Tag: documentary

My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary “My Octopus Teacher” tells the story of a man who felt he needed a radical change in his life. Inspired by his relationship with the ocean as a child along with the time he spent learning how to track animals from the San people of the Kalahari Desert, filmmaker Craig Foster decided to go back in the water with the hope of re-centering himself. And what he finds in the kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa is Octopus vulgaris (common octopus), highly curious about the human visiting her territory. Foster followed this octopus for about a year and a rollercoaster of emotions was captured on film. Nature lovers should not miss this doc.

The kelp forest offers astounding beauty. Foster does not make a point of it, but when the camera goes down on the ocean floor, there is a richness of life that can be found in every corner. When you think that a spot offers nothing but white sand, something suddenly moves inside it—a patient predator waiting for unwary prey. When the camera is turned upwards onto the surface of the water, the light is so beguiling that it feels like looking through an elegant veil draped between two worlds. The work is so poetic at times that at one point I caught myself thinking, “What does a sea creature think about when it looks up at the surface?”

Then a different type of beauty is captured as the free-diving Foster swims through kelps, various schools of fish, pyjama sharks, jellyfish, and unrecognizable detritus. The longer we spend time underwater, we note that “kelp forest” is such a general way of describing a place teeming with complexity. There is geography within that forest. We learn where sharks hang out, for instance, and which places they tend to avoid and why. And performing a dive at night turns what we know inside out. There is never a dull moment because the environment is so alive, so alien, yet incredibly humbling. It is educational—and spiritual—nearly every step of the way.

There is plenty of narration—which I imagine will rub some viewers the wrong way. But it is necessary because right from the beginning it is established that the film is a personal account of a someone who desperately needed to be reminded that he is alive; that he matters as an artist, a husband, and a father; and that he has something of value to impart as a naturalist. This is not strictly a nature documentary. It is a documentary with nature elements filtered through the spirit of a human being who is down or depressed about his own worth.

And so it is critical we hear how Foster expresses surprise, for instance, when an invertebrate, one that is well-known within the scientific community as being a highly intelligent antisocial predator, appears to want to engage and develop a bond with a stranger who drops by on a daily basis. Via narration, he describes what occurs in the water or what he thinks and feels when the octopus is not in her usual place of shelter. But discernible viewers will appreciate the growth in the man—that having a purpose, having something to look forward to on a daily basis, is directly related to the subject eventually having the ability to break out of the rut, to free himself from the shackles of great unhappiness that bogged him down. In this film, diving is a metaphor for self-reflection.

The Last Blockbuster

The Last Blockbuster (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although Taylor Morden’s “The Last Blockbuster” does not reveal anything earth-shattering about the former largest video rental empire in the world, boasting 9000 locations with one location opening every 17 hours in its heyday, it shows just enough to tickle the nostalgia bone. It wastes no time placing viewers inside a Blockbuster with its blue carpet, yellow walls and distinct scent, it establishes a warm and friendly tone, the pacing is brisk and assured, figureheads interviewed are full of personality, and it answers important questions, like how the company came about, how the majority of mom-and-pop rental stores were forced to close and, perhaps more intriguingly, how some these small, local businesses actually became part of the chain. It even provides a thorough answer on whether Netflix truly was directly responsible for Blockbuster going out of business. The answer might surprise you.

The documentary is on top form when it gets personal. We meet Sandi Harding, the general manager of the remaining Blockbuster on the planet located in Bend, Oregon, and within seconds we feel her passion for the job. She need not speak and tell us how much she enjoys working in Blockbuster or how it is a family business and so it means a lot more to her than a job. All the picture has to do is to show this woman—who is funny, energetic, always sporting a smile in her eyes—stacking movies on shelves, cleaning glass containers, being happy to answer questions (questions that I’m sure she had answered a thousand times on radio, television, newspapers, and other media), or going on a trip to a nearby Target to buy new movies so customers can have the latest to rent at the store.

When the camera is on Harding, it feels like spending time with a cool aunt. (We even meet her Blockbuster family at home and at an annual barbecue.) By the time this film was made, she has been with the company for fifteen years—and it shows. And it’s funny because, in my eyes, she manages to outshine commentators like Kevin Smith, Paul Scheer, Jamie Kennedy, and others. These artists may have something interesting or funny to say once in a while, but there is not a single moment in which Harding comes across forced or inauthentic.

Having Harding on film is critical not just because she’s the manager. She is the conduit between the filmmaking world and people like you and me; she makes the work that much more relatable without having to result to one-liners, quirks, or exaggerations like a few of the interviewees. While I doubt that the final Blockbuster standing still has ten years left, I wish that Harding gets to do what she loves until the day she decides to retire.

The film also has a knack for indirectly asking what Blockbuster means to the viewer. I came late to the party. It was around 2003 when I signed up to become a Blockbuster member. It was summertime and, in order to compete with Netflix (which I was also a member—mail back a DVD, get another the very next day… those were the days!—no streaming services just yet), Blockbuster offered unlimited rental—two or three movies at a time—for a fixed rate.

