2020 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are dealing with disaster

From "In the Absence"
From "In the Absence"Courtesy ShortsTV (custom credit)/Courtesy ShortsTV

How would you respond to a disaster, an oppressive situation, or the memory of a past trauma? These are subjects explored in the five Oscar nominees for documentary (short subject), the winner of which will be announced at the Academy Award ceremony Feb. 9. The films will screen in two programs at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, beginning Feb. 7.

On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Korean passenger ferry MV Sewol started sinking. The crew instructed everyone to stay put. One passenger, a high school student, was the first to call the coast guard. The coast guard asked for his location, which he did not know. He was one of the 309 who died, most of them also students. A recording of his call opens Yi Seung-Jun’s “In the Absence” (in Program B) which pieces together a timeline of events with recordings of official communications; video footage, including chilling images from victims’ cellphones; and clips from the subsequent investigation.

What we see is a shocking indictment of criminal negligence and indecision by everyone in a position of authority, from the captain of the ferry to the officer in charge of the rescue to Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea. They dithered and did almost nothing as the vessel took 2½ hours to sink. Park would later be impeached and imprisoned. One of the civilian divers brought in to find survivors long after it was too late says of his experience, “I remember everything with acute pain. I cannot forget.” He would later commit suicide.


From "Life Overtakes Me"
From "Life Overtakes Me"Courtesy ShortsTV

The traumatized children in John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s “Life Overtakes Me” (in Program A) do not commit suicide — instead they withdraw into a mysterious, coma-like condition called resignation syndrome. It can last for years. In Sweden more than 400 refugee children from war-torn and oppressive societies suffer from it. The doctors and other experts interviewed in the film say it might be because of the stress and hopelessness they experience while their families await a decision on their request for asylum.


Haptas and Samuelson profile three such children, two girls and a boy, ranging in age from 7 to 12, who, as one therapist describes them, are “like Snow White because things are so terrible,” lying in suspended animation until the unbearable conditions of their lives improve. Their distraught parents lovingly tend to them and relate the horrendous circumstances, involving rape, torture, and death threats, that forced them to leave their countries. Images of a Swedish winter underscore the children’s hibernation from a world that offers no hope.

From "St. Louis Superman"
From "St. Louis Superman"Courtesy ShortsTV

In 1991 Bruce Franks Jr., then 6, watched his 9-year-old brother gunned down in a Ferguson, Mo., shoot-out. Years later, with a young son of his own, he was determined to do something about the plague of gun violence killing Black young people in his city. So in 2016 he ran for the Missouri House of Representatives, a body consisting mostly of white Republicans, and won.

Profiled in Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s “St. Louis Superman” ( in program B), Franks is seen as a loving father, fiery rapper, and soft-spoken legislator, stirring up audiences at his performances, bonding with a TV talk-show host and self-described “white trash hillbilly,” and eloquently arguing for his bill to declare youth violence a public health epidemic. The bill passed unanimously. Sadly, as the film’s epilogue points out, Franks retired from the legislature because of the anxiety and depression he suffered after the shooting deaths of his godson and his best friend.


From "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone."
From "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone."Courtesy ShortsTV

As Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” (in Program A) demonstrates, one should not underestimate the power of play. “17 years after the Taliban fell,” an opening title reads, “Afghanistan is still one of the worst places to be born a girl.” Girls’s prospects seem dim in a place where illiteracy, child marriage, violence at home and in the streets, and prohibitions against participation in many activities seem the likely fate awaiting them.

But Skateistan might change that. The girls who attend, encouraged by mothers who want them to have a better life, learn reading, writing, and arithmetic — and how to ride a skateboard. Tiny girls in colorful dresses and giant helmets tentatively step on the boards for the first time and grin with delight and a sense of accomplishment when they realize they can do this. They have dreams of becoming pilots, doctors, journalists, and teachers, and are determined to fulfill them, despite an uncertain future amid suicide bombings that kill scores of people.

From "Walk Run Cha-Cha"
From "Walk Run Cha-Cha"Courtesy ShortsTV

In Laura Nix’s “Walk Run Cha-Cha” (in Program B) dance performs a role like that of skateboarding in Dysinger’s film — building confidence, trust, and helping to forge the future. Paul and Millie Cao fell in love as teenagers in postwar Vietnam. They escaped the traumas they experienced there and found refuge in California, where they had to adjust to a new language and culture. They had to work hard, graduate from college, learn professions, raise a child, and support their parents. It did not leave much time for romance.


But they rediscovered it decades later in a dance class, where they learned that “motion is emotion” and re-established bonds of love, just like in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical. Shot over a period of six years as the pair develop their terpsichorean skills and reignite their passion, the film culminates with the pair in a “Dancing with the Stars”-like finale set to the song “We’ve Only Just Begun.”



Directed and written by Yi Seung-Jun, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, Carol Dysinger, and Laura Nix. At Coolidge Corner, starting Feb. 7. Two 80-minute programs. Unrated. In English and Korean, Swedish, Ukrainian, Dari, and Vietnamese, with subtitles.

Go to coolidge.org/films/2020-oscar-nominated-shorts-documentary.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.