×

‘2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary’: Film Review

The issues run the gamut from top-level governmental incompetence to grass-roots activism, but the overall level of quality among this year’s Oscar doc shorts is consistently high.

Release Date:
Jan 31, 2020

Running time: 160 MIN.

Official Site: https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/

“Pictures are for entertainment — messages should be delivered by Western Union.” The line has been variously attributed to half a dozen old-school Hollywood producers, from Samuel Goldwyn to Frank Capra, but no matter who said it, the sentiment captures how classic studio types endeavored to separate political statements from popular cinema. In recent years, however, pundits have been pressuring the Academy to do just the opposite — to become more activist through its awards — and rather than actually changing, the organization seems to have realized that the documentary shorts category is the easiest way to take a stand, typically awarding important messages over exceptional moviemaking. Sometimes the two coincide. This year’s crop of Oscar nominees — an impactful 160-minute package, available to stream online or in select venues by ShortsTV — are strong films overall, although it’s unlikely that anyone would mistake them for entertainment.

Certainly, the folks at Netflix don’t have any such illusions about John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s wrenching kids-in-peril short “Life Overtakes Me,” whereas the film’s “Oscar-worthiness” was almost certainly a factor in acquiring it for the service. Made in Sweden, where the country is being flooded with refugees fleeing situations far too horrific to depict, the doc spotlights an alarming phenomenon among the incoming families called “resignation syndrome,” a psychosomatic disorder in which children overwhelmed by trauma slip into a coma-like state. The cases number in the hundreds, but the filmmakers focus on just four, which show just how scary it must be for parents who’ve fled persecution to see their children so impacted by stresses they don’t fully understand, but which the kids clearly sense on some subconscious level. The pressure is compounded by a sense of limbo, as the adults wait to hear whether their families will be granted permanent asylum.

British director Carol Dysinger also focuses on young people in her Afghanistan-set “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl),” which takes a more optimistic stance, despite the sense that the very act of participating in the film seems to endanger her subjects’ lives. Even after the fall of the Taliban, the country remains “one of the worst places in the world to be born a girl,” the film begins, focusing on a program called Skateistan that dares to teach literacy, math and the basics of skateboarding to disadvantaged young women in Kabul. In an early scene, the girls are asked in class to define courage, but the truth is, simply coming to school takes bravery in a country where women are expected to obey men and stay indoors. The doc’s positive, solutions-oriented approach is refreshing, even if the 40-minute form doesn’t feel like the natural length for the subject.

Popular on Variety

South Korean short “In the Absence” takes a fearless and fittingly outraged stand on the 2014 sinking of an overloaded passenger ferry, the MW Sewol, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds on board, most of them high school students. In retrospect, the tragedy seems all the more unthinkable in that it unfolded over many hours, ample time for officials to have intervened. Instead, the students were told to stay put as the boat slowly tipped onto its side, while rescue workers kept their distance awaiting orders from the president. Although an earlier feature about the disaster, titled “The Truth Shall Not Sink With the Sewol,” led to government backlash against the Busan film festival, director Yi Seung-Jun risks retaliation with this rigorous re-creation of events, including audio recordings that reveal how those in charge discussed trying to stage a courageous rescue for the cameras, when the footage reveals how badly they botched the situation.

A relatively new platform for nonfiction shorts, the New York Times’ Op-Docs series encourages an exciting sense of innovation within the form, as filmmakers seek creative new ways of letting their subjects speak for themselves. Laura Nix’s “Walk, Run, Cha-Cha” is a good example (though not quite as strong as Garrett Bradley’s “Alone” or Charlie Tyrell’s “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes,” which didn’t make the Oscar cut), in which the director uses dance classes as an oblique way of studying the challenges facing an immigrant couple. Her subjects, Paul and Millie Cao, met in Vietnam, but whatever connection they felt over six months was challenged by a six-year separation. Today, they use cha-cha as a way of staying close, and though that’s a gross simplification of their situation, it works well enough in the space of a 20-minute film — the shortest and slightest of the nominees, but also the most poetic (something the category could use more of going forward).

Co-directors Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s “St. Louis Superman” is a more conventional message movie, though it comes in the form of a good, old-fashioned personality profile — one that Frank Capra would surely appreciate. After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., an African American activist named Bruce Franks Jr. ran for state representative, a role traditionally played by wealthier white men in the state. A modern-day “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story, the documentary shows how an unconventional candidate — in this case, a black man who makes better money battle rapping than he does as a legislator — took the fight against community violence to the state capital. The cause is a personal one for Franks (he lost his kid brother in a gunfight), though institutional racism and general ambivalence from the establishment make for formidable obstacles to change. Without veering into propaganda territory, the film treats Franks’ charisma as its fuel and will ideally inspire others to get involved.

'2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary': Film Review

Reviewed online, Solvang, Calif., Feb. 7, 2020. Running time: 160 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Magnolia Pictures release of a ShortsTV presentation. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nielsen, Stephanie Charmail.

More Film

  • Saudi Runaway

    Director Susanne Regina Maures on ‘Saudi Runaway’

    BERLIN —  Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” posed the question of whether it’s possible to make a complete film from one POV and yet  create a true emotional connection with an audience if it doesn’t have a face to connect with. “Saudi Runaway” delivers a haunting POV experience via the hands of a woman, [...]

  • Abbas Kiarostami

    India’s Alliance Wraps Berlin Market With Abbas Kiarostami Package Deal (EXCLUSIVE)

    India’s Alliance Media & Entertainment is in the process of acquiring a library of works by late Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami for distribution in the Indian subcontinent from France’s MK2 Films. The deal covers 33 features, documentaries and shorts from Kiarostami’s oeuvre, including “Taste of Cherry,” “The Wind Will Carry Us” and “Where Is My [...]

  • Rachel Brosnahan25th Annual Screen Actors Guild

    Film News Roundup: Rachel Brosnahan Starring in Sci-Fi Movie 'Distant'

    In today’s film news roundup, Rachel Brosnahan will try science-fiction, documentaries about Herb Alpert and Sasha Joseph Neulinger find homes, and Cameron Boyce’s “Runt” gets a premiere. CASTING Rachel Brosnahan will star with Anthony Ramos in Amblin Partners’ upcoming comedic sci-fi film “Distant.” Popular on Variety Will Speck and Josh Gordon will direct from Spenser [...]

  • Aldis Hodge Regina King

    Aldis Hodge Gushes Over Working With First-Time Film Director Regina King

    Regina King is on a roll. After winning an Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and starring as masked vigilante Sister Knight in HBO’s “Watchmen,” King is gearing up to make her film directing debut with “One Night in Miami.” Adapted by Kemp Powers from his play of the same name, the film dramatizes a [...]

  • Jon Berg

    Netflix Developing Female-Fronted Comedy Film With Jon Berg (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix is developing an untitled female-led comedy with producer Jon Berg, the former Warner Bros.’ co-president of production. The writing team of Jordan Roter (“The Tear Down,” “Camp Rules”) and Monica Corcoran Harel (New York Times, Marie Claire) has been attached to write the project. Netflix is keeping the logline under wraps. The project will [...]

  • Bob Chapek Disney CEO

    Why Wall Street Is Unhappy (for Now) With Disney's CEO Change

    We all knew the end was coming. Bob Iger had promised, time and again, that the end was coming. But the rather abrupt announcement Tuesday afternoon that he would relinquish his longtime role as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. — and that theme parks head Bob Chapek would succeed him at the top of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content