I lived about half a mile from the rental store and so imagine how many movies I watched just that one summer. I must have seen about 5 movies per day; I became such a regular that employees in every shift knew me by name until 2006 when I cancelled my membership because I had to leave home for university. Between 2003 and 2006 was the time when I fell in love with the movies. I can say with utmost confidence that had it not been for Blockbuster, you wouldn’t be reading these words today.

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Your whole life society tells you, like, “Oh, be a man, and you are strong, and you are tough, and margaritas are gay,” you know, like. You know. You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.

The documentary opens with a long tracking shot of childhood friends skateboarding and zigzagging their way through the empty streets of Rockford, Illinois. It is beautifully shot, capturing a sense of freedom and reckless abandon, and it feels as though we are skateboarding right alongside them. But this stunning sequence is not indicative of what the picture dares to dive into: race and class in modern America; poor cities like Rockford being left behind or forgotten; the effects of child abuse and domestic violence; what it means to be a friend, a son and a father; skateboarding serving not only as an escape but also a means of gaining control; the evanescence of childhood. Director Bing Liu juggles these topics with seeming ease, and I was riveted.

One of three core subjects is the director himself. The film unfolds throughout the course of several years and so we watch him grow alongside his friends, Keire and Zack. They love to skate, laugh, hang out and be silly. Their joyfulness is infectious… until the difficult questions are broached and the unblinking camera captures how the interviewee responds. One way or another, the trio have been touched by abuse. To reveal specifics, I think, would do the picture a disservice and so I will refrain. But I must say that the director has a knack for ironing out themes. He does so with such patience and elegance that even though his picture’s scope is small, it feels monumental.

The work inspires us to observe with a keen eye and read between the lines. For example, there are several occasions in which we get a chance to look inside the boys’ houses. We pick up on the mess almost immediately: clothes that have piled up, plates with some food on them scattered about, alcohol bottles on the floor. But we must ask ourselves why this might be so. It could be that the house is simply small. Or that a room is too cramped even for just one person. But we can look even closer. Where are the parents or the adult figures in their lives? Are they at work? Hiding from the camera? Living somewhere else?

I walked away from the movie feeling as though I had seen a three-hour epic. There is neither title card nor subtitle that states how much time has passed. It isn’t necessary because there is something to digest nearly every second. (We do, however, watch a baby grow in front of our very eyes.) Particularly tense is when conflict arises—between Zack and his girlfriend, for instance—and we are shoved into that moment. They yell and scream at each other. Sometimes that’s all there is. But there is a time when Nina shows us the gash on her eyebrow (which she hides under her hair) and mentions the bruises on her body. Bing contemplates asking Zack about his violent episode. Then we hold our breath just a little because Zack’s temperament, especially when he feels cornered, is well-established by then. And so is his penchant for drinking. Out of the three, Zack is the one who comes across as the most stuck.

And there is Keire whose laugh and overall sunny attitude do not change over the years. We watch him get his first job as a dishwasher, lightyears away from the angry kid who broke another kid’s skateboard after a row at the park. There is a sadness to Keire that Bing connects with on a deep level. This is apparent when the camera fixates on Keire’s face, how his emotions work their way up to his eyes as he tells personal stories in regard to his relationship with his deceased father. His father was strict and he wanted his son to be a good person. And he wanted Keire to be proud of being black. When Keire recalls a memory, we paint a clear portrait in our minds. Maybe he, too, is like Bing: a natural storyteller. Why is it that we appreciate our parents more when they’re no longer around?

“Minding the Gap” digs deep and so the journey is worthwhile. It is the kind of movie that teenagers and adults can appreciate because of its honesty. I hope we get an update on Bing, Keire, and Zack’s lives ten or twenty years from now. I want to believe they’ll be all right.


Obit. (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although a documentary about the process of writing obituaries for the New York Times, “Obit.” is far from being about death. Its focus is on the colorful lives of the people who died, the writers who are tasked to write 400- to 800-word obituaries for the next day’s paper, and, in a way, ourselves—our own journeys, our accomplishments, the goals we have yet to achieve. Director Vanessa Gould helms a celebratory documentary, one filled with humor, energy, figures who have at least one interesting thing to show or say about their jobs or pieces they’re working on, and a reminder that life is long until it isn’t.

It takes us through the process of writing obituaries. We meet the writers. Names followed by faces. I enjoyed that we get to know them mainly through how they work, not necessarily only when they turn toward the camera and answer questions. Notice that not ten minutes into the picture, we observe writers simply doing their jobs, like picking up the telephone to interview loved ones of those who died—we listen to the sorts of questions asked and how. The camera is right there as names are jotted down, boxes are filled, and notes are written on margins.

We get a sense of the writers’ culture and therefore their passion for their jobs. (We even learn about the line of work they hoped to get into, or did get into, when they were younger.) Many of them, if not all, sit in front of their computers to write obits that capture the way their subjects lived their lives—a way of honoring them beyond the pages of a renowned publication. They make a point not to write old-fashioned, predictable, boring obituaries. We even watch them getting up from their desks to fetch yet another cup of coffee as the six o’clock deadline looms. They smile. Perhaps by nature or for the camera. But look a little closer and capture the exhaustion in their bodies, their eyes. Some are required to work over time or during weekends. (Turns out death doesn’t take breaks even on weekends.)

