Oscars Documentary Shorts Shortlist: 'Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl),' 'St. Louis Superman,' 'Life Overtakes Me' in the Mix
Netflix accounts for four of 10 titles on shortlist
The Oscar race for Best Documentary Short is down to 10 contenders, with Netflix films accounting for 40-percent of the total.
The streamer scored with After Maria, Fire in Paradise, Ghosts of Sugar Land and Life Overtakes Me, while National Geographic, which is new to the shorts arena, climbed in with The Nightcrawlers.
After Maria, directed by Nadia Hallgren, follows Puerto Rican families displaced from their island home after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
"They're still struggling in the ways that many people do when they don't have active employment," Hallgren noted at a Netflix Real to Reel event in October. "There are deep trauma issues from the storm and the way that they were treated while they were in Puerto Rico, having no access to food, having no access to water and then coming to the United States and losing their dignity in a lot of ways, the way that the government handled them."
In the film we were able to put people right in the middle on that day and what happened to 40,000 people.
Fire in Paradise examines another kind of natural disaster--the wildfires in California last year that destroyed the town of Paradise. Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper directed the short; they headed to Paradise a couple of weeks after the fire incinerated the area.
"What we found was a lot of these people hadn't really told their story yet. They had just gone through it," Cooper says. "This was just an amazing testament to the documentary process where it becomes this therapeutic process and can be very positive and revelatory. It's a chance for a lot of people for the first time to just verbalize what they'd gone through. And just in doing that you could see this weight kind of lift off shoulders."
Ghosts of Sugar Land, directed by Bassam Tariq, revolves around a group of Muslim-American friends in Texas who struggle to understand why a mutual friend left the U.S. to join ISIS.
Life Overtakes Me, from directors Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, tells a strange story out of Sweden where hundreds of children of refugee families have fallen into a mysterious coma-like state. All of the families involved fled violence or threats in their home countries (the directors do not specify where, precisely) and live with the uncertainty of whether Sweden will offer them permanent residency. Traumatic memories and the fear of what may become of their families seem to have triggered the children's catatonia.
One child Samuelson and Haptas filmed eventually awoke after months in unconscious limbo, but remembered nothing.
“Basically she said, 'Was I sleeping?' But she just picked up her life as if she'd gone to bed the night before even though she was a year older,” Samuelson recalled at the Real to Reel summit. “That is not always true for children who undergo this. Sometimes they have some memories. Some of the things they talk about is feeling like they were in a glass cage underwater or if they moved they would die.”
Below is the full list of 10 shortlisted documentary shorts. Keep reading for more information on the films.
After Maria, directed by Nadia Hallgren
Fire in Paradise, directed by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper
Ghosts of Sugar Land, directed by Bassam Tariq
In the Absence, directed by Seung-jun Yi
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), directed by Carol Dysinger
Life Overtakes Me, directed by Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas
The Nightcrawlers, directed by Alexander Mora
St. Louis Superman, directed by Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra
Stay Close, directed by Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan
Walk Run Cha-Cha, directed by Laura Nix
National Geographic's contender, The Nightcrawlers, explores Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal crackdown on alleged drug dealers in his country, a campaign that has seen the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people. Alexander Mora directed the short.
NatGeo's other short doc hopeful, Orlando von Einsiedel's Lost and Found, didn't make the shortlist. But von Einsidel, the Oscar-winning director of The White Helmets, did see a film he executive produced make the cut--Learning To Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl). That film, directed by Carol Dysinger, focuses on a school in Kabul, Afghanistan where girls study by day and learn to skateboard in their free time. Reading, writing and skateboarding are rare opportunities for girls in a society where female children are often deprived of education.
"Girls in Afghanistan, I mean they don't play tag, they don't do cartwheels, they do housework," Dysinger told Nonfictionfilm.com at the IDA Documentary Awards, where Learning to Skateboard... won Best Short. "I tried to make a feminist, subversive, feel-good movie about skateboarding because it's really about courage--not being afraid to raise your hand, not being afraid to try something you don't know how to do."
In the Absence, directed by Seung-jun Yi, centers on the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol off the coast of South Korea in 2014, a disaster that claimed the lives of more than 300 people, many of them teenage schoolchildren.
Stay Close, meanwhile, tells the "underdog story of a fencer from Brooklyn who overcomes a gauntlet of hardships on the road to the Olympics," according to the film's Kickstarter page. The film was directed by Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan.
St. Louis Superman, winner of Best Documentary Short at the Traverse City Film Festival, centers on Bruce Franks Jr., a "battle rapper" and activist. After becoming involved in the protests over the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Franks ran for a seat in the state legislature and won. Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra directed that film.
Walk Run Cha-Cha tells the story of Paul and Millie Cao, refugees from Vietnam who settled in Southern California. Director Laura Nix met the pair while taking dance classes.
"Over time, I learned Paul and Millie’s story of fleeing Vietnam as young lovers to come to the United States. Their back story is both ordinary and extraordinary, representative of many refugees who are forced to rebuild their lives," Nix explained in an essay on the New York Times Op-Docs site, where the film can be seen for free. "Dance opened up a world of self-expression and pleasure for the couple, sparking a transition from responsible professionals to flamboyant performers pursuing their creative dreams."
Director Nadia Hallgren on her Oscar shortlisted film After Maria
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.