The Dam Keeper, bullying, and the Oscar for Best Animated Short

(SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details about the ending of The Dam Keeper. If you haven't seen this animated short yet, please go watch, then come back!)

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling particularly stir crazy at home. A friend got me out of the house. We went to see all of the Oscar-nominated shorts, both live action and animated. It was a blast. For the first time, because I saw the films, I was invested in the Oscars. I had favorite shorts that I wanted to win.

The Phone Call took home Best Live Action Short Film for 2015. Great! Really, though, I would have been delighted for any of the nominees to win. I guess I've always gotten more excited about animated ANYTHING than live action.

So, it's no surprise that I'm super-opinionated about the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. The 2015 award went to Disney's Feast. This meant a Disney sweep, as Big Hero 6 won in its category, too. I can't get behind that.

Disney, you're great, but the entire time I watch Feast, I am uncomfortable. The dog's diet demonstrates poor pet ownership. There are zero consequences; the dog doesn't gain a pound. Plus, when the girlfriend comes into the picture, the love story is terribly cliche. Woman appears. Woman brings dieting, dance classes, interior decorating and GIRLY stuff. Woman changes man. Woman betters man. Man needs woman, or he's a fat slacker. Yawn. Disney, you were never very good at modern romance.

If it were up to me, the Oscar for Best Animated Short would have gone to The Dam Keeper. Visually, its use of still paintings is stunning. Story-wise, The Dam Keeper isn't about cutesy, idealized relationships. Its images of ruthless, childhood bullying clawed into my soul, bringing me back to periods of my own life that I try to forget.

(WARNING: This upcoming section uses harsh language, and may be triggering for people with a history with bullying.)

As I watch Pig- the Dam Keeper- get pushed about, his backpack stolen, his appearance mocked, I remember my own past:

"Don't you dare come to school dressed like that again."

"I can't believe we have to wear costumes because of you, Lauren. We look like a bunch of faggots, just like you, you faggot."

"Why do you still watch Power Rangers? Is it because you're retarded?"

"If I were you, I'd kill myself."

Even while he is tortured, the Dam Keeper does his job. Every day, he keeps the dam running, saving his animal town from darkness and death. One day, though, it becomes too much. The poor piglet believes his only friend has betrayed him. So, he lets the dam break. He puts on his gas mask, and watches as doom gusts over everything.

At this point, the movie goes dark for a while. The first time I saw The Dam Keeper, I thought this was the end. "Wow," I told myself. "In a world filled with bomb threats and school shootings, this is the most scathing social commentary I've ever seen." I sided with the pig. I knew how he felt. For one moment, in a dark theatre, I was fine with him killing everyone.

What does that say about me?

What does that say about all of us?

In the end, the pig realizes his mistake. He rushes home, climbs into the guts of the dam, and saves the town. As the dust settles, and the sun comes out, the movie once more does something I appreciate: it shows that our hero isn't OK. Even though he feels regret, he isn't healed. He doesn't suddenly love his enemies. He acknowledges that being bullied is always going to hurt, and that he has to make do... but he doesn't know how.

I haven't been bullied in years. I became a smart, pretty person with a loving husband, a home, a popular blog, and the privilege of being a mouthpiece for fandom in my city. Thanks to childhood bullying, though, there will always be a voice in my head. The voice will always tell me I'm ugly, difficult to love, and a burden on others. I'll lock its influence behind more doors over time, as I surround myself with better friends and healthier environments. That voice, however, will not die- regardless of my feelings and attitude.

Geek culture is often defined by exclusion. Many of us were on the outside looking in for so long, that we smile when a character like Pig abuses his power. "At last," we say, "revenge."

No. No, no, no. I've seen too many geek groups mock and exclude others, as if it's finally "our turn." The bullied become the bullies, through cosplay elitism, "fake geek girl" quizzes, anonymous posts on forums, etc. It's not OK.

The Dam Keeper, by not ending when I expected it to, pushed me to reflect. The movie didn't end with revenge, it ended with coping. Perhaps I don't need to keep broadcasting how tortured I was years ago. Perhaps the world has paid what it owed me- or, it never owed met all. I'm an adult, in a big, shared world. I don't need a club or a clique or a label. I just need to survive, and do my best to be a good person. That's the real ending of The Dam Keeper.

Whereas Feast gives us a world where we'll never gain weight, always find love, and live happily ever after, The Dam Keeper knows better. Directors Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi see that wounds leave scars. This, in my opinion, is why Feast should not have gotten the Oscar. The Dam Keeper challenges us to relive the pain of our past, to share it, to sympathize with the hurt of others... and then, to forgive.

The Dam Keeper

Consider it my favorite short film ever.

See The Dam Keeper if you haven't yet, and tell me what you think below! There are also Dam Keeper Messenger stickers you can download for free on Facebook. Pretty cool.


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