2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

5/5 (1)

This year’s documentary shorts are visceral, raw, potent and punchy. Each one takes you across the world and there is something for every eye. Every film is a microcosm of life, and not one of them holds back reality. As a group, each work is painfully honest.

First, from director Yi Seung-Jun, “In the Absence” focuses on the Sewol ferry disaster of April 15, 2014. On that fateful day over 30 people died when a huge ferry capsized in South Korea with no solid rescue effort in place. The coast guard was told to hold back and on the day of the disaster, President Park was only partially informed. She spent the day in her bedroom. The ferry was packed with hundreds of students who were told to stay in their rooms, making escape impossible for those that followed the rules. The investigation led to the impeachment of President Park.

The film is unflinching in its detail with actual smartphone footage showing crushed cars on the ferry, torrents of water and panicking students. Years later parents of the deceased are able to see the sinister vessel that resembles a strange and deadly whale. The parents begin to riot, unable to retrieve their children’s personal belongings.

“Life Overtakes Me” analyzes the medical occurrence of resignation syndrome affecting over a hundred war refugees from Soviet bloc countries who have been victims of torture trauma or rape and have witnessed trauma. We see two Syrian refugees Daria and Karen, a girl and a boy respectively, who have seen violence and made their bodies shut down, putting themselves in a coma. Both of these children refuse to speak, then refuse to eat and finally, refuse drink. The parents are stupefied, but they continue to hope with doctors assuring that both children will regain consciousness once they realize that their families are safe in Sweden.

With haunting Winter visuals akin to a Grimm’s fairy tale or a film by Lars von Trier, this film directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson is a singular stunner.

From Carol Dysinger “Learning to Skate in A Warzone (If You’re A Girl) [winner of the Oscar] centers on a group of schools in Afghanistan that teaches student girls to skate. The schools are called collectively Skateistan. The girls are continually praised (whether in math or skating) and through Skateistan they learn to be living superheroes, powerful and resolute.

“St Louis Superman” from Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, is about another living and breathing superhero, Bruce Franks, Jr, who became an activist and a state representative after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.

Fiercely and with determination, Franks stands for Ferguson, Missouri as a very real Avenger driven for change. With raw and tense visuals one is taken step by step through Frank’s journey, as through arrests and protests, he becomes one of The Great 28, and one is compelled to go along with him, through every siren and scream. Franks is no stranger to heartbreaking loss (losing a godson and a best friend to shootings) and despite anxiety and his eventual leave, Franks still carries on with life.

This is a heart-rending film, a true underdog story and it remains timely with impact.

Lastly, but not least, is the story of Paul and Millie Cao in “Walk Run Cha-Cha” directed by Laura Nix.

When Paul and Millie met briefly in their 20s for six months, Paul was very much in love. But because of the Vietnam War and communism they were separated. Paul continued the letters, poetic and beautiful and Paul was able to meet Millie again many years later. Paul is a reserved man who becomes unbound by dancing. Through the act of motion, romance begins anew, a slow kindling.

Though this film may seem Disneyesque, it isn’t. As middle aged adults Paul and Millie are afraid to touch. They are strangers. Dance becomes the mercurial element that transforms all into Romeo and Juliet. Even if dance is not your thing, this film is an upbeat crowd pleaser.

While many of these selections have a somber or serious tinge, they are all gutsy, with great heart—a collective vision of nations.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com

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