2020 Oscar Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short

Today’s category is Best Documentary Short, which is one of those categories the average viewer doesn’t know anything about and either just sort of guesses or looks up what people are saying is gonna win. But contrary to popular opinion, this is generally a pretty easy category to guess. I’ve started telling people — one of three things wins this category year in and year out: people in third-world countries overcoming dire circumstances, people with mental illness overcoming it to create art, or the occasional Holocaust short. That’s pretty much all that wins here. Go back and look at the winners. There’s maybe like one short over the past 15 years that falls out of that pattern.

Most years a clear winner presents itself just when you talk about what each is about. It’s really not that bad. This year is interesting because we’ve got a few interesting scenarios at play here.

Best Documentary Short

Colette

A Concerto Is a Conversation

Do Not Split

Hunger Ward

A Love Song for Latasha

So it’s kinda useless talking about the shortlist and what ended up in the category. But, having seen all ten of the shorts, this is a solid category. I can quibble about one of the choices, but it’s fine. There were others I liked that I thought could’ve been good here (namely Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa), but this category does work on its own terms.

The way you figure out what’s gonna win in this category is by looking bat at what usually wins. So here are the last 10 winners in this category:

2019: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
2018: Period. End of Sentence.
2017: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
2016: The White Helmets
2015: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
2014: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
2013: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
2012: Inocente
2011: Saving Face
2010: Strangers No More

  • Strangers No More is about students in a school in Israel whose parents came from other countries, many escaping difficult situations.
  • Saving Face is about a doctor who helps two women scarred by acid attacks in Pakistan
  • Inocente is about a 15 year old undocumented immigrant artist in Los Angeles.
  • The Lady in Number 6 is about a Holocaust survivor who used music to escape the horrors of the camps.
  • Crisis Hotline is about counselors on a suicide hotline for veterans with PTSD
  • A Girl in the River is about a Pakistani woman who survived an ‘honor’ killing by her father and brother.
  • The White Helmets is about Syrian volunteer first responders in Aleppo who go into fallen buildings to get people out.
  • Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is about a woman with mental illness and how she overcomes that to create art.
  • Period. End of Sentence. is about women in India who fight to overcome the stigma of menstruation and create their own sanitary pads for others.
  • Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is about young girls in Afghanistan who are taught to read, write and skateboard in a place where women are not allowed to do these things.

You see a real pattern here, right? People in third world countries overcoming their circumstances to do something progressive (especially women and children), people overcoming circumstances or mental illness to create art, or occasionally a Holocaust doc or a major current social issue doc. So knowing that, you should be able to easily parse this category in terms of what usually ends up winning.

For this year’s category, rather than waste time, I’m gonna take about what each is about as I rank them, since I assume this category will follow the same normal rules it always does.

5. Colette — This shouldn’t be #5, but I’ll explain why it is in a minute. It’s a Holocaust documentary about a 90-year-old woman who was in the French Resistance and is now, for the first time, going back to visit the concentration camp where her brother was killed. So the doc acts as both her journey in experiencing this for the first time and also highlighting the museum/project that helps put together as much information as it can about those killed in the camps in order to both help family members and survivors find out what happened to their loved ones and remind people of the atrocities that happened during the Holocaust. The cynical person would go, “It’s a Holocaust doc, of course it’s going to win.” But I don’t know. I feel like they’re usually pretty discerning when it comes to stuff here. Some people will for sure vote for this, but this doesn’t feel like the gimme that other Holocaust docs were. Like The Lady in Number 6, which is about a woman who used music to overcome the horrors she saw. That’s uplifting. This… I don’t think this feels like the kind of thing that wins. I mean, it very well could. Just because certain things win here doesn’t mean this category can’t go sideways in an instant. But at best this feels like a fourth choice in this category that’s only #5 because of this next nominee.

