualified for the Oscar short film categories either by winning at an Oscar-qualifying festival or receiving an awards qualifying run.

Academy Members, Guild Members, and Member of the Industry may apply to attend this event here. (Capacity is limited; an application does not guarantee admission.) A limited number of tickets for the short film event will be available exclusively to LA3C passholders, who will also have access to additional events the same week hosted by fellow Penske brands Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, SHE Media, Vibe, Variety, and Women’s Wear Daily.

The program is an international selection that includes live action, animated, and documentary films: Victor Gabriel’s “Hallelujah,” Olivia Martin McGuire’s “Freedom Swimmer,” Dania Bdeir’s “Warsha,” Beatriz de Silva’s “Tula,” Balázs Turai’s “Amok,” Amy Bench’s “More Than I Want to Remember,” and Pablo Polledri’s “Loop” will all screen.

Additionally, the event will feature a special conversation with previous short-film Oscar-winner Cynthia Wade (“Freeheld”) along with clips from her new short, “Flagmakers,” co-directed by Sharon Liese.

Below, the selected filmmakers from this year’s lineup detail the inspirations behind their respective shorts, the road to financing, and their plans for the future.

IndieWire: How do you describe the premise of your short film?

Dania Bdeir (“Warsha”): In Beirut, a migrant construction worker volunteers to operate the most dangerous crane in the city. Away from everyone’s eyes, a secret passion takes flight.


“Warsha”

Amy Bench (“More Than I Want to Remember”): The film is an intimate journey of a brave 14-year-old girl’s journey to find hope, safety, and family in the wake of a violent attack on her home in southeast Congo told through the eyes of Mugeni, alongside lush, bold animation.

Victor Gabriel (“Hallelujah”): I would describe the premise like, what would happen if two Black men in the hood, brothers, stuck in arrested development, have to suddenly become the guardians of their niece and nephew after an inexplicable event occurs?

Olivia Martin McGuire (“Freedom Swimmer”): The story of a grandfather’s perilous swim from China to Hong Kong that parallels his granddaughter’s own quest for a new freedom.

Pablo Polledri (“Loop”): The main idea that inspired the short film “Loop” arises through the questioning of freedom in societies. What happens when a person, as part of a cog in a system, decides to modify his or her role, to break a mechanism and act in pursuit of free will?

Beatriz de Silva (“Tula”): A cleaning lady at a private school is about to learn how silly the lack of sex education among young girls looks like.

Balázs Turai (“Amok”): A guy loses his fiancé and his peace of mind in a freak accident and he is left struggling with an irritating inner gnome. He either deals with his demon or goes insane.

IndieWire: How does the short form serve the story you set out to tell?

Bench: I think we’re in a golden age of shorts that continues to grow because they can be accessible to so many audiences: online, on streaming services, in the classroom, at community events, and film screenings. A short film requires the filmmaker to be a disciplined storyteller. It can be as emotionally impactful as a feature (or more so), and can be easily watched and shared. Especially when prompting discussions in the classroom with young people — the short form can be utilized in so many ways. Because of this accessibility, I think the short form is the perfect way to get Mugeni’s story out into the world.

Polledri: It is a format that I personally like very much. A few minutes can be enough to deal with any topic and transmit concepts and ideas. It is a format that allows you to experiment with different ideas and unconventional narratives. It is a nice challenge to synthesize a whole story and an imaginary world in just a few minutes. For me it was important to confirm the idea of repetition from all sides, so in this short film we worked to make it exactly eight minutes (referring to the infinity symbol) in order to also consolidate the concept of “Loop” from its duration. This gave it a plus to tell this story in this format.

Gabriel: Well, it serves logistically as a proof of concept for my upcoming feature film. Making a short film to show everyone what I am trying to do and my vision was probably the greatest thing I could have done. Now in terms of emotions, it helped that I could capture a moment and in a short amount of time, have people connect deeply with themselves, and hopefully connect with feelings that are universal and yet not always acknowledged. This particular moment did not need a full-length movie to express what it wanted to express.

Bdeir: In “Warsha,” it’s about one moment, one desire, one photo that’s burning a hole in Mohammad’s pocket. It’s a very simple story of someone seeking a privacy he doesn’t have in order to express something he can’t express in public. It also shows the lengths someone is willing to go through in order to get that privacy and be the truest version of themselves even if for a fleeting moment. It doesn’t need a long story. When it’s contained in that moment, it can speak volumes and create a visceral and emotional response.

Martin McGuire: I think the short form allows us to cut straight to the chase, to the heart of the parallels we noted when we began the interview process. Also, short documentaries allow for a fluid creativity in their approach. With the limitations we had with the pandemic, the fact we were all in different countries and the fact many of our team remained anonymous — the fluidity of blending animation with live action and archive allowed us to really play within the parameters of the short framework.


“Freedom Swimmer”

De Silva: The short length allows the story to be concise and more effective. In Spain, we have a saying that goes, ”If short, a good thing becomes twice better.” My short film is like a little joke. If the joke goes on too long, it loses its fun. I believe it hits you precisely because people are left wanting more.

Turai: I think both the cartoony looks and the music video-type shorthand create a kind of caricature of an otherwise dark and desperate situation. And this ironic remoteness might actually help, seeing a crisis and its solution summed up quickly instead of dwelling on the dark details provides a kind of comical distance.

IndieWire: What is the takeaway you hope audiences leave with after watching your film?

Bdeir: As a young child growing up in Beirut, I never really had anyone to play with. I’m the youngest of four girls and there’s a considerable age difference. As a result, I immersed myself in the world of television and consumed an almost unhealthy amount of American films and TV shows. I never saw myself or anyone I recognized in the shows I watched and I mostly tried to emulate what I saw. When I was 16, my late father gifted me a video camera and that was when everything changed. I started pointing the camera around me and was enthralled with the characters and stories of Lebanon. My camera became a way for me to discover my own environment and dig deeper in to understand it as well as myself. This is why I hope audiences take away the same thing I did when I started researching, developing and then eventually making this film: people are far more complex than the labels they’re assigned. Be it gender, nationality, economic status, or religion. Those are arbitrary. What makes someone truly unique is their dreams, aspirations, and what they would choose to do if only they were limitless. We don’t know what desires lie inside each person, but taking the time and space to find out is extremely inspiring and can create a powerful butterfly effect.

Bench: Ultimately this film is a portrait of one of the millions of people that define what it means to be an American. The reason Mugeni and I wanted to make this film was to offer an intimate account of an immigrant’s journey, and the unforeseen and incomprehensible events that lead to forced migration — in the hopes that more stable nations like the U.S. can offer kindness, understanding, and resources to provide the universal human right to safety to every person. I hope that audiences will walk away with several messages: a reminder to operate with kindness, to love your neighbor, and challenge what it means to be an American.

Martin McGuire: I hope that it offers a new perspective on the current situation in Hong Kong, but also perhaps in other parts of the world where we see forced migration for various different reasons. It would be amazing to help any conversations about how past cultural and intergenerational stories and trauma inform actions now. I think these days, in a media saturated world, we have become encouraged to judge people and events very quickly with a swipe to the left or right. We were hoping to contribute to a conversation about looking back to the past in order to understand the present. That, in turn, allowed us to judge the events now with a more empathetic view. On a wider scale, this is a universal story of the dispossessed — a window for the audience to keep thinking about what it takes to flee your country, what it means to fight for freedom, what it’s like to leave everything in hope of liberty. This is a pressing issue across the globe.

Polledri: I would like audiences to take away a moment of enjoyment, surprise, fun and that invites you to reflect on the different themes that the short film touches on. I feel that it is a short film from which different readings can be derived, such as the questioning of freedoms in society, the routines of our lives, the roles we occupy in society, what is expected of us, social paradigms, alienation, automation, our level of consciousness and the possibilities of change in social structures.

Gabriel: Always a hard question to answer for me, because there are so many underlying thoughts, themes, philosophies, modalities that run throughout the short that it’s difficult to pinpoint one. I guess I would say that I hope the takeaway is similar to one of the final lines in the movie: “I think they’re gonna be OK.”


“Tula”

De Silva: The takeaway I hope audiences leave with after watching my film is the one I have already been witnessing in several film festivals: People exit the room happier after having a great laugh. And also, people share anecdotes of their own personal sex experiences. Some women have approached me to share that they’ve talked about sex with their sisters, friends, daughters for the first time after watching the film! That’s insane!

Turai: Maybe that our interior demons can be sought out and eventually dealt with, and the process is simultaneously difficult, tragic and funny.

IndieWire: What was the financing process like for this short?

Bench: The short was financed through personal funds, several grants- from the International Documentary Association (IDA), Austin Film Society, ConnectHer, Still I Rise, and foundation support from JP’s Peace Love and Happiness Foundation. Financing can be one of the most daunting aspects of making an independently produced film, and we have been very lucky to have received the support of so many different organizations along the way.

Brooke Silcox (Producer, “Freedom Swimmer”): We started with funding from Screen Australia to shoot the documentary in Hong Kong. When the pandemic hit and we were unable to travel, we restrategized. Liv discovered the work of Agnes Patron in France in animation and we entered into a co-production with Sacrebleu Productions in France. Sacrebleu were able to get the support of Arte France, CNC France, Region Sud, Procerip Angoa, La Studio and SharingCloud to support the animation and the music composition of the film. We were then able to raise additional funds in Australia as part of a COVID relief package with Screen Australia. We also sought philanthropic support to assist towards the final stages and were supported by SBS Australia.

Polledri: I have always worked independently, taking care of all the processes to make the short film. I was going to start this project in the same way when I met Ivan Miñambres. I told him about the idea and — his words — he “fell in love with the project from the beginning” and wanted to produce and finance it completely. Among the support that Iván was able to add to the project was Movistar+, which joined the production in order to complete the project seamlessly.

De Silva: We requested public funds from the Spanish government and the provincial council. They offer public grants to promote culture and audiovisual content every year/six months. We did get selected by the committees to get the funds from the Federal State Council and the city hall. Adding some private funds to that, we managed to reach the budget. It took around six months.

Gabriel: We did not have a lot of money. We literally shot this in my backyard in Compton, California to cut the cost down. But I want to acknowledge an executive producer on this short, Dr. Alexaundrea Smith. She supported the movie financially for the majority of the initial cost. It goes to say that I could not have pulled this off without her help. I am grateful.

Bdeir: Fundraising for a film defying traditional concepts of masculinity was not an easy feat in the Middle East. We only managed to get a couple of private investors who believed in the film enough to pitch in symbolically.

“Warsha” is an international co-production between France and Lebanon. Coralie Dias, the main French producer, was an extremely loyal collaborator who loved the story since the moment she heard it and never gave up on the film even with all the obstacles we had along the way. She managed to single handedly fundraise most of the film’s budget and secured a pre-purchase broadcasting deal with renowned European Channel Arte. We then received some regional French funds such as Région Grand Est, Région Sud, and Métropole Aix-Marseille-Provence. We also secured some grants from CNC, SACEM, and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). After completing the film, I realized that a lot of beautiful work didn’t even make it to the final cut of the film. It was a shame to have it all on a hard drive gathering dust.

Since short films aren’t exactly profitable, we’re launching a “Warsha” NFT collection called “Taste of Sky.” I think Web3 and NFTs present a remarkable opportunity for indie filmmakers to share and capitalize on our art. It can enable us to become financially independent and reap the rewards of our work with communities that connected to our films on an emotional level and who believe in investing in our success as artists.

Péter Benjamin Lukács (producer, “Amok”): Currently an animation short film with an experimental vein doesn’t really stand a chance in the Hungarian state funding process — we failed every time we applied. But Safe Frame, our co-producing partner we met at Annecy, successfully secured funding from Romania’s CNC.

Gábor Osváth (producer, “Amok”): We were able to combine that with our self-investment and Hungary’s generous tax rebate system. Our budget was modest, but I’m glad Balázs did not need to make any artistic compromises.

IndieWire: Who are some of your biggest influences?

Gabriel: For this particular short and upcoming feature, I always describe it as if Wes Anderson directed “Friday.” Spike Lee is obviously a big originator for some of the tone I am going for, as well as some of the grittiness of John Singleton.


“Hallelujah”

Bdeir: I’m a very big fan of Asghar Farhadi. His films do an incredible job of representing a complex culture but then moving beyond it quickly enough so the audiences can focus on the characters and their human experience. This is something I really strive to do because I’d like to make Arabic films that feel both authentic to Arabs while presenting universal characters that anyone can relate to. I also get inspired from photographers such as Myriam Boulos. But really, my biggest influence is life itself. In my opinion, reality is much richer than fiction can ever be.