We are provided more details. Who makes it to the obit section of the New York Times? People who made an “impact” on the world, it turns out, from a politician that prompted the fall of 20th century Russia, John F. Kennedy’s TV aide (who is later credited by Kennedy himself for his electoral victory over Richard Nixon), an adman for Alka-Seltzer, to the inventor of the Slinky.

But impact proves relative. Which would you rather read about first: the person who invented the Slinky or a leader with a strange-sounding name who lived in some faraway land? The work follows this playful format: facts by way of words and images then allowing us, the viewers, to consider how such facts fit into the big picture of obituary writing. And then that big picture is approached from a different angle—the business side of publishing. (Although the work touches upon competition in terms of readership, it refrains from digging deep.)

A curious and amusing vignette involves The Morgue, a place that contains so many files of the dead (and those have yet to die—“advance obits”) that hundreds of cabinets filled with folders, paperworks, and pictures were never moved to the new NYT building. The lively Jeff Roth takes us on a grand tour. It is impossible not to watch wide-eyed with a silly grin plastered on your face. The place is so old-fashioned, a musty smell can be detected every time a drawer is opened. It is an impressive place—one that offers a treasure trove of history should one bother to look—but it is in desperate need of an upgrade. At one point I thought, “What happens when there’s a fire?” Surely these invaluable files must have electronic backups because it would be a shame to lose them forever. It must be seen to be believed.

“Obit” is a documentary for people like me—those who are interested in not only how things work but also the people involved in a specific line of work (what they find rewarding about it, the stresses that come with the job, how they relay information to others who may or may not be interested in the process of writing about the dead). The work is detailed but moves at a constant forward momentum, seemingly insular at first glance but quite fascinating when you open yourself up the humanistic elements of the job being explored. It educates and entertains.

The Biggest Little Farm

The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm” is a nature documentary that should be required viewing in schools because it is able to show the interconnectedness of life so clearly. It is one thing to learn about it in books, but it is on another level to see it unfold entirely. The film, which encompasses seven turbulent years, is funny, surprising, educational, quite sad at times, and it possesses to ability to make the viewer feel small, to inspire us to think about our place on this planet through the microcosm that is Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California, an hour drive north of Los Angeles, a farm that was once so dead, the soil so dry, the new owners—John and Molly Chester—and their team had to build a station dedicated solely for composting in order to even have a chance of possibly reinvigorating 200 acres of land. I watched spellbound.

We are presented more than a dozen examples of interconnection and self-sustainability. For instance, the more cows brought and born into the farm, the more flies they attract since the cows produce more waste. The more flies there are, the more eggs they lay on excrement since the larvae requires nutrient-rich environment. And the more fly larvae, chickens could be brought in to feed on them. And so in the long run, farmers would spend less money on purchasing chicken food for hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens. The money could be used on other goods or investments… like bringing in more cows for meat, milk, and the like. It is amazing that although the picture offers a short running time of ninety minutes, it is incredibly efficient: we are provided one informative example after another without coming across like a lecture.

Also communicated clearly is why the Chesters decided to go for their dream of creating a traditional farm. “Traditional” meaning that diversity is paramount—a type of farm we see in children’s movies like “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web.” You see, most farms nowadays are monotype—an egg farm dedicated for raising chickens, for example. Most amusing is that an adopted dog named Todd essentially triggered the couple’s decision to start actualizing their dream. And it is quite astonishing how the Chesters’ lifestyle changed through the course of seven years, beginning from a small, cramped apartment in Santa Monica, CA to the wide open spaces of a farm full of life. The journey is fascinating and hard work—to say the least. Once there is a solution to a problem, more problems arise. It requires constant creativity to be able to keep up with creating a successful farm.

Prior to the making of this terrific documentary, Chester has had experience in film. He commands a keen eye for interesting and beautiful images like piglets and calves being born, butterflies leaving their cocoon to take their first flight, owls roaming the night sky, hundreds of ducklings squeaking in a tiny box. Beautiful, too, in my eyes, is manure filled with maggots—held by a hand wearing no gloves. We also see corpses of chickens having killed by coyotes during the night. I appreciated that the picture’s idea of beautiful is not defined; it is interested in showing what is real and it is up to audience how to process the images they are given.

There is a joyous, celebratory feel to “The Biggest Little Farm” that I believe would appeal most to people who find a certain connection to nature. What is the movie about? It depends. Looking at it as a whole, I think it is about a quest for happiness. In the middle of the movie, the Chesters find themselves encountering so many issues on the farm—like pipe issues, toxic algae bloom, overpopulation of pests—but at the same time we consider the alternative: They could still be stuck in their tiny apartment in the city, their dreams still just dreams.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare

Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Schnitzer’s “Haunters: The Art of the Scare” is a loving tribute to people who love to terrify people for a living—or just for fun. There are three subjects: legendary haunter Shar Mayer; Donald Julson, creator of Nightmare on Loganberry Haunted Attraction; and Russ McKamey, creator of the infamous McKamey Manor, highly controversial due to claims of assault and torture occurring there. Although energetic and well-intentioned, the documentary lacks a consistent propulsive trajectory. Just when it is beginning to get interesting due to the nature and type of questions being asked, it has a habit of jumping onto the next subject—as if it is afraid to tackle the more awkward or difficult subjects straight on. And so interest wanes.

