Non-fiction storytelling is well-represented in this year’s Oscar race. Five movies are vying for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, but many of the contenders for Best Documentary (Short Subject) are almost feature-length experiences as well. The Academy’s rules allow shorts to run up to 40 minutes; two of this year’s nominees run exactly that length, while the others are close to half an hour. By contrast, the longest animated short nominee is just under 15 minutes, while the longest live action short is 25 minutes. That’s understandable: The documentary form often demands more time to establish context, and this year’s nominees illustrate that challenge.
As usual for the category, all of the contenders deal with timely (and often troubling) subject matter through personal dramas from around the world. It’s a particularly strong collection of non-fiction filmmaking as well. Each nominee works around the traditional talking-head approach with vivid, surprisingly emotional imagery. Here are the nominees, ranked from worst to best — though with so many consequential issues and filmmaking techniques on display, they’re all worthy of checking out.
“Walk, Run, Cha-Cha”
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Laura Nix’s charming two-hander, produced for The New York Times’ ever-successful Op-Docs series, follows a middle-aged couple in Los Angeles who take ballroom dance lessons together. Paul and Millie Cao are proficient enough on the dance floor, but it’s the backstory that makes their moves resonate: As they recall throughout scenes of their elaborate practice sessions, the Caos escaped Vietnam during wartime, where they were part of the minority Chinese population and faced persecution as a result. Dancing was banned under the country’s communist rule, but the couple fell love while finding clandestine places to do it anyway. Their endearing story comes to life in a prolonged — OK, maybe a little too prolonged — dance sequence that ends the short, as Nix magnifies a decade-spanning bond better explained through movement than words. While not the most consequential of this year’s nominees, “Walk, Run, Cha-Cha” has a clarity of vision all the same, and its appealing romance begs for a narrative feature adaptation.
“Learning to Skateboard In a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)”
There have been countless documentaries made about life during wartime, but Carol Dysinger’s absorbing Kabul-set drama has a unique hook. The 40-minute story revolves around Skateistan, a school that teaches young girls how to skateboard in between the rest of their studies. Started by Australian Oliver Percovich over a decade ago, the school is now run entirely by Afghanis and boasts some 7,000 alumni; the movie documents many of their stories, while lacing together engaging footage of their daily routines. While a blunt opening title card warns that the country is “one of the worst places in the world to be born a girl,” the school challenges that assessment by exploring how the instructors overcome the repressiveness of their society to give their students an energetic outlet for troubled times. Set to a quirky score by Sasha Gordon, the skate training sequences are the highlights of the movie, as they repurpose the image of young Afghani women in a more individualistic context.
“Learning to Skateboard In a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)” focuses less on individual narratives than providing a scattershot portrait of the school and what it says about the dueling identities of Afghani life as the war rages on, but it oscillates from sweet to sullen as it assesses what the future might bring. One of the instructors shares dramatic stories of combating Taliban rule, and wonders about the bleak possibility of the regime returning to power. Until that happens, the skating continues, and Dysinger is wise to avoid striking a downbeat note. Instead, “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)” closes with several of the students sharing what they want to be when they grow up, and it’s clear that the school is helping them maintain the motivation to make those dreams come true. It’s not the subtlest message, but it resonates nonetheless, bringing a refreshing new purpose to the rebellious connotations of the skateboard by turning it into a weapon of empowerment.
“St. Louis Superman”
MTV’s first documentary nominee has arrived under the guidance of non-fiction maven Sheila Nevins, and “St. Louis Superman” stands out as the most galvanizing of the bunch. Directors Smitri Mundhra and Sami Khan follow the recent saga of Bruce Franks, Jr., an African American activist elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Franks is anything but your usual politician: A rapper by trade, his brother was murdered at the age of nine 30 years ago when Franks himself was a child. That experience motivates Franks to instigate change in the local government, but his mission takes him all the way to Washington, as he works to pass a bill declaring the gun violence in the region as a public health risk.
Franks doesn’t change his look as he infiltrates the white, GOP-heavy local government and the visual contrast — he’s often seen in baggy clothes alongside buttoned-up older politicians — gives this absorbing verite story a unique hook. It’s also a remarkable illustration of the way Democratic politics have begun to shift away from elitism as energized citizens take charge. The movie has a bittersweet finish as Franks chose to step down from office, but his crusade resonates all the same. With Franks himself contributing to a savvy campaign by MTV and carrying an important message in the midst of a heated election season, it’s safe to assume that “St. Louis Superman” is the frontrunner of the category.
“Life Overtakes Me”
The Netflix entry in this year’s category is a fascinating lyrical investigation into a bizarre physical ailment that somehow only seems to have cropped up in Sweden. Known as “Resignation Syndrome,” the illness affects the children of refugee families who devolve into a comatose state for inexplicable reasons, often for months at a time. The phenomenon is a genuine medical mystery, and seems to manifest among children who escape the darker experiences of their native countries only to grapple with additional trauma when living with the uncertainty of whether they might be expelled. (Sweden has traditionally been hospitable to refugees, but in recent years, its government has grown more conservative.) Among the many cases covered in the movie, one stands out — the fascinating and tragic story of Daria, a seven-year-old from a country that remains unidentified throughout the movie, whose parents grapple with her condition while still waiting to find out if they can establish residency. That sad conundrum resolves better than some of the others, and the movie sometimes casts too wide a net. However, “Life Overtakes Me” benefits from a remarkable visual style, as directors Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas transform their subject into an ominous fairy tale. Painterly images of icy landscapes establish a slow-burn, disquieting rhythm that makes this eerie investigation into a haunting means of hovering within the global immigration crisis from the inside out.
“In the Absence”
While the historic Oscar nominations for “Parasite” mark a landmark moment for Korean cinema in this year’s awards season, that film doesn’t stand alone: Yi Seung-Jun’s half-hour “In the Absence” is the first Korean movie nominated for documentary short, and it’s a powerful one. The best editing feat among this year’s nominees, the movie tracks the aftermath of the MV Sewol sinking off the coast of South Korea in 2014, when over 300 people — including many schoolchildren — drowned as authorities struggled to determine an emergency response. The opening act is a devastating collection of archival images and radio communications, as the country’s president goes MIA and the boat slowly recedes from view. Eventually, the government turns to amateur divers to undertake the harrowing process of recovering bodies from the wreck; one them is so traumatized that he kills himself later on. Combined with furious testimonies from the children’s parents and protests that came later, “In the Absence” explodes into a devastating look at dereliction of duty that resulted in South Korean president Park Geun-hye getting arrested four years later. Yi juggles a series of interlocking developments with astounding dexterity, as he bemoans every angle of the tragedy while setting the record straight once and for all. “In the Absence” may be too dense or discomfiting for some voters, but it’s the indisputable cinematic highlight among this year’s strong crop of nominees.