“I Feel That I Have a Duty”: ‘THR Presents’ Q&A With the Directors of Four Oscars Shorts Contenders

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By Joshephira Honey

Four of this year’s short contenders for the Oscars tell personal narratives that lead audiences on uniquely distinct journeys. In The Noble Guardian, journalist Anna Coren makes her directorial debut with the story of Afghan American women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, who decided to stay in Afghanistan following the United States’ withdrawal from the country in 2021 to run a women’s shelter. Coren came across Mahbouba’s story while covering the Taliban’s subsequent resume of power.

“We spoke over Zoom, and I honestly had goosebumps all over my body speaking to her because of her feistiness, her angst, her utter frustration with the world at what had happened,” the director said during a taping of THR Presents, powered by Vision Media. “I knew right then that this woman was a documentary, not just a news story.”

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In telling Mahbouba’s story, Coren tells the story of many Afghan women whose lives have been ruled by the Taliban who controls everything from what they wear to whether they’re allowed to go to school.

“This is a country that’s under my skin,” explains Coren. “As a journalist and as a documentarian, I feel that I have a duty. I’m allowed to go into these places and talk to these people. They tell me their stories, and it’s up to me to then share them with the world. Afghanistan and girls and women and education, these are all issues that I feel very passionately about, hence the need to continue telling these stories.”

In The Cocoon, writer-director David Miller uses animation to bring his own personal experience to the screen.

“I had gone to sleep feeling very much like a creative failure … and as I was falling asleep, the image of a guy going in circles, mopping up his own footprints, leaving new footprints as he’s mopping them up, that kind of Sisyphean paradox really kind of came to my head all at once,” said Miller. “It was one of those experiences where I felt the whole story hit me in a single moment. And it was as if I’d already watched the film.”

The project stays true to Miller’s dream, though there were hurdles bringing his vision to life. The animation learning curve would ultimately lead to The Cocoon being three years in the making, but the experience was one that mimicked the very message of the film.

“The story really is about embracing roughness, embracing imperfection, embracing the things about yourself that you’re trying to get rid of and seeing those things as actually positive,” says Miller. “You can use them and control them to do something and create something beautiful, and I think there’s something really human about that.”

Animation plays a large part in Go for Grandma, directed by Sabrina Doyle, as well. The project, which centers on a young boy who uses the stories his grandmother tells him to escape to an imaginary world much different from his unideal home life, was a welcome departure from Doyle’s typical work.

“It was lovely to do something that asked me as a filmmaker, and audiences, to put aside your cynicism and jadedness and believe in something very beautiful and pure,” Doyle says. “It’s not just a frothy fantasy, there’s real pain and trauma there, and the fantasy elements of the film exist to overcome that and give the child control.”

“Children often don’t have control, and I especially think that children don’t have control now because we live in such a strange world with climate change and social media and all the pressures of all that on children,” she adds. “What I love about this film is that the child in this film is in a situation that he can’t control, a traumatic situation, and then really leans on his own imagination and the resilience of his imagination to overcome that.”

In Daphne Di Cinto’s Il Moro (The Moor), the director unearths the story of the first Black Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici, shedding light on the largely overlooked stories of Afro-Europeans.

“As an Afro Italian and an Afro European person, I get asked all the time to justify my existence within the country I call home,” says Di Cinto. “So I thought to myself, if we are going to normalize our existence within our own countries, it has to start from history and it has to start from history because our presence in Europe is that old. Alessandro de’ Medici is only one of the many characters of African descent that held positions of power starting from the Roman Empire on.”

As a result of Di Cincto’s short film, a petition she and others submitted to the Council of Florence to amend de’ Medici’s name in front of his tomb, which had previously been omitted, was accepted. An Academy Award nomination she says, would do so much more.

“It would mean putting a whole community on the map as Afro-Europeans,” says Di Cincto. “We look at African Americans, and that’s where we get our representation, but there’s so much more to tell and there’s so much more intersection to find. If we can finally normalize the fact that Afro Europeans exist and have incredible history, that would change the lives of so many people today.”

This edition of THR Presents is brought to you by Corinthian Pictures/Confidential Creative (The Cocoon), Larkin Lane Films (Go for Grandma), Greenlight Project Films (The Moor) and The Noble Guardian LLC (The Noble Guardian).

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