“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.
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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.
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.