By Lindsey Bahr and Emily Rome
February 13, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Bertrand Calmeau
Bertrand Calmeau

Spend some time watching the films nominated for the Oscars’ live action short award, and you’ll find yourself taking a round-the-world tour from Afghanistan to Canada to France to Somalia to New York.

With stories from all corners of the globe, this varied collection of shorts touches on issues of poverty, of aging, and of the choices people are faced with when given great power.

As you get ready to fill out your personal Oscar ballot, here’s a look at the chilling, bittersweet, heart-warming films in the race for the live action short award this year. The winner, along with the top film in the documentary and animation short categories, will be announced at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

Asad

Buzkashi Boys

Curfew

Death of a Shadow

Henry

Check out ShortsHD’s website for the Oscar-nominated shorts for information about where they’re playing in local theaters and how you can access the films on iTunes and VOD.

And for more on the animated shorts: Oscars 2013: EW’s long look at the animated short contenders

FIRST SHORT: Asad

Asad

How did commercial director Bryan Buckley, dubbed the “King of the Superbowl” by The New York Times, decide to make a coming of age film about Somalia?

“There’s actually a logical path,” Buckley told EW. It all started with a trip to Africa for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “There’s a worldwide crisis going on with refugees right now. When we were in this giant camp in northern Kenya, we were witnessing all these Somali refugees that were arriving en mass, and you start hearing their stories and what they’d been through.”

Asad tells the story of its title character, a young boy trying to take care of his mother and family through fishing and bartering, and the temptations he faces from the glamorous allure of the pirating community.

Buckley staged his shoot in South Africa – Somalia would have been too dangerous. But, Buckley said, “a Somalia acting community doesn’t exist, so what we did was we went to a refugee community down there, showed an elder the script and told him that we’d love to work with the people in his community. From there we sent somebody out to tape some boys doing improv stuff. And the two boys who I cast, they just had something. I’ve done enough casting to know that.”

Not only were the boys illiterate, but neither could swim. All of that needed to be taught before they could even start shooting. To add to the confusion, Buckley was directing these non-reading, non-actors in a language that Buckley himself didn’t speak. One day, half of his crew quit because he’d chosen costumes that were the colors of al-Shabaab — the militant al-Qaeda affiliated group that has successfully taken over portions of Somalia and imposed strict Sharia law on the residents. Buckley said he realized “not only will they not wear that, they will not get near that. They’re not messing around. You have to take things very seriously – there is a lot at stake.”

But ultimately, you wouldn’t know any of that – the fear, the danger, the lost in translation confusions — from the final product. The tale of Asad is elegant, funny, tragic and moving. And Buckley’s ultimate goal is to turn it into a feature.“It’s designed to be an uplifting film that is for the people,” said Buckley. “We weren’t exploiting anybody.”

-Lindsey Bahr

NEXT SHORT: Buzkashi Boys

Buzkashi Boys

American filmmaker Sam French moved to Kabul in 2008 to follow his then-girlfriend to her new job in Afghanistan, working for the British government. What he was surprised to discover in his time there was love for a country far from home and a passion for a new cause.

Oscar-nominated short Buzkashi Boys is French’s first film for the Afghan Film Project, his non-profit organization devoted to telling Afghan stories and creating opportunities for aspiring filmmakers in Afghanistan. Twelve young Afghans worked with Western filmmakers on Buzkashi Boys, about two boys, Rafi, who is torn between staying loyal to his blacksmith father and carving his own path in life, and Ahmad, who dreams of being playing Buzkahi – an Afghan sport much like polo, played not with a ball but with a headless goat carcass.

Buzkashi Boys was shot entirely in Kabul over 16 days in February 2011. Among the stunning locations French used was Darul Aman, a stately palace built in the 1920s but turned to ruins when it was bombed out during the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s. While wandering around Kabul, Rafi and Ahmad climb on the remnants of the palace’s roof, which boasts a striking view of the city.

Finding young Afghans to play Rafi and Ahmad presented a more challenging task than casting in the U.S.

“In Afghanistan, it’s not like you can put an ad in Backstage West and have hundreds of kids show up for auditions,” French said. “We actually went around to a lot of children’s shelters and tried to find kids who could act in the film. And it was really tough cause first of all you have to go in and explain what a film is, and then you have to explain what auditions are.”

Eventually, French found his Rafi on Chicken Street, a famed destination in Kabul for tourists in search of souvenirs. There he met Fawad Mohammadi, a 12-year-old who was selling maps and Dari dictionaries to support his single mother and five brothers. For the role of Ahmad, French cast Jawanmard Paiz, the son of an Afghan filmmaker.

Mohammadi and Paiz – both now 14-years-old – will be at the Academy Awards later this month, thanks to a funds raised via Rally.org to cover travel expenses, with any donations beyond those expenses going toward Mohammadi’s college education. It will be the first time to the U.S. for both of them. For Mohammadi – who wants to one day be an airline pilot – it will be his first time on a plane.

French, who recently transitioned from living in Afghanistan to dividing his time between Kabul and Los Angeles, is currently focused on the Afghan Film Project’s high school training programs, raising funds to make film equipment more available in the country and a film festival he hopes to hold in Kabul later this year.

-Emily Rome

NEXT SHORT: Curfew

Curfew

There’s nothing like suddenly being responsible for a child to snap a 20-something out of his own head. In Shawn Christensen’s Curfew, his character Richie is in the bathtub with wrists slit, when he gets a phone call from his estranged sister asking him to look after his 9-year-old niece for a few hours.

