Even with wheels, this year's Oscar documentary shorts are no easy ride

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      In English, French, Korean and Dari, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      “Courage is going to school and learning.” So says a student at Skatistan, an oasis of bookwork and four-wheel fun in Kabul, a place notably hostile to female education. The school is profiled in “Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”, the longest (at 40 minutes) and perhaps most rewarding documentary in a program that creeps towards a taxing three hours.

      Things might be safe inside the school, but as U.K.–based director Carol Dysinger points out, there’s at least one suicide bombing per week in the Afghan capital, and the girls still have to be frisked before entering. Dysinger previously spent three years embedded with U.S. and Afghan troops, and her insights on the changing roles of women in that society are potent, and occasionally light-hearted.

      All hearts are heavy in Yi Seung-Jun’s “In the Absence”, a hard-hitting look at the 2014 ferry disaster that took the lives of more than 300 South Koreans, mostly students from a single school. With its dark blend of news footage, talks with survivors and parents, and difficult-to-watch rescue footage, the film offers up a metaphor in which nature overwhelms humans, and governments prove incapable of rising to the challenge. (This is not the first doc about the MV Sewol tragedy, and last year’s feature Birthday used it as a background for the shattered characters.)

      Trauma is shared a different way in “Life Overtakes Me”, about a rare but seemingly contagious new disease called Resignation Syndrome, in which children go into deep sleep from which they cannot be wakened. Most striking, but still largely unexplained, is the fact that they are mainly the offspring of refugees awaiting their legal fate in Sweden, where this has been dubbed Uppgivenhetssyndrom. The heartbreaking Netflix film follows three such cases, and leaves things understandably unresolved.

      More energetic but still marbled with melancholy, “St. Louis Superman” follows Bruce Franks, Jr., a Ferguson activist who saw friends and family succumb to gang violence and then decided to run for state office. He won, but he still goes to rap battles on the side. Or maybe it’s the other way around. (“The battles pay better,” he quips.) The half-hour effort is dampened somewhat by a title card announcing that the charismatic Franks has since been sidelined by his own PTSD.

      The only truly uplifting entry is “Walk Run Cha-Cha” about a Los Angeles couple that reunited years after being separated by the communist takeover of Vietnam. Both went through harrowing adventures but are now well-paid professionals who assert their grace and individuality through ballroom dancing. Made for the New York Times by Laura Nix (who directed the Yes Men movies), this 20-minute study—the shortest here—gives you a romantic respite from a harsh world that seems headed for more trouble.

      Viewers of this Oscar program should listen to a girl in that opening skateboarding flick, who advises, “Don’t act fragile. This is a place for tough people!”