The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Films: The Fear is in Our Bodies, by Dayne Linford
As a critic, one of the most interesting aspects of watching the nominated short films, of any variety, is the growing awareness of a thematic strain, a little something that comes up again and again, as if the films themselves were engaged in a round-table discussion, a kind of reminiscence in our current moment. I suppose, then, it speaks to that moment that the overall theme this year is the impact of state-sponsored or -enabled violence against children, spread all over the world, even directly in our own backyard. Each of these short documentaries is a work of profound humanity, engaging with ongoing horror, urging us to make a better world for those who have no power in it. These pieces range from direct engagement with that violence and its consequences, like in Life Overtakes Me and In the Absence, to portraits of the few adults who are trying to do something about it, in St. Louis Superman and Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl), and finally to living with those experiences into adulthood and middle age, in Walk, Run, Cha-Cha. Each is an achingly beautiful, mournful, deeply human work, imparting to us a terrible urgency. I can only hope that we listen.
It seems fitting to start in reverse of the order above, to look back before we can move forward, and consider the sacrifices many of the children in the other films have ahead of them, even if everything goes as well as it possibly could. Walk, Run, Cha-Cha is the story of a once-upon-a-time refugee couple, who fled Vietnam in the wake of the War, and made a new life in the United States. Now in their 60s, Paul and Millie Cao spent decades rebuilding their lives, caring for his parents, and raising a family, while each pursuing successful careers. However, this film is not just about hard-working immigrants – it’s about competitive dancers. The Caos are pursuing their golden years in competition, spending most weeknights out on the floor and practicing together. Director Laura Nix focusses on their dedication, capturing them as they practice, tell their story, and relay how they came to be so dedicated to each other. Recollections play over the synchronized beauty of their bodies, underscoring the impossible grace with which they’ve accomplished so much despite the horrors they endured when they were younger. Most of all, though, this is a romance, a celebration of their love, their story as they tell it, their love as they express it, all fashioned into dance. It’s a very sweet, beautiful film about a very interesting couple, and a simple celebration of them.
Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone, directed by Carol Dysinger, moves us to Kabul, Afghanistan. Most of the film is spent inside the charmingly named Skateistan, a small complex housing a school for girls, a controversial development for Afghanistan still, and a target of the Taliban. In addition to extensive classes covering everything from math and reading to emotional maturity, the school teaches the girls how to skate. Dysinger, and the girls she’s interviewing, never let us forget the atmosphere of terror they are growing up in, but this is also a delightful film. It’s a joy to see these girls at class, joking with each other, responding to the teacher and, yes, skateboarding. Intercut with these wonderful moments, we hear from the girls themselves and, in the case of a pair of older sisters who were pupils but now teach at the school, their family members. We see their eyes light up with hope and cloud with fear, and feel likewise. Sometimes, documentaries get a bad rap for being rather simple in construction and visuals, but with some films, simplicity allows the subject to speak for itself, and allows the audience to most directly engage with the people we’re seeing, instead of needing to parse the inscrutable designs of an overactive filmmaker. Dysinger works here with exacting discipline, eliciting emotion perfectly and also giving the girls space to express their individual humanity. It’s a beautiful film, and you hope deeply for all these girls to achieve their dreams, even knowing that their home may not allow it to happen. It’s also heartbreaking to see how so much war and various regimes, including the U.S., accomplished and changed so little. The injustice of their circumstances is inescapable, but also undeniable is their incredible spirit and determination.
St. Louis Superman takes us back home, right in Ferguson, Missouri, in a profile of their former State Congressman, Bruce Franks Jr., who, prior to winning office following the death of Michael Brown, was a local activist and battle rapper. He is, to say the least, a fascinating personality. Beyond his work in the community and Congress, much of the film focuses on his relationship with his son, King, and the memory of his elder brother, who was killed by gun violence as a nine year old. King is funny and precocious and incredibly sweet, and Franks is just as sweet back to him – theirs is a beautiful relationship, and it’s deeply powerful to see the look on Franks face when he relays to King the story of what happened to his brother, only a few years older than King is now. This is the texture and register in which directors Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan beautifully craft this film, as a portrait of Franks, a figure inbetween many places, working to achieve peace and harmony. His grief is potent throughout the film, becoming a touchstone for so very much black grief in this country. Franks responded to this grief urgently, and his story pulls at us to do the same.
