Sunday, February 02, 2020

Short Stuff: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

This is the first year that a local theater has shown the year's documentary shorts as a single block, rather than broken into two, for which I'm grateful: Aside from being a bit easier to schedule with so little time between the short film packages hitting theaters and the awards ceremony, it sets up an interesting (if traumatic) through-line that might not have been quite so visible broken up.

Seeing them all at once also just highlights just how thin the line between "cinema", "television", "streaming", and other media is in this category, with entries coming from Netflix, Lifetime, MTV, and the New York Times. This has been the case for decades, but it also highlights just how films of this size may be more easily accessed than ever but are scattered across services rather than having one place where you can look for them.

"Life Overtakes Me"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #7 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

If trauma and displacement are the overall themes of this year's nominees, "Life Overtakes Me" is the film that addresses it most directly, introducing the viewer to a group of refugee families in Sweden whose children suffer from "Resignation Syndrome", in which children over time grow unresponsive to the world, withdrawing into a coma-like state where they can stay for months. Dasha, Karen, and Leyla all come from former-Soviet states and seemed to be settling well into their new environment, with siblings not (yet) affected, but the uncertainty of their future simply appears to be too much for them. Over a hundred such cases have been recorded in Sweden over the past 15 years, an unprecedented number.

One of the first experts on-screen discussing the syndrome, Dr. Anne-Liis von Knorring, describes these children as Snow White, sleeping until something comes to rescue them from exile. It's an apt image and one that directors John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson highlight - though these children are pale, and have feeding tubes leading down their noses, they are otherwise healthy and often appear just on the cusp of waking up. The filmmakers are exceptionally conscious about showing how much the children are loved and how committed the families are without remonstration, and over the 39 minutes of the film, the meaning of this sinks in: This is hard and wrenching, but these families are committed to each other, and would not have fled home like this otherwise. Seen repeated over multiple cases and with as much of a focus on the everyday life around them as the family's efforts to keep their children healthy with physical therapy and attempts to engage, and the filmmakers are able to draw a clear picture of the experience of being emigrés and refugees - the optimism about making a better life for one's family combined with the abject terror of how conditional one's status is. There's no overt call to action here, but there's little doubt as to the film's point of view.

There's an impressive clarity to every facet of the film, from the titles that quietly give viewers all the information they need to the clear photography. The filmmakers are careful to always shoot the children in warm, homey light rather than something cold and clinical, for instance, while there's a crispness to establishing shots that never seems unwelcoming, even when it's a chilly Swedish winter outside. It's just a small shift to when the exteriors show something a little colder and more sinister when the parents recount why they fled, and a small shift back to offer up some hope..

"Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #7 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The hope is closer to front-and-center in "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)", even as it starts out by noting that Afghanistan, even 17 years after the fall of the Taliban, is one of the worst places in the world to be born a girl. It quickly introduces the audience to "Skateistan", a semi-hidden school and skatepark that helps kids who have been left behind prepare for public school - a program especially important for girls, who are often given far less opportunity than their brothers.

Director Carol Dysinger structures her film around five boarding skills that clearly reflect gaining more confidence, from simply standing on the board to jumping into the air. In between, she fills the snapshot in, talking with teachers, students, and parents who hope for a better life for their own children. Despite the progression of the skills and the titles indicating different terms starting, there's not really a story that reflects the passage of time here - the concerns a twelve students expresses about no longer being allowed to leave the house once she turns 13, for instance, are not something that loom larger as the film goes on, and there's not the expected graduation scene or sense of what their lives were like before or after Skateistan.

What the film does have, though, are a bunch of energetic young girls who are both energetic in the classroom and a delight in the back of the building, holding on to skateboards almost as big as them, their hijabs a contrast to the helmets and pads. They are a constant delight to watch, full of enthusiasm and energy, nervous at some points and fearless at others, and it's easy to see how doing something physical boosts their confidence in other areas. What they'll do with that confidence, who can say, but it's hard not to root for them.

"Bujaeui gieok" ("In the Absence")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #7 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

I feel like I should have known more about the central incident of "In the Absence", although I suppose I would have learned about it at some point when a South Korean narrative feature about the sinking of the Sewol - a ferryboat running between the mainland and Jiju Island - on 14 April 2014 made its way to the festival circuit. It's a horrific tragedy, with over half of the 476 passengers students on a class trip and a sense that the entire system was broken, from under-equipped the Coast Guard holding off actual rescue efforts because they could not be properly documented all the way up to the President seeming to ignore a terrible tragedy playing out over hours. In the end, it would be up to civilian divers to recover the bodies of those lost, a horrible three-month effort that would haunt them afterward.

