In our modern world, the political, environmental, and social landscape often feels increasingly isolating. What, if anything, connects us to each other anymore? The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Films program attempts to address this question by telling stories about the ways in which we are interconnected across boundaries of kin, age, race, and nation through experiences of struggle, love, grief, and laughter.
St. Louis Superman, directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, follows Bruce Franks Jr., a Black battle rapper and activist turned state representative for Missouri, on his quest to introduce a bill that would define youth violence as an epidemic in St. Louis, as well as to declare June 7 Christopher Harris Day in honor of his older brother lost to gun violence. Beyond politics, Franks Jr. is also father to a five-year-old boy named King, and it is through the portrayal of this relationship that the film takes on a glowing, tender quality. The hushed croon of a father and son’s voices mingling together in a shared song offer the audience a glimpse into just what the stakes of fighting racism and gun violence ought to be.
As the camera pans the dance studio in Walk, Run, Cha-cha (dir. Laura Nix), bodies bending and folding in flamingo-like grace, the story of Paul and Millie Cao unfolds. Refugees of the Vietnam War, the Caos endured years of separation and hardship before being reunited in the United States. The film focuses on their reunion and reclamation of joy via dance, paying homage to their journeys as refugees, but ultimately choosing to find its resonance in two dancers sliding gleefully across a dance floor.
With a Tribeca win and a BAFTA nomination also under its belt, Learning to Skateboard in A Warzone (If You’re a Girl) explores a program known as Skateistan, which teaches young girls in Afghanistan to skateboard. Directed by Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva, the film features adorable, spunky girls, a bad ass group of instructors, and a message of female empowerment, making for an uncritical and easily digestible portrait of war-torn Afghanistan.
Though multiple documentaries have been made about the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry in 2014, In the Absence, directed by Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam, relies almost exclusively on actual footage and audio from the incident, creating an eerie and irrevocably damning effect. Bureaucratic cowardice, parents grieving their drowned children, and the desperately fought-for impeachment of President Park Geun-hye meld together to tell a tale of tragedy and hard-won justice.
Finally, Life Overtakes Me (dir. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson) offers a deep dive into an illness known as Resignation Syndrome, affecting hundreds of refugee children in Sweden, causing them to willingly fall into comatose sleep for periods as long as several years. In tracing the disease and the refugee families it afflicts, this documentary portrays an exacting appraisal of the suffering borne by asylum seekers, as transferred onto the prone and pristine forms of their innocent children. “Recovery is dependent on rebuilding hope,” says a Swedish pediatrician in voiceover, which becomes a makeshift thesis for the film which, like the 2020 Oscar-nominated shorts in general, offers an unflinching perspective of the world while still holding on to some semblance of redemption. v