4. A Concerto Is a Conversation — This is a documentary EP’d by Ava DuVernay. I’m still grappling with how much her name being on it matters at this stage. Because in nominations, you have a fixed documentary branch who know who worked on everything who nominated it. Now, in an open vote, you need a majority of voters who either 1) know she worked on this and will vote for it on that alone, 2) saw all the nominees and think this is the best or some combination of those two. And I just… I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. The doc is about composer Kris Bowers and his grandfather. He traces his grandfather’s story, from the Jim Crow South to opening up a business in Los Angeles and providing for his family to pave the way for Bowers, who, at the end of the doc, premieres one of his concertos at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. There are shades of the issues people like here (namely — overcoming the systemic racism of the country and the systemic oppression of Black people in order to create music/art), but mostly it just feels like a love letter from a man to his grandfather. This doesn’t feel, on the surface, like something that wins this category. On an even playing field, where no one knows anything about who made what and are just taking the work on face value, this would normally be a #5 for me here. I wouldn’t see any reason why this would come close to winning. But here… I don’t know how much things are descending into popularity contests separate from the work. Sure, it’s usually a popularity contest in a lot of ways, but most of the time they do at least care about the quality of the work. So I don’t know. I really can’t see this winning, but I also have to respect it because I just don’t know how they’re gonna vote in a category like this where the stakes aren’t exactly Best Picture level.

3. Do Not Split — This might even be considered #4, but I feel like the timeliness to it and the unmistakable comparisons to recent events in the country will at least sway a few people to vote for it. Not that it matters, but this was the best doc on the list for me personally. And I have to imagine others who watch all five will feel the same way. The film is an on-the-ground documentation of the 2019 Hong Kong riots, filmed from cell phone cameras from people amidst the protestors. And it’s impossible to watch these young people protesting and not think of the George Floyd protests, with state-sanctioned violence being thrust at people who are simply arguing against systemic wrongdoing. It’s a really evocative documentary and you really feel what it’s like to be in the middle of all of this. I’m not sure this has that immediacy that people love to vote for in this category, namely the classic Hollywood hubris of ‘what issue can we fix by voting for it’, but this feels like it has as good a shot as anything in this category.

2. A Love Song for Latasha — What I find about this category is that a lot of times the immediacy of the issue overcomes a lot of actual quality and storytelling inherent in each of the docs. This doc is essentially a love letter from one friend to another, not unlike A Concerto Is a Conversation. Only here, while it’s one woman recounting her friendship with another girl, it’s also the story of how that girl was murdered in 1991 by a convenience store owner over a $1.50 bottle of orange juice. It’s that immediacy of systemic racism and Black people being murdered for not doing anything other than being Black that overshadows the fact that there’s not really a whole lot in the doc past ‘I loved my friend and this is what happened to her’. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad doc by any stretch. I just feel like the fact that it is what it’s about overshadows everything here and that’s what makes it a surefire top two choice for the win. It might actually win. This is one of those ‘new Academy vs. Old Academy situations’. Because the newer Academy with all the expanded members full of more diversity (with only 60% old white people instead of 80%) has been branching out in terms of what they’ve voted for. And this feels like the type of choice that could come through as an example of this changing of the guard. But, because I’ve done this so long, and you really can’t go wrong betting on the Oscars to do the standard old white person thing, I’m only saying it’s the second choice at the moment. Because…

1. Hunger Ward — It’s about a childhood starvation epidemic in Yemen. You’re watching doctors deal with these extremely malnourished children the way doctors were dealing with COVID patients at the start of the pandemic, doing what they can but completely overwhelmed and dealing with losing patients left and right. It’s absolutely harrowing to see what’s going on here, and I suspect a lot of people don’t (or didn’t) even know this is something that’s going on. And, as cynical as I am about a lot of things… they love trying to ‘fix’ things by voting for stuff in this category. They think that by shining that light on something for five minutes means that they did their part. This is exactly the type of documentary that wins this category every year. I have to consider it the favorite here. I almost don’t see how it doesn’t win, having seen all the other docs. The two most emotionally affecting to watch are this and Do Not Split. And if I’m picking which I think most people will vote for, I’m picking this.

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