Tuesday, February 4, 2020

2019 Documentary Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews

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Of the five nominees for the 2019 Documentary Shorts Oscar nominees, the shortest is a brisk 20 minutes with the longest running 40 minutes. One, In the Absence, is in a foreign-language (Korean). Another documentary, Life Overtakes Me, is in a mixture of English, Swedish, Ukrainian and Arabic. As from last time a quick review of the nominees in order of presentation followed by conclusions.

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Life Overtakes Me (37 minutes)

The Netflix documentary Life Overtakes Me focuses on three refugee children: 7-year-old Dariah (also called Dasha), 12-year-old Karen (who despite the name is a boy) and 10-year-old Leyla. Having fled from violence and dangers in the former Soviet bloc and Iraq/Syria, they and their families are attempting to start life in Sweden. However, there is a strange catch: each of these children is essentially in living death. They are or were afflicted with a strange illness called Resignation Syndrome, where essentially they fall into a coma-like state. They are alive and yet not alive.

The stress and trauma of their young lives, of both what they've endured and the terror of being denied asylum, has caused them to be so overwhelmed that they essentially are sent into paralyzing shock. We see in interviews and the film how their parents struggle with this most strange and mysterious illness while in voiceovers we hear from medical experts who have treated this illness. Over time, we see that Dariah does recover, slowly emerging from her slumber, when news of her family's asylum petition being granted seeps into her mind. However, while Karen continues his living death, Leyla's older sister, once active too, starts showing signs of Resignation Syndrome.

Life Overtakes Me is shocking and extremely sad. The temptation is there to dismiss Resignation Syndrome as some kind of gimmick the child or parents are making up to avoid deportation, but you see that rather than some kind of fraud this is a terrible situation for all involved. It is young children, fearful and having lived through or heard the terrible traumas of their parents' lives becoming literally paralyzed by and with fear. The film is very quiet, with a stillness that counters the beautiful Nordic scenery with the children's paralysis. "It is all fear. the fear is in our bodies," one of the parents observes. This is an important film on a distressing subject that we should know more about.


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Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone 
(If You're A Girl) (40 minutes)

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) is about a privately-funded school for young Afghan girls that also teaches them how to skateboard. The Skateistan School in Kabul does what the Afghan government and general Afghan society can or will not: give girls a full education. These girls learn to not just read, write and do arithmetic, but also learn to value themselves and see that there are no real limits to what they can achieve. In four "lessons": Learning to Stand, Pushing Off, Tik Tak or How to Control the Board and Skating the Ramp, these girls can look towards a world where they have a chance.

At first the idea of teaching skateboarding as part of any child's education, boy or girl, sounds oddball, but Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone elegantly and beautifully makes the case that this is not just literal and metaphorical child's play. They are also taught important life lessons: to face fear, to take charge, to not let a highly patriarchal society define you, the individual. We do see that perhaps the opposition to girls education and having real gender equality in Afghanistan is really more based on perceived cultural and societal norms than genuine opposition. It's more a 'think what the neighbors will think' when in reality the neighbors may think exactly what you think.

The girls are truly courageous and optimistic, and seeing them take those steps to metaphorically (and sometimes literally) fly on their boards is rich and inspiring. You are equally inspired by not just their strength and courage but by that of their teachers. The social outreach director, who searches for girls to enter the school, tells of when the Taliban ruled. She went out hurriedly without a head-covering, and in anger he slapped her. She, in turn, slapped him back! Far from being intimidated, she and her young charges, some absolutely adorable, are chipping away for their place in the Sun. "Teacher, none of us can read or write," one student chirps in, almost amused at the concept. "You'll learn," the teacher replies kindly but firmly.

The teachers and girls at the Skateistan School are real heroines. They are leaders of a quiet yet slow revolution, fighting for a room of one's own. At a time when "female empowerment" in the West is performing virtual stripteases at the Super Bowl Halftime Show or changing the gender of a fictional character from male to female, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) shows what real female empowerment is.


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In the Absence (29 minutes)

The sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol is the subject of In the Absence, a brutal and shocking portrait of mass government ineptness and needless loss of life. On April 15, 2014, a distress call from the Sewol was issued as the ship started to tilt into the sea; however, in the archival footage and audio recordings we see and hear, the government is the one that seems adrift. It's as if the severity of the crisis and the real nature of the danger escapes the leaders, especially the South Korean Navy. As the Sewol's sinking tilt shifts to total capsizing, drowning over two hundred people, the majority of them schoolchildren, we hear officials more concerned with filming the Sewol than actually rescuing the doomed passengers. Adding to the horror and outrage is footage from Patrol Boat 123, the only Navy patrol boat to arrive during the crisis. We see the captain literally abandoning ship while footage shows the teens ordered to remain where they are at. In the Absence also covers the aftermath, a series of desperate efforts to save face for the President Park Geun-hey administration where she is both clueless and deceived. The parents demands for action eventually bring President Park down and the Sewol up, but the devastation is still overwhelming in this maelstrom of misery.

