2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Films

An odd bunch. With no massive standout, you might think it would be an utter toss-up as to what will win the Oscar. Nope. There is one that, at least according to voters and experts alike, is a slam dunk. It certainly was not my favorite, nor was it the best made. Usually, that would make me feel unduly annoyed. But this year…whatever…

“In the Absence” (South Korea)
Directed by Yi Seung-Jun

In the Absence (2018)Using actual emergency response communications,  phone calls and, afterward, court tapes and first-person accounts, “In the Absence” is a harrowing minute-by-minute account of the Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea in which over 300 people, mostly children, were killed. The bungling of the rescue attempt, its aftermath, and then the coverup are described in detail. As you can imagine, it is a very hard piece to watch, both in the unfolding of the horror in real-time, and the apparent disdain for human life by the bureaucrats charged with protecting citizens.

However, as a film, it’s a bit all over the place. Seung-Jin tries to squeeze a little too much out of it, considering that it is a short film. The opening minute-by-minute narrative of the disaster is essential. But, in the film’s second half, the narrative, while chronologically intact, spans too many points of view. For me, it would have been more powerful to focus on one of these groups. And, if I’m being honest, that honor would have gone to the rescue divers. Their stories alone would’ve successfully filled 30-45 minutes. Instead, we have parents, friends, government officials, news people, and on…

But, as stated, it is still worthy of its place in this group. While considered one of the most defining events of the last decade inside South Korea, it illustrates a moment that most of the rest of the world may not have ever heard of. And for a documentary, any effort to give voice to those who no longer have one is about as good a place to start as there is.

“Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl)” (U.K.)
Directed by Carol Dysinger

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) (2019)Ladies and gentlemen, meet your Oscar winner. If you’re reading this AFTER the Oscars and this didn’t win, then feel free to point and laugh at me. Regardless, this mostly uplifting, and occasionally confounding look at what it means to be a young woman in a former Taliban-held society, is, indeed, very good. Profiling the female heroes who, in spite of unspeakable patriarchal barriers, keep a school for young girls alive and thriving, the film shows hones in on a few of the girls, and the interesting choice of skateboarding as the main glue of the school’s curriculum.

To be clear, my issues with the film are purely stylistic. It’s often far too cute, for me. The music, chapter headings, graphics, the need to illustrate so much of the pleasant, happy or positive moments within the school’s framework – all of it is on the wrong side of sappy considering the courage it takes for everyone involved to maintain independence in the world jut outside the school’s doors. The handful of important negative, sad or PTSD-tinged memories or stories are quickly washed away with happy kids’ music. As a result, I really had no idea what the filmmaker’s point of view was, and in a doc, that can be deadly. But it is certainly pleasant, and illuminates a very specific corner of a culture we are not familiar with, so…sure. Give it the Oscar. Could do much worse.

“Life Overtakes Me” (Sweden)
Directed by John Haptas

Life Overtakes Me (2019)Okay, let’s start by saying that a world where the ailment described and observed in this film is even possible, speaks to how screwed up it is. Part mental health, part physiologic, “Life Overtakes Me” focuses on a condition known as Resignation Syndrome, where the amount of instability, fear, and PTSD, dumped on the children of refugees leads them to fall into a coma-like syndrome. Unusual. Informative. Heartbreaking.

Alas, the film isn’t all that well structured. Trying to balance chronology with important medical and historical information, the movie doesn’t accomplish either in a particularly captivating way. We’re more like flies on the wall than active participants. So, while I applaud the effort and illuminative information, I wouldn’t really describe it as Oscar-worthy. Mostly it’s a bit dull. But the subject? Sad. Terribly, terribly sad.

“St. Louis Superman”
Directed by Sami Khan

St. Louis Superman (2019)My favorite of the bunch, “St. Louis Superman” is a profile piece on Bruce Franks. So inspired by his own activism in the days after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, he ran for a seat in the Missouri State Senate…and won. One of only a handful of Democrats, and one of the only persons of color in that body, he has spent his time there focused on trying to push anti-violence legislation in to law.

While the film shows the struggles of getting such bills through…and his amazing skills in rap battles…it’s really a film about a man quite literally trying to make his home city a safer place for his children. As such we mostly see him being a caring father trying desperately to avoid the emotional pitfalls of his own personal tragic history, and the heavy burden of being a pillar of a community that has seen all too much death and destruction.

The film is subtle, well-edited, and its words are chosen with care and clarity. To me, the best film of the bunch, even if not the most jarring or emotional.

“Walk Run Cha-Cha”
Directed by Laura Nix

Walk Run Cha-Cha (2019)The sweetest doc short I’ve seen in some time, director Laura Nix’ “Walk Run Cha-Cha” seems at first glance to be a lightweight look at how ballroom dancing keeps an ex-pat Vietnamese couple young at heart. But it soon becomes apparent that Millie and Chipaul Cao‘s love story was created long before the film takes place, in the tumult and terror of North Vietnamese forces overtaking the lives and worlds of those in the South. It’s about escape, love, and commitment. It is also funny, warm and endearing.

Alas, it’s just this side of too endearing to win, but that in no way lessens the film’s craft or effectiveness. In fact, Nix perfectly balances several elements… imagery, sounds, music, the warmth of family gatherings, dance rehearsals, oral story-telling, and inner-monologue VO…with total control. All of which culminates in a lovely climax. The shortest of the films, it stands out as one of the five that will last the longest in my memories.

“In the Absence” – FULL MOVIE


“Learning to Skateboard” – TRAILER


“Life Overtakes Me” – TRAILER (available on Netflix)


“St. Louis Superman” – TRAILER


“Walk Run Cha-Cha” – FULL MOVIE

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