Pass the Remote: Filmmaker up for Oscar with sweet doc about his grandmothers

Fremont native Sean Wang’s adorable documentary "Nai Nai and Wài Pó" spends time with his two fun-loving grandmothers. (Courtesy Disney+/Hulu)

Oscar prognosticators often direct their attention and analysis to the usual suspects: best picture, acting contests and director. Once again, that’s looking to hold true for the upcoming Academy Awards on March 10.  

It’s a shame, really, since races where things tend to get extra juicy and unpredictable occur in under-recognized categories. This year, it’s happening for best short documentary.  

The competition is stiff, with an East Bay native’s cinematic valentine to his adorable grandmothers seemingly slightly ahead of the pack in the final stretch. But the category remains too close to call. 

Having watched all five nominees, they all are worthy of the win… even if we’re partial to two.  

They can be viewed in one big bundle (two hours, 21 minutes) at select movie theaters. Interestingly, three come from publications: the Los Angeles Times (“The Last Repair Shop”), the New Yorker (“The Barber of Little Rock”) and the New York Times (“Island in Between”). 

Here’s our take on the movies: 

Fremont native Sean Wang is a filmmaker on the rise. He’s not only basking in the glow of his heartwarming short “Nai Nai & Wài Pó” landing an Oscar nomination; his wonderful coming-of-age dramedy “DìDi” took home awards at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and Focus Features picked it up for release July 26. It’s been a great year so far for the Taiwanese American filmmaker. In “Nai Nai and Wài Pó,” Wang turns the camera on the everyday adventures and banter between his two grandmothers, the dynamic duo of 86-year-old Chang Li Hua and 97-year-old Yi Yan Fuei. It’s a lovely testament to the gleeful ladies, who live together and share the same bed in Fremont. Wang shows them playing and hamming it up in front of the cameras, yet the film goes even deeper, revealing familial love and the bond not just between them, but with their grandson. (Also available on Hulu/Disney+) 

“The Last Repair Shop” looks at dedicated people who repair musical instruments and how their work helps Los Angeles Unified School District students. (Courtesy Searchlight Pictures)

Wang’s biggest competition is another beautiful and touching short, Ben Proudfoot’s and Kris Bowers’ “The Last Repair Shop.” This tender uplifter sounds the right note in relating moving backstories of dedicated workers who minister to damaged (a metaphor evoked powerfully) instruments used by Los Angeles Unified School District students. Proudfoot and Bowers previously collaborated on 2021’s poignant “A Concerto Is a Conversation”—also Oscar nominated—and they make a great team, sharing how music is a transformative power while shining the spotlight everyday people doing something good for the community. “The Last Repair Shop” hands the microphone to “ordinary” people who have overcome their own struggles and found joy and meaning in helping a folks from a younger generation perhaps realize their own dreams. We hear from the students about what music has given them.  

Another individual finding joy and meaning by reaching out to others is the inspirational Arlo Washington, a determined entrepreneur who provides a helping hand when it’s most needed. He’s known as “The Barber of Little Rock,” a title that doesn’t cover all he does to improve the lives of people in and around Little Rock, Arkansas. John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s documentary shows him helping others as well as the sharp divide between the wealthy and the impoverished, a gap that’s become a chasm. Raised by a single mom dedicated to helping others, Washington opened a barber school and a loan business to help Black residents gain a foothold, with a job or even housing. The filmmakers do a remarkable job of showing the contrast of racial neighborhoods, shaped by redlining. It’s a bit like watching the equivalent of a feature news story, not a surprise, since it comes from the New Yorker. 

A hot topic making the news rounds is the misguided trend of yanking so-called controversial books off library shelves and carving them out of curriculums. The published accounts describe views of people against the process and others orchestrating the censorship movement. In “The ABCs of Book Banning,” director Sheila Nevins asks students and young readers how they feel about this effort to remove books that address topics including race, gender identity and sexuality. Their reaction in a nutshell: What’s all the fuss about? Nevins also introduces the authors most often targeted and shows an ever-expanding list of “objectionable” literature that a select few describe as not age appropriate. Nevins’ approach works, and the kids’ reactions are priceless and, of course, honest. 

A wistful quality wafts through S. Leo Chiang’s personal “Island in Between,” which takes an artistic approach in reflecting what life is like on his homeland, Kinmen, a Taiwanese island near China. With meditative ruminations of its past and its present, the film might be a little too opaque for some Oscar voters, but its power comes through its quiet thoughts that resonate today.  

At San Francisco’s 4-Star Theater, clever programmers have come up with a nifty series “A Fistful of Movies,” which honors celebrated film composer Ennio Morricone. (If you’re a fan of spaghetti Westerns, you’ll be well-versed on his prolific canon). 

The program, from March 1-14, is tied to the theater’s screening of Giuseppe Tornatore’s documentary “Ennio.” The critical hit sprinkles in interviews with Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones and others who discuss Morricone’s craft and how his work influenced and many others. Considered a giant in his field, the Italian composer received his first Oscar in 2015 for Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”  “Ennio” is being paired with screenings with classics for which he provided the music: “Cinema Paradiso” (March 1), “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” (March 3), “Days of Heaven” (March 6), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (March 7), “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” (both March 10) and “The Battle of Algiers” (March 13) For tickets and the schedule, visit

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *