MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The filmmakers behind the Minneapolis-filmed short Ana's Playground are no doubt used to accolades by this point. The movie has won prizes at more than a dozen film festivals already.
But an announcement made on Tuesday was something else altogether. Ana's Playground has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination.
The movie is one of ten selected finalists for the Oscars' Best Live-Action Short Film category, which were winnowed down from a group of 76 contenders.
Playing the numbers, it stands as good as a 50-50 shot to get nominated for the big prize. (The category could have anywhere from three to five nominations, but in almost every year for the last two decades, five have ultimately been nominated.)
WCCO's sports anchor and certified movie buff Mark Rosen covered the making of the film a few years ago. Ana's Playground was the brainchild of local director Eric Howell, who shot from a script that won the 2006 best screenplay award at the Los Angeles short film festival (which helped put him and the project on Oscar's radar).
Ana's Playground turns Minneapolis into an unidentified, war-ravaged urban wasteland, and hones in on a group of children playing soccer amid the chaos. When their ball goes over a fence which marks off a sniper's killing zone, the children flip a coin to see who has to go get it. Ana, the film's young heroine, loses the bet and steels herself to risk her life.
Howell, who worked as a crew member on such local productions as Fargo, North Country and A Simple Plan told Rosen that he made the film with a very specific political position in mind.
"What I discovered, after I wrote it, was the issue of child soldiers. I discovered the issue the fact that one out of every 10 soldiers fighting war is a child. Eighty percent of them are under the age of 15-year-old. That 2,000 kids every day are killed or injured in war," Howell told Rosen.
Howell's movie boasts fine performances from his young, Minnesota-native cast, including Raven Bellefleur, who plays Ana with palpable fear exhibited in her every gesture. He shot much of it at Riverside Plaza, and it's amazing how well the structures' noted brutalism (courtesy Ralph Rapson) an artificially-decimated Minneapolis skyline suggest, say, Serajevo circa 1993.
Rosen reported that Ana's Playground, shot not-for-profit, will be distributed to non-governmental organizations that aid in the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
If I may be allowed to editorialize for a moment and grab my local cheerleader pom-poms: Having seen all five of last year's nominees and having just watched Howell's movie, I can say without question that this betters at least four if not all five of the short films that were actually nominated for last year's award. It displays a remarkable economy in its narrative, and makes direct points without being mawkish or obvious. The cinematography by David Doyle is remarkable.
I'd be shocked if it didn't land Howell and company a seat in the Kodak Theater next February. But, of course, it all depends on the quality of the other nine films selected by the AMPAS as finalists. They are, for the record:
• The Confession, Tanel Toom, director (National Film and Television School)
• The Crush, Michael Creagh, director (Purdy Pictures)
• God of Love, Luke Matheny, director (Luke Matheny)
• Little Children, Big Words, Lisa James Larsson, director and Andreas Emanuelsson, producer (Bob Film Sweden AB)
• Na Wewe, Ivan Goldschmidt, director-producer (CUT!)
• Seeds of the Fall, Patrik Eklund, director, and Mathias Fjellstrom, producer (Direktorn & Fabrikorn)
• Shoe, Nick Kelly, director, and Seamus Byrne, producer (Zanita Films)
• The Six Dollar Fifty Man, Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland, directors (Sticky Pictures Ltd.)
• Wish 143, Ian Barnes, director, and Samantha Waite, producer (Swing and Shift Films/Union Pictures)
Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 25. Stay tuned!
Here is the story WCCO-TV ran two years ago about the making of the film.
WCCO-TV's Mark Rosen Reports (WCCO 4 News At 10 -- Dec. 4, 2008)
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.
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