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Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts (2020) review

February 3, 2020



I say it every year and I’ll say it again…the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts collectively offer the best viewing experience of any category. Most of the them are heartbreaking and some of them are uncomfortable to watch, but all five nominees provide an important look at humanity, for better or worse. All of the real life stories told here are emotional and inspiring, yet some are definitely more frustrating than others. As usual for this category, all five nominees deal with timely (and often troubling) subject matter through personal dramas from around the world.

In case you’re curious, the Academy rules allow documentary shorts to run up to 40 minutes and two of this year’s nominees reach that length, while others run about a half hour. Documentary shorts are traditionally longer than the shorts in the Animated and Live-Action Shorts which is understandable considering the time needed to establish the context of each subject. It’s because of this that this category offers the most rewarding viewing experiences of all the nominated shorts. There is surprising emotional imagery on display here and many of the shorts move beyond the standard tropes familiar to documentaries.

Below are my thoughts on the five nominees this year, ranked from Good to Really Great…


ST. LOUIS SUPERMAN Bruce and King cr: Sami Khan/MTV Documentary Films


St. Louis and the events that occurred in nearby Ferguson, Missouri need to remain in our consciousness just as much as the water in Flint, Michigan. So, I’m glad that “St. Louis Superman” exists, yet the fact that the short exists shows the need for certain stories to be told. Co-directed by Smitri Mundhra and Sami Khan, this 28-minute doc follows the recent story of Bruce Franks, Jr., an African-American activist elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in Ferguson in 2016 in response to Black Lives Matter. His story should inspire and intrigue viewers considering his the furthest thing from a career politician. Initially known as a neighborhood battle rapper, his 9-yr-old brother was murdered 30 years ago when someone used the boy as a shield in a gunfight. Considering Franks was a boy at the time and a witness, such a tragedy obviously changed his life and the killing of Michael Brown was yet another motivating factor to promote change in the local government. His mission takes him all the way to D.C., as he works to pass a bill declaring gun violence as a  public health risk in the St. Louis area. Throughout this arduous process, Franks remains true to who he is, despite having to rub shoulders older white politicians who probably don’t know what to make of the guy initially. While he energized support for his pursuits, the toll of the journey, with its inevitable ups and downs, takes its toll and he eventually wound up resigning in 2019 for his own mental health. “St. Louis Superman” is the first documentary short to get nominated from MTV Documentary Films and Mundhra and Khan do a fine job of presenting Franks as a relatable human being, especially during the moments when it’s just him with his adorable young son.





One of two tales of immigrants in this category that couldn’t be more drastically different, yet are equally potent in their own respective ways. Writer/director Laura Nix charming documentary follows a middle-aged Los Angeles married couple who take ballroom dance lessons together. While it is delightful to see Paul and Millie Cao practicing their moves on the dance floor, it’s backstory and their journey that resonates the most. They met forty years ago in Vietnam where they resided and faced persecution along with a small Chinese population, and then they separately escaped during the war. Decades later, they reunited and begin to get to know each other again, get married and learn how to dance, discovering an outlet for the trauma and fueling a passion for their love. Produced for The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, Nix is mindful to keep where this couple came from on the forefront of our minds, especially considering dancing was forbidden under the Communist regime they lived under. Their compelling story almost found me interested in a narrative adaptation of their lives.






It’s unfortunate that there will likely always be a nominated documentary short set in a war-torn land and probably the most heartbreaking is how children manage to survive each day despite the unpredictability of their future. Set in modern-day Kabul, this 40-minute short directed by Carol Dysinger focuses on a school for young girls called Skateistan, where they learn how to skateboard along with their regular academic studies. Montages show the girls learning various skateboard maneuvers and building confidence and motivation with each failure and retry. The school was founded by Australian Oliver Percovich (someone who’s onlt briefly mentioned) more than a decade ago and now the school is run entirely by Afghanis women and men with some 7,000 alumni. Throughout its runtime, we spend time with some who’ve graduated and others who are currently enrolled and as we see these brave and charming girls go about their day.  Just as bold and brave as the students are the female instructors who have overcome their own hardships in a society that doesn’t give many options for women, giving these girls inspiring role models to look up to.  One instructor expresses concern over the possibility of the the Taliban returning to power, reminding us that while war rages on there will always be uncertainty, especially when it comes to the identity of Afghani women. “Learning to Skateboard In a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)” is as enlightening and hopeful as it is inspiring, especially when we hear what the girls want to be when they grow up. 






One of the few nominees that can be watched on Netflix, “Life Overtakes Me”, is a fascinating and heartbreaking look at illness called “Resignation Syndrome” that can affect children of refugee families. The bizarre illness manifests itself physically by seemingly shutting off the children, leaving them comatose for unknown reasons without knowing of any neurological effects. Doctors and nurses are left as baffled as the helpless parents as they all care for the children’s physical needs in hopes of some medical miracle. The 38-minute short visits with a handful of families, many of them awaiting asylum, and from their immigration stories to the uncertainty of being expelled (Sweden’s government has become more conservative in recent years), it becomes clear why and when these children shut down.  It’s disheartening to know that this is happening to hundreds of families, but not all children remain this way, however, such as seven-year-old Daria who awakens after months in a comatose state and asks her parents if she was asleep. When not focused on the families, the directors create a subdued and contemplative tone, focusing on snowy landscapes or calm bodies of water, offering a needed counterbalance to the uncertainty. Whatever your thoughts are on immigration, it’s hard not to empathize with these families, who often have to deal with hostile attitudes around them, while wondering if they’re child will ever wake up.

RATING: ***1/2





It’s hard not to get frustrated while watching “In the Absence” unfold, especially if you weren’t aware of the sinking of the MV Sewol on April 16th, 2014. The passenger/ro-ro ferry was en route from Incheon towards Jeju in South Korea when it sent out a distress signal as the 6,825 ton vessel began to capsize. Out of the 476 passengers and crew, around 250 of them were students on a class trip with their teachers, ultimately a total of 304 people died (which included those on board, as well as rescue divers and emergency workers) most had drowned while others committed suicide due to grief from the rescue efforts.  Using archival news footage, radio communications, smartphone coverage from passengers and various interviews (with a civilian diver, a survivor and the frustrated family members of those who died), over the course of the 28-minute short, director Yi Seung-Jun covers the upsetting story of a corrupt and inept government and bureaucratic ignorance that allowed the vessel ship  to slowly sink into the ocean. Watching this short is like watching a tragedy play out in slow motion, which make it all the more frustrating considering those with the power to do anything choose to do nothing. “In the Absence” is a devastating look at dereliction of duty that resulted in South Korean president Park Geun-hye getting arrested four years later. The information and the angles of the tragedy covered by Yi juggles a series of interlocking developments with impressive deftness. At times, the short is a bit too dense and may be uncomfortable for some viewers, but this real life disaster needs to be known.

RATING: ****


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