Small moments define Oscar-nominated documentary

Honeyland 2-7-20
Beekeeper Hatidze Muratova tends to one of her hives while a young neighbor watches in a scene from Honeyland.

By Marilyn Fais and Richard Ades

Note: Guest critic Marilyn Fais helps review Honeyland, a film from North Macedonia that has been nominated for Academy Awards in two categories: Documentary and International Feature. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film originally was meant to be a short documentary about the land surrounding a river in the country’s central region. Then the filmmakers met Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something woman eking out a living as a beekeeper, and they ultimately decided to focus their lens on her unusual life.

If you decide to see Honeyland, don’t expect any big moments, but expect to be captivated by many small moments. Taking place in a remote area of North Macedonia, the film follows one woman, Hatidze Muratova, as she goes about her subsistence life as a beekeeper.

She’s in her mid-50s and lives with her ailing mother. They have no neighbors, and it appears they’re the only people around for miles.

Then they get neighbors—a large nomadic family led by Hussein and Ljutve Sam—and the interactions that follow add new complications to Hatidze’s difficult existence. Between her reactions to these newcomers and her brief but poignant talks with her mother, viewers gain new insights into Hatidze’s life and philosophy.

In the process, they also gain insights into the challenges faced by anyone attempting to live in harmony with the natural world. These make this unusual film both intensely personal and sadly universal.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Honeyland opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Russia as seen through the eyes of a Putin-hating oligarch

Citizen K
Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) faces the consequences of being on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin in Citizen K. (Zachary Martin/Greenwich)

By Richard Ades

Early in the documentary Citizen K, Mikhail Khodorkovsky recalls Russia’s own “Wild West” era. It occurred during a roughly seven-year period following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of communist authoritarianism.

The resulting legal vacuum allowed Khodorkovsky and other enterprising individuals to make their fortunes through often-shady means. It also allowed many of these so-called “gangster capitalists” to be killed for their money while Moscow turned into the “murder capital” of Europe.

Fortunately for Khodorkovsky, he managed to avoid the assassins, though he soon made an enemy who was equally ruthless: Vladimir Putin.

Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Citizen K is a history of modern Russia as seen through the eyes of Khodorkovsky, who amassed billions through his ownership of a major oil company. It describes the ways he and other self-created capitalists attempted to remake Russia for their own benefit. It also describes how Putin, once an out-of-work KGB agent, rose to power by appealing to people’s nostalgia for Soviet power and influence.

Finally, it explains how Khodorkovsky and others found themselves working at cross-purposes with Putin, putting a target on their backs. Some are alleged to have paid for this with their lives. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he was put on trial for financial crimes and ended up spending 10 years in a remote prison.

Majestically photographed by cinematographers Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov, with an equally grand score by Robert Logan and Ivor Guest, Citizen K is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It’s also an invaluable history lesson for any who want to understand how Russia became the dangerous adversary it is today—and why President Trump’s apparent failure to recognize that fact is so concerning.

If there’s one thing the documentary lacks, it’s someone to root for.

The thousands of stories based on America’s lawless Wild West generally gave us a hero who showed up to save the day. In this tale of Russia’s “Wild West” and its aftermath, it’s hard to decide whether our protagonist deserves that label.

In an archival interview, a young Khodorkovsky proudly admits that greed is his chief motivator. Other historic footage makes it clear that he was willing to lay off thousands to achieve his financial goals. It’s even suggested that he may have resorted to tactics such as bombings or murder.

Only later, after being released from prison, does Khodorkovsky take on a task that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving: From his new home in the UK, he funds efforts to promote democracy in his homeland. That does seem heroic.

By this point in the film, however, we’ve learned enough about the way “politics” work in Putin’s Russia to suspect that it’s also a quixotic exercise in futility.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Citizen K opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Affection for a musical trailblazer

Ronstadt
Photos courtesy of Zachary Martin (Greenwich)

By Richard Ades

Linda Ronstadt was the first female singer to attain the kind of arena-filling star power previously achieved only by males. As a result, the now-73-year-old legend still has plenty of fans, even though Parkinson’s disease has in recent years deprived us of her beautiful voice.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seem to have counted on those fans’ interest when they put together Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Rather than trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with a preview of what Ronstadt achieved, the film biography assumes they already know all that. Instead, it starts at the beginning—or even before the beginning—of her career, allowing the singer to conjecture on how her future was shaped by a father who invented the electric stove and a grandfather who sang Mexican folk songs.

Epstein and Friedman then recount Ronstadt’s career in more or less chronological order. This approach, combined with an account that is long on admiration and short on drama, requires viewers to have a good bit of patience. But Ronstadt’s fans probably won’t mind, especially since they’re given the chance to relive many high points of her musical history courtesy of old concert footage.

The main point the doc puts across is the groundbreaking nature of Ronstadt’s award-winning career. Thanks to a string of hit singles such as 1973’s “Desperado” and hit albums such as 1974’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” she was able to crash the former boys’ club of rock stardom. Astoundingly, not being a songwriter herself, she did it solely on the strength of her vocal instincts and ability.

Ronstadt singing

The second point that comes across is Ronstadt’s fearlessness in the face of new challenges. She periodically insisted on breaking out of her well-paid comfort zone by, for instance, taking a stage role in a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera. Later, in perhaps her boldest move, she honored her family’s heritage by recording traditional Mexican songs in Spanish, though she didn’t actually speak the language.

