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2020 Oscar Circuit: Documentary Short Subject

Documentary Short Subject

2020 OSCAR PREDICTIONS: While the 2020 Oscars had trouble finding diverse voices, that was not the case in the Documentary Short Subject category. Featuring shorts from around the world, the truly international category puts a spotlight on interesting and heartbreaking stories. In Sweden, children of refugees come down with a mysterious mental health condition. Girls forbidden from showing their faces in public learn how to skateboard. A sinking ship kills hundreds because of government inaction. A couple reminiscences about their cross-continental love story while learning new steps. A young father enters the political arena after a national tragedy.

The global nature of Documentary Short makes this year’s crop adds to the intrigue of the race. Each topic feels applicable to America in 2020, but clearly transcends any one nation’s political arena.

And the Nominees Are:

  • In the Absence”  – (Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam)
  • Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” – (Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva)
  • Life Overtakes Me” – (John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson)
  • St. Louis Superman” – (Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan)
  • Walk Run Cha-Cha” – (Laura Nix and Colette Sanstedt)

“In the Absence”  – Directed by Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam

In the Absence Documentary Short

As a ship sinks, a government fails to react. The story of the MV Sewol, a passenger ferry that sank in 2014 remains one of the most tragic and baffling moments in South Korean politics. On a ship with nearly 500 passengers, more than 300 drowned, including 250 students of a nearby school. That tragedy creates enough emotion and frustration on its own. What makes “In the Absence” such a compelling story is the juxtaposition of live camera footage with the real-time responses of an ineffective and seemingly uncaring government.

Like most political scandals, the cover-up is the crime. In the case of MV Sewol, the staggering ineptitude and lack of self-awareness compound the frustration. Government officials joke about taking glamour shots and making sure they get their due in the press. The flow of information breaks down so quickly, many first responders are laying out their plan after the ship has already gone down. The tension and amazing footage on display make “In the Absence” a taut, thrilling and tragic ride. The lack of a feel-good ending may leave many voters without a passion to put this at number one, despite the quality on display.

“Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl” – Directed Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva

Learning to Skate in a Warzone If Youre a Girl

Young girls learning how to skateboard has never been so much fun to watch. It’s never been so uplifting or felt like an act of political defiance either. The girls in “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone” may not look like fighters for gender equality. Yet their simple choice defies the culture and way of life. The shadow of bombings and death hangs over “Learning to Skateboard,” much in the same way it does in “For Sama” in Documentary Feature. Yet to find this nugget of pure happiness and joy creates a powerful cocktail of emotion.

The girls themselves are fascinating. Some feel like modern-day Peter Pans, not wanting to grow up because they have skateboarding for such a short time. Others know true tragedy, and this allows them to enjoy this moment with an undying level of appreciation. The teachers take a backseat to the girls, instead of hoping to keep the focus on their stories. This act of defiance cannot be ignored either. In Kabul, girls express creativity and skill through a sport known for its predominantly male fanbase. This positivity in the shadow of horror makes this our likely winner and feelgood film of the group.

Life Overtakes Me” – Directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

Life Overtakes Me Documentary

One of the most chilling stories of the bunch, “Life Overtakes Me” shakes you to your core. Refugee and immigrant children in Sweeden come down with an unusual and borderline unexplainable disorder. Resignation Syndrome creates shocking effects on those who exhibit its symptoms. Children become unable to move and take care of themselves. They are left in a Coma-like state, and their parents must fight for asylum while dealing with the inability to help their own. The subjects of the documentary appear shaken to their core, in ways that few can comprehend or understand.

Perhaps most interestingly in “Life Overtakes Me,” rivaling dialogues emerge within the political discourse. For scientists, the disorder is real and points to strong evidence of generational trauma affecting subsequent descendants on the genetic level. Meanwhile, right-wing extremists believe that children are faking it, or worse, harming their children to stay in the country. The microcosm of modern-day dialogue centered around immigration cannot be ignored. “Life Overtakes Me” provides some light moments, and Netflix’s involvement makes it the most accessible of the bunch. However, the dark undercurrent of the story may cause some voters to shy away.

“St. Louis Superman” – Directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan

St Louis Superman Documentary Short

Anger at the institutions within our towns can create strife and violence. Yet sometimes, that anger can create positive political change. For Bruce Franks Jr., the death of Michael Brown mobilized him in ways he had never been active before. The rapper turned politician spent two years as a Civil Rights Activist as Ferguson became a hotbed. After getting elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2016, Franks sought to change politics as usual.

Mundhra and Khan capture the inner turmoil facing Franks. He clearly understands how he can help others within his community, the very neighborhoods he fought for. Yet the trauma of his nine-year-old brother’s death left an indelible mark on Franks. The storytelling and raw emotion on display make this a sneaky contender for the prize. Franks’ compelling story adds to the legend. Combined with the fact that “St. Louis Superman” is one of two documentaries in English this year, it could quickly coalesce support and win this prize.

“Walk Run Cha-Cha” – Directed by Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt

Walk Cha Cha Documentary Short

Mixing an adorable love story with true strife makes “Walk Run Cha-Cha” one of the most unique shorts of the year. Separated by war, Paul and Millie fought to be with each other. When they finally reunited, they found their way back into love. It was not always easy and did not always come naturally. Yet their immigrant status in a world away from the one they grew up in left them with little choice but to make it all work.

Today, after years of success in their professional lives, they took up dance. Their story of Vietnam and their way back to each other feels symbolic as they practice their latest routine. You can feel the passion and care for each other in each gesture and moment on the dancefloor. Their routines are amazing to watch, and their commitment to this new form of expression opens a door into their hearts. “Walk Run Cha-Cha” charms, and blends high brow political turmoil with heartwarming action. While it does not feature the heft of “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone,” it may earn the win thanks to its charming subjects.

WILL WIN: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”
COULD WIN: “St. Louis Superman”


Check out the rest of our 2020 Oscar Circuit here!  

Share your thoughts on the Best Animated Feature race in the comments below!

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.


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