Perhaps most highly regarded of the three is Shar Mayer, a haunter who has been in the business for decades. When the camera focuses on her face as she recalls specific haunts, there is a certain glint in her eyes that makes her look twenty years younger. She is so enthusiastic in retelling personal experiences, notice there is no need to cut to recordings of people trapped in mazes being scared witless. The reason is because there is already joy in her words and animated facial expressions. She does not need to say how much she loves what she does. We feel it in every fiber of her being. It is amazing how she embodies her character, for example, when a mask is plastered on her face. She is a true performer. Everything changes: her voice, her laughter, her posture, the way she blinks or moves her lips. It is not a surprise she has garnered so much respect in the haunt community.

The amusing portion of the film—which I found to be least interesting—is Donald’s passion for his Loganberry project. The haunt is composed of simple scares, and it is very family-friendly. Seeing glimpses of his haunt made me feel warm. It is ordinary, familiar, the kind I visited when growing up. Donald prepares months in advance, much to the dismay of his loving wife (who would rather prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas), but the attraction is open for only four hours during Halloween night.

Donald’s love for his work is admirable, but I wished the documentary focused more on his sacrifices to make the haunt successful. For example, although the married couple are interviewed together, which creates an impression that all is well, there is telling a moment when Donald receives a text from his partner claiming she has had enough with all the Halloween planning—either head home the moment he received the text message or do not come home for the night. There is talk about going over budget and implications of Donald not living up to his potential. Here is a man who was the prop master for movies like “Minority Report” and “Van Helsing.” Clearly, he is great at his craft. And so his segment ought to have been more in-depth, more probing, more curious.

And then there is the McKamey Manor, infamous for having the reputation of being a torture chamber than an actual haunt. The film brings up an interesting point: Over the years, haunts have become more extreme because people require more to be scared. I enjoyed that Schnitzer is willing to ask Russ questions such as whether he himself would go through his own haunt. He provides a funny—but informative—answer. Still, there are serious concerns about his haunt: underaged teenagers being hired, the lack of a safe word for participants who wish to quit the intense attraction, legitimate concerns from neighbors not being taken seriously at all.

It is clear that Russ is a fun-loving guy. But there is an impression that he fails to take into account how people feel during or after the experience. We watch participants (not customers since there is no monetary payment provided, just cans of dog food which go to a good cause) being drowned, confined in tight spaces like coffins, eat questionable food which make them vomit, insects and bugs being placed on their faces. It is—and it is meant to be—extreme. Most heartbreaking is when participants watch videos of their humiliation. It brings up a number of moral and ethical questions.

“Haunters: The Art of the Scare” also consists of interviews of sociologists, historians, a creative director at Universal Studios, members of the Air Force, film producers. While their takes are welcome, their contributions are treated mostly as color commentary. I would rather have learned more about the history of horror and haunts, their relationship with economic downturns, how the fantasy or experience—being scared—is utilized as a tool to exorcise our own frustrations, fears, and concerns in real life.

The Gleaners and I

The Gleaners and I (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Toward the end of Agnès Varda’s fascinating and compassionate documentary “The Gleaners and I,” we meet a man in the streets of Paris who visits outdoor markets to pick up thrown away food and eats them right there on the spot. He consumes about six to seven apples a day, is a vegetarian, and mindful of his health. Despite his lifestyle of sorting through the trash for food, he is not homeless; in fact, he is educated in Biology and possesses a Master’s degree. He makes a living selling street magazines, and he lives in a shelter that houses immigrants, many of whom are illiterate. So, he takes it upon himself to teach a class for his neighbors. They are taught how to read, write, and speak French—free of charge. This is only one of the many compelling persons in this entertaining and most educational film about second lives—of the people, including the director’s, and the objects they come into contact with.

To watch a Varda film is like being caressed with joyful surprises. In its opening minutes, the word “gleaner” is defined as “pickers,” “those who follow the harvest,” and for a while we go along with this definition as we visit all sorts of farms across France. In one farm, several tons of potatoes are discarded for being too small, too big, too misshapen, too hard—these, we are told, have no commercial value. And so the “odd” ones must be thrown away. I watched wide-eyed and jaw agape as mounds and mounds of potatoes sit on the ground, in the cold left to rot. Later, the poor—adults and children alike—come along to “pick” or “glean” these so-called trash so they and their families can have something to eat. It is not surprising that most of them eventually talk about sharing their harvests with their neighbors. These people are wired to think in a collective way. I wondered about the sorts of recipes they had back home. Sadly, Varda did not follow them for a taste.

