By nominating Belfast, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story of growing up

The Academy has kept rooted, simpler storytelling alive by nominating smaller films, some that have won at film festivals and might even be called alternate cinema.

Making films about a child always proves difficult. Such stories require everything to be done from a kid’s perspective, which means refashioning the way the screenplay is written; the camera is positioned, and adapting the scale of visuals and sound. In the final edit, a feeling of light-heartedness, less complicated emotions and defining moments have to add up to the reality of a child’s experiences. Films that take a filmmaker or writer back to their childhood and youth don’t add up to a big number but they make for precious storytelling. Think of Roma. While awarded films emerge every year the canvas of this film has been unmatched for some time. Oscars this year feature quite a few stories that have taken their creators back in time to their growing up experiences, and valuable friendships.

The Covid 19 pandemic and lockdowns drove filmmakers to look within and make those stories that they have held back because these are personal and perhaps difficult to explore. Kenneth Branagh, of Irish origin and a reluctant chronicler of his childhood years spent during the ‘troubles’ returned to his home city and made Belfast.

Speaking with NME.com, Kenneth Branagh, writer & director of Belfast said, “By the time we got to the beginning of the first lockdown I had this general sense of just how precious time was- we just don’t know what the future holds anymore.” Branagh has made an achingly beautiful story of leaving one’s home because circumstances force displacement. His story is packed with fond memories, a sense of family and belonging and authentic characters of a time gone by. Branagh’s film has won seven Oscar nominations in main categories; and multiple nominations at the BAFTA, SAG & Golden Globes (won the best screenplay at the Globes). Unlike most films around Ireland’s sectarian violence Belfast doesn’t take sides but focuses on the human toll that regular working class folk paid here. Branagh has directed commercial and critically acclaimed films and TV shows. But with Belfast he reveals a slice of his life that has shaped his future and his passion to work in films.

Like Belfast, The Hand of God by Paolo Sorrentino is his story, told over 3 decades after he lost his parents in a freak accident. Sorrentino was 17 when he went to watch a football match away from Naples, his home town and returned to find that his parents had died from a carbon monoxide leak. No stranger to Oscar recognition (The Great Beauty has won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014) or critical acclaim, for Sorrentino, the film is an intergenerational story about large and caring families, a young boy living through personal crisis and a historic town shaping his self- discovery. It also lovingly captures some parts of Italy’s culture & heritage that is fast fading out. These years made him want to become a filmmaker, like Branagh. Speaking to Indiewire.com, Sorrentino explained ”It’s a film based on the perception of pain and joy as a boy, and it’s narrated through the eyes of the grown-up man he’s become- that is to say, me.”

Paul Thomas Anderson returned to memories of growing up in suburban Los Angeles, where ambition is made up of two things- fame and money. Anderson has regularly placed his films in California, in neighbourhoods that he knows well and can relate to. With Licorice Pizza, he pulls out his chest of growing up friendships- like the young actor who is rushed to auditions by his mother; or the actor that chose to go for a water bed business. It’s a love story that also doubles up as a loving ode to a time gone by. The title Licorice Pizza is from a chain of record stores, a form of business that is more or less extinct today. Yet Licorice Pizza has resonated across audiences and is a front runner for top wins.

In the Best Foreign Language Film Category, Flee is a documentary that filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has made about a close friend from his hometown. In animated form, Flee is about Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee who moved to Denmark when he was 16. He never told anyone why he had to run away from his country. When he is to marry he finally speaks about the situations that compelled him to leave. Rasmussen admits that sometimes he would wonder about his friend’s reasons for leaving. Relevant at a time in history when Europe is flooded with refugees from war-torn countries the film narrates the unthinkable cost that people pay when political violence takes over their lives and forces them to flee for larger, incomprehensible reasons.

While Steven Spielberg has not found box office success with West Side Story, his tribute musical has inspired him since his childhood. Spielberg tackles the issues of race, class and immigrants head on in his adaptation, without losing the spirit of the original film. He knew the album by heart. He revisited this film simply because he felt people should watch this story again today.

In recent years event films and superhero mega budget movies have dominated box office business. The Academy has kept rooted, simpler storytelling alive by nominating smaller films, some that have won at film festivals and might even be called alternate cinema. It has also included films from other languages in mainstream categories. As filmmakers that have defined cinema of our times go back to their roots and formative years, stories that emerge connect with people across age groups. This validates the power of cinema at a much greater level that mega budget stories can.

Archita Kashyap is an experienced journalist and writer on film, music, and pop culture. She has handled entertainment content for broadcast news and digital platforms over 15 years.

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