2020-01-27T17:28:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Honeyland Directors/ Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5   What begins as an observational portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper evolves into a parable with a universal message: when greed upsets the balance of nature, the very survival of a species is threatened. There is nothing new in that. We’ve read enough stories and seen enough environmentally-themed documentaries to understand what happens when ecological warriors come up against the brute transactional force of capitalism. Capitalism usually wins. But what takes you by surprise in this film is that the protagonist, a woman named Hatidze Muratova, is no warrior. She makes a subsistence living tending a few hives in the countryside, which produce just enough high-quality honey for her to live off of. She takes care of her blind and deaf mother and listens to news of the world on a tiny transistor radio. They live in the crumbling remains of a stone house in an abandoned village. They have lots of cats. Hatidze, it seems, just wants to be left alone. Then a nomadic family of ersatz farmers invades the valley where she lives, bringing in a herd of cattle and sheep and pitching their tents and trailers nearby. Suddenly, Hatidze’s peaceful existence is shattered and her very livelihood threatened. The family, a squabbling couple and their seven children, are urged by a local buyer to start raising bees themselves. Hatidze, wary at first, offers tips on how to ensure the bees keep producing enough honey for all of them: sell half the honey [...]

For Sama

2020-01-26T21:55:34+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

For Sama Directors/ Waad al-Khateab, Edward Watts Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5   There is a moment in For Sama which caused me to gasp out loud. This is rare for me. I watch most documentaries alone in my home studio, and usually my reactions are silent scoffs or impatient shakes of the head or a mental “give me a break” when I feel the gears of manipulation working too hard. But in the moment I’m referring to, doctors have just performed an emergency Caesarean on a young woman injured in a bomb blast. The mother is unconscious, the baby is not breathing. Doctors and nurses hold the child upside down and furiously pound and shake it, while the sounds of distant bombs and gunfire ricochet outside the hospital walls. I won’t give away what happens next, but it is perhaps the most remarkable scene in a movie full of remarkable scenes and remarkable people. For Sama is set entirely within the besieged city of Aleppo, ground zero for the battle between Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime forces and the resistance fighters, who continue to wage what looks like a lost cause, with few resources and little assistance from other countries. There have been many documentaries about both Syria and Afghanistan in the last several years, too many in my opinion. The majority of these films look and feel the same, relying exclusively on shaky handheld iPhone or low-grade video camera footage, usually shot by the main protagonist, and artificially pumped-up for maximum shock and [...]

Black Mother

2020-01-30T20:22:38+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Black Mother Director/ Khalik Allah Watched on Criterion Channel Rating 4/5   Director Khalik Allah is working at the edge of documentary, not quite avant-garde but experimental enough to be ignored by the commercial film festivals and embraced by streaming platforms such as MUBI and the Criterion Channel. I doubt many will search out or stumble upon his films (his first feature was Field Niggas), and also doubt many will be able to endure his demanding, staccato approach to editing and sound. Owing to his background as a still photographer, he doesn’t shoot scenes or sequences, he doesn’t follow characters in action, he steers far clear of traditional talking heads, he doesn’t pretend to care about observational tropes such as natural sound or belabored long takes. His movies are a cacophony of images and audio, mostly straight-on portraits of black faces, some who look directly in the lens, others who are happy to allow Allah’s camera to swirl around them, intimately probing their skin, scars, jewelry, and hair. He films prostitutes, gangstas, cops, kids, and–in this film–family members, creating a dense, textural scrapbook that is alive with a kind of visceral grit of experience. Black Mother is a memoir in montage. Allah filmed exclusively in his Jamaican homeland (while Field Niggas was shot in Harlem), attempting to say something about the enduring power of the women who raised him, but also to honor the vast, vibrant tapestry of the culture. Music, ganja, politics, and the reclaiming of identity all flavor this heady brew, cued to a [...]

The Hottest August

2020-01-18T20:25:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Hottest August Director/ Brett Story Watched at Tacoma Film Festival Rating 2.5/5  Canadian director Brett Story’s approach to documentary is refreshingly offbeat.  Formally challenging but not impenetrable, socially relevant in spite of her disinterest in the usual ticked-box approach to agenda filmmaking, and not beholden to the imperatives of strong central characters or third act resolutions. In her 2016 film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes and in her latest, The Hottest August, she takes a becalmed survey approach to her subject matter: the stranglehold of the prison-industrial complex on the lives of current and former prisoners in the earlier film, and the subtle politics of climate change in her latest. She moves from place to place without a map–a factory, a park, a sidewalk, a town–and interviews a few people on site, maybe just observes the action for a few minutes, and usually lets the ambient sound and natural light and weather fill in the atmosphere. What you take away from her films depends on your degree of attentiveness to the quiet cues she embeds in the scenes. As I wrote in an earlier review of Prison, “the succession of these scenes, sparse in abject information but saturated with a pall of unease, builds to an overpowering sense of futility.” But the elements in that film that worked in its favor–a firm grip on the thematic through-line, a steady pace that kept one’s outrage on a slow boil, and its several scenes of both beauty and appalling injustice–are almost entirely missing from The Hottest August. [...]

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