Perhaps unsurprisingly, four of the five live action short films nominated at the 2021 Oscars revolve around policing or the prison system. After a year of protests for racial justice around the world, these short films seek to further examine the relationship between civilians and cops. A unifying theme across all five live action shorts is that they address systemic failures or injustices.

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton in a powerhouse performance is a notable omission (for our full review of The Human Voiceclick here). Without Almodóvar in the race, The Present is the deserved frontrunner, fresh off a BAFTA win.

Here is a look at the nominees in the Live Action Short Film category at the 2021 Oscars. The 93rd Academy Awards are on April 25th, 2021. 

Feeling Through (dir. Roland, USA)  ★½

Tereek (Steven Prescod), a homeless New York teen, is looking for a place to crash for the night when he meets Artie (Robert Tarango), a DeafBlind man who needs assistance catching the bus. The two form an unlikely bond as they wait on the corner. The first film to feature a DeafBlind lead actor, Feeling Through refuses easy stereotypes in favour of a unique connection. Using touch and writing to communicate, Artie has a notepad full of scribbled notes from previous conversations. Tereek sees one, reading, “Can I kiss you?” from Artie’s date earlier that night. These remnants of desire and playfulness in Artie’s notebook serve as a reminder that characters with disabilities are too often defined by their limitations, stripping them of their humanity. By the end, what began as a kind gesture turns into an experience of mutual care and concern. 

The Letter Room (dir. Lind, USA) ★★★

The most star studded of the live action short nominees this year, The Letter Room, stars Oscar Isaac as corrections officer Richard given a new position in the letter room. He quickly connects with the letters written to prisoners, especially those written by Rosita (Alia Shawkat) and ends up becoming too involved in their personal lives. Eileen Galindo gives a comedic yet brief performance and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro’s score stands out amongst the other live action nominees. While Isaac is charming in the lead role, The Letter Room fails to find its footing and focuses more on the escapism Richard’s job offers rather than the carceral system he works within. 

The Present (dir. Nabulsi, Palestine) ★★★★

2021 BAFTA winner for Best Short Film, The Present is the most effective of this year’s nominees in dealing with the topic of policing. When Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmine (Maryam Kanj) go out shopping for his wife’s anniversary gift, they run into problems at the Israeli checkpoint. Bakri and Kanj both give strong performances enhanced by Nabulsi’s careful tension building. Not only is there tension between Yusef and the officers but there is also tension between the junior and senior officers. Analysing the often humiliating policing presence in daily life, The Present stands out as a clear frontrunner due to its smart yet inspiring depiction of resilience. 

Two Distant Strangers (dir. Free and Roe, USA) ★★★

Cartoonist Carter (Joey Bada$$) just wants to get home to his dog. Leaving Perri’s (Zaria) apartment after a one night stand, Carter gets stuck in a time loop à la Groundhog Day where he keeps getting murdered by racist cop Merk (Andrew Howard). Within the half hour film, Carter is killed in every conceivable way. While the film’s comedic influence is clear (Free is a writer on The Daily Show), the pain of watching Carter get killed over and over is something viewers should consider before pressing play. Two Distant Strangers is a film with an important message that is unfortunately very hard to watch given the ubiquity of police violence.  

White Eye (dir. Shushan, Israel) ★★★★

Another film depicting Israeli policing, White Eye, follows a man (Daniel Gad) who finds his stolen bicycle now belongs to a stranger (Dawit Tekelaeb). Eager to get police involved, it becomes clear the stranger knows less about the bike than expected. What is a simple matter is unsurprisingly complicated once the cops arrive. Shushan’s one-take style falls to the background here but the brilliant performances create an engaging short film that serves as an interesting look at the result of police involvement in misdemeanors or petty crimes. 

Shorts TV presents the Oscar-nominated shorts in theatres from April 2, 2021.

The films go into theatres around the world shortly after nominations are announced and are not released anywhere else until a few days before the Oscars®, when they are also made available via on demand platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and Vimeo on Demand.