Ranked: 2020 Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Ranked: 2020 Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films

Feb 09, 2020
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The 92nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony will happen tonight, February 9th. As in years past, we've taken a look at this year's short film competitions. The Academy defines a short film as an original motion picture running 40 minutes or less, and excludes all advertisments, unaired or unsold television episodes, or credit sequences from feature-length films. Our critic, Shawn Hazelett, watched and ranked all of this year's Oscar-nominated shorts. Here, he looks at this year's documentary category.  

Want to judge for yourself? Click here to find a list of theaters and showtimes for this year's Oscar-nominated shorts.

1

St. Louis Superman

In Ferguson, Missouri, a young, black father whose brother was killed in random gun violence and who was active in the protests following the murder of Michael Brown, runs for and wins election for State Sentator. We don’t see the election of Bruce Franks Jr., but we know the reasons he won -- he’s passionate, intelligent, and charismatic, best evidenced in a battle rap scene in which he soundly defeats an opponent who doubts that a person can fix the system from within. The lone black man in the state’s legislature, he proves his opponent wrong by successfully introducing and passing an important piece of gun legislation. A great story wouldn’t have been possible without great access, the doc correctly takes a no-frills approach in sitting back and observing a truly inspiring subject.

2

Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)

There seems to be a belt tightening in Afghanistan, still ravaged by America’s forever-war. A woman’s place in Afghan society is veiled and hidden, a problem that compounded by the loose definitions of “a woman” (over thirteen). With constant explosions and zero expectations, the future feels hopeless for young girls. In Kabul, a small school for girls tries to change that via basic educational courses and unexpectedly skateboarding lessons. The film is structured simply and elegantly around the progression of these lessons. As the girls go from kickstarting to skating down ramps and as intersticial, verite moments provide glimpses into their the growing confidence of these girls, the film shows that in addition to learning important life skills, the school’s curriculum and especially its skateboarding lessons are designed to teach courage.

3

Life Takes Over Me

Three separate refugee families Sweden whose hopes of staying in the country tied up by an arcane legal process have one additional thing in common: their children have unexpectedly fallen into a coma. Skeptics believe these comas are engineered to avoid deportation, accusing the families of faking the comas at best or at worst poisoning their children. Psychologists coin the term “Resignation Syndrome” which occurs in children overwhelmed by a palpable sense of hopelessness. At times, the film suffers from a lack of context and overexpression and feels very start-and-stop, but the content and individual stories are so engaging as to more than apologize for the flaws in its storytelling.

4

In the Absence

In 2014, a ferry sunk off the coast of South Korea, killing hundreds of people, mostly schoolchildren. This was an undisputed accident, but the human costs could have been severely minimized. Recordings, documents, and witnesses eventually speak to how the urgent needs for a rescue mission were stalled in an attempt by an unpopular President (Park Geun-hye) to gain PR points by filming a grand rescue, a choice that eventually led to her ouster. This documentary correctly favors content over style, effectively combining footage from recovered cell phones, rescue helicopters, news outlets, and audio to tell this incredible cautionary tale of lies and bureaucratic posturing.

5

Walk Run Cha-Cha

Chipaul and Millie Cao were Vietnamese civilians separated by war and their staggered path to the US, where they eventually reconnect via an uncommon but visually appealing hobby: ballroom dance. A sweet entry to the documentary category, the filmmakers employ a rare but inventive editing technique: while we hear audio of the subjects discuss their lives in Vietnam, separating, and reconnecting, rather than use actual interviews, the filmmakers use b-roll of interview shots where its subjects are not talking -- they might be laughing or ruminating or scratching their head or fixing their hair -- to effectively convey the emotion of their backstory.

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