'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2020: Documentary, Program A': Film Review

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone - H - 2019
Two quite-long 'shorts' present fresh subjects, but only one offers much in terms of presentation.

Two of five Oscar-nominated short docs follow projects helping girls in Afghanistan and refugee children in Sweden.

Given the ever-shrinking barrier of what constitutes a feature-length film in art houses, two of the films competing for this year's Documentary Short Oscar only barely qualify for the category. Shown back-to-back in a theatrical setting, they represent the least inviting of the four touring Oscar Shorts programs this year, however worthy their subjects. While neither 39-minute film moves at a brisk pace, in one instance a somnambulant mood is perfectly suited to its upsetting subject.

Carol Dysinger's entry has a title that also stretches the limits, though you have to admit it's descriptive. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) centers on a program in Kabul where going to school is linked to the aforementioned sport — via a program called Skateistan.

Having been around more than a decade, Skateistan now runs programs for both boys and girls not just in Kabul but in Cambodia and South Africa. But Dysinger isn't interested in the origins of the charity or the details of its operation, and leaves viewers to draw conclusions that may be inaccurate; it's mostly focused on the novelty of seeing a bunch of girls, with helmets over their headscarves, learning the basics of moving around on a wheeled deck.

To be sure, these kids are cute, both on wheels and in the classroom, and it's encouraging to see them respond eagerly in both contexts. Some even grow up to become instructors, serving as breadwinners for their families. But the empowerment of girls in Muslim communities is hardly an unknown subject in the documentary world, and this film doesn't add much to our understanding.

By contrast, Life Overtakes Me introduces a disturbing phenomenon so odd it sounds like the premise of a sci-fi film. (And those who feel governments are too nice to global refugees will probably claim it is.) Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas introduce viewers to Resignation syndrome, a phenomenon that has been recognized in Sweden for well over a decade and affects hundreds of children.

As the film describes it, with the help of child psychiatrist Anne-Liis Von Knorring, this is a coma-like condition usually associated with the trauma and continued stress of having to flee violence in one's home country. Children begin to grow withdrawn from others; they eat less and stay in bed; and eventually they're in a state of coma-like unresponsiveness.

The filmmakers take us to the bedsides of several patients, watching as parents feed them by hand and take them out in wheelchairs — sometimes standing them up and lifting one foot after the other, as if to keep the muscle-memory of walking alive. These are heart-wrenching and strange scenes, which the filmmakers set against quiet photography of snow-covered trees. We're told that those who study the syndrome believe there's a kind of nonverbal contagion going on in these families, passing unbearable stress from parent to child. In one example, the father had been tortured and the mother raped in their home country, and death threats convinced them to flee; the child managed to make it to Sweden in seemingly good spirits, but then, when the family was denied asylum, began to transform.

Few who doubt the legitimacy of this diagnosis would remain skeptical after seeing footage here and hearing from medical experts. No child would play-act like this for weeks, much less the months or even years these patients spend immobilized. Happily, we witness one kid's recovery after her family is granted permanent residency. If only being raped, tortured and threatened with death were enough to qualify any family, anywhere for an immediate "here, let us help you" governmental response.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Carol Dysinger, Kristine Samuelson & John Haptas

80 minutes