Oscars 2019 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short

Here’s how this works: every day leading up to the Oscars, I break down each of the 24 categories. The goal is to both familiarize everyone with the category itself (how it works, what its history is and how you go about figuring out what’s gonna win) while also making it easier to reference when I write my giant article with picks and everything. A lot of the leg work is already here. But really, the goal is to see if there’s anything to look for leading into Oscar night that could be a shortcut to me picking the category.

What we do is — I give you all the winners of the category throughout history, go over all the recent trends if there are any, discuss the precursors and whether or not they matter, and then we talk about this year’s category and how we got to it, and then just look at where we are and rank the nominees in terms of their likelihood of winning (at the current moment in time. Of course, things can and will change going into the ceremony). It’s all pretty simple. I’ve done this every year. Everyone should know the drill.

Today is Best Documentary Short, the most boring of the categories, but not the most difficult to pick. Okay, it’s second most difficult to pick, so there really aren’t that many upsides here. But hey, at least you can guess it, so you don’t have to totally toss it aside like most people do.

Year Best Documentary (Short Subject) Winners
1941 Churchill’s Island
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 December 7th
1944 With the Marines at Tarawa
1945 Hitler Lives
1946 Seeds of Destiny
1947 First Steps
1948 Toward Independence
1949 (tie) A Chance to Live

So Much for So Little

1950 Why Korea?
1951 Benjy
1952 Neighbours
1953 The Alaskan Eskimo
1954 Thursday’s Children
1955 Men against the Arctic
1956 The True Story of the Civil War
1957 No Award Given.
1958 Ama Girls
1959 Glass
1960 Giuseppina
1961 Project Hope
1962 Dylan Thomas
1963 Chagall
1964 Nine from Little Rock
1965 To Be Alive!
1966 A Year Toward Tomorrow
1967 The Redwoods
1968 Why Man Creates
1969 Czechoslovakia 1968
1970 Interviews with My Lai Veterans
1971 Sentinals of Silence
1972 This Tiny World
1973 Princeton: A Search for Answers
1974 Don’t
1975 The End of the Game
1976 Number Our days
1977 Gravity Is My Enemy
1978 The Flight of the Gossamer Condor
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
1980 Karl Hess: Toward Liberty
1981 Close Harmony
1982 If You Love This Planet
1983 Flamenco at 5:15
1984 The Stone Carvers
1985 Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements
1986 Women – for America, for the World
1987 Young at Heart
1988 You Don’t Have to Die
1989 The Johnstown Flood
1990 Days of Waiting
1991 Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment
1992 Educating Peter
1993 Defending Our Lives
1994 A Time for Justice
1995 One Survivor Remembers
1996 Breathing Lesosns: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien
1997 A Story of Healing
1998 The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years
1999 King Gimp
2000 Big Mama
2001 Thoth
2002 Twin Towers
2003 Chernobyl Heart
2004 Mighty Times: The Children’s March
2005 A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
2006 The Blood of Yingzhou District
2007 Freeheld
2008 Smile Pinki
2009 Music by Prudence
2010 Strangers No More
2011 Saving Face
2012 Inocente
2013 The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life
2014 Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
2015 A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
2016 The White Helmets
2017 Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
2018 Period. End of Sentence.

No precursors, but they do have a type that they like to vote for. So really all you gotta do is look at what won the past handful of years and what the nominees this year are about and you can get a pretty good sense of how to pick this one.

Here are your last ten winners of the category:

  • 2018 — Indian women fight against the stigma of menstruation and manufacture their own sanitary pads
  • 2017 — Mentally ill artist overcomes her illness to create art
  • 2016 — Men who save people from the rubble of buildings in Syria
  • 2015 — Honor killing in the Middle East.
  • 2014 — Hotline for veterans having PTSD problems.
  • 2013 — Holocaust survivor plays music every day and used music to overcome the horrors she’s encountered in her life
  • 2012 — Homeless girl paints in order to overcome her situation and surroundings.
  • 2011 — Doctor who performs surgeries on Iranian women who have had acid thrown in their faces
  • 2010 — School in Israel has kids from 30 different countries and all different backgrounds coming together to learn
  • 2009 — A girl with a deformity overcomes the prejudice against people with her condition (in her country, people with her deformity are usually left for dead or cast aside) to make music

Noticing some trends? Good. Here’s this year’s category:

Best Documentary Short

In the Absence

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Life Overtakes Me

St. Louis Superman

Walk Run Cha-Cha

I think the titles alone give you an idea of what’s gonna win, don’t they?

Here’s what they’re about:

In the Absence — Documents the sinking of a South Korean Ferry. As a result of the ineptitude of the first response to the emerging situation, hundreds of people, mostly children lost their lives.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) — The story of young Afghan girls learning to read, write-and skateboard-in Kabul.

Life Overtakes Me — In the grip of trauma, hundreds of refugee children in Sweden withdraw from life’s uncertainties into a coma-like illness called Resignation Syndrome.