Our penultimate film is In the Absence, directed by Seung-jun Yi, a piece about the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, in which 304 people drowned, the great majority of whom were high schoolers, and its aftermath. Yi wisely chooses to start from an almost dispassionate remove, detailing the sinking of the ferry, which took nearly 2 hours, mostly through South Koren Coast Guard video footage, while commentary of a sorts from Coast Guard and other government officials plays over the footage and we slowly realize what a complete mess they made of it. This is really hammered home when, hours into the sinking as hundreds of people are drowning to death, one official, blissfully unaware it had gone so badly, regrets that they weren’t able to get any footage of Coast Guardsmen rescuing passengers because it would look good, then thinking to ask and make sure that no one had drowned. He is told that there are no fatalities as we begin to realize just how many have already died. The film moves from here swiftly to the political fallout, told through interviews with civilian divers who were sent down to the wreck as part of an extended investigation, and bereaved family members, as well as extensive archival footage. All of this, especially the political details, are blown through a breakneck speed, finally arriving at the impeachment and removal of then President Park Geun-hye as the ultimate consequence of the sinking. This pacing is the weakest element of this film, which really should be much longer. The story it’s telling is incredibly vast, and certainly could support a feature length film, especially if more time was spent with the families and the divers, who play quite an important role in how everything works out. This is a well-made film, but these deficiencies definitely make it the least of this group.
The strongest film, or the one that impacted this viewer most deeply, is Life Overtakes Me, an investigation into the rash of refugee children in Europe afflicted with Resignation Syndrome, a condition wherein they enter a coma-like state, unable to do anything beyond basic reflexes like breathing, for months or even years. Directors Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas adopt a quiet remove, interviewing and documenting the stories of three families battling Resignation Syndrome in one of their children, watching the pains these parents take in caring for their children, feeding them through tubes, washing them, dressing them, pushing them in wheelchairs so they can go on walks. These small moments of love and despair are intercut with beautiful vistas of the Swedish countryside, where all of these families are engaged in the asylum process, accompanied by voiceovers from experts, psychologists, pediatricians, reporters, relaying the larger context of these stories.
This elegant structure lends itself to a deeper and deeper engagement with the subject as the film continues, and each family relaying the story of how they came to Sweden, what drove them from the Middle East, impresses upon you how high the stakes are for them, how desperate their situation. In response to this acute precariousness, often directly following a deportation order, their children have fallen into this state, becoming almost a kind of living dead, a brutal, but painfully real, symbol of just how thoroughly terrifying their situation is, just how completely they lack any control or stability in their lives. These parents have given up everything to make their children safe, and now they must do so again, while facing the possible threat of deportation, while these children come to an awareness of just what happened to their parents, how they were raped, tortured, brutalized, almost killed. It’s a devastating, urgent film, and the highest pitch of its tragedy is just how pointless, meaningless, and arbitrary this violence is – not just what happened to the parents, but the cruel bureaucracy that now does this to the children. What possible benefit could there be in putting children into a coma? What excuse does a society have for inflicting this upon people who just want a safe place to live?
As the film nears its conclusion, we see how the process has changed for each family. One family, finally granted asylum, watches as their little girl begins very slowly to stir and return to everyday life. The simple act of watching her eyes twitch and squeeze shut in momentary discomfort, after so much death-like stillness, reduced me to tears. Another, still on appeal, their chances looking increasingly grim despite all reasonable requirements, watches as a second child begins to sink into Resignation Syndrome. The sheer brutality of this dichotomy is almost banal, it’s so obvious – except we’re watching these children, and hope against all possibility for them. When we see one child running and playing who was so recently completely immobile, it’s bracing, a shock to the senses, and the conscience.
These films are an urgent call for us to strive to make a better world, and set aside our petty prejudices and need to work our will on our surroundings in favor of putting these children first. In the face of what’s coming and what’s past, there couldn’t be a more vital time to hear this message. I can only plead that we will honor it. These kids, and many billions like them, deserve so much better than what we’ve given them.