The fearless and creative director takes her camera and swims with the potatoes, the grapes, the cabbages, the oysters, the people that society choose to ignore or forget about. She puts the camera so close to potatoes, for example, that we can appreciate the dirt sitting in between the grooves. By using the camera as a magnifying glass, she trains the audience to look at inanimate objects—food, refrigerators, televisions, clocks—from the perspective of what insights or stories these things can tell us. And so when the camera focuses on the people, we look at them through this lens, too. Clearly, Varda wishes for us to 1) understand and empathize with the poor and 2) to recognize our own privilege and acknowledge the waste we create. There is not a second where we feel lectured since her technique is so organic.

Eventually, a woman claims there is a difference between “gleaning” and “picking.” And so the movie evolves. We do not just look at fruits and vegetables. We look at kitchen appliances, electronics, and all sorts of knickknacks. We even get to meet people who take these broken, inedible things—scraps—and create art out of them. There is an older gentleman who loves dolls. His work is towering in a literal sense; his wife claims he is not “just” an artist. As curious as Varda is, at times she is wise in avoiding to ask, “What do you mean by that?” The reason is because there is beauty in the mystery; maybe it is more appropriate for us to provide answers instead of the subjects. In this way, we participate in what is being presented to us. I will not forget about the boot-donning man who has “a job, a salary, and social security number.” For more than ten years he has acquired his food from dumpsters. I loved that he gave us a non-answer (“a matter of ethics”) when asked why.

“Les gleaners et la glaneuse” shows that a hand-held digital camera can be employed and tell a thoroughly captivating story of pickers, psychoanalysts, teachers, lawyers, farmers. And even when Varda is just at home simply showing her hands and suspecting that “the end is near” due to the numerous brown spots on her skin, we watch spellbound because the person behind the camera is full of experience, wisdom, thoughts, and longings. She has a talent for placing whatever technology is in her hand so that we are inspired to look deeply and ask questions. And if there so happens to be no answer to our questions, we are motivated to extrapolate based on what we have seen, felt, imagined.


Honeyland (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

One of the beautiful characteristics of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland” is that you wouldn’t know it is a documentary unless you are told it is. That is because it is not a typical documentary: no voice can be heard from behind the camera, the subject does not look at the lens to answer questions, and there is not a single title card meant to provide explanation. We are simply dropped in the mountainous region of the Balkans and we follow a woman named Hatidze trying to make a living by taking care of her bees and selling their honey at the nearest market in Skopje—several hours away from her home should one travel on foot. And she does. Where she lives, there is no car or buses because there is no road, there is no electricity, and there is no running water. It is impossible not to be fascinated by this beekeeper.

The majority of the film is composed of silence—which makes images stand out. We observe closely as Hatidze takes care of her ailing and bed-ridden eighty-five-year-old mother: we are there as Nazife is fed, when she wakes, as she attempts to move her leg upon her daughter’s insistence that she cannot remain in one position for so long. We watch as Nazife is bathed, when her hair is dyed, as the mother and daughter kiss each other good night. In front of us is love at its rawest being captured on film. As Hatidze sits right next to her sleeping mother, we look at her face and a freight train of questions run through our brain. I wondered if she was lonely, if she considered getting married, if she wanted to live somewhere else less isolated. Does she feel anchored because of her mother? What is her opinion of the outside world?

Some of these questions are answered as the picture moves forward. And some are not—which is perfectly all right considering the other rich details the film provides. For instance, it is educational in that, solely through observation, we learn specific tips on how to handle bees. On occasion, Hatidze wears a veil to protect her face from stings, but notice she never wears gloves. Her arms and hands do not appear to have been stung despite a lack of protection. When she handles the honeycombs, she is always calm. She ensures that she takes only half of the honeycombs and leaves the other half for the bees so that more can be made. There is a zen-like quality in her relationship with the bees. We never learn how long she’s been a beekeeper, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn if she has handled bees since childhood.

Conflict comes in the form of a family (Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam, and their seven children) moving right next to Hatidze’s home. They have cattle but there is barely any grass. There is always commotion due to the energetic children. Hussein decided to start beekeeping for extra income. Hatidze welcomes the changes. Maybe it beats being so silent all the time, being lonely, being bored. There is a beautiful relationship between Hatidze and one of the boys—who absolutely despises working with his father when it comes to handling bees but actually finds it lovely when Hatidze shows him the ropes. Kids are smart. They can easily pick up on the energy, feelings, and mood of a situation.

For example, the boy’s father is financially driven. Handling of the bees must be done quickly. There is often panic when things go wrong. By contrast, Hatidze goes with the flow. She is not afraid to put her face close to the bees and their honeycombs. When bees get stuck in sticky goo or are suffering, she takes notice and knows what to do. She explains how things work and why; the boy is not asked to do anything that may be uncomfortable. Yet the picture does not paint the father as corrupt, evil, or the like. Raising a family, especially a big family, requires money. We understand that and Hatidze does, too. Still, Hatidze has the right to speak up when her own means of making a living is threatened.

