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Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

by Stephen Silver
Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Oscars 2020: Watch the Documentary Shorts

Chacha, skateboards and a real-life Superman

This year’s Documentary Short Subject category at the Oscars tells stories from all over the world: A tragic boat accident in South Korea, a couple that went from Vietnam to Los Angeles while dancing along the way, a battle-rapping politician from Missouri, skateboarding girls in Afghanistan, and illness-struck children in Sweden. 

Reviews of the 2020 Oscar nominees: 

Walk Run Chacha 

Director Laura Nix’s film is a remarkably sweet love story and immigration story. It tells the decades-spanning story of Paul and Millie Cao. The couple, part of the ethnic Chinese minority in Vietnam, were separated during the Vietnam War, reunited in the U.S. in the 1980s. 

In the present day, we see them living together in Los Angeles, eating food that looks great, and (of course) dancing. The two dance the cha-cha together, for hours each week, and the 20-minute film’s final sequence has the two of them dancing to The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” 

The film is streaming on the website of The New York Times, as an “op doc,” and also on YouTube: 

St. Louis Superman 

This documentary, from filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan and produced through MTV Films, is unlikely any other portrait of a politician I’ve ever seen. 

Bruce Franks, Jr. is a St. Louis native who first came to prominence as part of that city’s battle rap scene, and was on the ground for the nearby Ferguson protests in 2014 and 2015. 

After that Franks, who has lost a younger brother and other loved ones to gun violence, run for and was elected to the state legislature in Missouri, on a platform of reducing gun violence. 

In the 27-minute film, we see Franks befriended by colleagues, including conservative white Republicans, and the film establishes that he’s an unusually charismatic leader. We also see Franks returning to the battle rap scene, after his election, against an adversary who accuses him of losing touch with the community. 

We’re told by an on-screen title at the end that Franks has resigned from his seat, due to what he described as continuing trauma, and announced that he was planning to leave Missouri. It’s likely, though, that we haven’t seen the last of this man’s impact. 

In the Absence 

Director Yi Seung-Jun’s film about the tragic Sewol ferry crash in South Korea in 2014 weaves together some truly impressive footage, straight from rescue boats at the time of the tragedy, up until the protests that led, at least in part, to the resignation of that country’s president, Park Geun-Hye. 

The disaster killed more than 300 people, most of them were high school students and was one of those tragedies that led to multiple scandalous revelations about safety lapses, the ineffective response, and subsequent government misconduct. 

The 28-minute film is currently streaming in full on Facebook Watch, as well as on YouTube 

Life Overtakes Me

Here’s a documentary much more interesting for what it’s about than how it tells its story. Life Overtakes Me, directed by Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, is about a strange phenomenon in Sweden: Dozens of children, who have come to that country as refugees in recent years from the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union, have developed a condition called  Resignation Syndrome, in which they essentially become catatonic for months at a time, as a reaction to trauma. 

It’s hard to say this about a film that’s so well-intentioned, but the film doesn’t really find any way to be aesthetically interesting. The syndrome itself, and its concentration in that part of the world (in addition to some reported cases in Australia), remain a medical mystery, but that’s not quite the focus of the film. 

The 40-minute film, which is streaming on Netflix, shows us several of the families, interviewing their parents and seeing the day-to-day life of caring for such children, at least some of whom, by the end, have shown improvements. 

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

This documentary is… exactly what it sounds like. The American director, Carol Dysinger, has made a film about Skateistan, a special program that educates young girls in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in reading and writing, as well as the activity of the title. The program has existed since 2008 and is now run entirely by Afghans. 

The chapters all illustrate individual skateboarding activities, but they also serve as metaphors for the wider struggle, in a country where girls weren’t allowed to go to school until not long ago. 

When it comes to documentaries about skateboarding within a certain sociopolitical milieu, this isn’t quite on the level of Minding the Gap, last year’s astonishing feature-length documentary about years in the lives of a group of teen skateboarders in Illinois. But Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is still an inspiring tale. 

The film is on A&E, including its on-demand channel, and also on Hulu, if you subscribe to the “with Live TV” option. 

Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

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