Oscar Gold 2020 – Documentary Short

More so than any other short category, the Documentaries tend to be the most accessible. Thanks to YouTube, Netflix, HBO, and other sources, the short documentary has an outlet for basically anyone willing to seek them out.

At the same time, the short documentary also has the trickiest road to making a complete movie. Much more than the other two categories, the docs stretch the limit of the 40-minute run time. When watching the presentation this year, it was the second time I’ve seen where the theatre needed to insert an intermission. When it comes to Animation and Live Action, you can script out your story and produce it to that time frame. With a Documentary, however, you let the story play out and then edit it down to the most cogent tale you can tell within the 40-minute limit. That often results in films that push up against the limit, as well as a few that feel like they didn’t get the full story across.

Such is the case with this year’s set. Don’t get me wrong. All five nominees are phenomenal in their own way. But there are certainly a few that really push the definition of “short,” and one where the task of cutting down to 40 minutes ended up making the story suffer, to the point where you could argue it’s incomplete.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Short are:

In the Absence – Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam

In 2014, a Korean ferry called the Sewol capsized and sank, killing nearly 300 people, most of them students on a school trip. Using a combination of footage and phone calls between responders and the government, In the Absence shows the complete lack of urgency and organization in the, let’s face it, half-assed rescue attempts.

This heartbreaking look at a disaster also represents a call to arms for political activism, as the worst crime we’re shown is the fact that the former South Korean president (impeached and removed in the aftermath of the tragedy) and her cabinet were more concerned with creating a photo op that showed them trying to help rather than actually helping. Basically everyone in charge failed here. The captain fled the ship while almost 300 people died. The students who followed orders by staying in the state rooms drowned. The government cared more about publicity than public service. Civilian divers spent days fishing out corpses, leading to permanent psychological trauma, and the government basically washed their hands of the whole affair.

It’s one of the most devastating half hours you’re likely to experience in a movie theatre. The production team does an amazing, if harrowing, job of piecing all of this together. Footage from the scene, recovered videos from the phones of dead students, call records from the government. It’s almost too much to take in, and that’s before you get to the emotional, gut-wrenching interviews with survivors, divers, and family.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) – Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva

If we’re awarding the prize based on title alone, this is your winner. Part of the fun of the short films is that you get imaginative titles that spark tons of curiosity. Fortunately, there’s a lot of substance behind the creative name, as this film, distributed locally by the Lifetime network, tells an incredibly uplifting and just outright fun story.

Set in Kabul, the film focuses on an organization called Skateistan, a combination school and skate park that pulls double duty to bring young Afghani girls into the 21st century since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001. Under the old regime, girls couldn’t learn to read, had to stay in the home, were sold off into marriage as young as 10 years old, and of course, had to wear burqas in public. Skateistan takes the dual mission to not only educate Kabul’s young women, but also help them build confidence by teaching them how to ride a skateboard, a leisure activity also normally only enjoyed by boys.

The students and educators are endlessly charming, and their eagerness to learn is infectious. It’s also quite reassuring that for a lot of the girls, their families are also very supportive. There’s one young lady who’s the fourth girl of eight in her family (plus one young boy), all born to a mother who’s only 35. She was married off at 14. She wholeheartedly supports her daughter’s efforts, and wants all of her children to get a quality education, even the three eldest who were considered “too old” to leave the house under the Taliban’s rule.

The presentation of the film is fun, positive, and a lot more lighthearted than we’re used to seeing in this category. Though in an odd way, it almost serves as a spiritual successor to last year’s winner, Period. End of Sentence. For all the flaws and lack of representation in other aspects of the Oscars, it’s good to see new, inspirational stories about societies where women and girls are marginalized finding ways to improve their lives and not subject half the population to a life of essentially servitude.

Life Overtakes Me – John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

A Netflix entry, Life Overtakes Me is one of the more informative documentaries of this set. Sadly, it’s also the most incomplete. The film focuses on three families living in Sweden, though they are not citizens. All three families are refugees who escaped persecution from the Middle East and former Soviet countries still under the thumb of dictators. In each family, one of their children has regressed into a condition called Resignation Syndrome, an illness where they become unresponsive to the point of entering a comatose state.

