BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Life Overtakes Me (Directed by John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson)
Synopsis: Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden who have fled with their families from extreme trauma in their home countries have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Facing deportation, they withdraw from the world into a coma-like state, as if frozen, for months or even years.
Review: Available on Netflix, this documentary poses an interesting question surrounding refugee families awaiting uncertain citizenship decisions and their children who exhibit signs of a rare but growing condition. While it doesn’t outright suggest the children are faking their symptoms, it doesn’t exactly shy away from the parallels between positive decisions on asylum and the sudden recovery of afflicted children with Resignation Syndrome. I can’t say this one held me in its grasp for long (though at 39 minutes it’s one of the longest) because that nagging sense of doubt started to creep up more and more as the film progressed. It doesn’t help the three families we meet are strikingly similar and don’t offer much in the way of tactile interest…there’s a curated sense of compassion at play here and between the chilly shots of frozen landscapes and a plodding pace it’s a surprisingly difficult film to warm up to.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl) (Directed by Carol Dysinger)
Synopsis: Over the course of 15 years, a class of young girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods in war-torn Kabul, learn to read and write, and grow together in confidence through the joy of skateboarding.
Review: If Life Overtakes Me lacked something in the way of convincingly honest intent, this documentary more than makes up for it in looking at the students of Skateistan, a non-profit set-up with the goal to empower children around the world through skateboarding and education. Focusing on the girls of the Skateistan school in Kabul, Afghanistan, this one takes a few minutes to get running which is precious time when you’re already working with short form filmmaking. The ramp up proves to be worth it as we hear from the pre-teen girls talk about what getting an education means to them and, more importantly, hear from their mothers why they want their children to obtain the skills they were prevented from achieving. It’s a little rough around the edges but when it gets into a groove it really soars. It was especially moving to hear from the teachers in this school and the way they looked at their roles in providing an education.
In the Absence (Directed by Seung-jun Yi)
Synopsis: When the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, over three hundred people lost their lives, most of them schoolchildren. Years later, the victims’ families and survivors are still demanding justice from national authorities.
Review: The unimaginable tragedy that serves as the focus of In the Absence plays out almost in real time as we watch. A ferry in South Korea carrying nearly 400 passengers runs into trouble and begins to sink. As camera crews film and as those in charge drag their feet on making decisions to position themselves as saviors in the best possible light, the vessel sinks and hundreds of passengers that followed orders and stayed put in their cabins drowned while waiting to be rescued. All of this is presented with startling clarity, largely without any editorializing – these were the facts as they happened and it was a disaster for all involved. It’s tough stuff and listening to the parents still in shock all these years later as they demand answers from a government that deals in policies of silence and cover-ups, you’ll feel your blood boil as the tears well up.
Walk Run Cha-Cha (Directed by Laura Nix)
Synopsis: Chipaul and Millie Cao reunited in 1980s Los Angeles after being separated by the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they become ballroom dancers to reconnect again and make up for lost time.
Review: A documentary produced for the New York Times popular OpEd series, this is one of the blessedly lighter toned subjects. Audiences watching all five of the nominees in one sitting will likely find this small but slight bit of joy a nice reprieve from the darker offerings and I say more power to them. This is a nice little look at the lives of a couple that met in Vietnam in the ’70s and reconnected in the ‘80s in California. Through their love of ballroom dance, they leave the churn of the daily grind behind and discover a new rhythm to their relationship. While the piece ends with a fairly lovely dance for the couple, I couldn’t help feel like one half of the couple was more invested in the dance than the other and was the driving force for their participation…but I’ll let you see it and decide for yourself.
St. Louis Superman (Directed by Sami Khan & Smriti Mundhra)
Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr., a leading Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, must overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a bill critical to his community.
Review: Our political system is crying out for new voices and new perspectives and after spending some cinematic time with him I feel that Missouri representative Bruce Franks Jr. is the embodiment of that necessary change. Though he doesn’t look like your typical suit-wearing politician, he’s making a difference in and for his community by calling youth violence the public health epidemic it is. Pushing for a bill to recognize this, his drive is fueled by a loss close to home and a hope for the future he still has faith in when others may not. All politicians should sit and watch this and find ways they can connect with their community the way Franks has with his, though a surprising epilogue is a strong reminder how fragile we all are to our own demons.
Final Thoughts: Another tough year for documentaries with not a lot of sun on this side of the street. My gut is leaning toward In the Absence; even though it has likely the hardest subject matter to watch unfold, it’s the first South Korean film to be nominated in this category (much like Parasite is the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best International Feature) and it’s well put together. My personal favorites were St. Louis Superman and Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl) but if I’m being totally honest I didn’t find any to be quite on the quality level as in years past. Too many came off like half-baked cuts of longer narratives and I wish there was more focus on consolidating a voice, a vision, a statement into this short-form style. It leaves things too ambiguous when you have something important to say and leave your sentence trailing….right?