Review: 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films - Documentary

Aaron Neuwirth takes a look at the five films nominated for Best Short Film - Documentary, with entries that cover social topics, tragedies, and more.

While it’s been a challenge for the shorts branch to keep their films as a part of the Oscar broadcast, I am happy to write about them, as they continue to be some of the most ambitious and fascinating films to arrive in a given year. Finding ways to successfully tell a story, develop characters, or delve into a socially relevant topic in a relatively small amount of time is just as challenging as having two hours to do so. This sort of work often leads to the discovery of new talent, and regardless of what they move onto next, the films will remain to exemplify what’s possible on a cinematic level, regardless of scale. This post will focus on my reactions to the documentary short films nominated for Oscars at this year’s 92nd Academy Awards.

IN THE ABSENCE

Synopsis: Documents the sinking of a South Korean Ferry. As a result of the ineptitude of the first response to the emerging situation, hundreds of people, mostly children lost their lives

The documentary shorts can often be tough to sit through, as the examination of societal problems or troubling events is important yet depressing. Here’s a situation I may have heard about in a headline when it occurred a few years ago, but the details are quite troubling. The best technique in this film is how it juxtaposes the actual phone calls of officials scrambling to make a plan with footage of an already sunken ferry. Seeing what has happened since is fitting as far as taking on the Korean political regime, but the sense of justice still feels absent. That’s not a knock on the doc, as it’s merely presenting what’s taken place. As a whole, there’s a well-made look at a dire situation.

Directors: Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
Country of Origin: USA
Runtime: 28 Minutes
Language: Korean

LEARNING TO SKATEBOARD IN A WARZONE (IF YOU’RE A GIRL)

Synopsis: Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl) is the story of young Afghan girls learning to read, write-and skateboard-in Kabul.

This documentary, fortunately, falls on the uplifting side. Following a prologue re-explaining how women continue to face very harsh treatment in various societies around the globe, but particularly in parts of the Middle East, we learn about those trying to make a difference in Afghanistan. There’s a real sense of joy that comes from hearing about teachers working to nurture confidence and courage in their students, especially by way of teaching these young kids to skateboard. Given the awful things that happen to people in these parts of the world (young girls especially), the term bravery comes to mind when seeing a story of those standing up to help make things better for those who may not have the chance otherwise.

Directors: Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva
Country of Origin: UK
Runtime: 39 Minutes
Language: Dari

LIFE OVERTAKES ME

Synopsis: In the grip of trauma, hundreds of refugee children in Sweden withdraw from life’s uncertainties into a coma-like illness called Resignation Syndrome.

Perhaps the most challenging of the short documentaries, as it has few answers for what is going on. Kids falling into a coma-like state is an unbearable thing to worry about, only made worse by watching parents with no understanding of what’s going on with their children. Is it something physical? Psychological? A combination of both? The best that can be said is how trauma stemming from the areas these refugees came from is a significant factor, with the parents feeling a massive sense of guilt for not being able to protect their kids, despite doing all they could to remove them from their unstable birthplaces. Getting them by is a sense of hope, as we watch multiple families all deal with the same issue, with only some managing to get through this alarming situation.

Directors: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Country of Origin: Sweden | USA
Runtime: 39 Minutes
Language: English 

ST. LOUIS SUPERMAN

Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr. is a 34-year-old battle rapper, Ferguson activist, and state representative from St. Louis, Missouri. Known as Superman to his constituents, he is a political figure, the likes of which you’ve never seen – full of contradictions and in-depth insights, who has overcome unspeakable loss to become one of the most exciting and unapologetic young leaders in the country.

This is the sort of film that effectively shows just how useful making a stand, exercising a right to protest, and creating awareness can actually lead to positive change. Yes, people can be loud to get attention, but as this doc shows, Bruce Franks Jr. went from a rapping activist to a man who put in the work to pass a bill that could have a serious effect on his community. The strength of this doc comes from how complete it feels it letting us in on what he’s gone through, what he’s fighting for, and what kinds of challenges he’s personally faced in doing so. While there’s a bittersweet feeling that arrives at the end of this short feature, it leaves an impact in seeing just what can be accomplished, even when times are difficult.

Directors: Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
Country of Origin: USA
Runtime: 28 Minutes
Language: English

WALK RUN CHA-CHA

Synopsis: Paul and Millie Cao lost their youth to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they have become successful professionals in Southern California-and are rediscovering themselves on the dance floor.

Beyond being a nice and sweet story concerning a husband and wife who continue to connect through dance, Walk Run Cha-Cha has only so much to offer. The dance finale is nice to see, as the effort put into the practicing pays off and is shot well enough. Perhaps most interesting are the small stories shared between the Coa’s and their friends over dinner, concerning what they went through during the Vietnam Era and the aftermath, resulting in their choices to leave the country and pursue other opportunities.

Directors: Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt
Country of Origin: USA
Runtime: 20 Minutes
Language: English, Mandarin

***

If I Was Picking The Winner: St. Louis Superman stands out to me in the way it takes on an important topic, presents a compelling lead figure who has overcome numerous obstacles and finds a way to tell a complete story. It’s not a matter of it being specifically better than the others (these films all arrived at this point for a reason), but I found it the most affecting.

ShortsTV will release the 2020 Oscar-nominated short films on more than 500 screens across the United States on January 31, 2020.
For more information, http://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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