Oscars 2020: Best Documentary Short Shortlist

And now Documentary Short, a category that’s usually immensely easy to guess because it’s all about what the issues are. The two almost guaranteed types of winners in this category are: people with mental or physical illnesses overcoming them to create art or people in third-world countries overcoming their surroundings to do something inspiring. Then you have the occasional Holocaust or hot-button issue thrown in. But by and large, you can tell which ones feel like what they normally go for.

So let’s see what they’ve given us this year. Here’s your Documentary Short shortlist:

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa
Call Center Blues
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
Hysterical Girl
A Love Song for Latasha
The Speed Cubers
What Would Sophia Loren Do?

Here’s what they’re all about:

Abortion Helpline, This Is LisaAt the Philadelphia abortion helpline, counselors answer non-stop calls from women and teens who cannot afford access to reproductive health care in America. (It’s also on Vimeo.)

Call Center BluesCall Center Blues is a lyrical portrait of an unlikely community of US deportees and their loved ones struggling to rebuild their lives in Tijuana, Mexico. (It’s also on Vimeo.)

ColetteNazi occupied France. Resistance took courage. Seventy-five years later, Facing one’s ghosts may take even more. (This is on YouTube.)

A Concerto Is a ConversationA virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (This is a NY Times Op-Doc, and was exec produced by Ava DuVernay.)

Do Not Split — In 2019 Hong Kong was rocked by the largest protests since Britain handed back the area to China in 1997. This is the story of the protests, told through a series of demonstrations by local protesters that escalate into conflict when highly armed police appear on the scene. (This is on Vimeo.)

Hunger Ward — Filmed from inside two of the most active therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen, (it) documents two female health care workers fighting to thwart the spread of starvation against the backdrop of a forgotten war. The film provides an unflinching portrait of Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi as they try to save the lives of hunger-stricken children within a population on the brink of famine.

Hysterical GirlSigmund Freud’s sole case study of a female patient is re-examined from a modern feminist perspective. (This is a NY Times Op-Doc.)

A Love Song for LatashaThe injustice surrounding the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at a South Central Los Angeles store became a flashpoint for the city’s 1992 civil uprising. (This is on Netflix.)

The Speed CubersDiscover the special bond — and uncommon competitive spirit — shared by the world’s Rubik’s Cube-solving record breakers in this documentary. (This is on Netflix.)

What Would Sophia Loren Do?An Italian-American grandmother and film buff finds strength and joy in the life of her screen idol, Sophia Loren. (This is on Netflix.)

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So, not bad, nine of the ten are currently available to watch, which should make it easier to gauge the category. Now, at the time of this posting, I have not watched any of these, so I’m gonna go purely based on how each feels from a subject perspective and nothing else. It’s not time to guess the nominees, so I’m not rushing to see them all just for this article. There’s time.

But, just looking at what each is about:

  • Abortion helpline — exactly what this category goes for
  • Immigration — fits right in
  • Holocaust — fits, but less prevalent lately
  • Racism/the Black experience in America/we came from oppression as a family and overcame it to play music. Oh, and Ava DuVernay made it. — Sure as hell fits
  • Hong Kong protests — fits, but might be a bit too mainstream news for them. They like more low key problems they can feel like they solved by voting for them.
  • Hunger crisis in Yemen — oh fuck yeah.
  • Reframing Freud from a modern feminist perspective — doesn’t feel like it fits, but you never know.
  • Racially-motivated police shooting — I mean, clearly.
  • Kids solving Rubik’s Cubes — you’d think no, but they’re not all depressing a lot of the time.
  • Italian grandmother likes Sophia Loren — I mean, they’ve surprised me before, but it’s hard to think this fits.

This is a situation where, while you can kinda pinpoint what’s gonna win, but guessing the category has a chance to go slightly sideways.

To me, the Sophia Loren doc is the one where I go, “Why is that even here?” So of course that means I won’t guess it and it’ll somehow get nominated. That’s always how it happens.

The Rubik’s Cube one feels like that feel-good doc that always gets on amidst the issues. Could be wrong there, but I’m not totally discounting it until I see them all.

The Latasha one could go either way, depending on how they frame it. The issue works, but if it’s too much about her and not the issue at large, they might not go for it. I need to see it.

The Freud one is another one where I go — why is this here? But once I see it I might get it completely and understand why it’s there and think it’ll for sure get on. Gut instinct now says probably not, though.

