The short documentary of the year has to be — without a doubt, in my mind — “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” [IMDb|official site], by Carol Dysinger. In a hidden school in Kabul, young girls whose families are progressive enough to believe that their daughters should be educated learn, among the usual classroom subjects, skateboarding. (The school is called Skateistan! I stan.) In a place where the kids define “courage” as “when someone goes to school and studies,” these little badasses are getting an enormous boost in confidence from the challenge of the board and the independence it brings… even if that independence can be enjoyed only indoors. This is a tremendous ode to the power of sports to boost girls’ self-esteem, provide a sense of self-determination, and set them free from the shackles of the limited expectations the world can burden them with. I love this movie so much.
The other nominees:
• “In the Absence” [IMDb|official site], from Seung-jun Yi, is a harrowing account of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea. Assembled from emergency calls and cell-phone videos made by those onboard as the ship tilted and sank, and from communications between government agencies that proves they dithered while people died, this is a shocking portrait of a colossal failure of leadership. But this isn’t a wholly grim film: most of the passengers were teens on a school trip, and hundreds of them ended up among the dead… and their families and friends harnessed their grief to bring down the leaders who fell down so abysmally on the job. Rage can be a formidable force, and protest can work, and that’s a message we all need to hear right now.
• “Life Overtakes Me” [IMDb|official site], by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, looks at the conundrum of “Resignation Syndrome,” in which refugee kids in Sweden — hundreds of them — withdraw from the world, initially by refusing food and eventually falling into a comalike state. It looks like an extreme reaction to trauma, in children whose parents have been traumatized as well, prompted by the threat of being returned to the danger from which they’d escaped; many of these children seem to withdraw when, for instance, an application for asylum is rejected and they face deportation. But no one really knows what’s going on with these kids. There is no explanation here — none exists — just the poignant mystery of a very modern malady.
• “St. Louis Superman” [IMDb], from Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra, introduces us to Bruce Franks Jr., a state representative in Missouri, as he prepares for his last chance to get a bill through the state legislature declaring youth violence a public-health emergency; if he wins, he can unlock some much-needed new resources to combat the problem. Franks is another person who turned anger into action: African-American, he ran as a Democrat for — and won — a state seat in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, and brought a Black Lives Matter perspective before the nearly all-white, all-Republican local government. Franks is funny and full of unexpected insights: his experience as a battle rapper helps him in politics because, he says, they are “the exact same thing”! And he has lived the things he’s fighting for, having being personally affected by youth violence. Franks is not at all what a politician is supposed to look like, or act like, in America… and if those norms are going to be upended, more like him, please.
• “Walk, Run, Cha-Cha” [IMDb], by Laura Nix, is a charming valentine to married love in the shape of Paul and Millie Cao, who long ago emigrated from Vietnam to California — separately, in a way that tried their then-young love — and today keep the spark in their relationship by studying ballroom dancing together. This is another story of freedom, too: of the simple opportunities life in the United States granted them that they were denied in postwar Vietnam (where dance parties were forbidden); and of a late chance to enjoy what their bodies can do, even if age restricts them just a bit. Anecdotes of their rocky early courtship blend with their current dance practices to become a study in the devotion, trust, playfulness, and affection that cements a romance.