But that is not all. Hatidze’s relationship with the Sams is only one aspect of the film. The bigger picture involves our role in the destruction of our environment, the decline of biodiversity, our contribution toward climate change and global warming. “Honeyland” is a terrific documentary for all ages. It is specific, wild, curious, and eye-opening at times. It inspires you to want to take a look inside tree trunks, to look at the organisms hidden amidst soil and grass, to look at the sky and think, “There is a big world out there. I wish to experience more of it. So how can I help to preserve it?”

Family Name

Family Name (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Macky Alston, who is white, was sent by his father, a reverend and a civil rights activist, to an elementary school that was predominantly black. During his time there, Alston noticed a curious detail: many of his black schoolmates shared his last name. Alston, now an adult, goes on a mission to answer why this is—and it is directly related to his ancestors having owned slaves in North Carolina. “Family Name” is a fascinating and revealing documentary. Initially, it is about answering one person’s questions regarding his lineage, but eventually it evolves into an investigation of secrets, memories, and longings that have been brushed under the rug.

Its best moments involve the writer-director asking challenging questions to those who agreed to be interviewed. Black people of various backgrounds and age groups are asked probing questions whether they still feel angry about slavery; how they feel when they walk around plantations where black people were abused, raped, given as gifts; how their lives have been shaped or impacted by having known someone—a great-grandfather, a great-grandmother—who was a slave. Words do not reveal all. For example, Alston’s grandmother provides answers we can hear, but she also gives out answers we can only see. Look closely at the body language when some of the more pointed or surprising questions are brought up.

And then Alston turns his camera on his father. The reverend recalls a specific experience when he was in the Navy that completely changed his thinking, attitude, and treatment toward African-Americans. He used to be racist. But since then he dedicated his life to lift up his community—and making sure that black people get equal rights as whites. Laidback and gentle, it was a struggle for me to picture him before he decided to turn things around. But then he goes on to explain his family background, how he was raised, and what was considered to be acceptable thoughts and behavior when he was growing up in a bubble of an all-white community.

It is interesting that the filmmaker decided to include his thoughts about the project as a whole the deeper he gets into his investigation. He admits that there are times when even he doesn’t know where the film is ultimately heading, that his goal is constantly changing—that maybe it is going this way because he fails to have a complete grasp of the subjects and people he’s exploring. Perhaps his limitation is a result of the divide between cultures and time. He acknowledges his white privilege (without using the exact phrase) and the possibility of that serving as a filter. I found the inclusion of his thoughts to be appropriate because the documentary is first and foremost a personal story.

In the opening lines, Alston reveals to us that he has always felt like the black sheep of the family. He is gay and so he understands that certain things are better off not talked about, swept under the rug like one’s ancestors being one of the largest, if not the largest, slave owners in North Carolina. In his quest, we learn about Alston’s motivations as a white man, as a gay man, and, most importantly, as a journalist whose job is to get the facts and report them. This documentary goes through obituaries, gravestones, census data, family photos, books, and random folders that haven’t been opened for years. It is a small picture, one that takes its time, but its scope is impressive.

“Family Name” is one of those movies that I’m glad exists. It may not be visually polished and the sound can use a bit of sharpening at times, but I was riveted by it nonetheless. I admired that its goal does not involve changing anyone’s minds. It simply stands by the fact that the truth exists, should one bother to look (and listen), and it is up to us to do what we please with it: embrace it, fight it, sweep it under the rug and hope that we forget. In life, that’s just how it is.

Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th

Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who consider themselves to be fans of the “Friday the 13th” franchise should make it a priority to watch Daniel Farrands’ “Crystal Lake Memories,” six hours and forty minutes worth of information that touches upon every movie in the series, including the long-awaited matchup “Freddy vs. Jason” and the 2009 reboot/reimagining/Frankenstein’s monster simply called “Friday the 13th.” Despite its intimidating running time, it is highly enjoyable to sit through because actors, makeup artists, producers, writers, and directors from every installment offer insights on not only about their experiences while making specific entries—which the documentary goes through in chronological order—but also acknowledge how and why a character like Jason Voorhees, a “mere” final jump scare in the first film, became a such cultural icon.

Interviews are not only informative from a factual point of view, in a way they provide possible reasons why certain movies in the franchise ended up the way they did. For example, consider the fifth picture, “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning,” which I deem to be one of the weakest out of the twelve movies released thus far. It is a fact that when the movie was being shot, there wasn’t a proper ending written on the script. An actor had to suggest an ending. (Which made it in the final product.) In addition, those who worked in the film in front of and behind the camera acknowledge that they felt the material was sleazy, certainly atonal, and tried too hard to become something so different from what came before that the gamble did not pay off. Danny Steinmann’s personality and relatively hands-off approach in directing the movie are also taken into account. Certain things remain unsaid, but we are able to infer.