In the Absence is a horror film, shocking the viewer as it calmly tells its story. We see the Sewol already askew and know that this is not going to end well. The true impact of the horror spools over the viewer slowly, and one can't help react in shock and anger at the archival footage. We see a student's video filmed inside, where one comments that those who don't obey messages about staying calm and where they are at are the ones that survive. Then we see footage of the captain being rescued, leaving his passengers to their grisly fate. The audio recordings from various government officials, apparently more interested in making sure they saw what was happening versus doing anything about it, stuns us in disbelief.

The film is remarkably calm, almost remote in its presentation of this tragedy. We get some interviews from the parents of the dead students, which lends some impact. However, In the Absence suggests President Park fell from power over the Sewol catastrophe when I figure it was part of an overall series of events that brought her down. On the whole, In the Absence is an important and vital story of an unspeakable, horrifying and worse, avoidable tragedy that destroyed so many lives.


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Walk Run Cha-Cha (20 minutes)

The shortest of our nominees, Walk Run Cha-Cha is a remarkably small yet beautiful tale of true love. Vietnamese refugees Paul and Millie Cao tell their story of how they first met and fell in love while dancing to Western music, something frowned upon long before the Communist took over the nation. Paul managed to flee with with parents, but Millie could not at the same time. Eventually, Paul managed to begin writing to Millie and bring her to America. They agree to start anew and their love ripened in their new home. Now, they continue to express their deep and abiding love through the art of the dance. With instruction from a couple of Ukrainian dance teachers, they continue their danse d'amour, culminating to a gentle, beautiful dance to one of their favorite songs, We've Only Just Begun.

Walk Run Cha-Cha works its magic on you slowly, building its tale of love beautifully. We start by seeing a group of older Asians cutting a little rug in unison, wondering why we were brought to this curious dance studio. Slowly, surely, we too fall in love with Paul and Millie as we both hear their story and see them interact. They are truly one of the most loving couples I have ever seen: their easy, gentle rapport and ability to laugh even as Paul bungles his dance steps show them to be deeply in love. I admit to shedding a couple of tears as they perform a very cinematic dance to We've Only Just Begun (though it should be noted it was a cover and not The Carpenters version despite Millie saying earlier at a family and friends dinner she knew all their songs). Their dance is elegant and beautiful and moving. They may never be on Dancing With the Stars, but they are stars in each other's eyes. This story seems unreal, and if it were made into a feature film (which I think it should), it might not be believed. That makes it more astonishing and beautiful.

Walk Run Cha-Cha is not really about this old couple learning the quickstep. It's really about love, that most beautiful, enchanting and mysterious of dances. We've Only Just Begun may be their closing number, but perhaps a more fitting song would be Dance Me to the End of Love.


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St. Louis Superman (28 minutes)

The political is the personal for former Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks in St. Louis Superman, a chronicle of his life and specifically the major piece of legislation he successfully pushed for: to declare youth violence a public health epidemic. This heavily-tattooed rapper, spurred on by the death of Michael Brown into political activism, wins a seat in the Missouri legislature where he pushes for his legislation, a tough challenge given he was surrounded by white Republicans. Remembering his own brother Christopher Harris' own murder via gun violence when Chris was just nine, Representative Franks continues reaching out to bring more African-American participation while doing a rap battle with someone who accuses him of selling out to the system. Representative Franks is ultimately successful on his last try, proudly standing with the Governor as the legislation is signed into law. He also stands proudly with his son King as a park and statue is dedicated to Christopher Harris' memory.

St. Louis Superman tells an interesting story, but it felt incomplete. We never saw Representative Franks work with the legislators. How did he win the opposition over to his side? We see one instance where he is with those who disagree with him but it's all rather friendly. It's a puzzle to understand how despite what should be strong opposition he managed to achieve his goals. Moreover, I wasn't impressed with his rap battle with Bone, though to be fair my only knowledge of rap battles comes from 8 Mile, so perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh. It is again a most fascinating story of an activist who works into the system, but there was something that felt left off. It does not prove that Representative Franks is a superman.



Unlike last year, the Best Documentary Short Film nominees are not a collection of misery with only one having any sense of hope. Instead, four of the films: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone, Walk Run Cha-Cha and to a point St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me, have not just hope but joy. In the Absence is the only one that does not lend itself to optimism, but the story itself is not an optimistic one. Each of them is an exception film, well-crafted and I think worthy of recognition.

I believe Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) will win. Like last year's winner, Period. End of Sentence, it has a strong sense of hope and strength in its story. I think that if there were an upset, it would be with Walk Run Cha-Cha, and if any producer worth his or her salt was wise, buy up the film rights.

My rankings:

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Walk Run Cha-Cha
In the Absence
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman

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