Oscar Documentary Shorts urge audiences to embrace hope

2020 Oscar Shorts — Documentary

FilmScene—Chauncey — various showtimes

Blue Carpet Bash

FilmScene—Chauncey — Sunday, Feb. 9 at 5:30 p.m.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) — video still

Oscar season seems to come with fewer and fewer joys each year. This feels especially true in the wake of seemingly undeserving winners and nomination snubs far more grounded in gender and race than voter ignorance. The excitement and glitz of past ceremonies has buckled under the weight of viewer apathy, collective dismissal and desperate attempts by the Academy to cling to its own relevance.

But despite years of forgettable winners in nearly every large category, the proverbial glimmer of hope can usually be found in the categories most known for offering the casual viewer an opportunity for bathroom breaks: the short films.

This year’s slate for Best Documentary Shorts is no exception, providing the largest degree of thematic variation among its sibling categories, and providing insight into the world’s desperate need for justice and the hope it drags behind it. Is that too bleak? Too cynical? Would you prefer hope to be leading rather than limp and full of grass stains? So do the five films nominated this year. They urge us to embrace hope of any kind, even if it’s reactionary.

Walk Run Cha-Cha — video still

Audiences will most likely find the most hopeful to be Walk Run Cha-Cha (21 min.), directed by Laura Nix — if not the least effective in terms of global examination. The film centers on a married couple, 40 years after they were initially separated during the Vietnam War, who have found new life in competitive dancing.

Nix effectively presents her subjects as portraits, using the interviews as voice over upon images of the individuals sitting still for the camera, an emphasis that the history of a marriage is not shared with others, but only detachably listened to. The only story that is truly felt in the brisk run time (the shortest of the program) is the one they tell through dance. It’s a touching, if more than a little light, contrast to its fellow nominees.

St. Louis Superman — video still

St. Louis Superman (28 min), directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, bridges this gap, telling the intimate story of Bruce Franks, Jr, a professional battle rapper and Ferguson activist who became a State Representative in Missouri. The film follows the 34-year-old through his efforts to reform gun violence laws following the death of Michael Brown, and find personal catharsis for the loss of his older brother at the age of nine.

The film brings with it handfuls of inspiration and social justice, but ultimately suffers from the format in which it is being celebrated for; a short film that truncates the story of a powerful, determined man of color facing his violent past to create a future for his children. There is a full length feature film here, should the filmmakers choose to expand it, and we’d all be better for it.

Life Overtakes Me — video still

Other films in the category benefit from the short-length format, such as Life Overtakes Me (39 min), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, which follows three refugee families in Sweden whose children are experiencing a coma-like illness known as Resignation Syndrome.

Netflix’s one entry this year, off the heels of last year’s win, is an unsettling view of the effect of trauma, compounded by uncertainty of long-term safety, on refugee children. The directors use their time wisely, informing on a disease relatively new to the world of medicine which increases each year, acknowledging that we still know so little.

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Calm, almost meditative, shots of stark landscapes emphasize how peaceful these afflicted children appear, as if only napping, and juxtapose the rage and pain flowing through their heartbroken parents. The most striking element, the most palpable theme, is the fear that these children experience and how that translates to the fear a parent has for their children. The film provides no answers to the prevention of this rare illness, beyond removing such trauma from the lives of young children; it’s a hope of desperation and it rings throughout the remainder of the program.

In the Absence — video still

The race towards the gold statuette is between the final two nominees, presenting starkly different cultural crises: one a tragic mishandling of a disaster costing the lives of hundreds of students;c the other providing defiant hope and aspirations to female children in a dangerous and oppressive environment. Director Yi Seung-Jun’s In the Absence (28 min) documents the events of a ferry in South Korea that begins to sink, holding hundreds of people, including students on a field trip.

The terror of this avoidable tragedy is not only in the lives lost, but in the real-time (sort of) fashion that the events are presented — not relying on narrative tricks or emotional manipulation, but through actual footage and text messages from the students to their parents. It’s through this objective, cold lens that the ineptitude of the government, its leader, and the first response teams is most determinable and rightly vilified. It’s a kick to the throat and a stirring reminder that democratic governments work for their people, and any prioritization of media coverage or power-posturing should be immediately struck down with fury and defiance.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) — video still

That defiant passion is at the very core of Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) (39 min.), directed by Carol Dysinger, where a school in the war-torn city of Kabul teaches Afghan girls to read, write and skateboard. It’s a feminist battlecry, sticking its thumb in the eye of a patriarchy that will most likely still oppress the lives of these young students.

That particular sword of Damocles, ever dangling above, undercuts the hope and inspiration of the documentary, coloring each skating lesson with a hue sadness. The directors own this entirely, and counter it by framing the narrative through lessons of new skill sets. The images of young women and girls rolling, leaping, and — yes — falling, embolden the viewer as they do the subjects. Perhaps it is the echoes of this boldness, or my own personal hope that no oppression can withstand the aspirations of youth, that make this my pick for the gold.

This slate of films has a combined sense of risk, loss and even hopelessness. It doesn’t require answers or offer much in the way of solutions, and it’s what makes the format, and these specific films, so special and unique.

It’s easy to view these Oscar Shorts presentations as simply a venue for viewing five separate films, and there’d be no shame in that; they’re literally presented as such. But I think the experience of these stories creates a singular, whole experience. In the lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes, the audience journeys from hope and defiance in a war-torn country, loss at the hands of neglectful governments, the ramifications of escaping from such places with ongoing trauma, fighting for change and betterment, and rediscovering passion on the other end of it all. It’s an epic patchwork of a journey — five fabrics sewn together with the thread of justice.

The Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts are playing at FilmScene now through Feb. 6. We’ll present thoughts on the other two Oscar Nominated Shorts programs in the coming days.

The 92nd Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. on ABC. FilmScene will be screening the awards during their annual Blue Carpet Bash, free to the public and presented at the new Chauncey Location.