“What’s nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the Oscars this year?” asked no one ever. Short subject documentaries – non-fiction films that run 40 minutes or less – are rarely talked about outside of awards season, and even then, the films remain left out of the conversations of cinephiles and Cultural Studies students everywhere. So, I, a lover of documentaries who suffers from a short attention span, took it upon myself to watch almost all of the short subject documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year. I say almost because St. Louis Superman is currently unavailable online, so unfortunately I couldn’t watch it before the Oscars today. (However, you can still watch the trailer for it here.)
Nonetheless, the other four films prove that the short subject documentary category shouldn’t be written off. These extremely captivating films range in content from a heart wrenching tragedy to a beautiful Vietnamese couple’s love for dancing. Plus, they’re all 40 minutes or less – if you can sit through an episode of season five Glee, you can make it through all of these films no sweat.
Walk, Run, Cha-Cha
Directed by Laura Nix
Rated: 3/5 Stars
Available to watch on Vimeo for free.
Walk, Run, Cha-Cha centers on Millie and Paul Cao, two Vietnamese immigrants living in the U.S. who spend their free time learning cha-cha dancing. The couple is beautifully magnetic; they’re two people clearly in love with each other and dancing, and they make the film so easy to watch.
Millie and Paul Cao only knew each other for six months in Vietnam before Paul immigrated to the U.S. in 1979. Through written letters, the couple kept contact for the next six years until Paul was able to help Millie acquire her immigration papers to leave Vietnam. The couple uses dancing as a tool to make up for lost time during the years they were separated, and visits the dancing club four nights a week, spending up to three hours there each night.
While Millie and Paul’s chemistry is exciting, the film’s technical aspects leave something to be desired. The director employs a non-traditional editing style where the interviewees stare at the camera while their actual interview answers play in the background. Additionally, the only instance of impressive cinematography is the beautiful dance sequence of Millie and Paul that concludes the film.
Give this film 20 minutes of your time if you want to watch something cute and uplifting – all of the other films nominated are marginally more depressing.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Directed by Carol Dysinger
Rated: 4/5 Stars
Available to watch on A&E, if you have a cable provider.
This film is the favorite to win an Oscar tonight thanks to its Best Short Film win at the BAFTAs last week. The film takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the Skateistan School House and Skatepark teaches poor Afghan girls how to read, write, and best of all, skateboard. This beautifully shot film tells an inspiring story about Afghan girls using skateboarding as a way to cope with their war-torn country, so its chances of winning an Oscar are quite high.
Director Carol Dysinger segments the film through title cards of new skateboarding techniques, which may seem cute, but they mostly disrupt the flow of the story. Additionally, while it is inspiring that girls can use skateboarding as a way “get rid of the fear” of living in a warzone, this film doesn’t talk about solutions to help these girls improve their situation further. Yes, it’s great they have a good coping mechanism, but maybe we should think about how we can cease using Afghanistan to fight pointless wars?
The girls interviewed in this film are extremely courageous for their desire to learn and skateboard, so it’s probably going to take home an Oscar tonight. Give it a watch if you have a cable provider, but if not, I wouldn’t sweat too much about missing it.
In the Absence
Directed by Yi Seung-Jun
Rated: 4.5/5 Stars
Available to watch on YouTube for free.
Where can I begin with this film? In the Absence is absolutely heart wrenching and difficult to watch, but this film would be my top choice for Best Documentary Short Subject tonight. The film depicts the 2014 tragedy where a passenger ferry sank off the coast in South Korea, drowning over three hundred people due to lack of action by the South Korean coast guard and air rescue service. Most of the passengers were schoolchildren.
The film includes footage from dashcams inside the ferry, footage from students’ phones who were on board, as well as interviews with survivors and families who lost the lives of the children. Students were told to stay where they were, all while the captain of the ship escaped on the only coast guard rescue boat sent to help passengers. We watch as the ship tilts on its side and begins to sink just as the Korean coast guard and air rescue service did. You are entranced by this film, fuming in your seat at the lack of urgency of the rescue services. One survivor, Kim Sung-Mook, recalls that “it was a grueling escape without any help.” Air rescue servicemen only lament the situation because they missed an opportunity to make “a good scene.”
The film handled this tragedy so delicately, yet didn’t hold back on the misgivings of the South Korean government for handling this situation so poorly. Masterfully crafted, In the Absence proves that short subject documentaries shouldn’t be brushed under the rug.
Life Overtakes Me
Directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
Rated: 3/5 Stars
Available to watch on Netflix.
Life Overtakes Me focuses on three refugee children who are afflicted with resignation syndrome, a dissociative syndrome where children and adolescents enter a coma-like state, sometimes for years, as a response to extreme stress. Cases of resignation syndrome started appearing in Sweden in the 1990s, all from refugee families escaping the Balkans and Russia. The children develop the syndrome as their families apply for asylum or permanent resident status, thus the syndrome is an attempt for the children to fall asleep and wake up once the family is more certain about their future.
The film makes a captivating cultural phenomenon mildly boring, mainly due to its very slow pacing. Additionally, it lacks closure for two out of the three families interviewed, making the film feel incomplete. Of all of the films nominated, Life Overtakes Me is probably the least qualified to win an Oscar tonight. Watch the film if you want to learn more about resignation syndrome, but beware it does contain mentions of rape and abuse.
So there you have it! My review of (almost) all of the short subject documentaries nominated tonight. I wish I could have watched St. Louis Superman in order to learn more about the rapper-turned-congressman from Ferguson, Missouri, and to see if it has a chance at beating Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone, but I still greatly enjoyed watching the other nominees, and I hope you do too.