As you might recall from HitFix’s Telluride Film Festival coverage, Jonás Cuarón’s short film “Aningaaq” is a companion piece to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” It depicts the other side of an SOS radio conversation between that film’s main character, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and an Inuit fisherman named Aningaaq (Orto Ignatiussen) on the icy mass of Greenland. The short works both in tandem with the feature and separately as an emotional sliver of the greater work’s themes. It could also join “Gravity” in the Oscar discussion later this season as Warner Bros. has submitted it for consideration in the Best Live Action Short category.
The film originally grew out of some ideas the Cuaróns had for “Gravity” that were jettisoned early on in the process. “We arrived to this moment where we knew we wanted the character to connect to someone on Earth,” Jonás told HitFix in September. “‘Gravity’ is a movie about a character who is literally and metaphorically disconnected. She’s shut herself down as a person even before the action starts. We liked this idea that finally she gets in touch with someone on Earth and it’s this guy who not only does not speak a word of English but is drunk.”
Deeper than that, it reveals a forlorn Aningaaq preparing to sacrifice one of his sled dogs, which has taken ill. “Without knowing it,” the short’s official synopsis reads, Aningaaq and Ryan “share thoughts of life and death, love and loss, and choices that are as defining as they are inescapable.”
On separate occasions in the past, Jonás and his father have made trips to Greenland. It’s an enchanting place that speaks to both of them separately and, moreover, echoes some of the atmosphere of their space thriller collaboration. Alfonso came back from one of his trips with a story of a drunk Inuit fisherman sitting out on a massive expanse of ice with nothing but a two-way radio and it registered as applicable here because it was an interesting mirror, someone stranded as a speck in an equally disconnected and isolated environment.
There was even the briefest of moments when they thought of cutting from Ryan’s plight in space to this scene with Aningaaq, but that was instantly dismissed. The point of “Gravity” was to lock the viewer into a non-stop roller coaster and that smallest of reprieves would have derailed what they were trying to do. “We were adamant that we wanted to stay in the point of view of Ryan, never cut back to Earth or Houston, nothing,” Alfonso said in a separate interview. “We said, ‘We have to stick to the plan, but wouldn’t it be cool to do a short about Aningaaq?’ That was years ago. And then last year, Jonás went back to Greenland and he shot the short.”
Indeed, Jonás’ experience shooting the film was quite the adventure. After Warner Home Video agreed to finance the endeavor, he lit out for the territory with a headful of ideas for the production. “One of the ideas I had was to get everything there [in Greenland],” he said. “So it took me two weeks to go look for the wardrobe, the tent, the sled, the dogs, and to even do some research. So I was traveling with this sled for like two weeks through the region in Greenland, and during that trip, I noticed a very beautiful relationship that the Inuits have with the dogs. They’re traveling very far away from their villages to the ice to go fishing and in a way the only companions they have are the dogs. It’s almost a friendship but also about survival. They depend on these dogs to move around but also the truth is if one of these dogs gets injured or they start becoming too old to be able to make the trip, since it’s such a lengthy trip, they have to sacrifice it. I happened to run into a fisherman who had to sacrifice his dog and it’s really hard for them.”
The short was programmed at Telluride alongside John Curran’s “Tracks,” which tells the true story of Robyn Davidson. In 1977, Davidson set off from Alice Springs, Australia across half the continent for the west coast with four camels and her dog. Jonás stuck around after “Aningaaq” premiered at the fest to watch the film because he’s currently prepping his own desert-set project, the feature that sparked the idea for “Gravity,” in fact: “Desierto.” He was ultimately struck by how his short and Curran’s feature went hand-in-hand, but to explain further would be to spoil “Tracks.” Suffice it to say, Aningaaq and Davidson could share a few stories about loss and survival.
Could “Aningaaq” register with the Academy and become a live action short nominee? It’s certainly possible. It’s helpful that it’s not overly dependent on the feature. As Alfonso noted, “what is beautiful is it works together with ‘Gravity’ after you’ve seen the film, but it also works as a short on its own.” Said Bullock at a Los Angeles press conference, the short is “this absolutely beautiful piece of loneliness and emptiness on Earth…I get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Perhaps Academy voters will feel the same, and both “Aningaaq” and “Gravity” can make a bit of history at the Oscars in March. We’ll know for sure when AMPAS reveals its short list of Best Live Action Short contenders next month.
“Aningaaq” will be available on the DVD/Blu-ray release of “Gravity,” due out in stores next year.