Hunger Ward is my presumptive winner right now. Medical workers trying to solve a hunger crisis in a third world country. Oh this is so up their alley.

The Hong Kong one — could go either way. I called it potentially too ‘mainstream news’ for them. Because typically, they like lesser known issues, or things that are a step away from the issue. Like the one that won last year — girls skateboarding in Afghanistan. You get the background of it, and it highlights the gender discrimination without having it be ‘people directly protesting this issue’. So I don’t know. Could go either way, and I’ll need to see it to know for sure.

The Concerto one I assume gets on purely because of Ava DuVernay. She got nominated for 13th a few years ago and has been fastened as someone they greatly respect. Usually big names get stuff like this on.

Colette — I’ll need to see it, but the Holocaust angle might be a red herring. We’re conditioned to assume Holocaust stuff always gets nominated, but it hasn’t happened all that much lately. There was the Claude Lanzmann one, but that was expressly about him and the legacy of Shoah. And then there was the Lady in Number 6, which is about how she used music to overcome the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s more up their alley. This, I’ll need to see what angle they take before I know for sure. My gut at the moment says more likely not.

Call Center Blues — could go either way. Two call center ones now, one more directly about abortion and this one… I need to see the angle they take. The Veterans Hotline one did win a few years ago, so I’m taking it very seriously. But without seeing the full doc I can’t say for sure.

And the abortion one feels like a surefire one, but also I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if it didn’t make it.

At this point, I feel very confident in both Hunger Ward and the Concerto one and either not making it would surprise me. Once I see them, I may feel differently. But just in terms of the subject matter for Hunger Ward and Ava DuVernay being behind the other one… I feel like there’s almost no universe where I don’t guess both of those on the final list just to play the odds. But we’ll see. Maybe I’ll truly feel like one of them might not make it and will want to take a shot on something else. I’ve got nine to watch and maybe I’ll be able to see the tenth by the time nominations time comes.

– – – – –

Right now, if you’re asking me to guess how I think the category shapes up (and this should change once I actually watch them all), I’d say:

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa

A Concerto Is a Conversation

Hunger Ward

A Love Song for Latasha

The Speed Cubers

Alternate: Call Center Blues

Dark Horse: Do Not Split

Surprise: Hysterical Girl, Colette

Shocker: What Would Sophia Loren Do?

Just looking at this tells me it won’t happen. But this is all sight unseen. So we’ll see what happens when I watch them. I’ll report back in a few weeks.

– – – – –


I’ve watched all ten and here are my thoughts on them:

Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa is an absolutely heartbreaking documentary. It’s only 13 minutes long but you get everything you need to know from those 13 minutes. It’s about the Woman’s Medical Fund, which aims to help supplement underprivileged women in need of an abortion. The organization works entirely on donations and has a fixed set of money they can give out each week and each shift. The title comes from the fact that everyone answering the phones adopts the name ‘Lisa’. The doc shifts between various calls taking place and clips from 1976 where a bill was passed preventing federal funds from going toward abortion, which has only served to harm poorer women, who are mainly non-white. It’s a wonderful call to action to show how the bigotry of people has had lasting effects on the country and this wonderful service that exists that is always in need of help so they can help women. I almost wish there were more to it, but honestly, they accomplish everything they need to accomplish in the time they have. I can’t imagine not having this on my list. If somehow this doesn’t make it, that means this category was way stronger than I expected it to be.

Call Center Blues is about people who have been deported from the U.S. who work at a call center in Tijuana and try to rebuild their lives. Because most of the people grew up in the U.S., they don’t have accents, which is what the companies look for when hiring people. And we follow a few of the people who work there and hear their stories. It’s interesting, though I’m not sure it grabbed me as much as they wanted to. Not sure this will end up being one I go for.

Colette is about a 90-year old woman who survived the Holocaust and worked with the French Resistance who decides to finally take a trip to Germany and visit the concentration camp where her brother died. It’s a tried and true Holocaust story, and I appreciate that Colette doesn’t overstate what she did. “I was young. They had me writing serial numbers of trucks. I wasn’t a hero. My ass was sitting on a rock.” But it is an interesting story of what this woman has had to deal with since that time since the war and her brother dying in a camp, including her own mother saying “It should have been you.” It highlights the important work done by researchers who have pieced together as much information as they can to not only explain to people how awful this was in the hopes it doesn’t happen again but also help the families understand what happened to their loved ones who were very likely taken away from them and never heard from again. I can easily see myself voting for this, though I can also see this end up being the sixth option with five I liked more. So we’ll see where we end up. But it is really emotional. Watching Colette walk on the grounds of where her brother died, experiencing her grief in real time is really something to behold. You couldn’t write scenes that good in a feature.

