Most of the short subject documentaries nominated for Oscars this year will leave you with a feeling of “how did I not know this was a thing?” The films span the globe and the subjects are wide ranging, but they’re tied together by their focus on exceptional aspects of stories that made headlines. By zeroing in on a new element of these stories, the filmmakers behind this year’s nominees strive to deepen our understanding of topics we may think we already know.
In the Absence – directed by Yi Seung-Jun
In the Absence tells the story of the 2014 MV Sewol Ferry disaster off the coast of South Korea, which killed over 300 people, including many schoolchildren. The documentary is hauntingly spare, using audio and video from the day the ship sank, interviews with some of those involved in the recovery, and a very little bit of expository text to intentionally tell a story the filmmakers know is incomplete and confusing. It’s as if director Yi Seung-Jun is saying, “You have questions about WTF happened here? Join the club.” The style allows viewers to come in their own time to the understanding of the true horror of the incident, from government incompetence to the death toll that continued to climb after the initial tragedy, to the prospect that some of the video used in the film may well have come from the phones of students who didn’t survive. The gradual realization that the film features so few answers because there are so few answers is what makes In the Absence impossible to shake.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) – directed by Carol Dysinger
Most of us in the US can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a war zone, which can make it hard to remember that for some people, that kind of omnipresent danger is just the way of their worlds. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), a film about a school in Kabul that teaches girls about both academics and skateboarding, sits at the intersection of where violence and uncertainty meet day to day life. The teachers are all women, and they focus as much on building confidence and futures as they do on spelling or skating a ramp. But the lessons in math and pushing off on a board are interspersed with stories about bombings and descriptions of the ways girls and women are denied the chance to pursue education or careers. Director Carol Dysinger carefully balances the fun and optimism of Skateistan with the reality of the obstacles these girls still have to overcome before they can realize their dreams of being pilots, teachers, eye doctors, or even professional skaters.
Life Overtakes Me – directed by John Haptas
A great documentary will almost always either put a new lens on a familiar topic or introduce a completely new one. In considering the plight of refugees from the perspective of families dealing with a little-known medical condition called Resignation Syndrome, Life Overtakes Me does both. Each of the three families profiled have fled to Sweden and are awaiting final word on whether they can stay. And each family has at least one child with Resignation Syndrome, a condition in which a child who has experienced trauma completely withdraws into a coma-like state. Director John Haptas does a skillful job of threading the different parts of this story – violence in home countries, research about the disease, the outsized number of cases in Sweden, the role the precarious nature of refugee status plays in the illness – together to create a captivating and well-paced film.
St. Louis Superman – directed by Sami Khan
Bruce Franks Jr., the Missouri state legislator at the center of St. Louis Superman, has such an interesting story that it’s surprising he’s not better known. Following the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO – incidentally, on the same day Franks’ son was born – Franks was deeply involved in protests then ran for and was elected to the state House of Representatives. The film loosely follows his effort to get a bill declaring youth violence a public health epidemic through an overwhelming white, conservative legislature. Franks is an incredibly compelling subject, but the many angles to his story – his devotion to his children and his late brother, his skill as a battle rapper, the way he’s so often standing alone and not quite belonging to any group – make it difficult to go into real depth on any of them. A short form documentary should still fell complete, and St. Louis Superman falls just a bit short of that mark.
Walk Run Cha-Cha – directed by Laura Nix
Originally produced as a New York Times Op-doc, Walk Run Cha-Cha feels like the video version of a feature piece you’d read in a Sunday paper. It centers on Paul and Millie Cao, who dated as young adults in Vietnam, but were separated when Paul immigrated to the United States following the Vietnam War. They were reunited six years later, married, and built a life together. And now they do ballroom dancing. And that’s kinda it. It’s a perfectly charming story, and the focus on dancing illustrates the value telling it visually through film as opposed to in a newspaper or magazine feature piece. But Walk Run Cha-Cha suffers in comparison to the other nominees, all of which go into greater depth in covering more compelling topics.
And the winner is…
Don’t count out the quietly devastating In the Absence but I think Life Overtakes Me takes best advantage of the form to go deep on a specific topic that will be both new and compelling for most viewers.