We are well into awards season but the big one, the Oscar, looms large on the horizon. Which brings us to one of our favorite categories – short films for Documentary, Live Action and Animation. We begin with Robin's preferred group: Documentary shorts, taking us from South Korea, Afghanistan, Sweden and the American heartland.
“In the Absence”
I remember, vaguely, the Sewol Ferry disaster in South Korea in 2014 but could not tell the details of that tragedy that cost the lives of 304 people, mostly high school student trapped in their cabins by following orders. Those orders though, were given by the captain and crew, who soon abandoned the sinking ship,
Director Seung-jun Yi delivers a vivid chronicle of the disaster off the coast of South Korea that spawned the national outcry that resulted in the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The failure of the system at all levels, starting with the captain and crew and ending with the president, is startling in the details uncovered by the documentary team. I give it a B+.
“Learning to Skate in a War Zone (if you are a girl)”
“Afghanistan is the worst place in the world for women” is the statement made at the beginning of “Learning to Skate in a War Zone” and points this out with women in full burqas who, upon reaching the age of 13, are prohibited to leave the house and appear in public,
Director Carol Dysinger counters this femme oppression with the most uplifting short in the documentary category with its story of Afghan girls getting an education, and learning how to skateboard, too, in a land where this simply does not happen. The filmmakers take us to this unique school, called Skateistan, where young girls learn to read, write, skateboard and develop the confidence and courage to want to be journalists, doctors and teachers. I hope they can do it. I give it a B+
“Life Overtakes Me”
This enlightening documentary, by John Haptas and Kristine, about a brand new disease, called Resignation Syndrome, caused by the trauma inflicted on immigrant children as they and their families flee their countries, fearing imprisonment and death. These children simply shut down into a coma-like state and require constant care by their families. This is yet another indictment against man’s inhumanity to man where the children pay the price. I give it a B-.
“St. Louis Superman”
In 2014, a young, unarmed black man named Michael Brown, was shot to death by police in Ferguson MO. This killing caused activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. to run for and win a seat in the predominately white male Missouri State Legislature. There, he began the long process of passing a bill that would declare youth violence as an epidemic.
Co-directors Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra tell the story of Franks’s life from when he lost his older, nine-year old brother to a random street shooting to the killing of Brown to the election and the fight to pass his bill – he does, unanimously. I give it a B.
“Walk Run Cha-Cha”
This is the most personal of the docs, by director Laura Nix, with its story of a Vietnamese couple, Chipal and Millie Cao, separated by the war and communist takeover four decades before. Now, they are reunited many years later, finding ballroom dancing to reconnect their previously lost lives. I give it a B-.
“In the Absence”
You may remember news stories about a ferry sinking in South Korea back in 2014, but Yi Seung-Jun’s U.S./South Korean coproduction makes it personal, highlighting the utter incompetence that led to the loss of hundreds of schoolchildren by recounting the rescue effort with a timeline. Featuring footage from kids’ cell phones and messages relaying that they’d been told to stay in place and dash cam video from vehicles being slammed about in the cargo hold, we watch in horror as government officials playact for a president who was ousted from office over this incident while literally doing nothing. The captain abandons ship. It took civilian divers to find the bodies, one so traumatized he committed suicide. The film’s only shortcoming is in failing to fill in the gaps on just what President Park Geun-hye was doing all day while the tragedy unfolded. A-
“Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl…)”
Carol Dysinger’s uplifting look at how women are finding poor young girls in Kabul and giving them, not only an education, but courage and confidence by teaching them how to skateboard, is an infectious and uplifting work which I’m betting will take the Oscar. A-
“Life Overtakes Me”
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s Netflix short, along with the live action “Saria,” focuses on the relatively new phenomenon of Resignation Syndrome, mostly found among refugees waiting for Swedish asylum. Children who have experienced trauma lose hope in a system which ensures them no security. They stop talking, then lie down, then stop eating and taking liquids, eventually falling into comas for as long as a year or more. After hearing about the horrifying circumstances which caused three different families to flee Russia, we witness these parents dealing with the additional trauma of once vibrant children becoming completely unresponsive. After years of right wing voices claiming fakery or parental poisoning, the condition is finally recognized as real around 2005. While the film ends with some hope for its subjects, a rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment does not bode well for the future. Two hundred additional cases have been reported in the last three years. B+
“St. Louis Superman”
Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s expose on Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks shows what can be accomplished by one individual even against long odds. Amazed himself at having been elected as a Democratic legislator in Missouri, Bruce works to pass a bill to recognize youth violence as a public health crisis, ensuring funding for his community. Working with a largely white, Republican administration, Franks not only succeeds, June 7th is designated Christopher Brown day in honor of his older brother, shot while playing at the age of nine. The film does not address while Frank is the single father of two, but shows the love and support in a household run by his mother, Earline. But we are gutted by Mundhra and Khan’s final title credits identifying the toll the issue has taken on this man. B+
Laura Nix’s “Walk Run Cha-Cha” tells the tale of two Vietnamese teenagers separated for years, reunited in California, Paul having worked to bring his former girlfriend Millie to the U.S. The two are awkward at first, but their love story blossoms on the dance floor where they are taught by a Ukrainian immigrant. The film ends with a lovely, choreographed dance. B
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