Many beginner filmmakers embark on a career by making a short film. A short is the most constructive opportunity to express oneself, test the acquired skills, begin to hone one’s mastery, and search for one’s own style. Some believe that the short is a steppingstone for big cinema, while others are convinced that it is the most suitable field for experiments. There are also apologists of the short, who do not betray and work in this genre of film only. It seems to me that this genre is sort of a “tour de force” for the artist. Certain preferences and possibilities allow the director to tell their story in detail and diffusely on the screen, in spite of certain screen time limitations. And if you need to express your idea concisely and convincingly, brightly and emotionally, in 10 minutes and impress the viewer, you should concentrate your artistic talents as much as possible to confirm the well-known maxim: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
The young Ukrainian film director Maryna Kovalevska is so far mulling over whether to join the cohort of the artists who can impress the viewer in a few screen minutes or to use the experience of making shorts for big cinema. But she has already furnished the convincing proof of a successful start. After receiving a liberal arts education at Kyiv Taras Shevchenko University, Kovalevska recently graduated from New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, USA. Studying at a prestigious school and the atmosphere of Hollywood, the center of world cinema, contributed to the success of a young Ukrainian graduate. Her short film 15 Minutes won the “Honorable Mention: Student Film” at Festigious International Film Festival in Los Angeles and was selected to take part in six world’s prestigious film festivals.
15 Minutes is an auteur film. Kovalevska is both the director and the scriptwriter of it. Although it is her first prize-winning film, it shows the director’s sure and bold hand, as well as artistic flair, knowledge of the nature of cinema, and ability to develop. She honed these skills while making the previous short films as a student – Cassie, 2015; Liar, 2015; Beauty, 2017; Some Things Never Change, 2017; and Sin Bar, 2017.
The plot of 15 Minutes is based on a fictional situation which is realistic enough to occur in real life. As a scriptwriter and director, Kovalevska puts the protagonist at the peak of extreme mental agonies. She reflects through him on the moral aspects of human existence. The film is not clearly linked to any city or country. Making the picture in this way, the director emphasizes the common human perception of the subject.
Viewers immediately find themselves in the space of an action that begins, like a compressed spring, at highest point of tension. Liam (James Arthur Lewis) has a sick daughter who will die unless she has her heart transplanted. There is no donor. Utterly despaired, the father decides to save his child and find a heart. He wants to stage a road accident and use the heart of the other car’s driver. His brother Casey (Ellison Hall), the ambulance driver, should come to the prearranged place of the accident and transport the so much necessary organ. They have 15 minutes at most – the time a heart can live.
The plot thickens. Liam switches on the timer that counts the needed minutes, and the viewer can see a scene, in which hands nervously turn and press the wheel. A phone call from his wife only increases tension before the decisive moment of killing. But there is no time to answer. The car speeds up, the brakes screech, we hear the terrible sound of a collision, and then comes silence. Liam walks with unsteady steps to the car he plowed into and drags a man (Christopher Hazlehurst) out of it. He phones his brother who is supposed to be here, only to be told that the latter has stuck in a traffic jam and no one knows when he will come. The tension reaches its peak. The director does not focus much on the accident scene – the exterior is shown laconically, the colors are subdued. Some fragments of the broken cars, remnants of glass, the red pulsation of headlights in the dark, and puffs of smoke underline the tense atmosphere of alarm. This raises a feeling of a misfortune, a catastrophe, on the subconscious level. Quite consonant is the expressive soundtrack with a proper musical accompaniment. This background allows focusing on the hero’s anguish as much as possible.
The camera mostly takes close shots and focuses on the human face, the most interesting image in cinema. The screen shows Liam’s perplexed face and panic-filled eyes. The viewer comes to know about what is happening on the accident scene thanks to Casey’s closed-up reactions. The cab of his ambulance shines and flickers, as if flaming in a blood-red color. A broad hint at the color of hell? The camera shows the hero’s condition. Liam shouts in despair. Terrified at and crushed by what he has done, he is feverishly thinking of what to do. Utterly convincing in his character’s horror, the actor demonstrates a palette of his emotional anguish in highly expressive gestures and mimic. To show a contrast of conditions and increase the impression, the director applies the alternation and overlapping of clear and defocused images and the play of close and long shots. This creates the effect of moveable emotions, while the approach and distancing of a certain object makes it possible to properly assess its essence. This creates an expressive visual “dialog” between the shots of Liam’s face and the photograph of the dying hero’s family, as well as clearly pronounces the motif of murder and a sharp contrast between the lives of two families. The camera’s panorama of the wretch’s body is overtly naturalistic, which enhances pity over this innocent victim. A blood-covered face, red stains on a light shirt, the fragment of a bone that sticks out of the torn trouser leg… The tension is increased by the vivid image of seconds that are also “dying” and sink into oblivion, disappearing from the timer screen. Liam’s hope is also dying together with them.
The culmination of the film is the scene, where the driver, who came to, thanks Liam, not knowing that he is his killer. For the driver, it is the last person in the last minutes of his life on this earth. The scene, where their bloodstained hands are clasped in a convulsive gesture, calls to mind the biblical motif of crime and punishment. The film’s denouement is astonishing. Nicole (Megan Duquette) calls Liam to say with joy that a miracle has happened: there is a donor heart for their child! Had Liam answered her call before his fatal ride, things would have gone differently! He finally becomes really aware of what he has done. And the desperate cries “Forgive me!” are now addressed not to the dead driver who is lying next to him but to the heaven, to He who passes the ultimate judgment. This reveals the director’s chief moral imperative which she tries to put across through the film’s plot: the opposition of two theses – the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and the idea of reconciliation and forgiveness. Her viewpoint is original. Despite the cruelty of the misdeed, the director shows the final handshake as an attempt to reconcile, to some extent, the killer and what he has done. But the emotionally open finale makes it possible to think of repentance and absolution.
Addressing this kind of global life-philosophy problems of human existence will always be important for culture, for various arts, particularly cinema. Therefore, there is a hope that a talented search of the young director Maryna Kovalevska, concentrated in the convincing material of the short film 15 Minutes, will see further development and perhaps implementation in big cinema.