Connect with us


Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Oscars 2020: Watch the Documentary Shorts

Chacha, skateboards and a real-life Superman

This year’s Documentary Short Subject category at the Oscars tells stories from all over the world: A tragic boat accident in South Korea, a couple that went from Vietnam to Los Angeles while dancing along the way, a battle-rapping politician from Missouri, skateboarding girls in Afghanistan, and illness-struck children in Sweden. 

Reviews of the 2020 Oscar nominees: 

Walk Run Chacha 

Director Laura Nix’s film is a remarkably sweet love story and immigration story. It tells the decades-spanning story of Paul and Millie Cao. The couple, part of the ethnic Chinese minority in Vietnam, were separated during the Vietnam War, reunited in the U.S. in the 1980s. 

In the present day, we see them living together in Los Angeles, eating food that looks great, and (of course) dancing. The two dance the cha-cha together, for hours each week, and the 20-minute film’s final sequence has the two of them dancing to The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” 

The film is streaming on the website of The New York Times, as an “op doc,” and also on YouTube: 

St. Louis Superman 

This documentary, from filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan and produced through MTV Films, is unlikely any other portrait of a politician I’ve ever seen. 

Bruce Franks, Jr. is a St. Louis native who first came to prominence as part of that city’s battle rap scene, and was on the ground for the nearby Ferguson protests in 2014 and 2015. 

After that Franks, who has lost a younger brother and other loved ones to gun violence, run for and was elected to the state legislature in Missouri, on a platform of reducing gun violence. 

In the 27-minute film, we see Franks befriended by colleagues, including conservative white Republicans, and the film establishes that he’s an unusually charismatic leader. We also see Franks returning to the battle rap scene, after his election, against an adversary who accuses him of losing touch with the community. 

We’re told by an on-screen title at the end that Franks has resigned from his seat, due to what he described as continuing trauma, and announced that he was planning to leave Missouri. It’s likely, though, that we haven’t seen the last of this man’s impact. 

In the Absence 

Director Yi Seung-Jun’s film about the tragic Sewol ferry crash in South Korea in 2014 weaves together some truly impressive footage, straight from rescue boats at the time of the tragedy, up until the protests that led, at least in part, to the resignation of that country’s president, Park Geun-Hye. 

The disaster killed more than 300 people, most of them were high school students and was one of those tragedies that led to multiple scandalous revelations about safety lapses, the ineffective response, and subsequent government misconduct. 

The 28-minute film is currently streaming in full on Facebook Watch, as well as on YouTube 

Life Overtakes Me

Here’s a documentary much more interesting for what it’s about than how it tells its story. Life Overtakes Me, directed by Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, is about a strange phenomenon in Sweden: Dozens of children, who have come to that country as refugees in recent years from the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union, have developed a condition called  Resignation Syndrome, in which they essentially become catatonic for months at a time, as a reaction to trauma. 

It’s hard to say this about a film that’s so well-intentioned, but the film doesn’t really find any way to be aesthetically interesting. The syndrome itself, and its concentration in that part of the world (in addition to some reported cases in Australia), remain a medical mystery, but that’s not quite the focus of the film. 

The 40-minute film, which is streaming on Netflix, shows us several of the families, interviewing their parents and seeing the day-to-day life of caring for such children, at least some of whom, by the end, have shown improvements. 

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

This documentary is… exactly what it sounds like. The American director, Carol Dysinger, has made a film about Skateistan, a special program that educates young girls in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in reading and writing, as well as the activity of the title. The program has existed since 2008 and is now run entirely by Afghans. 

The chapters all illustrate individual skateboarding activities, but they also serve as metaphors for the wider struggle, in a country where girls weren’t allowed to go to school until not long ago. 

When it comes to documentaries about skateboarding within a certain sociopolitical milieu, this isn’t quite on the level of Minding the Gap, last year’s astonishing feature-length documentary about years in the lives of a group of teen skateboarders in Illinois. But Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is still an inspiring tale. 

The film is on A&E, including its on-demand channel, and also on Hulu, if you subscribe to the “with Live TV” option. 

Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Reviewing the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



2001: A Space Odyssey 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: Clarke and Kubrick’s Odyssey of Discovery


The Best Movies of 1973 The Best Movies of 1973

The Golden Year of Movies: 1973


The Zone of Interest The Zone of Interest

Cannes 2023: Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a Manicured Vision of Hell



Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Is a Dazzling Web of Unbridled Creativity


Asteroid City: A Gimmicky Vanity Project Asteroid City: A Gimmicky Vanity Project

Cannes 2023: Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is a Gimmicky Vanity Project


Jeanne Du Barry review Jeanne Du Barry review

Cannes 2023: Maïwenn’s Great Hair Goes to Great Lengths in Jeanne Du Barry


Black Flies Gripping Black Flies Gripping

Cannes 2023: Black Flies— Gripping Descent into the Underbelly of New York’s Urban Misery 


Four Daughters Four Daughters

Cannes 2023: Four Daughters: A Family’s Journey From Goth to Niqab


La Passion de Dodin Bouffant: La Passion de Dodin Bouffant:

La Passion de Dodin Bouffant: Surfeit Cooking Drama Most Inane Film at Cannes


BlackBerry movie review BlackBerry movie review

BlackBerry Is a Wonderfully Canadian Account of a Dying Tech Dream


The Mother Jennifer Lopez and Lucy Paez The Mother Jennifer Lopez and Lucy Paez

Jennifer Lopez’s The Mother is Eerily Similar to Enough, But That’s Not a Bad Thing


Godzilla 1998 Godzilla 1998

Godzilla at 25: When Hollywood Made a Manhattan Monster Movie, with Disastrous Results


Starling Girl Starling Girl

The Starling Girl is a fine exploration of love, religion, and coming of age


The Matrix Reloaded The Matrix Reloaded

20 Years Later: The Matrix Reloaded was Underwhelming, but Still Underrated


Discovery channel Discovery channel

The Head-Scratching Moves Discovery Has Been Making


Sean Connery Sean Connery

60 Years Later, Dr. No Remains the Paragon of Bond