A Closer Look at the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

These five Oscar-nominated documentary short films have made it to the summit of the nonfiction craft. Topics are international in scope: immigration, refugees, the personal cost of political activism, government malfeasance and girls in war-torn
Kabul skateboarding for kicks.

In the Absence
More than 300 people died when the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014; most tragically, 250 were high school students who remained in their cabins per instructions, rather than attempting to escape. The accident (some of which was televised live) traumatized South Korea, says “In the Absence” producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam. It is the fourth project for Kam and director Yi Seung-Jun. The documentary combines real-time footage of the accident recorded by rescuers, the students’ own cellphone videos, news footage and later-day interviews with parents and civilian divers. “We invite [the] audience to feel something behind the footage: the absence of the country on that day to protect us,” Kam says.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl)
An all-woman crew, led by director and NYU professor Carol Dysinger, was behind the camera throughout A&E’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl).” Dysinger’s previous experiences filming in Afghanistan prepared her for the near-impossible task of capturing these dynamic women and girls, who are mostly hidden from the world. “I understood what was necessary to get the intimacy and openness,” she says. “There’s a delicate dance of putting people at ease,” she says, because of Afghani cultural mores and respect for elders. The short is also nominated for a BAFTA. Dysinger previously won a Student Academy Award (“Sixteen Down”), which, she proudly notes, was presented to her by Frank Capra.

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Life Overtakes Me
Berkeley-based filmmakers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson are the producing-directing team (and entire production crew) for Netflix’s “Life Overtakes Me.” After reading news reports about refugee children frozen in coma-like states (named Resignation Syndrome by doctors), the pair journeyed to Sweden to record this harrowing tale of children so traumatized by their families’ ordeal as refugees, they’ve withdrawn completely. “It’s always struck me that human beings react to stress and trauma in different ways,” says Haptas. The affected children are motionless and unresponsive; the filmmakers put viewers in the room with the struggling families as much as possible. “The situation is so intense and these are difficult emotional situations,” explains Samuelson, noting that it took significant time to engender the families’ trust.

St. Louis Superman
It took directors Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan a year to complete “St. Louis Superman,” a chronicle of Ferguson, Mo., rapper, activist and nascent politico Bruce Franks Jr.’s journey to Missouri’s House of Representatives. Mundhra says, while a hopeful story, the film shows the personal price of civic engagement and the toll that it takes on people of marginalized backgrounds. “Politics does not exist in a vacuum. Bruce was immersed and embedded in the fight. These people are on the front lines, going through a lot to do the work that they do,” she says. AJE Witness financed the production; MTV Documentary Films (and doc maven Sheila Nevins) picked up the 28-minute short after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

Walk Run Cha-Cha
Produced by Colette Sandstedt, executive produced by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim and Concordia Studio for the New York Times Op-Docs, the 20-minute “Walk Run Cha-Cha” is a condensation of director Laura Nix’s seven-year chronicle of a Southern California dance studio. “I was intrigued by these Eastern European dancers teaching Latin dance to people from the Chinese community in suburban L.A.,” she explains of the documentary’s origin.

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