Review: Oscar Documentary Shorts

If you plan to see the Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts Program, now playing at the Music Box Theatre, keep in mind that all five films are presented as a single program that, this year, runs to a whopping two hours and forty minutes. It’s a marathon, to be sure. But seeing how each of the five films is a captivating snapshot of the lives of others, sometimes in their darkest, hardest, most challenging moments, it’s a compilation of films that’s more than worth the investment of your time.

Featured at the 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival, Life Overtakes Me is the painfully sad story of children who’ve faced such devastating traumas that they respond by developing what’s called Resignation Syndrome, essentially shutting down in every way, becoming non-responsive and near comatose rather than live in this scary, uncertain world of ours. Filmmakers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson follow three refugee families in Sweden dealing with children suffering from the syndrome, as their parents work to build a safe and stable new life in their adopted homeland. As experts weigh in on just what the children must be going through, the most surreal part of it all seems to be the only known cure: reinstating hope into the children’s lives.

The fate of South Korean children is explored in Seung-jun Yi’s chronicle of the tragic 2014 ferry accident that was so mishandled by that country’s authorities that hundreds of people died after fumbled rescue attempts. In the Absence pieces together news footage, interviews and even cell phone video recovered from the wreckage to recount not only that fateful day but the response in the following weeks and years as the country tried to hold those responsible to account. The tragedy made global headlines when it happened nearly six years ago, but those of us half a world away have likely not followed what happened next; In the Absence serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives that day and a record of what went terribly wrong, so that it may never happen again.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl) earns the award for the longest film title in this year’s nominees; it’s also one of the most moving films in the bunch, as it focuses on a school in Kabul, Afghanistan that dares to teach girls how to read, write and, yes, skateboard. In a country that’s been at war for decades, and one that’s still incredibly dangerous for and unfair to girls and women, the sheer act of getting an education is rebellious. Carol Dysinger’s observational filmmaking allows these girls to be themselves in a culture that doesn’t often count them as people at all; an epilogue to the forty-minute film shares just what an impact has had on the community it serves since its inception in 2008, and it’s a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak reality.

When Michael Brown was killed by police officers in August, 2014, a nation watched as the Ferguson community grappled with such a racially charged tragedy. On the ground, community members responded by protesting or grieving or, in the case of battle rapper Bruce Franks, Jr., by running for State Representative. In Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra’s St. Louis Superman, Franks navigates the rarely worn path between his mostly forgotten neighborhood in the city and the hallowed halls of the State Capitol. On a mission to affect change for his constituents, he galvanizes anti-gun violence laws and challenges the status quo of a mostly white, mostly Republican legislative body, all while raising a young son of his own. Franks’ story is a deeply American one, where a citizen can step into an influential role and represent the people when those who had been entrusted to do just that fail.

A featured short film in The New York Times Op Docs section, Walk Run Cha-Cha is a sweet story of a couple making the most of their retirement years as they learn to dance the cha-cha of the film’s title. Written and directed by Laura Nix, the short film follows Paul and Millie Cao, Vietnamese immigrants who’ve spent the last forty years building their lives and raising their children in America. Dig a little deeper, though, and Nix exposes us to their dramatic backstory, fleeing their home country in the midst of the Vietnam War, sorting out just how to make a new life when you have to leave everything behind and reconnecting years later. Twenty minutes spent with Paul and Millie is as charming as it is inspiring, watching these two reclaim this life for their own, even after all its put them through.