The 2019 Oscar-nominated Short Docs

‘St. Louis Superman’ gets this critic’s vote within a field of worthy contenders.

13 mins read

One can only commend the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science for its selections this year. The Oscar nominees for Best Documentary (Short Subject), like their feature documentary counterparts, represent one of the few categories where the Academy got it right. While the short docs are admittedly more conventional than they have been in recent years—no hybrids or animated docs here—their quality is hard to deny. Similar to the feature documentaries, the short docs boost the profiles of talents from underrepresented pockets of the industry. In doing so, they give worthy creators a spotlight and amplify notable voices that aren’t served elsewhere by the Academy.

These five films spotlight worthy subjects, but shortly after reviewing What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, one recalls the late critic’s infamous pan of Shoah. The merits of a documentary, Kael wrote, don’t rest on the importance of its subject alone. Fortunately, the five films would likely all get a passing grade from Kael for their knack for storytelling. If not, they get one from POV.

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

Dir. Carol Dysinger
(UK, 40 min.)

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) from director Carol Dysinger might be the one nominee that rests most on the laurels of its subject matter. However, it’s hard to deny the film’s relevance or the tug it pulls on the heartstrings. The film takes audiences inside “Skateistan,” a refuge in Kabul, Afghanistan where young women receive an education. The girls also learn how to skateboard. Besides enjoying opportunities that could lead them to roles that their mothers weren’t even allowed to dream of pursuing, Skateistan empowers the girls with confidence by teaching them how to ride a board.

Dysinger enjoys remarkable access to the teachers and students at Skateistan. She also affords space to the kids’ parents, particularly their mothers, who speak of their experiences growing up under the restrictive patriarchal rule of the Taliban. Although the film has a whiff of soft PR portraiture, which might perhaps have been inevitable, Dysinger ultimately provides an uplifting essay on the resilience of young girls. It’s hard to be cynical about any film these days that offers hope for the future.

Life Overtakes Me

Dir. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
(Sweden/USA, 40 min.)

This year’s class of Oscar shorts includes another Netflix doc about caregivers. They’ve become a staple among the nominees. After 2016’s Extremis, 2017’s Heroin(e), and 2018’s End Game comes Life Overtakes Me. Admittedly, Netflix’s ongoing parade of depressingly medicinal short docs makes this nominee seem weaker in comparison to its predecessors. It’s perhaps too early to penetrate its intriguing subject.

Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson look at three families in Sweden with children affected by Resignation Syndrome. The condition, which the Swedes call “uppgivenhetssyndrom,” is very peculiar. It afflicts children, mostly in families of refugees and asylum seekers. The kids with Resignation Syndrome undergo periods of withdrawal and gradually slip away until they become comatose. The situation is obviously hell for these families that are already under enormous stress.

Life Overtakes Me observes three cases of Resignation Syndrome. The parents anxiously tend to their children, feeding and massaging them with hopes for their recoveries. They share the stories of the traumatic events that brought them to Sweden. All three families seek asylum and describe being in states of uncertainty and fear as they awaited news of their right to remain in Sweden. Haptas and Samuelson load the doc with cutaways to snowy landscapes, which offer fine visual complements to the description of Resignation Syndrome as a “Snow White state” offered by one of the subjects. These vignettes offer audio interviews with experts who offer vague information.

The consensus of the talking heads is that it’s too early to know much about Resignation Syndrome or say why it appears in Sweden in much higher numbers than elsewhere on the globe. These soundbites prove frustrating and somewhat redundant when the great observational footage expresses this uncertainty clearly. The film nevertheless leaves one moved and eager to learn more.

In the Absence

Dir. Seung-jun Yi
(South Korea/USA, 28 min.)