Director Yi Seung-Jun begins the film with audio of calls being made and footage of the incident, and I suspect it is more meaningfully horrific for a South Korean audience which saw such images live on the news at the time and repeated during the fallout, while those less familiar with the event might wonder to what extent we are seeing stock footage or recreations, especially when there's a clip from one of the teens' mobile phones showing them scared but calm, trusting authorities to rescue them even as the ship lies on its side, unaware of the mess going on outside. What this segment does manage, with its time-stamps, nonsensical exchanges in calm, professional voices, and images that don't feature sudden movements but frighteningly empty spaces, is to impress upon the audience what a slow-moving and senseless tragedy this is - the compression of a day to fifteen minutes or so of a half-hour film does not ever give the impression that things happened too fast, and the very fact of the camera's presence is an indictment. Someone could film this, but couldn't do something.

Yi eventually starts adding other elements - after-the-fact interviews, voiceover, footage from the protests and hearings that took place over the next three years - and impressively does so without ever losing the sense of being a fly on the wall. It turns out to be nightmarishly high-quality material for a documentary, a steady roll that leads to consequences at both the largest and smallest scales, with the latter a punch in the gut that the bitter triumph of the former can't offset. Through it all, Yi manages to balance the the film's focus on both personal and systemic stories, and it's a broadly affecting film in a medium that often must be focused, reminding us that a movement that eventually reached President Park Geun-Hye must leave many like diver Kim Wang-Hong in its wake.

"Walk Run Cha-Cha"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #7 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

There's a similar attempt at meshing different scales to Laura Nix's "Walk Run Cha-Cha", but it doesn't quite manage it as elegantly as "In the Absence". She has a couple of interesting subjects in Chipaul "Paul" Cao and his wife Millie, who were together in their native Vietnam for six months before Paul's family fled in 1978, with Millie unable to leave until six years later, and who have spent much of their later years throwing themselves into ballroom dance. It's a fine story, but one where Nix only has access to the present when the arc that leads there may be more interesting. There's something like twenty seconds given to reuniting after six years and having to start over, and if you were adapting their lives to a narrative feature, that would be the heart of it.

Working with what she has, though, she does a lot that's interesting - the opening shot of a large group of (presumably) Vietnamese-Americans taking a lesson has everyone but the Caos disappear, for instance, hinting at how everyone in that group likely has a story, to the brief looks at the immigrant community tucked away in Southern California, to their recognition that they spend an awful lot of time at this which even the friends and co-workers who support them ("such good exercise!") don't really understand. What's most important comes near the end: When the film gets to them practicing and ends on a performance that, much as it may be better than what most watching can manage, isn't quite mind-blowing, it's starting to give you an idea of the piece that was missing earlier, as one sees the dance as painstakingly practiced and not improvised at all, but nevertheless filled with genuine emotion. Paul and Millie had to work to be this much in love, but that doesn't make what they feel, or what the audience sees as they perform, any less authentic.

"St. Louis Superman"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #7 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

There's a grandeur to "St. Louis Superman" despite how aggressively directors Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra ground it in the ordinary, in keeping with subject Bruce Franks Jr., a battle rapper and community activist who won election to the Missouri State House of Representatives in the wake of the Ferguson riots and then faced the challenge of making his voice heard as one black Democrat in a body seemingly designed to be dominated by white Republicans, with his main focus on passing a bill to treat youth violence as a public health threat.

Perhaps the filmmakers could have made a film about him wheeling and dealing, going through the politics of compromise and horse-trading, or perhaps not, as that might have required access to others that they did not have. Instead, they seize upon things that might give Franks mythic status early - son King was born on the night Michael Brown was shot - and slowly back off. The man is more important than the myth, and they wind up spending much of their time hanging out, watching him talk to men in a halfway house and spend time showing his children his old neighborhood. He goes on a talk radio program with one of his Republican colleagues and returns to battle rap to duel a man who says he's become part of the establishment, talking about how in some ways that's the same as politics - trying to use your words to get one up on your opponent - although the rap pays better.

It is, in many ways, an easygoing short that reflects its subject, trying hard to inspire while avoiding friction (which is probably a good way of looking at the campaigning portion of politics). That Khan and Mundhra seem to stay aligned with Franks's personality is impressive, as documentaries often try to say what a person wouldn't tell you on their own, but it's clearly important here that they communicate his nature as much as his accomplishments and motivation. It's doubly important because the inevitable text filling the audience in about what has happened since filling could potentially pull the rug out from under the film, but instead just reinforces what the film has made one feel about this man.

Whether casting a vote or betting on the result, I have a hard time choosing between "Life Overtakes Me" and "In the Absence", two films that can manage to light a fire under their viewers to push their governments to try and help people without being overwhelmed by anger. I am, however, very glad that they are surrounded in this package by other pieces which also show the human capacity for simple decency.

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