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

St. Louis Superman - Publicity Still - H 2019
Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films
A mixed bag, but more engaging than its sister program.

A three-film program of Oscar-nominated short docs offers maritime tragedy, inner-city heroism and senior-citizen romance.

Some years, the short films nominated for Academy Awards make a well-rounded, coherent program; other years, they feel like a random grab bag. 2020's Documentary nominees are one of the latter bunches, and while Program B of the nationwide theatrical presentation is more lively than its sister, its three films really don't benefit from being viewed as a group.

The hardest nomination to understand is Walk Run Cha-Cha, a warm-hearted but comparatively inconsequential film by Laura Nix about a married couple who are passionate about ballroom dance. Academy members may understandably long to nominate something that isn't about refugees, war zones, disease and poverty. But in a doc world that regularly makes us care about honeybees, fungi and spelling competitions, surely there was a charmer out there more meaty than this. That's not meant as an insult to Vietnamese immigrants Paul and Millie Cao, who had a six-month romance in their homeland before being separated for six years when Paul fled to the U.S. They seem like nice folks, and congratulations to them for having a hobby they love. But let's move on.

In St. Louis Superman, Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan tell a much less likely story: that of Bruce Franks Jr., a rapper turned activist turned face-tattooed member of the Missouri House of Representatives. Having seen his big brother killed by adults in a gun fight, and then been hit himself by a stray bullet years later, Franks responded strongly to the 2014 death of Michael Brown. He became a full-time protester (not the same thing as a "professional protester," he'll point out), and eventually ran for office.

This sensitive portrait observes parts of how he handled his role as a black Democrat in a body full of older white Republicans. "When you're calm, people listen," Franks says, and we see him in some odd settings as he works to sell a bill that would classify youth violence as a public health epidemic. Balanced with this novel footage is more impressionistic material featuring Franks with his 5-year-old son, an obvious inspiration for work that takes a psychic toll on him.

A piece of straight journalism with a seam of rage just beneath the surface, Yi Seung-Jun's In the Absence calmly recounts South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster, which killed 304 passengers, most of them school children. Combining footage of the ferry from the time it started taking on water with audio from various sources, it follows an agonizing timeline in which government officials and the Coast Guard seemed to prioritize getting camera footage of the scene over pulling people off the ship. (Violating the most famous rule of the sea, the ferry's captain evacuated while most of his passengers were still on board.)

Interviews with a civilian diver who spent months recovering bodies emphasize authorities' many failures in this tragedy. Surprisingly, scapegoats didn't take the fall here. The captain and some crew were convicted of homicide; a scandal involving her response to the disaster eventually got even the country's president thrown out of office. But In the Absence registers no satisfaction, only loss and anger.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Laura Nix, Smriti Mundhra & Sami Khan, Yi Seung-Jun
79 minutes