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.

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