2020 Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

On January 29, ShortsTV will debut THE 2020 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS at the IFC Center in New York City and in select markets, and then roll out across the US and Europe on January 31.  This marks the 15th consecutive year of the Oscar Nominated Short Films theatrical experience. It is the only opportunity for audiences to watch the short film nominees in theaters before the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday February 9, 2020. They will also made available via on demand platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and Vimeo on Demand. The release ensures the greatest number of viewers can see all the nominees before the ceremony, while providing short filmmakers with an unprecedented opportunity to commercialise their movies.   Each nominee is released in one of three distinct feature-length compilations according to their category of nomination: Live Action, Animation, or Documentary. 

For a full list of theaters the short films are playing in, visit:


In The Absence (director​ Yi Seung-Jun​, Southe Korea/USA 28 minutes)

On April 16, 2014, The Sewol, a Korean ferry began to sink on its way to Jeju Island with over 450 people aboard. In the Absence examines the failure of the South Korean Coast Guard and former Korean President Park Guen-hye to respond appropriately to the ferry disaster that took the lives of 291 people, most of which were students on a field trip. Instead of acting quickly and calling for an evacuation of the boat, the government and Coast Guard gave no orders for evacuation and instead were more concerned with documenting the disaster with cameras for the President. 

This horrifying story is told through actual footage of the disaster; videos from passengers; texts from the students aboard; communication between the Sewol, the Korean Coast Guard, and the President’s advisors; as well as from two of the civilian divers who were part of the lengthy rescue and recovery efforts.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)(director ​Carol Dysinger, UK, 39 minutes)

Kabul, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places in the modern world. Acts of violence and war are part of everyday life for the people who live there. However, Kabul is even more dangerous for girls and women. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone takes us behind the doors of the Skateistan School where young girls learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and how to skateboard. While the school has students of both genders, over half of them are girls. And for these females, Skateistan is where these girls can find some freedom in the midst of living in a religiously restrictive and patriarchal culture. A culture that would rather have women remain illiterate, marry early, and only adhere to traditional gender roles. Dysinger tells their stories through interviews with the teachers and the students as well as through the lessons in skateboarding that each student is taught.  

Life Overtakes Me (directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson​, Sweden, USA, ​39 minutes​)​

For many foreign refugees, Sweden has become an idyllic and safe haven to escape violent and oppressive government regimes and war-torn homelands. However, after escaping to safety, some of the refugee children are so traumatized that they are becoming unresponsive for months to years at time due to Resignation Syndrome. This physical shutting down is the children’s response to the violence, lack of safety, and stress of migration that they have faced. Life Overtakes Me follows three refugee families who are in varying stages of their quests for asylum as well as the varying stages of Resignation Syndrome.

St. Louis Superman (directors Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, USA, 28 minutes)

This documentary follows Bruce Franks Jr., a battle rapper, activist, father, and one of the few African Americans elected to the Missouri State Legislature. In this film, Franks is in the final days of trying to get a bill passed that would not only declare youth violence a public health epidemic in St. Louis, but it would also declare June 7th Christopher Harris Day. Harris was Franks’ older brother who was killed at nine years of age while playing outside. St. Louis Superman tells the story of this multi-faceted man who is trying to change his community for the current generations as well as those to come and to show the world that black youth deserve a chance to grow up in safety. 

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha (director Laura Nix, USA, 20 minutes)

Paul and Millie Cao met while they were both still living in Vietnam. They met at an underground party where they danced, an activity that was illegal at the time of their meeting. After he and Millie fell in love, Paul and his family had to flee the communist regime in Vietnam, but he could not take Millie with them. But after six months, the two reconnected over letters and were eventually able to reunite in California. Now, 40 years later, the two have taken up ballroom dancing and are filling their nights learning routines and dancing competitively.  Walk, Run, Cha-Cha documents Paul and Millie in their everyday life and follows them onto the dancefloor to tell this heartwarming story of love in the face of war and separation. 

All five nominees tell compelling stories worthy of being watched. However, I think that In the Absence will take home the statue this year. This documentary grabbed my attention from the very first moment and did not let go. Director Yi Seung-Jun packs so much into every minute of this 28-minute documentary. The story is horrifying and almost unbelievable as the film documents how a government will sacrifice its people and try to cover up its failures. 

Darcy Staniforth

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