The images of the sleeping children are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Combined with the emotional distress of their flight and dealing with their immigration status, experts believe the children succumb to their fears and literally check out of the world until they can be reassured that they’re going to be okay.

The problem here is an embarrassment of riches. I’d never heard of Resignation Syndrome before this film, and now I want to know more. We get bits and pieces via voiceover from doctors and lawyers, but it seems like we’re being denied a fascinating look at the illness in this format. Similarly, the three families in the film are all in immigration limbo. One family is initially denied asylum, one has been approved but must apply for renewal, and the third is appealing a deportation order. Only one of those cases gets resolved by the end of the film, and as such, only one child’s ordeal is resolved.

Narration tells us that there are a lot of right-wing, anti-immigrant politicians in Sweden who are leading the charge to get rid of these families and hundreds of others, arguing that the kids are somehow faking their condition. We need to see that. We need to see the people in power so bigoted that they advocate sending comatose children into a warzone to die.

This is the occasional downfall of the short film format. This is an amazing subject and set of stories, but they don’t lend themselves to this short form. This needs to be a feature. The production needed to hold off, get more funding, and wait until the story was finished before going forward. As the film shows, Resignation Syndrome can last months, or even years, but it’s a disservice to go forward and release the film before we know what happens to the three children at the film’s center. This movie isn’t done, yet. Make it feature-length and I’ll be first in line to see it.

St. Louis Superman – Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan

Released by MTV (because why would they ever bother with music on Music Television), St. Louis Superman starts out as potentially controversial, but then settles into something more inspiring. Bruce Franks, a community activist and battle rapper, decided to run for the Missouri State House after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. Franks, who witnessed his nine-year-old brother gunned down as a child, is passionate about getting funding for urban communities to combat youth gun violence as a public health issue.

Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO has been a hugely polarizing issue. It basically birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. I have friends who are otherwise progressive but believe wholeheartedly that Brown’s killing was justified, despite him being unarmed. Even mentioning the incident risks a significant portion of the audience tuning out for whatever Franks wants to do.

But thankfully, it’s only presented as a catalyst. Franks has his opinions, certainly, but this isn’t a referendum on Michael Brown. His death only serves as the inciting incident to get Franks to finally step up and seek to solve the problem from within the system. The bulk of the film focuses on his personal trauma, his efforts to raise his son (born on the day Brown was shot), and his seemingly quixotic effort to pass a funding bill to deal with youth violence in a state legislature that is overwhelmingly white and Republican. And from that perspective, this is a brilliant entry.

Walk Run Cha-Cha – Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt

Presented by the New York Times Op-Ed Board, Walk Run Cha-Cha is an utterly delightful piece of romantically lighthearted fare. A middle aged couple, Paul and Millie, are Vietnamese immigrants living in Los Angeles. After the fall of Saigon, Paul fled his homeland, first for Taiwan, and then the U.S. He was an avid dancer in a country that was cracking down on such frivolities because they were seen as decadent influences from the West, and his mother was a successful businesswoman, so the new communist regime was likely to seize her companies and assets. Paul and Millie had been dating for only six months when he left, but they kept in touch, and after nearly six years, he was able to get her out of Vietnam as well, eventually settling down and raising a family here in America.

However, those intervening years took a toll, as the couple basically had to start over with each other and fall in love all over again. Now that they’ve hit the autumn of their years, and their daughter is an adult with a life of her own, they’ve taken to ballroom dancing as a means of growing their connection.

Both Paul and Millie are absolutely adorable. They have great humor, their rapport and love for one another is ironclad, and their dedication to making the most of their remaining years is one of the most touching love stories I’ve seen in recent memory. When they finally have their dance – complete with the best song choice imaginable – it brought a tear to my cynical eye. We should all be so lucky to have that kind of love in our lives.

My Rankings
1. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
2. Walk Run Cha-Cha
3. In the Absence
4. St. Louis Superman
5. Life Overtakes Me

Next up: Men, men, men, men, manly men, men, men… It’s Best Director!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these documentaries? Which was your favorite? Seriously, how awesome is that Skate title? Let me know!

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