The Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject is often a complicated one. The only rule for the category is that the films must be under 40 minutes long, which gives filmmakers room to explore a nearly limitless number of subjects. Subjects can vary from the extremely personal, to sweeping issues that face entire nations or the whole world, and this year’s nominees are no different.
The films competing for this year’s award include intimate love stories set against the background of ballroom dance, national tragedies, and coping with life in a war-torn country. While this category has garnered a bit of an unfair reputation as a downer in the past, even that doesn’t quite cover the emotional space of this year’s nominees. While they each have plenty to say about important subjects, there’s enough hope and joy mixed into the nominees to make the entire slate well-worth watching.
The nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject will be in select theaters starting on Jan. 29. But if you can’t make it to one of those screenings — or want to know what you’re getting yourself into — we’ve collected all the nominees right here.
In the Absence
29 minutes, Directed by Yi Seung-Jun, Produced by Gary Byung-Seok Kam
What it’s about: In 2014, the Sewol ferry in South Korea tragically sank. A combination of inaction and poor decision making led to the deaths of over 300 passengers— a majority of which were students.
Why it might win: In the Absence is told through on-screen text and numerous phone calls from both victims on the ferry and the government and emergency responders trying to work out what to do. It’s a beautifully made doc that explores the stories of victims and the families with incredible and affecting empathy. The doc also draws the tragedy into the larger political context of South Korea’s massive protests against the president — though it’s worth noting that the ferry incident only played a small role in the protests overall — connecting it to one of the most memorable global events of the last several years.
Why it might not win: The victim phone calls can make In the Absence a tough watch. While the Academy hasn’t shied away from sad films in this category in the past, but it often helps to at least have an uplifting ending, something In the Absence definitely doesn’t have.
St. Louis Superman
28 minutes, Directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
What it’s about: Bruce Franks Jr. is a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, an activist, and a battle rapper, committed to stopping youth violence in St. Louis. St. Louis Superman follows Franks as he attempts to pass a bill declaring youth violence a public health epidemic and commemorating his late brother, a victim of gun violence at just nine-years-old.
Why it might win: St. Louis Superman’s strongest qualities come from two incredible moments. When Franks finally passes his legislation, the film imbues it with a kind of relief, rather than grand triumph. As if to say that it’s important, but just another step in a longer road. Another scene, where Franks triumphantly wins a rap battle against an opponent who suggests he’s sold out by becoming a Representative, provides one of the most unique and memorable high points in any of this year’s nominees for best Documentary Short Subject.
Why it might not win: St. Louis Superman ends by letting us know that Franks resigned in 2019 for mental health reasons. This fact comes with very little forewarning or context, and it’s hard not to feel like we missed something. The film rarely gives us an insight into how Franks is feeling, and the closing message makes it clear that this process was more difficult for him than the documentary made it seem. On top of that, this is a category where the Academy often prefers international subjects, which may hurt this decidedly US-focused documentary.
Life Overtakes Me
40 minutes, Directed By John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
What it’s about: Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden are developing a condition known as Resignation Syndrome. The condition leaves them in an almost-comatose state, but there’s no solid explanation behind why it happens. The best explanation is that it’s caused by the despair, fear, and uncertainty of their lives.
Why it might win: The global refugee crisis and the migrants affected by it have been the topic of many recent entrants in this Oscars category. Though they haven’t often won, few have been so specific in their focus as Life Overtakes Me. This doc favors a personal approach to discussing the difficulty of these refugees’ lives in Sweden, focusing on their struggle to care for their comatose children. Life Overtakes Me is also the only Netflix documentary on the list, which means that it will likely have a stronger push behind it than other entrants.
Why it might not win: Life Overtakes Me might suffer from not focusing more on the larger refugee issues. It’s also extremely sad, and ends by letting us know that the problem is only growing, raising far more questions than it actually answered.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
40 minutes, Directed By Carol Dysinger, Produced by Elena Andreicheva
What it’s about: There’s a school in Afghanistan called Skateistan. The school helps teach kids, especially girls, basic skills — like reading, writing, and math — as well as skateboarding, all of which are activities girls are discouraged from in the country.
Why it might win: Learning to Skateboard is incredibly uplifting. It effectively balances the plight of girls in Afghanistan and the struggles that they can face in a conservative and patriarchal society, with the hope that things like education and skateboarding can offer them. Even when the teachers describe the windows of the school being blown out by an explosion, it’s difficult not to feel the undercurrent of hope that things could slowly be changing, which may provide a leg up in a year of otherwise mostly bleak nominees.
Why it might not win: If anything is going to hold Learning to Skateboard back, it’s the film’s narrow focus. For most of its 40-minute run time it never strays from Skatistan for long. While the scenes inside the school, watching the kids try skateboarding for the first time, it’s hard not to wonder what’s going on outside its walls, and about the lives of girls who aren’t lucky enough to attend.
Walk Run Cha-Cha
20 minutes, Directed by Laura Nix, Produced by Colette Sandstedt
What it’s about: A middle-aged Vietnamese couple who were separated by the Vietnam War rehearse for a ballroom dance performance.
Why it might win: Walk Run Cha-Cha is effusively joyful. Even its brief dips into the couple’s separation leads to a happy ending when they reunite in Los Angeles. Each moment of their story is punctuated by scenes of them learning a ballroom routine that’s beautifully performed at the end. If this year’s Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar is decided by which film makes the voters feel the best, this is a lock.
Why it might not win: Its lightness could be a double-edged sword. With so many fraught and capital-I-Important topics swirling around the category, it may be difficult for voters to justify rewarding what amounts to a very sweet story.