Curfew is inspired by his own bout with depression and a memory of coming across a few wise children who helped bring him out of it. “I remembered thinking that kids had a lot more common sense than I did. It’s a little bit like that show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. They just knew all these things that I had forgotten. I’d become too jaded. There was something interesting about remembering those things again through a child’s eyes,” Christensen told EW.

Writing the script was one thing, getting the right child actress for the film was quite another. “When we went to audition actresses in New York, there weren’t a lot of them in that age range that we were able to see,” Christensen said. But there was one audition he knew he was looking forward to – Dora the Explorer herself, Fátima Ptacek.

“Not only did she nail the audition, but I realized that she also had a little bit of a darker side to her. I knew that was going to bode very well for us for this particular film, which had some edgier stuff,” Christensen said. Ptacek was only 11 years old at the time of filming, so Christensen arranged the shoot so that they’d wrap outside scenes by 9 p.m. and use the daytime hours to film indoors, where they could artificially create the look of the middle of the night.

It’s always a little bit tricky having child actors in films that deal with sensitive subjects, but Christensen said Ptacek “knew everything that was going on always. The only thing that I did as a director for her is she was never around the set when anything graphic or any swearing was going on, but she knew that stuff was in the script. Her favorite movies are thrillers and darker movies anyway, so there was a never a problem with that. Her parents are extraordinarily aware of which movies she should and shouldn’t see, but when it comes to Curfew, they knew the script they knew what they were getting into and they loved it. And she loved it.”

-Lindsey Bahr

NEXT SHORT: Death of a Shadow

Death of a Shadow

In the follow-up to Tom Van Avermaet’s first short film about the Sandman, the Belgian filmmaker explores another concept personified into a mystical figure: Death. His Oscar-nominated short Death of a Shadow is about a Nathan (Rust and Bone‘s Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier who gets a second chance at life (or something like it) in exchange for his service to Death.

“I wanted to give my own interpretation to the metaphysical figure of Death,” Van Avermaet said. “How can I interpret that kind of symbolic figure in a way that hadn’t been done before? I thought, ‘Why can Death not be like an art collector?’”

In Death of a Shadow, Nathan traps shadows using a bizarre, steampunk-esque camera. Death then displays the shadows on his walls like art. Van Avermaet, a fan of film noir and German expressionism, told EW that he likes to play with light and shadow in his work and was eager to make a film where shadows were a key part of the story.

Van Avermaet chose to set the short during World War I both because he felt the clothes of the era fit with the tone and style of Death of a Shadow and because wanted his main character to be a soldier. “They’re usual people that die young and people that are taken out of life at the moment that’s most precious to them, and they have their whole lives ahead of them,” the director said. So it worked out that he received a grant to shoot in Champagne-Ardenne, France, a region of intense fighting during World War I.

The old-fashioned yet other-worldly pieces of machinery in the film were each created or acquired for the film in a different way. Nathan’s camera was designed and constructed by Sophie Duqué, a Belgian art director. Van Avermaet and his team found an old electricity generator in a rural Champagne-Ardenne town to use for the light board that displays Nathan’s options for cause of death. And for an intricate clock-like machine that pronounces how someone will die, Dutch artist Jos De Vink loaned the production one of his artistic hot air engine machines, which Van Avermaet discovered via his YouTube channel.

For Van Avermaet, the weeks leading up to the Oscars have been full of meetings and other networking opportunities in Los Angeles, including with the assistant and colleagues of a filmmaker he names as one of his influences, Guillermo del Toro. After one professional short and one short made while at Rits School of Arts in Brussels, Van Avermaet is ready to move on to feature-length films. He is currently developing a project with a sci-fi take on memories.

-Emily Rome

NEXT SHORT: Henry

Henry

Quebec filmmaker Yan England knew he wanted to make a film in honor of his grandfather, a World War II veteran who lived with Alzheimer’s for four years till his death in 1996.

“My grandfather sort of lived ten lives in one,” England said. “He was stationed in Italy with the British Army where he met my grandmother. After the war he worked as a film producer, but he lost everything and moved his family to Canada and had to start from scratch – and then to all of a sudden forget? He was losing details and moments of his life to a point where he needed to ask someone else if he’d been a good man. That line is in the film. And that’s what triggered the beginning of Henry.”

But how the 29-year-old (at the time) filmmaker would choose to tell the story was another question. “I didn’t ever want to do it from the point of view of the family. I wanted it to be from Henry’s point of view: to experience something and not know what is happening. With my grandfather, sometimes I was his grandson and sometimes I was a soldier that he had been working with during the war. I realized we were traveling through his souvenirs and memories. That’s when I decided I wanted to go from the point of view of him, and what he was seeing through his Alzheimer’s, dementia and old age,” England said.

The bi-lingual director struggled with the choice between doing a French-language or English-language film. “The first draft came out in French,” England said. “I thought about translating it, but then I started thinking about actors. A friend suggested Gérard Poirier, who’s been working as a French-speaking actor for the last 60 years, and that settled it.”

Of the working with the veteran actor, England says “he was 83-years-old when we shot the film and he was the definition of professionalism. He was always willing to do anything, he runs, he’s in every single scene, and there’s a huge emotional arc that he gets at with so much sensitivity and truthfulness. One of the reasons that I’m lucky enough to be at the Oscars is Mr. Poirier. He becomes Henry.”

-Lindsey Bahr

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

Read more:

Oscars 2013: A long look at the animated short nominees

‘Paperman’: Watch the step-by-step animation process for Disney’s Oscar-nominated short

Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Lake Bell, more show short film series in L.A.

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