You know your day can only get better when you start off by getting run over by an Uber Eats bicycle.
Montrealer Theodore Ushev was out for his morning jog Monday in Paris when the incident occurred. He emerged relatively unscathed, and by evening his NFB-produced film The Physics of Sorrow had been shortlisted in the Oscar category of best animated short.
“I still cannot realize if it’s real or not,” he said, reached on his cellphone shortly after the news broke. It was past midnight for Ushev, but he had already written off sleeping.
Fellow Montrealer Meryam Joobeur was in her family’s hometown, Seyada, Tunisia, when she learned her film Brotherhood had made the shortlist for best live action short. She, too, was having trouble processing her good fortune.
“It’s really surreal,” Joobeur said. “I feel like the whole journey of this film is very surreal. When I was making the film, my only intention was to be able to show it to the community who helped make it. I didn’t think about how it would impact others. The fact that it has gone this far is pretty crazy, to tell you the truth.”
Ushev and Joobeur are now halfway to the Oscars. The Physics of Sorrow and Brotherhood were culled from pools of 92 films and 191 films, respectively, to reach their respective 10-title shortlists. Each now has a 50-50 chance of ending up in the group of five nominees in their respective categories.
Ushev has been here before. His eight-minute film Blind Vaysha was nominated for an Oscar in 2016.
“That year, we lost to Pixar,” he said. “Luckily this year Pixar didn’t make it, so we are going to lose to someone else.”
Jokes aside, his previous Oscar experience didn’t make the wait any easier.
“This year, I felt like it was much more difficult, because this film is much more personal,” Ushev said.
A brooding exploration of love, loss and the meaning of home, The Physics of Sorrow is the first animated film made using the encaustic painting technique. Ushev, a Bulgarian immigrant who came to Quebec in 1999, says it’s dedicated to his father, who died in December 2018.
Fittingly, he recruited another father-son team for the project. The filmmaker convinced Rossif Sutherland to lend his striking baritone to the film, and Sutherland in turn convinced his father, Donald, to contribute a secondary voice-over.
Launched at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, The Physics of Sorrow has been racking up the accolades since.
“Up to now, it has won 16 (festival) prizes in only three months,” Ushev said. “It’s going extremely well.”
There’s still a way to go before the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 13, and Ushev isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“No one knows what’s going to happen,” he said, “but I’ll be very happy if we end up speaking again in a month.”
Monday was a doubly good day for Joobeur. Just a few hours before the Oscar shortlist announcements, Quebec funding agency SODEC announced that her feature film Motherhood was among the new projects it had chosen to support.
Joobeur was in Tunisia doing research for the Motherhood, which is based on Brotherhood’s dramatic tale of a Muslim couple in the Tunisian countryside who must adapt to the return of one of their sons from fighting in Syria.
The film has screened at 150 festivals in 48 countries, winning 63 prizes since its premiere at TIFF in September, 2018, where it was named best Canadian short.
For Joobeur, all the accolades are confirmation that she’s on the right path.
“Going into Brotherhood, I decided to change my way of approaching filmmaking,” she said. “I decided to listen to my instincts, to let go of any pressures I had regarding success or festival acceptance, and just enjoy the process.”
It’s potentially the second straight Oscar nomination for Brotherhood co-producer Maria Gracia Turgeon, who also produced Jeremy Comte’s Fauve, one of two Quebec films nominated for best live action short at the 2019 Academy Awards.
“Firstly, it’s due to the fact that both Fauve and Brotherhood are wonderful films,” said Turgeon, who is also working with Joobeur on Motherhood.
The two spoke Monday night.
“It’s a lot of excitement,” Turgeon said. “We were trying not to think about it, and to say it probably won’t happen so we didn’t have expectations. But when the news finally comes, it’s hard not to be excited.”
There is one other NFB co-produced film in the animated short category: Portuguese filmmaker Regina Pessoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days.
Montrealer Paul Cadieux, of Filmoption International, also had cause to celebrate, as Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s film Advocate, a film he co-produced about Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, was shortlisted for best documentary feature.
The 92nd Academy Awards take place Feb. 9.