Home is where the heart is, but Doug Roland’s Feeling Through is about a homeless teenager who discovers that his heart is ready to evolve from noun to adjective. A chance encounter is an ancient cliche, but when done right it straddles the fragile bridge between the subliminal and the sentimental. This 18-minute film – a favourite in the Best Live-Action Short Oscar category this year – does just that when its protagonist, Tereek, comes across a deaf-blind man named Artie on a warm New York City night. For a few hours, there is little to distinguish the rescuer from the rescued. The able young man provides direction, but it’s the differently-abled older man providing perspective. One might be walking ahead, but it’s the other who is leading the way.
Tereek has spent the evening goofing around with buddies who are unaware of his dire circumstances. He’s too proud to ask, so he secretly hopes for them to invite him back for dinner. Once they leave, Tereek texts a girlfriend, who reluctantly invites him over. On his way, he notices a deaf-blind man with a sign requesting assistance to the nearest bus stop. At the risk of his girlfriend dozing off, and by extension him being homeless for another night, Tereek helps the man. Soon, they learn to communicate with one another: Artie scribbles in his little notebook, Tereek traces letters with his fingers on Artie’s palm.
At some point, the viewer stops looking at the subtitles and starts reading the faces. It’s a disarming exchange of not just words but perceptions. When Tereek asks why he is out so late, Artie writes that he was on a date. Tereek grins, amused by the man’s sense of humour. But one of the most affecting moments of the film comes when Tereek later browses through the man’s notebook – and sees the question “Can I kiss you?” on one of the pages. Artie was not joking. Artie was actually on a date. After all, Artie is a man who can’t see, can’t hear but can touch – both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, the racial subtext – of Tereek being a black man who feels seen and heard by a white man with no vision or voice – is the icing on the delicate cake.
What undoubtedly lends Feeling Through its heart is the fact that Artie is played by Robert Tarango, a deaf-blind actor who worked in the kitchen of the Helen Keller National Center, and cast after a year-long search for the character. Tarango’s is a triumphant performance: a portrait of dignity, pride and elegance. Through him, one senses that Artie is more than an anecdote in Tereek’s future; he is more than the device that enables the transformation of a stranger. The film believes in their connection, by eschewing the temptation of turning Artie into a full-blown guardian angel. That Tereek recognizes the distinction between homeless and houseless is a testament to who Artie – and Tarango – really is rather than what his identity stands for. He is simply there, present, following, leading and living at once.
If Anything Happens I Love You, too, opens with two American characters simply there, present, following – but not quite living. The tender 13-minute film by Will McCormack and Michael Govier is the unanimous frontrunner in this year’s Animated Short category, and for good reason. It is a visual rendition of grief – it films the unfilmable without compromising on its social significance. It features a married couple going through the motions, numbed by the loss of their young daughter. They live in a house of inescapable memory; every corner reminds them of a history that became reduced to a past. They now lead separate lives in the same spaces, succumbing to the crippling individualism of mourning. The revelation – their spirited little girl died at a school shooting – is one that cannot be arrived at without a flashback of the family they were.
The medium chosen, then, is more than a creative decision. The sparse pencil-drawn animation – that merges the soul of the characters (appearing as playful shadows) with their reality – is reminiscent of the iconic Oscar-winning short, Father and Daughter (2000), where the fluidity of emotions reflects the porousness of technique. The souls have a personality of their own, yearning to fix things and rescue the couple from their own dismantling. Scoring the growing-up montage to King Princess’ 1950 reflects the narrative of the powerful 2016 Sandy Hook Promise: Gun violence warning signs video, where the blossoming of a campus love story lulls the viewer into a hopeful reverie before a shooter hijacks the story. We see what is at stake so that we sense the plurality of loss.
A film tends to be judged and appreciated according to its relevance in these divisive times. But If Anything Happens I Love You – a shattering title based on the final text message sent from a terrified classroom – is not a seasonal flavour film. The aftermath is felt every day of every month of every year in a nation nailed at the intersection of gun violence and mental health. It lends a face – a story, a sense of individualism – to an epidemic that often reduces life to an array of shocking statistics. A bullet doesn’t care for the colour, ethnicity, class, religion and background of the body it enters. And it’s not just a human that dies, it’s also the purest idea of humanity that perishes along with it.
If Anything Happens I Love You is therefore not a film so much as a cultural artifact. That it isn’t shot in live action but instead created on paper becomes more a gesture of reverence than an artistic aesthetic. After all, the very same verb implies both creation (by a camera) and destruction (by a gun). Often, it’s hard to tell one from the other.
[All Oscar-nominated shorts are available on BookMyShow Stream in collaboration with ShortsTV]