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'The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary' Shows People Struggling for Security

Screengrab from St. Louis Superman trailer [ShortsTV]

Anxiety about institutions' ability to provide security is at the root of a strong crop of nonfiction short subjects, which range from South Korea to Sweden, the suburbs of California to the city of St. Louis, in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary.

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary, which opens in theaters on Friday, 31 January, come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present.

In the Absence, Dirs.  Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam

Screengrab from In the Absence trailer [ShortsTV]

That worry often comes with good reason. Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam's haunting In the Absence tells the harrowing story of the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol off the coast of South Korea. The event itself as shown in the film is frightening enough, with dash-cam footage from cars in the hold showing water pouring in at an alarming rate and vehicles flipping over like they were toys. But the response to the disaster is somehow even worse. With 476 passengers on board the massive ferry, which helicopter footage shows at a sharp tilt in the water, the Coast Guard's rescue operation barely deserves the name.

The list of indignities begins with the captain abandoning the Sewol with hundreds still on board. Then, everything stalls. No evacuation call is made. In a tart bit of tragic foreshadowing, the filmmakers include a clip in which students waiting to get the evacuation call talk about a subway accident where everybody was told to stay put: "only the people who didn't follow the order survived."

Inexplicably, the mood is of lassitude more than urgency, with the president's staff not wanting to bother her and helicopter pilots daydreaming about landing on the boat and looking like heroes. When the Sewol does finally slip under the water, the remaining passengers stream out in a last-minute panic but not fast enough. Nearly 300 died.

In the Absence tracks the outrage that ultimately removed President Park Geun-hye from office. But the filmmakers don't discover a reason for the tragedy beyond human ignorance, arrogance, and callousness. That stirring, sinking sense of pointless heartbreak, reinforced by the intermittent ghostly shots of creepily calm ocean waters, gives the movie a poignancy beyond the tragedy itself.

St. Louis Superman, Dirs. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan

Screengrab from St. Louis Superman trailer [ShortsTV]

The other top Oscar contender in this batch of five is Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan's St. Louis Superman. It follows the efforts of Black Lives Matter activist Bruce Franks, who was energized by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson in 2014, to make headway against the scourge of gun violence in his city. Beyond the statistics showing St. Louis at the top of rankings for murder in the nation, Franks is working through the trauma from his older brother's murder years ago.

Sick of the violence that has him spending "half the year going to memorials", in 2016 Franks moved from activism to government when he was elected as state representative. His first move in the largely white and Republican government was to declare youth violence a public health epidemic. He intended to amp it up as a priority and leverage greater funding.

While the filmmakers could have spent more time on Franks' efforts in Jefferson City—one highlight is seeing a Republican TV personality, a self-described "white trash shitkicker" from the bootheel, saying he learned and grew as Franks' friend—the focus here is rightfully on his struggle to maintain an even-keel against the backdrop of violence and institutional blindness.

A sharp, gleaming, high-wattage personality, Franks cannot help but look heroic, particularly in one surprise scene where he indulges his other passion, battle rapping. After a take down for selling out by joining government, Franks cleans the floor with his opponent, calling himself "a Dark Knight for these dark nights." But the filmmakers' close and intimate portrait cannot help but show the pain that lurks behind Franks' brash words.

Life Overtakes Me, Dirs. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

Screengrab from Life Overtakes Me trailer [ShortsTV]

The legacy of trauma is even more vividly rendered in the anthology's most thought-provoking entry. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's Life Overtakes Me is an eerie snapshot of a mysterious and unexpected aftereffect of the refugee crisis. In Sweden, many asylum applicants are in limbo waiting for their cases to be heard. In a new and little-understood phenomena called Resignation Syndrome, some of the families' children have slipped into a coma-like state. Starting as lassitude, low appetite, and sleepiness, eventually the children are almost entirely immobile and unresponsive.

Haptas and Samuelson follow several families, including one whose son has been nearing a vegetative state for over a year, who tell stories of the horrors they fled, primarily in the Balkans and Central Asia, their terror at being sent back, and how their children seem to be panicking from the uncertainty. "The fear is in our bodies," one man says.

Clips from mostly baffled professionals are interspersed with ghostly aerial shots of pristine white snow and untrammeled forests. The effect is that of watching what appears to be a kind of psychological hibernation that the children submerge themselves into, waiting for life to return to normal, or for the adults in government to just take care of things.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), Dirs. Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva

Screengrab from Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) trailer [ShortsTV]

The everyday anxiety of life in Kabul, a steady-state repetition of car bombings and assassinations, is laid out in a grimly familiar montage at the start of Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva's hard-hitting Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl). A tonally off-kilter feel-good story about trying to educate women in a patriarchal society that restricts their freedom of movement and thought, the story's wrinkle is that the Kabul school that is focused on is somewhat cheekily called Skateistan.

During the school day, the girls—who risk their lives taking a bus there through the Taliban-terrorized city—leave the classroom to strap on helmets, knee pads, and cautiously balance on top of skateboards. Seemingly the definition of a symbolic victory that could attract foreign donors, Skateistan looks to have potentially massive upsides for girls who are elsewhere taught to be submissive, quiet, and scared.

While the short needs a great deal of tightening up and less focus on the cuteness factor, it is nevertheless a bracing look at the small gains that women in the country have been able to make and will be likely to lose when the Taliban inevitably return to power. "I don't want to grow up," one girl says in an especially heartbreaking moment. "So I can skate forever."

Walk Run Cha-Cha, Dirs. Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt

Screengrab from Walk Run Cha-Cha trailer [ShortsTV]

Not without its moments, Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt's Walk Run Cha-Cha is an oddly unfocused New York Times Op-Doc about a Vietnamese immigrant couple who fled their country after the war, resettled in California, and made a new life for themselves. The early stretches of the short are suffused with romance, as Paul and Millie Cao talk about the years they had to spend apart, the deep yearning during that separation, and then needing to rebuild their relationship in a strange land.

Their story is refracted by their dedication and borderline obsession with dancing, going to classes for three hours a night multiple times a week. It's a clever and useful storytelling device for illustrating their romance. But the filmmakers then abandon any need for closure, culminating in a dance sequence that looks like an unintentionally hokey music video and cheapens what had felt powerfully real.

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