Oscar Shorts Celebrates the Underdogs

Audiences were moved to tears by this year’s Academy Award-nominated Oscar Shorts’ films.

oscar shorts
Photo by Paul Vidal for The Montclair Dispatch.

“Oscar Shorts – Celebrate the Underdog” Film Festival has returned triumphantly this year to Buzz Aldrin Middle School. After nearly a decade spent honoring that elegant, age-old and often under-appreciated medium of the short film, “Oscar Shorts” co-founders and producers Corinna Sager and Jeanne Reilly were pleased to observe the eighth anniversary of this splendid event this past Saturday, Feb. 11.

During the peak of the recession, the Montclair Art Council, of which Reilly was a long-time member, tragically lost its funding and shut down in 2010. Yet in spite of this all-too-familiar sounding tragedy, this genuine “underdog” of a film festival rose from the ashes of the Art Council.  Together with the help of Sager (who co-produced Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Ferry Tales), they successfully acquired sponsorship from the town’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since its inception in 2010, this particular “underdog” has only continued to grow with each passing season.  Visitors from Montclair and other locations were repeat-attendees of several years. They attend annually for a reason: not just for the exclusive viewing-opportunities offered, but largely for the community it provides. The community continues to grow around it, and indeed helps run the festival itself. As Reilly made quite clear, that is precisely what makes it so special.

Saturday’s event boasted all 14 of this year’s Academy Award-nominated shorts, graciously provided by Magnolia Pictures. The “community” aspect was readily-apparent from the second I entered the building. Students and other members of the community offered insight, refreshments and opportunities to donate to charity.  In that sense, this festival actually represented the “underdog” in more ways than one.

In between viewing the fantastic films on display, we were treated to a charming presentation by the school’s choir and dance teams. Both groups put on their own brief demonstrations, each beautiful in their own right, before finishing off with a simply stunning display of pageantry and song. This final show combined each member’s talents into something essentially indescribable, yet also fully memorable to those lucky enough to experience it. This allowed the audience to celebrate some of the “underdogs” in their own community.

Attempting to describe all 14 wonderful films in detail would only do a disservice to the artistry they demonstrated, but the reactions were quite palpable. Joe’s Violin provoked the most emotional response.  It is a documentary following the true story of a Holocaust Survivor (Joe), who donated his treasured violin to underprivileged students, as well as that of middle-schooler Briana, who received it. Joe embarks on a journey to ultimately unite with Briana, both of them “underdogs” who overcame adversity in their own ways.  The heartfelt conclusion brought tears – not just from Joe and Briana, as they got to see in stark clarity the beauty this instrument brought to both their lives, but also from at least a third of the audience.

There were so many great shorts: documentaries, fictions and animated features. Another compelling documentary, 4.1 Miles, was concerned with the refugee crisis in Turkey. Shown through the lens of the thousands of poor families trying to escape war by crossing the sea to  Lesbos, the power of this documentary conjured quite the reaction from Denise Mayer, a Montclair resident of 35 years.

“It compelled me to seek out venues for lending assistance to these refugees,” said Mayer. “I plan to seek legitimate organizations to do so, and to have more political discourse among people who feel differently than I do about these types of politics.”

Mayer and I discussed these so-called “echo chambers” which many of us find ourselves trapped within nowadays, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and ideas. She plans to try combating this by communicating with more people in real life, not just online, at the coffee sessions she oversees.  As a parent who has been active on the school board in Montclair for many years, Mayer is fortunate to be able to regularly gather groups of people in this fashion.

Hearing such a genuine reaction from someone trying to create change for the better was encouraging beyond words. It provided hope that art of all forms, even the “underdog” medium  celebrated at this film festival, can have enough resonance to make real change – and in doing so, help shed light on the people who represent the true underdogs of our world.   

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