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8 Short Films That Humanize America’s Biggest Issues

We firmly believe that some of the biggest stories come in small packages. That’s why we love our short films, which we don’t see as films that are short, but rather an art form unto itself. While feature films can meander for hours, allowing more room for experimentation and error, short films need to tell a memorable story, develop arresting visuals, and create lasting impact in a matter of minutes. When you add into the mix a resonating message on critical modern issues, then the film reaches a whole new level—it becomes a snapshot of our time, and perhaps even a defining moment in history.

We’re proud to introduce six short films that shed light on some of the most pressing issues in the US today, from immigration to abortion, to incarceration. We love a good in-depth investigation, but sometimes the most powerful way to dissect an issue is by meeting the affected. These are the people normally on the fringes of an unseen America, and by giving them a voice, these films humanize the issues that have become empty political tools used to drive campaigns. These are portraits of modern America.

Call Center Blues

Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are deported from the US. In this cinematic portrait of displacement, loss, and rebuilding, director Geeta Gandbhir shows us what happens to some of these folks. In Tijuana, Mexico, there is a booming industry of telemarketer call centers, and they’re filled with English-speaking US deportees who form an unlikely community along the border. Meet a group of people whose stories are vastly different but are bonded by their new vocation and limbo-like existence. Each one is trying to make sense of their new life and find their footing in a country that now feels foreign to them, reminiscing over the life, home, and family that they were forced to leave behind. This is what the American Dream looks like when it’s been displaced.

Stop

In 2016, a disturbing study found that nearly a quarter of young Black people reported having been harassed by the police. In many of these instances, there is no evidence of criminal activity whatsoever. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Stop” is a glimpse into one of America’s most troubling traditions: racial profiling. On his way home from baseball practice, a Black teen named Xavier is stopped by police for no apparent reason. Powerless, he stands by and watches as the people who are supposed to protect him search through his backpack with no explanation. These searches may end as abruptly as they begin, but the trauma lasts far longer.

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa

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In 1973, the landmark court case Roe v Wade made it a constitutional right for women to have access to safe and legal abortion. But just three years later, the Hyde Amendment was passed that severely undermined the decision by deliberately denying abortion access to low-income individuals.

Witness the impact of the legislation by hearing directly from the women and teens who have been most affected. Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, Mike Attie’s film follows the daily trials and tribulations of one Philadelphia abortion call center, whose counselors all go by Lisa. Every day they’re flooded with calls from women in need of financial assistance, but with funds fluctuating constantly, getting abortion coverage is a complete luck of the draw. Some women are forced to squeeze their savings dry and some struggle to find coverage for even the most extreme cases.

With congressional debates around the highly divisive Hyde Amendment as a backdrop, the film exposes the insidious ways politics and legislation infiltrates the lives of the powerless, leaving them with no choice but to call for help.

The Letter Room

Nominated for an Oscar® for Live Action Short Film, Elvira Lind’s short film is the most hopeful look at prison life since “The Shawshank Redemption.” Starring Oscar Isaac, the story follows Richard, a kindhearted correctional officer who would rather chat books with the inmates than intimidate them. When he’s transferred into the prison’s letter room and becomes responsible for monitoring all prisoner correspondence, he soon finds escape in the deeply personal letters between an inmate on death row and his lover on the outside. But when she writes something alarming, how far will Richard’s personal investment take him?

In a sea of sobering statistics, headlines, and documentaries, “The Letter Room” is a beacon that reminds us there can still be humanity in even the most hopeless of places.

Sweetheart Dancers

In the Native American community, tradition is the pillar of life and culture—but that doesn’t mean tradition can’t be redefined now and then. In Ben-Alex Dupris’ short film, we meet Adrian and Sean, a Two-Spirit couple who met on the powwow circuit and bonded over a shared family tradition: the Sweetheart Dance. Both having parents who competed, and even describing themselves as “products of Sweethearts,” Adrian and Sean are eager to rep their families, tribes, and communities in the annual San Manuel Powwow. But there’s just one hitch: the Sweetheart Dance competition has traditionally been restricted to heterosexual couples only. Will Adrian and Sean be disqualified or will they get their chance to prove that all couples can be Sweethearts?

Abuelos

Of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, countless families have elderly relatives in Mexico who they have not seen in years, sometimes decades. Thanks to a joint program by the US and Mexican governments, thousands of families are able to reunite with their abuelos (grandparents) every year through safe and anonymous travel. In this quiet and moving short, a little girl longs to know her abuelita, who lives alone in Mexico, separated by a border and waiting for the day she can see her family again. The film traces their emotional reunion and abuleita’s arrival in California. For the first time in a long time, she doesn’t have to cook for just herself. For the first time, she gets to be a grandma.

One Story Up: Mizuko

Abortion has become a highly contentious, partisan issue in the US, but how is it viewed in other cultures? In their eye-opening short film, “Mizuko” (“Water Child”), emerging young filmmakers Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo explore the Japanese ritual “mizuko kuyo,” a memorial service for unborn children that allows parents to symbolically return their babies to the “water,” or afterlife. Using textured collage work and soft watercolor animation, the film weaves together a visual lesson on the ceremony and a Japanese-American woman’s experience of having an abortion in the US. As for most women, it is not an easy decision for her, but seeing it in a new cultural light reveals the myriad ways people interpret, process, and deal with grief.

Broken Orchestra

Public schools are no strangers to budget cuts, and oftentimes one of the first departments to go is the music program. But when public schools lose funding for their music programs, what happens to all the broken instruments in need of repair? Sadly, most of them will never play another note. But one Philadelphia community decided to spin their public funding crisis into a positive initiative. In Charlie Tyrell’s short documentary, a group of educators, advocates, and innovators worked together to bring 1500 broken instruments back to life. In 2017, they created Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, which raised awareness for the issue and helped to put the instruments back in the students’ hands for a second life.

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