Conversely, we get to learn why “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” and “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” are high points for the franchise. In the former, an experienced stuntman (Ted White) was hired. He shares some of his methods on how Jason should be like in order to create a terrifying figure outside of his massive size. In the latter, there is emphasis on the loyalty of the crew, the likability of the cast and how they get along swimmingly, and that the writer-director, Tom McLoughlin, actually spent more time with the children—to ensure that their acting is top-notch when Jason breaks into their cabin—than he did analyzing how a kill should look or feel a certain way. McLoughlin actually watched the previous five movies and made notes on how to improve the movie he was about to make. The documentary offers so many nuggets worth examining and pondering over. So when a fan looks back on a specific title, the knowledge can be utilized to see the film from a different perspective.

There is no subject considered to be taboo in this doc. Even the retrospective into the much-maligned “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday,” the ninth installment, surprised me. By having that film’s director, Adam Marcus, explain some of the decisions he took in terms of storytelling—the Jason body swapping, packing too much mythology into one film—I came out of it respecting the director who made a film I just so happen to dislike. Having him speak directly to camera, to us, shows that his intentions for the series came from a good place. It is without question he loves Jason Voorhees and the franchise. At the end of the day, it just… didn’t work. And sometimes that happens. Farrands is not afraid to place the spotlight on relevant figures and ask the tough questions.

“Crystal Lake Memories” is so informative, it goes through not only the films but also the “Friday the 13th” television series. I’m not talking about a quick two- to three-minute acknowledgment of the show. Ample time is taken to introduce the concept, how it is different from the movies, how the fans felt ripped off at the time due to the title but having no Jason, who were hired for the roles, what the actors thought about their characters looking back decades later, the show’s changing time slots, and how influential groups helped to pull the plug on the show eventually.

The thread that ties together all “Friday” movies is the pesky Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A case can be made the MPAA did more butchering than Jason. Especially neat (and astounding) are times when we are shown a side-by-side comparison of the original cut and what the MPAA considered to be acceptable in terms of “just the right amount of violence.” Oftentimes the original cut, while considerably more gruesome, are far superior than the bastardized version.

The reason is because we get to see more craft being put into action. There is better timing between setup to a kill and final breath. The more detailed a death, the scarier, creepier, or more shocking it is. Going back to “V: A New Beginning,” for example, had that picture been less crippled by the MPAA’s preposterous and hypocritical standards, I probably wouldn’t have despised it as much (outside of the truly ugly hillbilly depictions played for laughs) because the original cuts reveal that it is not solely about money shots. Without this documentary, certain facts and realizations would be left in the dark. And that is why it is a must-see for “Friday” fans.

Faces Places

Faces Places (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and muralist JR (a pseudonym) travel across rural France to paste enormous photographic portraits on various surfaces: a brick wall, a passageway of a factory, a water tower, a barn, a bunker, among others. Each portrait is meant to capture and reflect a particular place’s people and way of life. It is a beautiful documentary, so full of life and energy, humor, and truths, occasionally painful, about how we perceive people, how we interpret art, and how our relationship with our own selves change over the years. It is perhaps chance that Varda and JR, co-directors of “Faces Places,” cross paths and decide to work together, but it is no accident that their over fifty-year difference in age serves as the soul of the project.

It is the kind of picture that is certain to make the viewer feel good. For instance, one of the stops involves meeting a woman named Jeanine who is the sole resident along her street. The houses are meant to be destroyed eventually but she insists on staying not only because it is her home, it also her ancestors’. The village is made up of miner families, you see, and its strong history can be felt from the way people of all ages recall their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers coming home from an excruciating day at the mines. At first glance, it looks like any old place. The film has a way of peeling away the metaphorical surface by, ironically, putting photographs on literal surfaces. No word is necessary when members of the community look up to giant pictures and the camera captures their raw thoughts and emotions.

In nearly every destination the picture works like this. We learn about a farmer who owns a 2,000-acre farm… and he works by himself. We go inside of his tractor and appreciate the technology that allows him to accomplish the monumental task of taking care of his farm by himself on top of other contract work. At times the visit lasts only between five to ten minutes and within this time span we not only gather surprising information but also have an appreciation of the subject’s way of life. It is a work that loves people of all ages, not just their portraits. Look at the way the camera transfixes on old people’s faces. It forces us to look at their wrinkles, the bags under their eyes, and the experiences behind them. And then note how it captures the expressions of energetic youths as their giant photographs are printed from a truck. You can tell they have never seen anything like that before; for them it is magical.

The work, too, is not afraid to show truths about its subjects. With Varda, a lifelong photographer of both still and moving images, it shows she has an eye disease. She claims that images are blurry and they tend to move even when they actually aren’t. We observe her getting a check-up. With JR, it acknowledges how he grew up with old people which ties into his attitude toward them. Varda and JR share wonderful chemistry; they are so comfortable with one another that eventually there is a recurring request from Varda for JR to take off his sunglasses. He finds a way to avoid it nearly every time. It is a part of his costume, his disguise. Why is it that he feels the need to hide his name from the world? Is it solely due to an artistic choice or something else?

I found the picture to be most compelling when it deals with the topic of mortality. The recurring theme is memories and how each place is defined by those who inherited it. Yet the residents we meet do not give the impression that they are shackled by traditions or old beliefs. They are simply playing the hands they are given. A lot of them seem to be happy and willing to share their own stories. When asked about death, Varda’s response surprised me. Her quote (which I choose not to include here because I urge you to see the picture, if you’re even remotely interested in it) is my exact attitude about death. Ironically, for some reason, it made me feel less alone.