A Concerto Is a Conversation is about composer Kris Bowers, who tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather who grew up in the Jim Crow South, moved to Los Angeles and helped built a life for his family that eventually led to Bowers conducting an orchestra in playing a concerto that he wrote at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The doc looks very polished, and that’s because it was EP’d by Ava DuVernay, so this had more resources than most of these docs do. I’m not sure if I loved how they went about the filmmaking portion of this. The Spike Lee/looking into the camera set ups, while I understand why they did them, felt distracting to me. I wanted to pay attention to the story, not feel like they were trying to make me feel a certain way about the story. Because the grandfather’s story is interesting as hell. And I liked how they incorporated all the archival material and photos around it. Overall, I’m iffy on this one. Love everything that went into it, not sure I love the final product as it relates to having to choose five in this category. This is unfortunately the situation we’re put in when having to do this.

Do Not Split is a terrific documentary about the Hong Kong protests of 2019. The first half feels a lot like 76 Days in terms of getting immediate footage from people on the ground in the middle of everything. But by the end they do start to wrap it up and contextualize it by having interviews with the people protesting and explaining just what this means to them and how it’s changed the course of their lives. It’s impossible to watch this and not think of the outpouring of response to the George Floyd murder. The absolute state-run police brutality is almost 1:1, as well as the divide between people on the two sides. It’s an incredible documentary and might be the best one on this entire list.

Hunger Ward is about two female healthcare workers in Yemen helping to try to fight an epidemic of child starvation. So the doc is just scene after scene of these children who are horrifically malnourished and these women trying desperately to keep them alive despite a lack of supplies and an endless wave of cases. Some of the scenes in this don’t feel dissimilar to 76 Days, which is about the early days of the COVID epidemic in Wuhan. You see scenes of mothers screaming for their children in the halls of this hospital. And then you follow them to a room where their dead child is wrapped up in a blanket. And these doctors have to maintain decorum throughout all of this even though they see stuff like this every single day. There’s a moment where one of them suddenly has to leave the room and go to a private one because she can’t hold it in anymore and suddenly just breaks down. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch. It’s one of, if not the single best doc on this list. 100% this is going to be something I vote for.

Hysterical Girl is a reexamining of Freud’s only female case study from a modern feminist perspective. They hire an actress to ‘play’ Dora while using videos and images from film and pop culture and even modern day politics to re-contextualize everything. It plays out the story we’ve seen time and time again in recent years, of women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault and are not believed, dismissed and thought of as either making it up to try to take down the man or labeled ‘hysterical’. It’s a really great idea and a very, very, very worthwhile endeavor. I feel like the archival footage is a bit distracting at times, but I’m always a fan of people who take down Freud and show how fucked up society is when it comes to believing women. Overall, I love what they did here and I’m not even gonna hesitate to vote for it in this category.

A Love Song for Latasha is about the killing of a 15-year-old girl in South Central LA in 1992 over a bottle of orange juice. Narrated by her best friend, it details how the two became friends and their friendship before the eventual incident as well as her recollections of the incident. It’s a really powerful documentary. It may seem deceptively simple, but when you hear the description of how she found out what happened and her recollections of a similar incident that happened earlier and the survivor’s guilt and grief that comes with that on top of the indignities Black people face in this country every single day — this is one of the best docs on this list.

The Speed Cubers is about professional Rubik’s Cube solvers. For those familiar with sports, it’s very much a Borg vs. McEnroe situation. Where the top ‘cuber’ (as they call them) who has a bunch of world records and is a veteran versus the young upstart. They highlight both people — the upstart is an autistic teenager — and build to the most recent competition where they face one another. But the best part about it? They’re friendly. There’s no ‘villain’ there and you’re happy for whoever wins. It’s incredibly touching. Just seeing Max’s story through the eyes of his parents is amazing. And the final competition, even though each solve is between 6-7 seconds long, is still riveting. It’s hard not to like this one.

What Would Sophia Loren Do is about an Italian woman who idolizes Sophia Loren. That’s literally it. This lady talks about her life and about how important Sophia Loren is in it. The film acts as both her story and Sophia Loren’s in a way, building toward a moment where the woman gets to meet her idol. It’s a real testament to the things we use to help us get through life and find joy and just a testament to the great stories of everyday people we never hear about.

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