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‘2020 Oscar Shorts: Documentary’ Film Review: Traditionally Intense Category Wields a Slightly Lighter Touch This Year

There’s tragedy but also hope within this year’s crop of non-fiction short subjects

The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are not now, nor have they ever been, a laughing matter. But the joke that gets told most often, which has a nugget of truth in it, is that they frequently represent the grimmest category of any given year at the Academy Awards.

Recent nominees have vividly, heartbreakingly illustrated end-of-life care, the opioid crisis, the plight of refugees, systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and the Holocaust. These are not, generally speaking, films that you can idly eat popcorn to.

This year’s nominees, which occupy their own theatrical program this week via ShortsTV, also tackle heavy subjects and will also make any halfway-present audience member ponder important issues of the day. And yet, somehow, they’re a little less brain-meltingly sad than usual.

Which says a little more about the nominations from previous years than it does about the current crop, because the latest Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are chock-full of deadly disasters, harrowing psychological conditions, systemic sexism and systemic racism. That these heady subjects are spiked with a liberal application of battle rap and dance competitions makes a heck of a lot of difference.

Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” encapsulates the difficult balance between the hopeful and the dire, and follows a group of young girls who are learning — in a country where women aren’t allowed to be educated — to read, write and yes, even skateboard at a secret school. “Learning to Skateboard” is one of the longest documentary shorts nominated this year, but Dysinger’s smart structuring makes it fly by, using the basics of skateboarding as a parallel to these heroic young women gaining their self-confidence and embracing their individual power.

That’s a sharp contrast to John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s “Life Overtakes Me,” which deals with the plight of children who have no such positive outlet. The documentary explores multiple refugee families in Sweden with children suffering from a hitherto unknown affliction — Resignation Syndrome — in which a traumatized child, thrown from their harrowing experience into a period of uncertainty, retreats from the waking world and goes to sleep for months on end.

The chilly cinematography and medical mysteries make “Life Overtakes Me” play out like a horror movie at first, but Haptas and Samuelson smartly keep the cameras on the families as they care for these children; almost no medical experts appear on screen, nor are there scenes in court as their immigration status is debated.

Hope emerges for these children when the threat of returning to a horrifying home country, from which fleeing was the only rational option, no longer looms. But “Life Overtakes Me” makes its larger points by staying focused on the heartbreaking personal crises of the refugee families, so that innate human sympathy can hammer the final point home that sending these suffering young children back is unconscionable.

The immigration experience is treated more lightly in Laura Nix’s “Walk, Run, Cha-Cha,” in which two Vietnamese immigrants — decades after fleeing the Communist regime in their country — reassert their personal freedom by learning how to dance. Short, slight, but inspiring, this charming autumnal romance keeps the history of Paul and Millie Cao always at the center of our thoughts. Where they came from, the opportunities that immigration afforded them, and the simple fact that decades ago dance parties were illegal make the film’s lovely denouement bracing and effective.

Music provides a different kind of counterpoint in Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra’s “St. Louis Superman,” about a battle rapper and Ferguson protester who embarks on a successful political career and becomes a Missouri State Representative. Fighting to change an imbalanced and fundamentally racist system from the inside, using his battle-rap skillset to drum up positive change, and committing to fighting youth violence with legislation and empathy takes a progressively difficult toll on Bruce Franks, Jr., as we experience firsthand that Capra-esque idealism is possible but, perhaps, too much to ask from just one person. “St. Louis Superman” reminds us that an open heart is as powerful as it is vulnerable.

But perhaps no short on the docket is more powerful than Seung-jun Yi’s “In the Absence,” a masterfully crafted and harrowing documentary about a South Korean ferry that sank over the course of a morning, while the people inside waited for rescue, and the bureaucratic government made endless phone calls about how to spin the situation instead of actually saving them. Half of “In the Absence” is presented as a series of horrifying videos of the ferry sinking while the phone calls persist, insufferable and inhuman, on the soundtrack.

The tragedy spiraled out into a massive political disaster which eventually toppled the South Korean government, but “In the Absence” never loses sight of the human lives that were cruelly lost, and the torment their preventable passing had on their families and on the rescue workers who could have saved them but were stymied by red tape. The story of how an attempt to raise the ship by filling it with air was ruined by an attempt to look good in front of the cameras, resulting in the air tubes not even being placed inside the ship, is one of the most obscene examples of malfeasance imaginable — until you learn the government already knew there could be no survivors, and it was all a photo op anyway.

“In the Absence” distills the downfall of human decency into a swift, punishing, absolutely vital documentary that argues for decency above all, even in a politically charged climate. The extremity of this awful real-life example is a potent, skillfully crafted reminder of the need for culpability, contrasting the morality of everyday citizens with callous, corrupt political manipulation. It’s as potent a film as any nominated for an Academy Award this year.