St. Louis Superman — Bruce Franks Jr. is a 34-year-old battle rapper, Ferguson activist and state representative from St. Louis, Missouri. Known as Superman to his constituents, he is a political figure the likes of which you’ve never seen – full of contradictions and deep insights, who has overcome unspeakable loss to become one of the most exciting and unapologetic young leaders in the country. This short verité documentary follows Bruce at a critical juncture in his life, when he is forced to deal with the mental trauma he’s been carrying for the nearly 30 years since his 9-year-old brother was shot and killed in front of him, in order to find peace and truly fulfill his destiny as a leader for his community.

Walk Run Cha-Cha — Paul and Millie Cao lost their youth to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they have become successful professionals in Southern California-and are rediscovering themselves on the dance floor.

They’ve all got a little bit of something in them, don’t they?

I’ve seen all five. Only four are available to watch, and I’ve linked to them up there in their titles should you care to watch them.

Assuming the voters watch them all, there’s a clear #1 choice here. Otherwise, we’re gonna have to reason our way through the five to see what’s actually gonna win.


5. Walk Run Cha-Cha — They like people overcoming adversity, especially disabilities or living in third-world or war-torn countries, and doing something artistic. They can’t get enough of it. HOWEVER… these people were affected by Vietnam, fifty years ago, and now they dance. Not sure that’s enough for them to vote for, but I’ve seen them do crazier things. It could happen, so a #5 here is not the same as a #5 in Best Supporting Actress. You know what I mean? But otherwise, I have no reason to think people will en masse vote for this as the winner.

4. Life Overtakes Me — This is probably a stupid move, since it’s Netflix and they can easily win this category. The White Helmets is them and Period. End of Sentence is them. However, having seen it… the kids are just in these weird coma things and they never really get into why they’re like that. We get glimpses of why — it’s because of the stress of being a refugee and going through a tremendous amount of stress while being in transition caused their bodies to shut down. And really, just seeing them like this and being told that’s what happened doesn’t really amount to anything that great. I mean, maybe they go for this, but having seen almost all of these shorts, it’s hard to think that someone having watched them all would go for this. But again, could be wrong, because on paper it sounds like something they could go for.

3. In the Absence — This short is really good. It’s really fucked up, watching it and seeing a government break down in real time. It’s awful and heartbreaking. And that alone should propel this to getting some votes. However, I feel like they vote a lot of the time for message rather than emotional impact, which is why I’m only keeping this third for the moment. But, barring me seeing that last short and thinking it’s better than this, this was the second best doc I saw in this category and think it should be 100% considered as a potential winner. Just… that logline doesn’t jump out the way the other two do.

2. St. Louis Superman — Took me a while to see this one but I finally managed to see it last night. I had actually had this article ready to post before I saw it, and had it in this spot before I saw it, just because I know the worst thing I can ever do is discount the film I haven’t seen. Plus, the logline totally fits what they’d go for nowadays: guy who saw his younger brother killed becomes an activist during the most politically divisive time in half a century and becomes a state representative. Guy overcomes trauma to join the government and try to affect change. That’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The one knock was always gonna be, “Is the fact that he’s also a battle rapper a negative?” Because these are old white people. Are they gonna dismiss it based on that alone? And my gut says… probably. I wasn’t sure how it was gonna play, and the answer is… not too badly. I was ready for that to take me out of it, and it didn’t. The story totally worked around it. But I’m not the Academy. I don’t want to say they’re racist, but… they’re kinda racist. So… in the absence (never gonna get old) of a logline that makes more sense to me as a second choice (because keep in mind, the frontrunner is like, the closest thing to an automatic ‘this is what they vote for’ as almost you’ll ever see in this category), this feels like the second choice to me on logline alone.

1. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) — I’ve been through this rodeo so many times. There is no way, on title alone, you’re not making this the frontrunner. It’s about young girls in Afghanistan who are never allowed any freedom whatsoever — once they hit a certain age they’re basically forced to stay inside and take care of the men in the family until they’re sold off to marriage. And here’s a school that’s teaching them to skateboard, but more important… teaching them to read and write and how to have their own interests and lives. This is 100% the winner of this category, and honestly if it lost it would be, in my mind, one of the biggest upsets I’ve ever seen at the Oscars. This is so on brand that I can’t even imagine this coming close to losing. This is your favorite here and if you have a ballot, I can’t see you having any reason to not make this the automatic vote in this category right now. Did you watch it, even? It’s charming as hell. This is the favorite. Don’t mess around. Take the easy ones where you can get them. Besides, it’s a Shorts category, you don’t assume you’re ever gonna get it right anyway. You just wanna put yourself in the best position to not be wrong. And trust me, this is that position. This is about as sure a thing as I’ve ever seen in this category (save the winner from last year, which had outside campaigning factors working in its favor on top of the subject matter).

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