Released: January 31, 2020 in select theaters
Runtime: 160 Minutes (5 short films)
Program: Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts for 2019
(Parental Discretion advised; the final documentary short film “St. Louis Superman” has strong adult language)
There’s a stretch of categories during every Oscar telecast that virtually no one has ever even heard of, let alone seen: the shorts.
Divided into three competitive groups – Animated, Live Action, and Documentary – the Academy Award nominated shorts can make-or-break a person’s Oscar pool ballot.
Thankfully, for several years now, the slate of nominated shorts have been made available through separate feature-length programs at movie theaters nationwide. On Friday January 31, all three packages will be released. Check your local listings, most likely at your city’s independent theater.
Below is a look at the five films nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject of 2019, ending with my prediction of Who Will Win.
Life Overtakes Me (Sweden/USA, 39 minutes)
dirs. John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson
Intimately documenting one of the most bizarre new illnesses of our time, Netflix’s Life Overtakes Me chronicles a mysterious epidemic that’s emerging among refugee children in Sweden. It’s called Resignation Syndrome.
Falling into a coma for months at a time (and, in several cases, for over a year), children afflicted by Resignation Syndrome remain in a vegetative-like state, completely unresponsive but otherwise healthy. No brain damage. No organ or physical malfunction. Yet perpetually unconscious.
It’s brought on by the stress of refugee displacement mixed with the anxiety over the looming possibility of deportation. Life Overtakes Me puts us bedside with parents as they care for their children, hoping and praying that one day they’ll wake up, all while striving to make sure they’re not deported back to their oppressive, dangerous homelands.
Directors John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson visually set this human drama against the stark yet striking backdrop of a Scandinavian winter, an aesthetic that is as metaphorical as it is artful.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) (U.K., 39 minutes)
dir. Carol Dysinger
In a film that could’ve easily been titled Skateistan (named after the initiative behind this singular approach to education in Islamic Asia), Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) tells the very uplifting story of a unique school that is striving to give Afghani girls a better future.
Living under Sharia laws the restrict (or remove entirely) the freedoms of women in every aspect of life, girls from poor families in Kabul, Afghanistan have more to contend with than any kid ever should. Their city and region is war-torn, under constant threat of terrorism, and the harsh religious culture of their society dehumanizes them simply because of their gender.
But in these special schools, girls are not only given a full education; they’re also taught how to skateboard. This inspired (and low cost!) activity informs the ultimate goal of these schools: to not only to empower these girls with knowledge but, perhaps even more importantly, with courage. The first virtue is of little benefit without the second, and who better to be instilled with both than in these ambitious young girls from Kabul.
In the Absence (South Korea, 28 minutes)
dir. Yi Seung-jun
In the breakout year of Best Picture contender Parasite, this short film is the other South Korean movie that its government would prefer you never see. In the Absence retraces the catastrophic events of a capsized South Korean ocean ferry liner in 2014, and it is absolutely devastating.
The tale is tragic enough, but heartbreak is compounded by heart-wrenching fury as the incompetence of the government’s response comes to light, a rescue effort that was not only woefully inadequate but actually driven by bureaucratic officials concerned first about how they were perceived, not the well-being of the passengers onboard, even when those decisions knowingly jeopardized the lives that were at stake. It is institutionalized sociopathy. The cold inhumanity that unfolds is both disgusting and shocking.
In the Absence is a half-hour gut punch. It is a scale of tragedy that’s hard to comprehend (let alone process) even as director Yi Seung-jun recounts it all in tasteful but frank detail. Heroes rise among the private citizenry to help bring closure to grieving families while others hold government elites accountable, but ultimately there are no winners here. There is no “redemption.” It’s all loss. Even when long-belated justice occurs, it’s still ugly and unsatisfying.
Even so, In the Absence is an absolutely necessary document that hits us square in the solar plexus. It must be watched, mourned, and endured. The victims cry out to be remembered so that nothing like this unimaginable yet all-too-real tragedy ever happens again.
Walk Run Cha-Cha (U.S.A., 21 minutes)
dir. Laura Nix
A welcome and necessary counter to In the Absence, Walk Run Cha-Cha is a tender portrait of a middle age West Coast Vietnamese couple that rediscovers a deeper love for each other through an unexpected hobby: ballroom dancing.
Paul and Millie Cao are not only adorable, but their bond – and their story – is sincerely meaningful. Director Laura Nix uses the Cao’s newfound late-in-life love for dance as an entry point into their actual love story, one tested by trial and separation in the effort to emigrate from Vietnam to the United States.
At a time when the topic of immigration can be so polarizing, Walk Run Cha-Cha reaffirms the very best virtues of why the United States has always been an immigrant nation, and a hope to so many in the world. It’s also an affecting reminder of how love can be renewed even after a season where it feels as if it has been lost.
St. Louis Superman (U.S.A., 28 minutes) Parental Advisory: Strong Adult Language
dirs. Smriti Mundhra & Sami Khan
On the same day that Michael Brown (a young African-American man) was killed in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of a police officer, fellow Ferguson resident Bruce Franks Jr. — just 18 years old at the time — became a father to a newborn son. The dichotomy of these two events occurring simultaneously struck a chord in Franks (also an African-American living in urban plight) so deeply that he ran for a seat in Missouri’s State House of Representatives – and won.
St. Louis Superman is Franks’ inspiring story, set against the backdrop of his primary passion: competing in rap battles. His oratory skills are a perfect match for his political drive, one lived out with as much humility as deep conviction, and makes for a compelling portrait. (This feels like the kind of story you could see actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler bringing to life in a feature film adaptation.)
There is not a weak nominee in this year’s slate, which makes predicting a winner extremely tough.
Nevertheless, here is my prediction for Who Will Win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for 2019:
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl)
Similar in content, tone, and messaging as last year’s winner in this category PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) has the same combination of virtues: a story of women under the oppression of religious (and superstitious) patriarchy who nevertheless persist, seeking to empower girls today in order to give them a better future, while doing so under legitimate threat to their own well-being. In a very strong and worthy field of nominees, this inspiring mix should put Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) over the top with Oscar voters.