Bench: I have so many influences. The people I make films with, the protagonists, are some of my biggest influences. They often exhibit bravery and compassion in ways that I aspire to. They are people I think audiences should know. The legends of documentary, Sheila Nevins and Albert Maysles, whom I have been lucky enough to work alongside, have taught me to approach filmmaking with kindness and love, to really examine the craft and the storytelling and make sure they are in sync. Also my family, my children, whose perspectives on the world are always fresh and evolving — a reminder that mine is, too. For visual inspiration, the storybooks I read to my kids that are rich in color, texture, and animation are huge influences.

Martin McGuire: I love Kirsten Johnson’s films a lot, the work of Laura Poitras, and I also love scripted directors like Charlotte Wells. When we were building references for this film we were looking to Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir,” the poetic short “Notes on Blindness,” and Gabrielle Brady’s “Island of the Hungry Ghosts.” Also, when we built the set, we were exploring films like “Amelie” — the use of its color palette and its hyperreal feel.

Polledri: Some of the first short films I saw by filmmakers like Don Hertzfeldt, Paul Driessen, and Cordell Barker, to name a few, have lit the inner fire of wanting to make a personal project in this field.

De Silva: I’d say my point-of-view is very influenced by European women directors, especially Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro,” “The Wonders”) and Celine Sciamma (“Petite Mamman,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”). The interest they put into details makes their narratives so true and candid. I don’t like generic stories; I like characters. But, when it comes to technique, I must say I prefer the classic Hollywood way. Steven Spielberg has always been a reference to me since I was a little girl.

Turai: Masaaki Yuasa, Shinichiro Watanabe, Stanley Kubrick, György Kovásznai, Paolo Sorrentino, Terry Gilliam.

IndieWire: Where do you see yourself as a filmmaker in five years? What are the next projects on your horizon?

Polledri: I hope to have the possibility to continue creating and carrying out projects that excite me. Making animation is a process that takes a long time. While I’ve been making short films, I’ve been developing different ideas in parallel. I’m currently working on scripts for very different projects. I still haven’t decided which one is going to come out of the shell.

de Silva: I’m producing my next short film right now, “87 Fairies,” and hoping to shoot in January/February. I’m writing two feature films (”The Flush”, ”Call Me Khalli”) and one TV Series (”G.A.L.I.M”), that has already caught the attention of a Spanish production company. I’m very experienced in writing so I wish to sell the many stories that are waiting in my drawer. In the meantime, I wish to continue my career as a director working on short films and to eventually produce my feature. In five years, I see myself doing the exact same thing — writing and shooting — but maybe struggling a little less. Another dream of mine is to teach screenwriting.

Gabriel: I see myself having done at least a feature, written a few produced features, finishing my second feature and also have put out a TV show.

Bdeir: I’m currently developing my first feature film called “Pigeon Wars.” It’s a story about a young woman who infiltrates the world of the male-dominated Pigeon Wars of Beirut and becomes infatuated with wanting to conquer the skies. I hope to continue writing and telling stories from my region, my culture, my country and handling them with the delicacy, humor, respect and the nuances that they deserve. Our part of the world is misunderstood and has too often been misrepresented. I’m happy to see that audiences are becoming more open to foreign language films because film is a beautiful way to understand each other. I’m also interested in venturing into episodic storytelling, which is having an exciting renaissance these days.

Martin McGuire: I have a docuseries in development, but am also working with a writer on a short scripted project. I also have a hybrid feature in development, with [“Freedom Swimmer” producer] Brooke. I hope to keep exploring stories for the screen and collaborating with fantastic people globally. That’s the hope!

Bench: In five years, I hope to have another few films out in the world and I hope to continue to work as a cinematographer. If I have a few more awards on the shelf, that wouldn’t be too bad, either.

Turai: I’m writing a children’s book now about a fishing village and making a small game where the player is an inquisitor killing heretics. Also, I’m preparing another short film and a sci-fi feature with my partner, Zsuzsanna Kreif. It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi satire called “Dino Doom on Desert Planet” and we are beginning its development in France next week. I hope that in five years time, all of those are finished, and that audiences are satisfied with them.

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