If anyone ever makes a scripted biopic out of Ronstadt’s life, they’ll probably try to dramatize her inevitable clashes with music executives who wanted her to skip such adventures and stick to what had earned money in the past. Or maybe the flick will seek drama in her brief experiences with diet pills and other drugs, or her romances with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and celebs such as California Gov. Jerry Brown, filmmaker George Lucas and comedian Jim Carrey.

For its part, the doc treats such subjects in an underplayed, matter-of-fact fashion. The executives wanted Ronstadt to stick to what she knew; she said no. She did drugs; then she stopped. She and Souther were together; then they weren’t. (Souther himself says he can’t remember why they broke up but suggests they were too independent and career-oriented to be tied down.)

In general, the film comes off more as a love letter rather than a documentary. Presumably, Ronstadt’s fans won’t mind, especially since that love letter is accompanied by wonderful music.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (PG-13) opens Sept. 13 at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Looking back on China’s ‘one child’ rule

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Amazon Studios

By Richard Ades

From 1979 to 2015, China enforced a rigid policy that forbade most couples from having more than one child. The rule was intended to reverse the country’s exploding population growth, which was seen as a threat to plans for economic development.

One Child Nation, a documentary directed by the Chinese-born Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, shows that the policy’s effects were long-lasting and horrifying.

With the help of archival footage, the film depicts the propaganda campaign China used to urge its people to abandon their tradition of large families. Billboards, theatrical performances and even playing cards helped to spread the message that population control was the key to prosperity.

As a result, many supported the policy, though some did so only out of fear or a sense of duty. Others tried to evade it and suffered disastrous consequences. Wang, who moved to the U.S. six years before giving birth to her own son, returns to her native village with camera in hand in an attempt to learn just what those consequences were.

Perhaps because she is seen as a local rather than an outsider, Wang is able to uncover some startlingly raw emotions.

A former village chief says he enforced the policy only because he had to, adding that he refused to take part in forced sterilizations of women after their first child. A former midwife feels guilt for performing such sterilizations—and for performing mandatory abortions so late in the pregnancy that, in her mind, they amounted to murder.

But not everyone feels such guilt. A woman who was lauded by the government for her role in “family planning” says the policy was justified despite its cost in misery and lives. “It was like fighting a war,” she says, according to the translated subtitles. “Death was inevitable.”

It quickly becomes apparent that the policy was complicated by many couples’ patriarchal wish for a son who could carry on the family name. Parents of girls often tried to evade the law, sometimes going so far as to abandon their daughters. The documentary traces the cost in terms of dead babies and a lucrative market for the adoption of Chinese “orphans”—a market in which government representatives were likely complicit.

One Child Nation is full of such shocking revelations. If it doesn’t attain the emotional arc of an effective work of fiction, it’s partly because some of the most painful details arrive early or midway through.

By the end, the film’s focus has shifted to a Utah couple’s attempt to connect Chinese children with previously unknown siblings who were basically sold on the foreign adoption market. It’s a worthy effort, but it’s one giant step removed from the nightmarish ordeal their parents went through in the name of progress.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

One Child Nation (rated R) opens Aug. 23 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Women test sailing skills in globe-circling competition

Maiden
Tracy Edwards (center) leads an all-woman crew around the world in the documentary Maiden. (Sony Pictures Classics)

By Richard Ades

For much of its existence, women had never competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race. In 1989, Tracy Edwards set out to change that by proving that female sailors were equally capable of circling the globe on wind power alone.

As the account of that groundbreaking venture, Maiden hits all the right notes and avoids all the wrong ones. Alex Holmes’s documentary is exciting and uplifting, yet relatable. Rather than placing its heroine on a feminist pedestal, it depicts her as a brave but flawed pioneer who battles sexism and her own demons while struggling to overcome her biggest foe: the ocean.

“The ocean is trying to kill you,” Edwards announces frankly at the doc’s beginning. Thanks to actual footage taken during her 33,000-mile journey—a journey that sends her all-woman crew through violent storms and iceberg-infested waters—we readily believe it.

But Holmes doesn’t jump right into the race. Instead, he prepares us for the ordeal by recounting the Edwards’s difficult but character-building early years.

Born in Southampton, England, she suffers her first trauma when she loses her doting father at the age of 10. When her mother’s remarriage leaves her at the mercy of an abusive stepfather, she ultimately runs away and immerses herself in the male-dominated world of sailing. By taking on menial jobs such as stewardess or cook, she earns access to men who can teach her the skills she will later put to good use.

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The crew suits up for a trip through frigid southern waters. (Sony Pictures Classics)

By the time Edwards and her crew have acquired a boat—a refurbished yacht they dub “Maiden”—and joined their male competitors at the race’s starting line, she has the know-how but not necessarily the self-confidence she needs for the task ahead. Nonetheless, she sets out to disprove the many chauvinist predictions that they will drop out early. She’s determined not only to finish the race but to come in first in their class.

As filmed by Jo Gooding, a childhood friend of Edwards who also serves as the boat’s cook, the nine-month race is shown to be a combination of frustration and terror, triumph and setback. It all culminates in a surprising realization that what they’ve been doing has meaning far beyond trophies or bragging rights. While they’ve been engaged in a lonely, isolated battle with the sea, it turns out, the world has been watching.

It’s a heartwarming ending to a stirring saga of courage and grit.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Maiden (PG) opens Aug. 9 at the Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.