2024 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

Ironically, while the 2024 Oscar Nominated documentary shorts include such subjects as censorship and the Taiwanese island that is its first defense against China, they are generally more upbeat than either the Live Action or Animated short selections.  They are also all from the U.S.A. with one exception, which is an American coproduction.

Laura's Review: B+

Former HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins directs "The ABCs of Book Banning,” kicking it off with the viral footage of 100 year-old WWII widow Grace Linn telling a Florida school board her husband fought and died for freedoms like the one they – and the Nazis – are crushing.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, incredibly articulate young school children express their dismay at having certain books taken away and ask just why love being expressed between two males or a girl declaring her strength are problematic.  A fifteen year-old says book banners are ‘stealing knowledge,’ including Jewish history (Anne Frank’s Diary is one of the many jaw-dropping selections which have been banned) that will be repeated if people don’t know about it.  A fiery Grace Linn returns to state this is being done because of fear of knowledge.  ‘Fear is not freedom.  Fear is control.’  Much of the content of “The ABCs of Book Banning” may have already been seen, but Grace Linn is an amazing voice and these kids are a revelation.  A-

Taiwanese director S. Leo Chiang has spent far more of his lifetime living in the U.S., but has recently returned to Taipei where his parents still live.  His “Island in Between,” which opens with an eerie flyover of a tank embedded sideways on a sandy beach, is Kinmen, just over 6 miles from the Chinese mainland (Taiwan’s main island itself is over 110 miles farther away).  Chiang’s father had fought in China’s Civil War from Kinmen and, as a child, Chiang was taught that the U.S. would help them retake China from the evil Communists.  Now Chiang’s parents tell him to have a plan to leave in case China invades.  “Island in Between” taught me history I did not know from the perspective of a man standing at the crossroads of China, Taiwan and the U.S.  B+

“Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó’s” director Sean Wang just had his coming-of-age feature debut, “Didi,” acquired by Focus Features out of the Sundance Film Festival where he was an Ignite Fellow and 2023 Sundance Screenwriters & Directors Lab Fellow.  His nominated short journals the shared lives of his grandmother and her sister-in-law, the two who sleep in the same bed getting on well together, yet introduced with very different outlooks.  Wài Pó tells us she’s 83, but feels 20 while Nǎi Nai is 94 but feels 100.  It is a treat watching these two get on with their daily lives (and wonder just how they deal with that daunting spiral staircase daily!).  But with Sean’s visit, it appears they have been encouraged to act for his camera, changing into silly costumes, drinking booze right from the bottle and dancing and so the documentary turns into one of those twee ‘aren’t old folks cute acting like teenagers’ movies. ‘When you’re gone, our lives will be quiet again,’ one observes, and indeed, that might have made for a more honest, if less entertaining film.  B-

John Hoffman & Christine Turner’s “The Barber of Little Rock” could be exhibit A for how one person can effect big changes.  Arlo Washington was raised by a single mother who struggled to get a degree, then helped her community and taught him that people needed compassion before dying two weeks before his high school graduation.  As a result, Arlo believes his purpose in life is to create equity and opportunity.  In addition to running a barber school which has had 1,500 students since opening in 2008, Washington opened the Peoples Trust, a non-profit loan fund on the side of the I630 divide that is seriously under served financially, many customers telling tales of ‘banking while black’ across the interstate.  The only black bank in Arkansas has a 95% timely repayment rate, helping local people open their own businesses and succeed.  “The Barber of Little Rock” is a straightforward, but inspiring, documentary about an extraordinary citizen.  B+

Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot (“The Queen of Basketball”) and “The Color Purple” composer Kris Bowers give us another tale of dedication to the community with “The Last Repair Shop,” a delightful look at the four people responsible for repairing every public school musical instrument in the city of Los Angeles.  In a close-up direct camera address, a charismatic little girl enthuses ‘I love the violin!’ before talking about how it helps her cope with a family that’s ‘always getting sick back to back.’  We then move to a squat, featureless building where 80,000 public school instruments have been repaired since 1958.  The supervisor, who we will learn in the last segment is also the piano specialist, tells us that there are four departments – brass, strings, woodwinds and piano, before we meet Dana, the person who would be fixing that youngster’s violin.  Each of the four have vastly different backgrounds, all fascinating for different reasons, all dedicated to what they do.  Proudfoot and Bowers introduce each segment with a student who plays the instrument in question, capping it all with a student concert, supervisor Steve Bagmanyan joined by the piano tuner who sponsored him as a Russian refugee decades earlier.  A-

Robin's Review: B

It has taken far too long for documentary films – feature-length and short – to get the attention and acclaim that I have always thought of as well-deserved. That has changed and, this year, we are dealing with the issues of book banning, tensions between Taiwan and China and the racial wealth gap in America – all heady stuff to ponder.

Banning a book, to any intelligent and thoughtful human being, is a heinous deed and only contributes to the hate that spawned it. It is also the diminishing the young minds deprived of the wisdom those banned books can provide them. Here, many young minds tell how those books, so wrongly outlawed in schools and libraries across the US, impact them and their intellect in “The ABCs of Book Banning.”

I wonder when (not if) we are going to see a socially relevant documentary called “The ABCs of Book BURNING” show up on our streaming services. After studying the history of Nazism for many years, I can see that it is a very small step to go from banning books to burning them. It happened with the will of the people some 80+ years ago and, with the current hate of MAGA and Christian Nationalism, it can happen again. B+

“How do you create racial wealth equality?” is the question barber Arlo Washington asks the camera as he explains just what he does to create that equality so elusive to a large minority of the American population. He explains not what can be done, but what he is actually doing as “The Barber of Little Rock.”
This is an inspirational story about a self-made man, Arlo, who gives back to his community and strives to make it better. In his way, he is chipping away at that inequality, first with his barber business, then a barber school and, finally, opening a Community Development Financial Institute – that is what we white folk call a bank. It is a quiet, compelling story about a true local hero. B

We are familiar, if you actually pay attention to what is happening in other parts of the world, of the political friction between the People’s Republic of China (the Communist mainland) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). But, between those opposing, heavily armed countries are a small group of islands, governed by Taiwan and a scant 10 km off the Chinese mainland – the “Island in Between.”

A documentary, long or short, should do three things for the viewer – educate, entertain and interest. Taiwanese director S. Leo Chiang takes us to his parents’ home island and tells about living life in a Cold War no man’s land between the two powers. It is a unique look into a very different society living, literally, on the edge. B

This is a lovely story about people caring for people through the instruments they refurbish and restore for public school music students to use and learn. It is a slice of life that harkens to the past when people actually took the time to care about others. You get the nuts and bolts process on how these musical artisans go about making people happy in “The Last Repair Shop.” B

Having very old people doing silly things that very old people would never do unless a grandchild decides to make a movie about his two cute little grandmas is the operating premise of “Nai-Nai and Wai-Po.”

What is this way too cute documentary about two old ladies doing as an Oscar entry to the documentary shorts category? If not for that nomination I probably would not even have give this little indulgence a look. This is a home movie, as cute as it is, and not, to me, an Oscar contender. C

ShortsTV releases the 2024 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts packages in theaters on 2/23/24.  Click here for theater information.