What you need to know about the 2020 Documentary Oscar Shorts


‘Tis the season–to be awarded! With the 2020 Academy Awards coming this Sunday (I realized this two nights ago and could have sworn they were, like, several weeks from now) it’s time to make yourself acquainted with the nominees, big and tall, long and short

“But Sam,” you might say, “I’m a functioning adult, without time nor inclination to dedicate my Earthly hours to the study of awards material!” Fear not, responsible reader, for Flixist has you covered. Before you head to Shorts.tv to find a screening for yourself, Jesse already provided you with a breakdown of the animated short films nominated for this year’s Oscars, and in an effort to counterbalance that sense of vibrant wonder conjured by animation, I’m here to tell you about the documentary shorts up for the award this year.

Jokes aside, the documentary selection of short films is often a sobering experience every year; no matter how many feelings Green Book made you feel, the lens through which documentaries show the world is a reminder for many of us that there are those in the world experiencing a day far worse than ours. An exercise in empathy, but also a flame of optimism to stand by; no matter how bad it gets, people just keep on keepin’ on.

So, with that in mind, your nominees for Best Documentary (Short Subject) are…

In the Absence

Director: Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
Country: United States
Length: 28 minutes

What It’s About

In 2014, a South Korean ferry leaving Incheon Port was transporting 476 passengers–325 of them students–to Jeju Island when the ship encountered a fatal, capsizing accident. Through the ineptitude of bureaucrats, the vessel was lost with over 300 fatalities. In the Absence explores the failings of the government and those involved that allowed for such a tragedy.

How Is It?

In the Absence is, from the start, a somber and dire piece of journalistic filmmaking. With a detached sense of pending doom provided by directors Yi and Kam, we get footage from Coast Guard officials and the like surveying the sinking ship, with chatter as to what should be done about the sinking behemoth. Couple this with footage from students aboard the vessel, captured via their phones and cameras, and we get a parallel story. 

The damning aspect of In the Absence is the casual nature of it all, with officials and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye (who was tried and impeached on grounds of corruption for the tragedy) not sounding nearly as concerned as they should have been. Meanwhile we as the audience are seeing dash-cam footage from vehicles onboard the ship, literally flipping over as the ferry sinks. 

Chronicling the sinking in its first half and the aftermath and subsequent investigation into the failure to act, In the Absence gives us glimpses of the trial of the officials who failed those hundreds of people who lost their lives, and the hundreds more who lost their loved ones. A terrible line uttered again and again, during the accident as it was happening from officials on the radio was “We should have… We should have…” In the Absence holds those responsible accountable, and prays for a future in which something like this never happens again.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Director: Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva
Country: United Kingdom
Length: 40 minutes

What It’s About

In Kabul, Afghanistan women have it toughest of all, living not only under the threat of violence by warring post-Taliban factions and religious extremists, but in addition are subjected to the rigorous social standards imposed by Islamic tradition; women are discouraged from seeking education, and are generally coerced into subservience. Learning to Skateboard narrows in on the machinations of a nonprofit organization that would educate young girls and, as one can gather, teach them how to skate in an effort to provide a hobby and passion, as well as a simple outlet for these children forced to grow up under such ravaging conditions.

How is it?

More so than many of the other docs on display this year, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is very much a slice-of-life film, hitting you with the context of the girls’ lives more so than with the joy of skateboarding. The viewer might need to pinch themselves, stepping back to understand how fundamentally deprived these kids are that a pastime we may take for granted can be perceived as a coveted and taboo, even, outlet for others.

The aforementioned deprivation hits early on, where an instructor asks her class what “courage” was, to be met with the response of “Courage is when someone goes to school and studies…” These girls cherish the things so many around the world take for granted, and Learning to Skateboard emphasizes this.

Though it delivers the harrowing context of life in a warzone, Learning ultimately ends with an aura of perseverance.“We are scared, but we leave the house because we have to leave the house.” These girls whose many of us couldn’t fathom are hardened by their environment, but remain tender and hopeful in their youth. Learning is a film that could hammer its audience down with tragedy, easily. Instead, Dysinger and Andreicheva do their best to move past this, doing the gravity of life in Afghanistan the justice it deserves while refusing to wallow in it.