The Last of the Unjust

The Last of the Unjust (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

In 1975, director Claude Lanzmann had the chance to interview Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi chosen by the Nazis to become one of the Elder of the Jews and lead Theresienstadt, a concentration camp built to house seven thousand soldiers but fifty thousand Jews were sent there to die from various diseases and malnutrition. The place came to be known as a “model ghetto” as the Nazis used it for propaganda—like it was some kind of town ideal for a vacation.

“The Last of the Unjust” offers a wealth of information from a primary source. Hearing from someone who was actually there and survived the horrors is an unreal experience. But the way the material is presented at times is very dry. There are plenty of long takes, from Murmelstein attempting to recollect the events that happened thirty years prior to the interview to long intervals of the camera scanning the place from left to right. It tests the patience but those who stick with it will take away something valuable. Though a necessary viewing, it is not for everyone.

Away from the interview, the camera is utilized in such a way that we are inspired to ponder about the holocaust. We visit various places like a crematorium, a Jewish cemetery in Prague, and what is now known as the Old New Synagogue. It takes its time to look at works of art. We even see areas that were once places of death but are now establishments where people go to drink and dance. The camera is used to place an emphasis in history and our role in preventing something like the holocaust from happening again.

We watch videos of Nazi propaganda. I felt as though I was transported back in time. Observing the dejected faces, I felt disgust and anger that a systematic extermination of human beings could be conceived—let alone be executed. We are then shown, in present time, of the train tracks that lead to Auschwitz. I imagined thousands of people boarding the trains, packed like sardines.

The documentary is most powerful when Lanzmann asks Murmelstein the difficult questions. The subject talks about his important role in embellishing Theresienstadt, the power he had there, and his relationship with Adolf Eichmann, one of the men responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. “Were you acting to save the ghetto or yourself? Do you consider yourself a hero?” These are two questions I also wanted to ask Murmelstein.

After World War II, he was accused of being a collaborator. And for good reasons, I think. Notice the manner in which he speaks and the changes in his body language when delving into the details of his role in the “model ghetto.” Was he proud of what he had done? If so, which aspects of his actions? He spoke very confidently, as if he held a very prominent position there. He might have been a leader but certainly the Nazis were always in charge. He discloses enough details—he is an undoubtedly engaging storyteller—and yet we suspect that certain secrets went to the grave with him.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will likely challenge most people’s idea of what a documentary can be. Instead of tackling its subject head-on, it employs a lyrical and ponderous approach—certain to test the patience of those possessing a strict definition of “documentary,” so much so that one might claim that the film is simply a collection of random images that could have been captured with a camera phone.

So then what is a documentary, at least in my eyes? To me, it is an act of capturing reality from a specific perspective. In this case, the picture’s goal is to provide a portrait of how a number of black people live in Hale County, Alabama, specifically those who reside in impoverished neighborhoods, from the perspective of an insider, RaMell Ross, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. An open and seemingly desultory approach is most appropriate because to provide only one portrait of a poor neighborhood could be considered a lie—and an act of further marginalizing an already marginalized community. It is clear that Ross is interested in showing the entire canvas instead of focusing only on a particular cloth of that canvas.

It subverts expectations from a storytelling point of view. The opening minutes show two young men, Quincy and Daniel, who dream of reaching their goals through school and sports. By the end of the film, an argument can be made that only one of them is closer to his goal. The other’s focus turns on his growing family. There is no wrong choice because it is their choice to make.

Notice that every time the two subjects are front and center, the images are shot in a matter-of-fact way. No shots of starry skies, no time lapse photography of highways, not one extended look of an open field. Victories, failures, life, death, and moments in-between are raw and unflinching. I found it fresh that the passage of time is not shown using subtitles or title cards. Instead, we are asked to look at the children and observe how much they’ve grown from one scenario to the next. The documentary spans five years.

Constantly we are reminded, however, that this is not just Quincy and Daniel’s stories. It is about a community: how it celebrates, how it fights, how it mourns, how it copes, how it moves on. We watch children play, tease, laugh, and scream. We see grandmothers get challenged by teenagers—and how these elders snap back. We listen to an old man playing the blues on his guitar. Teenage girls sing despite not knowing a song’s lyrics entirely. A father and son waiting for rain. Blink and miss an insect landing on a fingertip. Churchgoers singing, cheering, yelling, crying. A boy at a barbershop. An infant being buried in a cemetery.

These are impressions—which some may find moving while others are left cold. It all depends on life experiences, I think. I belong in the former group because I grew up in a time and place where neighbors are like second family. People talked to each other, gossiped with one another, and sometimes fought against each other. Neighbors were more than strangers you felt obligated to greet when you cross paths. The documentary is, in a way, about the collective African-American family living in the Deep South.

Somewhere Between

Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.

One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.

She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.

Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.

The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.

I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.