Every year, the Academy releases a shortlist of 10 short documentaries films that advance to the next round of voting. This year, I watched the entire shortlist. The following are my thoughts on the films themselves, not predictions as to whether I think they will be nominated:
"After Maria" (Dir. Nadia Hallgren) — Following a few Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, relocated to NYC, and temporarily housed in a hotel, “After Maria” is important because it highlights the shortcomings of FEMA and how our government fails those devastated by natural disasters. Above all, though, it gives a human face to those who are rarely seen.
"Fire in Paradise" (Dir. Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper) — The best of this list, “Fire in Paradise” is a harrowing portrait of courage in the face of possible death. Effortlessly mixing footage shot during the wildfire that ravaged Paradise, California in 2018 with survivor interviews, this short tells its story economically and satisfyingly while bringing the viewer into the experience of living through this terrifying situation.
"Ghosts of Sugar Land" (Dir. Bassam Tariq) — Set in Texas, “Ghosts of Sugar Land” centers around a group of Muslim-American friends (all in masks to conceal their identities) who detail how their formerly non-Muslim friend became radicalized and joined ISIS. Subtly disturbing, “Ghosts” excels at showing the dangers of radicalization and its impact on those who just want to live a quiet life.
"In the Absence" (Dir. Seung-jun Yi) — Compelling and infuriating, “In the Absence” explores the failings of the South Korean government to avoid (completely preventable) disaster in 2014 when a ferry sank as well as the after-effects of this tragedy. Calm and cool but simmering with anger, “In the Absence” is a story brilliantly recounted with remarkable footage taken on the scene.
"Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you're a girl)" (Dir. Carol Dysinger) — In the very-conservative Kabul, Afghanistan, a school exists to educate girls as well as to teach them to skateboard. “Learning to Skate...” is a good film that highlights the essential, and sometimes dangerous, efforts of the educators to change the lives of girls who otherwise might never have a chance.
"Life Overtakes Me" (Dir. Kristine Samuelson, John Haptas) — The gentle, sad “Life Overtakes Me” is genuinely haunting, as it explores a topic I was completely unaware of: resignation syndrome. This syndrome occurs in children of refugees who, unable to cope with the instability of their living situation, go into a coma-like sleep for long periods of time. This short follows a few families in Sweden (the number of children affected by resignation syndrome is disproportionately high in this country) who care for their children and hope for their awakening. A film very much of this day, “Life Overtakes Me” provides an entirely new perspective on the world’s refugee crisis.
"The Nightcrawlers" (Dir. Alexander A. Mora) — Thrilling and propulsive with astonishing access, “The Nightcrawlers” documents journalists covering Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs as well as the people working on behalf of the police to carry out hits. “The Nightcrawlers” would make a chilling companion piece to Lauren Greenfield’s new doc, THE KINGMAKER, about Imelda Marcos and her family’s attempts to return to power in The Philippines.
"St. Louis Superman" (Dirs. Sami Khan, Smriti Mundhra) — After a life affected by violent crime and called to action after the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Bruce Franks Jr. decided to run as a Democrat in the predominately white, Republican Missouri House of Representatives to make a difference for those like him. He won. “St. Louis Superman” is his story. Very moving and inspiring.
"Stay Close" (Dir. Luther Clement, Shuhan Fan) — A total knockout, ”Stay Close” creates a full portrait of Keeth Smart’s massive uphill battle to become an Olympic fencer. Understated and vivid with stunning animation, “Stay Close” is one of the highlights of this group.
"Walk Run Cha-Cha" (Dir. Laura Nix) — A life-affirming film about second chances, “Walk Run Cha-Cha” follows the Caos, a couple separated by the Vietnam War who reunited after many years and has found a passion for ballroom dancing. Sweet without being sentimental, “Walk Run Cha-Cha” is a lovely doc that is a pleasure to watch.