Life Overtakes Me

Director: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Country: Sweden, United States
Length: 40 minutes

What’s It About?

Resignation Syndrome is a condition in which a child affected by severe trauma gradually shuts down, reverting to a comatose state in which the parents are left to despair over their child, asleep for months or even years. In Sweden, the lives of refugees who’ve fled their homes are chronicled as they seek asylum and face deportation, while simultaneously afflicted with children who physically cannot cope with the emotional torment.

Is It Good?

The documentaries we’ve covered so far all include children or young people as our avenue into a broader subject, with Life Overtakes Me perhaps the widest-ranging of core subjects. The concept of trauma as condemning a child to a lengthy slumber is maybe less dramatic or flashy a subject than anything more morbid, but it’s the implications surrounding the condition that dug into me here.

Young Dasha opens the film, seven years old and comatose for five months. Her parents, fleeing government gangsters who inflicted torture and rape in their home country. She’s bathed and fed, her muscles massaged to prevent atrophy, and responds in no way. Life Overtakes Me gives us glimpses into the lives of the families that flee from one struggle to another, while the Swedish stance on refugees is criticized as anti-immigrant sentiment increases and asylum-seekers are turned away.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Life Overtakes Me felt a little long in the tooth; it can be difficult to criticize a film whose material is so dramatically real and pressing, but the nature of the subject (inactivity) lends itself to a pace that can feel redundant at times. Which isn’t to say Life Overtakes Me is an unworthy piece of work–not at all. But for as heartbreaking as it is to see these children snatched from their families, there was almost a greater desire from me to indict the forces that would oppose aiding these people. We can see that families are hurting, that goes without saying. What’s stopping them from getting the help they need?

St. Louis Superman

Director: Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
Country: United States
Length: 28 minutes

What’s It About?

In the wake of the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri, Bruce Franks Jr–a political activist and battle rapper–ran and was elected as a state legislator in the state in 2016. Franks, a black man, faces an overwhelming majority of white, conservative, and racist opposition as he manages his impoverished, under-resourced, and murder-plagued minority district in St Louis.

Is It Good?

St. Louis Superman was probably my favorite of the documentaries. I, a white writer living in New York, make no allusion to my experience being as plagued by hardship as those minorities who are systematically targeted by the police and other government institutions. However as someone positively enraged by the casual injustice that colors America (especially as of late), Superman hit me a little more personally than the other shorts.

In its subject, the film has a star. Bruce Franks is the kind of character you would find written in a drama, yet here he is, flesh, blood, and real. And in telling his story, filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan shine light on a situation that need not be forgotten and needs to be addressed still. A scene in which Franks performs at a rap battle, his opponent critical of his “turning” to the side of the government that oppressed his people, is particularly telling. The crime of institutional racism (one of its many) is the ways in which it turns the marginalized against themselves.

And as a piece of storytelling, St. Louis Superman affects a satisfying arc in its narrative. Opening with Franks’ allusion to Michael Brown’s death–the same day as his son’s birthday–while simultaneously telling the story of his push to pass crucial legislation to aid his district’s high murder rate, Superman does what successful stories should do: It delivers an intimate portrait while painting a grand vision of the real “point.” And as far as points go, St. Louis Superman has one we should all listen to.

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha

Director: Laura Nix
Country: United States
Length: 20 minutes

What’s It About?

During the Vietnam War, couple Paul and Millie Cao fled the certainty of death in their home country for an ambiguous fate in the United States, separated and without an anchor. Years later, they would reunite, rekindling their love for each other through a passion for dance and a community of friends.

Is It Good?

Certainly the lightest of the documentary offerings, Cha-Cha is a brief and sweet film that provides a lot of different angles to enjoy. It’s a love story, it’s a little bit of history; there’s something to learn about ballroom dancing and its enthusiasts, and something to learn from being ushered into a culture one might not be familiar with.

At its core though, Cha-Cha, like the other films, is about something very serious. The ways war can tear families apart, people apart, is a devastating thing. But like we saw earlier with Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone, director Laura Nix makes her film about the ways people can be stronger than the hand they’re dealt. Paul and Millie have been through years of terror and pain, but here and now they seem to be doing as well as anyone could hope.