A burned-out town struggles to return to life

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A firefighter faces the deadly Camp Fire in an early scene from Rebuilding Paradise.

By Richard Ades

The first 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are harrowing.

Ron Howard’s documentary is mostly about the aftermath of the November 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, but first it shows us the fire itself. With the help of cellphone and dashcam footage, it recreates people’s terror as they attempt to escape a wildfire that engulfed their town only minutes after originating on a nearby hillside.

In one particularly hair-raising moment, we find ourselves inside a vehicle barreling along a road that has turned into a fiery obstacle course. Meanwhile, the air is so filled with smoke that the day appears to have turned to night.

The danger is real, we learn. By the time the fire is brought under control, 85 residents of Paradise are dead. Of those who survive, most have lost their homes, along with schools, municipal buildings and services.

Following this terror-stricken beginning, Howard’s documentary evolves into a month-by-month account of attempts by residents and officials to revive a community that has been largely destroyed. The result is a film that’s sincere and warmhearted.

And, it must be said, just a little dull.

Part of the problem is Howard’s focus on what a close-knit and beautiful community Paradise was, which made its loss so tragic. Though it undoubtedly was beautiful, being located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s hard for those of us who never lived there to share the residents’ nostalgia.

Then again, let’s face it: A big part of the film’s problem is its timing. Much as we want to be sympathetic to the day-to-day challenges faced by the survivors, we can’t help being reminded of our own day-to-day challenges due to a health disaster that shows no signs of winding down.

This is particularly difficult when the film focuses on the tireless efforts of school superintendent Michelle John to keep local classes in session and to give the 2019 seniors a bona fide graduation ceremony. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help thinking that it’s all for naught because the following school year will be 10 times as difficult in Paradise and everywhere else.

Howard also tries a bit too hard to show individuals’ community spirit and even heroism. Or maybe it just seems that way because of our own, mid-2020 perspective. Having witnessed some of our own fellow citizens refusing to even slap on a mask to promote the general good, we know all too well that not everyone reacts to disaster in a selfless way.

Is the film looking at the Camp Fire aftermath with rose-colored glasses? The question comes up in relation to one of its most heroic figures, Matt Gates, a police officer who works to raise spirits through efforts such as organizing a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Then, late in the film, we suddenly learn that Gates and his wife have separated. Why? We’re never told, maybe because Howard doesn’t want to tinge his warm portrait of the town with a hint of negativism.

In a break from the general positivity, Rebuilding Paradise points out that there are culprits here as well as victims. The main culprit is Pacific Gas & Electric, whose failure to maintain its power lines caused the spark that set off the deadly fire. More generally, the culprit is poor forest management, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires due to young growth that burns quickly.

More generally still, as the film notes briefly, the culprit is climate change. Yet no fingers are pointed at those who’ve ignored the problem and have even gone out of their way to deny it exists.

To pick out the most obvious example: Donald Trump is shown talking about his post-fire visit to the town—which he accidentally calls “Pleasure”—but the film doesn’t report his odd theory that wildfires like this could be prevented if California just raked out the forest floors once in a while. Nor does it mention the administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine environmental regulations.

Perhaps the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is afraid of unnecessarily aggravating the Trump administration. Or perhaps director Howard is more interested in the personal rather than the political. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of loss, courage and perseverance that—due to reasons both in and beyond the filmmaker’s control—comes off as needlessly bland.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Rebuilding Paradise (PG-13) is available beginning July 31 through VOD outlets or Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (gatewayfilmcenter.org).

Former ‘Moonie’ struggles to move on

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Cara Jones (center) is married in one of the Unification Church’s typical mass weddings. Her marriage later ended in divorce.

By Richard Ades

In the 1970s, the country was struggling to recover from the dual tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency. That helps to explain why so many Americans were attracted to the “Moonies,” a Korean-born cult that promised to unite and heal the world.

Blessed Child is a documentary by and about a woman who was raised in a Moonie family and found the religion a comfort and an inspiration—until it wasn’t. Then it became an impediment to her happiness and threatened to drive a wedge between her and her devout parents.

Directed by Cara Jones and filmed by her brother Bow, the doc is a gentle yet wrenching portrait of a family that was at first united and later divided by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

An early voice-over explains the church’s unique ideology. Moon believed in the power of marriage to help the world overcome sin and prejudice. Accordingly, he regularly organized mass weddings of couples he’d personally “matched,” often with the express purpose of combining people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also discouraged premarital relations, being convinced that sex was the “original sin” that had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Moon’s belief system appealed to idealistic young people like Cara’s future father, Farley Jones, who converted in the ’60s. Farley then persuaded a Catholic girl named Betsy to join up, and the two married (after being matched by Moon) and proceeded to raise four sons and a daughter in the Unification Church.

Contemporary interviews and home movies reveal that the family became something akin to Moonie celebrities after Farley was named president of the faith’s American branch. So prominent were they that young Cara began to hope she eventually would be matched with one of Moon’s own sons. It’s probably not a coincidence that her faith began to wane when she wasn’t, instead being paired with a man who felt more like a younger brother than a husband. But by the time her marriage ended in divorce, it also had become clear that Moon wasn’t quite as pure and angelic as he’d seemed.

While it spends sufficient time explaining the eccentricities and shortcomings of the Unification Church, Blessed Child’s main theme is the lasting effect it’s had on former members like Cara. Long after leaving the church, many still struggle with feelings of failure and regret that make it difficult to get on with their lives. And it’s all the harder for people like Cara whose parents remain true believers.

If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that Cara’s central tale is almost overshadowed by that of her brother Bow. As a boy who realized early on that he was gay, Bow couldn’t feel at home in a faith devoted to heterosexual marriage. And yet he was—and apparently still is—as susceptible as anyone to its idealistic vision of a world united by love and acceptance.

Blessed Child takes us on an engrossing journey as it relates Cara’s efforts to heal old wounds and come to terms with her past. Even so, the closing credits may leave viewers with a nagging question: But what about Bow?

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Blessed Child (no MPAA rating) is available beginning July 17 on iTunes, Google and Amazon.

Small moments define Oscar-nominated documentary

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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

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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

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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

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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.