December 1982 (Short Film) (2013)

2 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Imagine an era without texting, email, or even the Internet. If you wanted to talk to a girl or ask her out, you had to call her house and ask a parent if she was home. If for some reason you wanted to talk to someone from a different country, you had to send that person a letter and hope that person responds the next day or two, so you can continue the conversation.

As the 30-minute film “December 1982” opens, in August 1981, high-school student Tim (Haulston Mann) is given an assignment to write and send a letter to a student in Beirut. Tim would rather focus on his photography than write a letter to someone he doesn’t know. But then he gets the idea to take a picture of a move on a chessboard in his bedroom, and decides to send that to the student, along with the message, “Want to play?” In Beirut, Yara Hajjar (Ashli Brown) receives this, and responds by sending a picture of a counter-move on her own chessboard.

Months pass, and Tim and Yara’s pen-pal relationship continues. Tim has graduated from high school and is trying to decide what to do with his future. He wants to attend a Chicago university for his photography, but is faced with the difficulties of leaving his hometown friends and knowing that his parents would have to pay a lot to send Tim to college hundreds of miles away. But as Tim faces his own future, Yara and her family find themselves in the midst of something more terrifying, as Israeli military forces invade their country and a war brews outside their home.

This pen-pal relationship that forms between Tim (in Central Arkansas) and Yara (in Beirut) is quite interesting, especially how similar interests, such as chess and photography, keeps them talking to each other. Sometimes one has to wait a couple days for the next letter from the other, but when that letter comes, it leaves them with happiness even when one of them should feel miserable. This is especially effective in the scenes that feature Yara in a time when the world around her becomes a nightmare because of the war—when everything outside her family’s apartment building becomes a living hell, what gives Yara a moment of joy is the next letter from Tim.

“December 1982,” written and directed by Lyle Arnett, Jr. (as his thesis film for the University of Central Arkansas Digital Filmmaking Master of Fine Arts Program), is a small gem. It’s a touching, well-made, effective story of how these two young people draw closer to each other, despite being different parts of the world.

I also admired how the film told its subplot involving the 1982 Lebanon War. It mostly uses sound effects in the Beirut scenes, and that actually works in the film’s favor. There are two particularly-powerful scenes that focus on characters’ reactions. One features the first explosion heard, as Yara is enjoying a sunset at the beach, looking at one of Tim’s pictures that he sent, when suddenly there’s an explosion in the distance as she turns around in fright.

The second particularly-powerful scene features Yara having dinner with her brother and widowed mother. It’s a quiet moment until the sounds of muffled explosions that suddenly turns more dangerous when they seem too close. This is arguably the best scene in the film—the reactions seem surprisingly genuine.

But most of the film focuses more on Tim’s story as he realizes his potential, realizes his friends aren’t the best crowd to be around, and explores Chicago to see what living there would be like. (Also, the scenes set in Tim’s family’s house show (actual) TV news footage on the living-room TV set to show/tell more about the war, and the raid in Beirut, which is admittedly a clever move.) Now, you could argue that maybe Tim’s story is less interesting than Yara’s. Of the two, the latter has the least amount of screen time. And I’m not going to lie—I kind of wished I had seen more of how Yara and her family react to their situation. But to be honest, Tim’s side is still handled well and besides, maybe less is more.

The ending left me with kind of a mixed feeling. On the one hand, it is a satisfying conclusion that did make me smile (and it left a satisfying impression on the audience I saw this film with, as well). But on the other hand, it left me with a question of how it came to this. Even though most audience members of the screening probably expected it, and they were pleased to see this resolution, I was a bit confused as to how exactly it came to be. Without giving too much away, this feeling had to do with how little was shown of Yara’s story.

But for the most part, “December 1982” is an impressive, well-put-together short film. It’s intelligent in its writing and directing, as Arnett, Jr. delivers admirable work as a filmmaker; the actors (including Mandy Fason and Kenn Woodard in brief but pivotal roles as Tim’s parents) are convincing, especially Ashli Brown in a role that requires a gambit of emotions; the central setup is fascinating as you consider the true sentiment that comes with handwritten letters after a while; the drama is credibly handled; and the film itself is a true delight.

NOTE: The film can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/62781258

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