Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 8/15/19 Two documentaries, one a masterpiece

I don't know how directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska captured the lives they open to us in Honeyland, but they've done something truly rare. They've created a documentary with a visual and narrative texture that qualifies as a true astonishment. The directors take us into the world of Hatidze, a woman who lives in a tiny village in the Republic of North Macedonia. Sometimes, Hatidze seems to be the village's only resident, aside from her bedridden mother. To support herself, Hatidze gathers bees, tends to them as they produce honey and then carries the honey to market. The filmmakers' focus on Hatidze Muratova may put you in mind of the beauty and simplicity we saw in the early wave of films from Iran. It may be unfair to call Honeyland a documentary; it's a film with a story to tell and with developments that illustrate a theme: The respect Hatidze has for the bees and for her natural surroundings is challenged when a large wandering family moves next door. Driven by economic pressure, these new neighbors approach beekeeping as an enterprise; they pit themselves against nature rather than cooperating with it in the ways that Hatidze tries to teach them. Hatidze only harvests half of a honeycomb, leaving the rest for the bees. She's never stung; her neighbors often are assailed by their bees. The neighbors also keep cows and chickens and constantly seem to be arguing with their children, unruly kids who don't hide their feelings of resentment toward a father who blames them when things go wrong. The father is a bit of a martinet, but not an especially effective one. The relationships between Hatidze and her bickering neighbors adds tension, although one boy seems to respect her wisdom. Beautifully photographed without glossing over the meager quality of life in these Macedonian hills, Honeyland -- in Turkish with subtitles -- stopped me in my tracks. It's a great and memorable piece of work.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Director Mads Brugger's Cold Case Hammarskjold tells a complex, sometimes confusing story about the 1961 plane crash that resulted in the death of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations. The central question: Was the crash an accident or the result of a conspiracy to murder Hammarskjold, an opponent of continued colonial exploitation in Africa? At times, Brugger sits in a hotel room dictating the story to one of two secretaries. In brief: Hammarskjold took his final journey as part of his efforts to settle discord in the Congo. Hammarskjold's plane crashed eight miles away from an airport in Zambia. According to the film, no one bothered to talk to the Africans who lived near the crash site. They raise suspicions. And why was Hammarskjold's body found with an Ace of Spades tucked neatly into his shirt collar? Brugger follows a circuitous route to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which discovered a mercenary group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research. Brugger's film then broadens its view to explore a new theory: that SAIMR was part of a conspiratorial effort to maintain white control in Africa by introducing the AIDS virus to unsuspecting Africans who thought they were being treated at charitable clinics. (You can read more about these claims in a New York Times article from Jan. 27, 2019.) Should we believe all or some of Brugger's film? Not being able to answer that question can be considered a major shortcoming, but there's no point denying that Brugger's film stirs up a fair amount of intrigue.

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