The Short Of It: Reviewing The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Documentary shorts are perhaps the least glamorized category of films to be recognized at the Academy Awards. With very little chance of theatrical release and usually produced as television programming, documentary shorts are often the result of hours upon hours of filmmaking without the attention that feature documentaries receive and without comparable monetary or professional recognition for the documentarians' efforts. That's why the Documentary Short category exists, to provide that kind of acclaim for five short works which would otherwise be lost to the annals of time and immense streaming libraries. And here's what you can expect from this year's five nominees.

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha is a New York Times-produced documentary about a Vietnamese immigrant couple, Paul and Millie Cao, who came to America forty years ago as refugees. However, being immigrants meant that they had to work extremely hard in their youth in order to foster success for themselves, so there was not much time for a personal life or for romance. However, in their middle age, they now have the time and ability to be engaged in a personal life and to reconnect with one another. Their bonding method of choice: dance. Documentarian Laura Nix captures a tenderness to this simple story that leaves less of a lasting impression than the other nominees, but it captures a special aspect of the Caos' lives that serves as a personal and lovely reminder of the value in making time to spend with our loved ones.

In the Absence

In 2014, a ferry off the coast of Korea started to capsize with hundreds of passengers onboard, including nearly 300 students on a class trip with their teachers. Assembled from archival footage and interviews with a diver, a survivor, and the family members of those lost to the event, In the Absence chronicles a deeply upsetting story of government corruption and bureaucracy that allowed a ship full of young lives to slowly sink into the ocean. Documentarian Seung-jun Yi captures a government more concerned with the appearance of having battled a tragedy than with actually saving the lives of those it is charged with protecting. The onus falls to civilian ship captains and divers to save who they can, but the trauma of the event irreparably damages the lives of hundreds of families. The film's matter-of-fact presentation at first comes across as callous, until you realize that you're watching a tragedy play out in slow motion while those with the power to do anything choose to do nothing.

Life Overtakes Me

Life Overtakes Me (currently available on Netflix) is the story of various refugee families who have fled to Sweden, though each family has been afflicted by a strange circumstance as they await confirmation of their asylum. Refugee children throughout Sweden have fallen victim to what is known as Resignation Syndrome, a coma-like state that appears to be brought on by continuous stress about the uncertainty of the future. Documentarians Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas visit with a number of families looking to be granted asylum, and the similarities in their stories may be redundant but exemplify how widespread an issue Resignation Syndrome is, affecting hundreds of families without any form of treatment. In fact, it seems as though the only way for these children to snap out of it is to get a sense that their families are once again secure and safe. In the wake of growing anti-refugee sentiment in Sweden and around the world, Life Overtakes Me showcases an unexpected consequence of hostile attitudes to foreigners in need. 

St. Louis Superman

Bruce Franks, Jr. is a battle rapper and activist in Missouri who came to prominence in the wake of the Ferguson protests. St. Louis Superman follows Franks upon his election to the Missouri state House of Representatives, where he serves as one of the only Democrats and people of color in a predominantly white and Republican legislature. Franks' focus in the legislature is on stopping the kind of gun violence that affects his community and killed his nine-year-old brother, but documentarians Smriti Mundhra and Sami Kahn are more concerned with what kind of leader Franks is within his community. Franks speaks to his people in a way that feels genuine and heartfelt, pushing back against those who accuse him of becoming part of an oppressive system and making a point of speaking with the impoverished, the recently imprisoned, and the bereaved families of those who have died to gun violence. Though dealing with his own demons of doubt, depression, and anxiety, the office decorations of his favorite superhero signal that Bruce Franks, Jr. is St. Louis' Superman, fighting for justice in an unjust world.

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

Perhaps the most hopeful and heartwarming of this year's nominees, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) follows a year at a school catering to young girls in Afghanistan. It is colloquially known as Skateistan because skateboarding is part of the curriculum, offering physical activity to girls who are otherwise encouraged to marry young and stay inside for the majority of their adult lives. Documentarian Carol Dysinger captures the joy these girls receive in learning simple spelling and mathematics, and she contextualizes it by showing how opportunities like these were deprived of women not even a generation ago. The true purpose of the skateboarding, though, is to give girls a basic understanding of the courage that will be necessary for them to advocate for their rights as adults. The terror of falling off the board or injuring oneself is mollified by a community of love and support, which the school's instructors believe will translate into these girls growing into strong, independently capable women in a society that continues to oppress them. In a category generally characterized by how bleak and depressing its nominees are, this is the nominee that will make you believe in the power of positive influence and progress for future generations.


The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts will be released theatrically on January 31, 2020.