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Oscar Short Doc Nominees Discuss Tackling Tough Subject Matter

This year’s field includes films about traumatized refugee children and oppressed Afghan girls who skateboard

Last Updated: January 30, 2020 @ 11:12 AM

As has been the case for the last few years, the 2020 Oscar nominees in the Best Documentary Short category are a remarkable bunch, and TheWrap gathered the filmmakers behind them to speak on Tuesday about the work that went into exploring such tough subjects.

Possibly the most sensitive topic touched on in this year’s field was that of Resignation Syndrome, a fairly new psychological case that has seen hundreds of traumatized refugee children become so mentally unwell that they fall into a comatose state for months or even years. In “Life Overtakes Me,” director-producers Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas managed to earn the trust of three refugee families with children in such a state and explored how they handle such a difficult situation while fighting to retain their asylum status in Sweden.

Samuelson and Haptas said that while the families were willing to participate to help spread awareness of Resignation Syndrome, they were also afraid that participating would give away their location to oppressive governments that were hunting them. The directors, who did all the filming on their own, had to be careful to not give any information about where the families came from or where they were living in Sweden, and that secrecy was still top priority when Netflix called with an offer to put the doc on their streaming service.

“When they came to us for a distribution deal, we told them that we wouldn’t sign any contract that didn’t include an agreement that they wouldn’t stream our doc in the countries where the families came from, because they were afraid that the people who tortured them would see it,” Samuelson explained. “To their credit, Netflix immediately agreed.”

Similar care to protect the doc’s subjects was at the core of filming for Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl).” Dysinger traveled to Kabul to do a film on the work of Skateistan, a school that offers Afghan girls the education denied to their mothers by Taliban rule as well as afterschool skateboarding lessons.

While the film espouses a sense of hope with shots of young girls excited to learn, it never pushes away the hard truths of life in the Afghanistan capital, where bombs go off on a weekly basis and the threat of the Taliban’s return constantly looms. Dysinger notes that her film team had to constantly hide any identifying information about Skateistan’s secret location and protect the identities of those who did not want their faces to be seen in the film.

“I could never show you the walls that surrounded the school attached to any identifying backgrounds, I had to avoid filming their security system, but within that show the sense of freedom these girls had in this school once the cloister was sealed,” Dysinger said.

Balancing uplifting narratives with undercurrents of sorrow was also a challenge for Laura Nix when she made “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” the most personal of the five films. For several years, Nix followed Paul and Millie Cao, a Vietnamese couple who were forced to separate by the impending Vietnam War but reunited and married in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Forty years after their separation, they are making up for lost time by learning to dance competitively.

While the Caos initially accepted Nix’s offer out of excitement to show off their moves, they were more hesitant to discuss how they were separated. To make them more comfortable, Nix only interviewed them without a camera, using their audio-only interviews as voiceovers accompanied by the Caos going about their lives and taking care of their parents.

“Sometimes people open up when they’re talking about personal things on camera, and other times there’s much more intimate conversations when it’s just two people and a microphone on the side,” Nix said. “People ask me if there’s footage of the two talking and I always tell them, ‘No, all of the interviews were just done on audio.'”

Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra also became sensitive of discussing tough topics when making “St. Louis Superman,” a film about activist Bruce Franks and his three years as a Missouri state representative in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent Ferguson riots in 2014. Franks talks openly about fighting to get legislation declaring gun violence a public health emergency in the state in a system dominated by white Republicans.

Along with Brown’s death, Franks was motivated by the death of his brother Chris, who was shot when he was nine years old. As the filmmakers talked with Franks for the film and were accompanied by him to screenings, they became more and more aware of the mental toll his work was taking on him, so much so that he stepped down from the state legislature last year due to severe trauma from the death of a close friend.

“I became very aware of how he was being asked, again and again, to talk about the worst day of his life,” Mundhra said. “I think it is important to remember, even as we are cheering on these women and people of color who are running for office for the first time and for the best reasons, that this is still a political system that is not designed with them in mind and that trying to get that system to work for the marginalized can be a very draining experience.”

And the kind of trauma dealt with while filming may not only be personal, but societal as well. The final nominee, “In the Absence,” recounts the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the coast of South Korea in 2014 that killed 304 people, including 250 students.

The deaths were found to be largely preventable and were attributed to the failure of the ship’s captain to evacuate the passengers and the poor response from the Coast Guard and government officials that left nearby civilian boats to rescue those they could. The outrage from the disaster is shown in the film to have played a factor in the impeachment and removal of President Park Geun-hye three years later.

But director Yi Seung-jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam found strong resistance in Korea when doing the documentary, saying that many people thought it was time to “move on” and that the disaster had become “too political” due to Park’s connection to it. But as they talked with survivors, witnesses, and families of the deceased, they believed it was even more necessary to make the film to make sure the world doesn’t forget the truth.

“When we talked with people, there was so much pain. If there’s still pain, then we need to keep talking about this,” Yi said.

Producing “In the Absence” was particularly personal for Kam, who was booked to board the Sewol the day it sank but had to skip the voyage. That made watching much of the first-person footage taken by the students who did not survive especially difficult.

“As documentary makers, we have to learn to cry with one eye, but with the other eye, we have to keep the camera focused and to keep our distance,” Kam said. “That emotional rage and frustration fueled us, but we also had to remember to keep our distance so we can tell their story in the best way.”

The Best Documentary Short nominees, along with those in the live-action and animated categories, will be screened by Shorts.TV and Magnolia Pictures in select theaters nationwide starting this Friday. Click here to find a list of theaters in your area.