Individual Joys: Our Review of the 2019-2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - January 29, 2020
Individual Joys: Our Review of the 2019-2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts

The Oscar season is still upon us, and the Academy isn’t just honoring prestige movies. They’re also taking a look at what they think are the best documentary shorts. These films capture the big picture and how that affects individual lives. Just like the live action shortlist, these short docs have a more international scope. I wish the academy looked towards international stuff in more categories. That said, some of the shorts here are better than others.

When South Korea impeached Park Geun-hye, it seemed like one of many that targeted female heads of state. Yi Seung-jeun’s In the Absence puts context on that impeachment. Specifically, it shows her incompetent handling of the MW Sewol disaster in 2014. This is harrowing. Yi connects the through lines that made the disaster more fatal, making this the best of this crop of nominees.

Unlike Absence, Carol Dysinger’s Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is about people actually doing things. It shows female teachers recruiting girls to become students in a school that teaches many subjects including skateboarding. Dysinger is adept at showing two worlds. The first is the hostile rubble in Kabul and the second is the where the girls are happy. That happiness itself might make Academy members vote for this to win.

Bruce Franks, Jr. is both a rap battler and a Missouri State Representative. St. Louis Superman, by Smriti Mundra and Sami Khan, is a straightforward documentary depicting how he navigates both the government, mostly white, and the people he’s supposed to represent, who are more diverse. This is less of a visual piece and more of an aural one. Yet we can still delight in the way this short shows Franks’ verbal and intellectual acumen.

Life Overtakes Me, by Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, explores Resignation Syndrome, a disease hitting children of refugees in Sweden. It depicts those children under their parents’ care as the latter narrate horror stories from their home countries. I’m usually sympathetic to documentaries like this but its visual choices are baffling. Thsoe choices distract from the true emotion that these groups’ stories could have if the short let those subjects breathe. The worst of the crop. Available on Netflix!

Lastly, Laura Nix’ Walk Run Cha-Cha also tells the tale of refugees. This time around they’re a Vietnamese couple in America, Paul and Millie Cao. The visuals here show the American dream that they’ve achieved. It’s better than Life but there’s a lack of focus here. That quality takes away from these subjects’ elegance. More dance scenes next time.

For more information on how to see these shorts on the big screen go to

  • Release Date: 1/31/2020
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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