An outstanding convergence of journalism and point of view filmmaking, In the Absence brings a bold political doc to the awards season. The film, directed by Seung-jun Yi and supported by Field of Vision, tells the gut-wrenching story of the 2014 MW Sewol boat disaster in South Korea. The doc provides unsettling footage from within the ferry as it goes underneath the sea in the accident that claimed the lives of over 300 people, many of whom were students. The footage of the rescue “effort” is more disturbing than the sights of the sinking ship. In the Absence observes rescue boats and helicopters standing idly by. It shows how the government encouraged rescue workers simply to put on a good show for the cameras as they let the kids die. Even more troubling is the news that former President Park Geun-hye spent seven hours in bed before responding to the situation.

Years later, the parents and the nation finally demand answers. Seung-jun offers interviews with survivors and grieving parents who recount their final exchanges with the victims who clung to hope in the sinking boat. The film is an incisive record of governmental inaction and the failures of bureaucratic complacency. It’s as enraging as it is compelling.

Walk Run Cha-Cha

Dir. Laura Nix
(USA, 20 min.)

The New York Times’ Op-Docs could finally land a win with this invigorating crowd-pleaser. Walk Run Cha-Cha is an absolute delight. This film, directed by Laura Nix, finds a winning set of characters in Paul and Millie Cao, a Vietnamese-American couple who keep their passion alive by dancing. The film observes the two ballroom dancers, who are an analyst and accountant by day, as they bust a move by night. Nix’s film is shot lovingly, especially in its strikingly theatrical finale.

Walk Run Cha-Cha offers a moving tale of the hidden lives of ordinary people. Millie jokes that her colleagues would be shocked to learn of her secret life as a dancer, and one can only imagine their jaws on the floor when they see the film. Moreover, the Caos reflect upon the experience of rekindling their love after they both escaped Vietnam and reunited in America. They tell Nix that they’ve been together for over 40 years, and how they’ve seen horror in wartime and beauty on the dancefloor. Nix’s film is especially valuable as a passionate tale of the invisible personal costs that refugees pay while escaping home for a better life. These stories of rebuilding family ties and learning how to love again (what Paul refers to as a “fresh start”) are told too rarely. We often hear about the Vietnam war, but not the struggles that come after. With its charming dancers and captivating moves, Walk Run Cha-Cha shimmies to top marks from the judges. Watch Walk Run Cha-Cha below.

St. Louis Superman

Dir. Smriti Mundhra, Sami Khan
(USA, 29 min.)

Audiences searching for a great character study need not look any further than St. Louis Superman. This excellent film finds a dynamic subject in Bruce Franks, Jr., a battle rapper and Ferguson activist turned politician. Directors Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra observe Franks as he sails to an unexpected victory in his run for political office. While Franks’ story predates that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the wave of hopeful newcomers she embodies, St. Louis Superman all but demands to be seen as part of a double bill with Knock Down the House. It’s an excellent portrait of an ordinary hero and a necessary reminder that any hope for change resides in individuals who translate activism into action.

Coming before AOC gives Franks’ story a fuller narrative. While offering a moving and inspiring story, St. Louis Superman doesn’t offer audiences a happy ending. This incisive doc doesn’t soften the edges of a sad tale as Franks wrestles with the challenges of putting activism into practice. Moreover, the film asks what hope there is for the future when committed individuals try to enact change in an establishment that doesn’t speak their language.

Khan and Mundhra highlight the elements of marginality and access with an unexpected punch as they parallel Franks’ fire on the battle rap scene with his conviction as a politician. In each arena, he fights for his community and plays by his own rules. The film offers an intimate glimpse at the political establishment’s failure to reflect a diversity of experiences as Khan and Mundhra observe Franks’ struggles. St. Louis Superman is the standout among the Oscar nominees for best short doc. Clearly and passionately, it finds the collective urgency in one man’s story. Superman deserves the gold within a worthy field of contenders. Read more on St. Louis Superman in our interview with director Sami Khan!

The Oscar-nominated short docs screen in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox beginning January 31. They open at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on February 7.

How to Learn to Skateboard (If You’re a Girl) is available on A&E and Life Overtakes Me is on Netflix.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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