Movies | May 2, 2021 6:02 am

Did an Oscar-Winning Short Film Borrow Elements From an Earlier Work?

Politically-charged short films get contentious

"Two Distant Strangers"
The short film "Two Distant Strangers" is currently under scrutiny by some cinephiles.

If you watch enough science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to encounter numerous narrative variations on time loops. Groundhog Day is the best-known example, though virtually every genre television series has also presented its own spin on the concept. In the last few years, the film Palm Springs and the series Russian Doll have also riffed on time loops to great acclaim.

This year, the short film Two Distant Strangers — directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe — won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. In an article for Wired, Jason Parham explained (and critiqued) its plot, which centers around a Black man named James stuck in a time loop. “[W]hat begins as the best day of his life turns into his worst — and last,” Parham wrote. “The real depravity of the plot is in how his demise plays out: Through the course of the film, James dies exactly 100 times at the hands of a white police officer.”

Those aren’t the only critiques being made about Two Distant Strangers, however. Filmmaker Cynthia Kao recently took to TikTok to address similarities between the recent short and a short that she directed in 2016, titled Groundhog Day for a Black Man. Things grew more contentious from there.

Kao notes that in 2020, NowThis News reached out to her about “[sharing] the message with our audience.” NowThis went on to post the short film on social media. Where things grow more contentious, then, is the fact that NowThis is also one of the production companies credited on Two Distant Strangers — which has prompted some to ask whether the similarities between the two films are more than coincidental.

It’s entirely possible that the plot similarities are entirely coincidental. The idea of using a time travel storyline to address police violence and systemic racism has cropped up in a number of projects in recent years, after all. “Replay,” an episode of the recent revival of The Twilight Zone, utilized such a combination, as did Stefon Bristol’s excellent 2019 film See You Yesterday.

Still, the series of events that Kao describes in her video raise some serious questions; hearing more from the people involved in producing Two Distant Strangers could clarify a lot of things.