Category Archives: Foreign Documentary Films

Honeyland-2019

Honeyland-2019

Director-Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska

Starring-Hatidze Muratova

Scott’s Review #1,045

Reviewed July 27, 2020

Grade: B+

Honeyland (2019) is an important documentary for anyone who cares a wit about the environment, or for those who don’t but should, to experience. The setting is the rural mountains of Macedonia, an area probably on nobody’s radar yet comes a terrific story, nonetheless. The key takeaways that the film makers want the audience to get are those of greed, overindulgence, and the need for conservation to be a hot topic, a worthy little something of the utmost importance.

The piece has the honor of being the first documentary to be nominated not only for the Best Documentary Oscar but also for the Best International Feature award. The need to receive dual nominations is a mystery to me as the documentary is as straight-forward as one can be minus the need for any narration. Unclear is if this is the reason for both nominations. It won neither, losing to American Factory (2019) and Parasite (2019), respectively.

The focus is on a middle-aged woman named Hatidze, who lives inside a cave in the village as caretaker to her elderly mother. Not only does she feed and bathe the bedridden matriarch, but she is the keeper of wild bees in her village. She periodically embarks on a journey into the city to sell honey that she collects from the beehives. The honey is of top quality and she can sustain a living based on good reputation. A kind man even gives her a free fan to give to her mother to help keep the flies away during the intense summer heat.

One day, a rambunctious family of seven arrives to live next door to Hatidze. They are energetic and noisy, but she bonds with them, especially one of the sons. Hatidze teaches the father how to produce honey like she does and warns him to only use half of the honey or else it will upset the bees and cause problems. Needing money, the man is pressured to produced more and succumbs to the request only to accidentally kill Hatidze’s bees causing a rift in their friendship. She is heartbroken and angry.

A few reasons to recommend Honeyland are the frequent camera shots that capture moments. Reportedly, it took three years to film and over four-hundred hours of footage used to come up with an hour and a half of running time. The best scenes are gorgeously shot and feature Hatidze in close-up moments. As she gazes into the sunset or prompts her mother to eat bananas for nourishment, the lines on her face express her myriad of emotions. She longs to be married, a missed opportunity, and wonders how her life might have been different had she.

Hatidze’s village will be a novelty to most viewers and she lives in a world which no viewer will have to experience. This is a positive reason for viewers to expose themselves to this other world. With no electric, no water, no nothing, she makes do with what little she has and bares no ill will. The neighbors finally pack up and leave, exhausting their short-lived good fortune, and Hatidze is left alone to endure a hard winter. When her mother finally dies, she succumbs to tears, the burden lifted from her but an endless feeling of grief and uncertainty.

Honeyland (2019) offers a powerful message of the temptations of greed and the ramifications this can have on others who simply wish to live in peace. It brings the viewer into a strange world unfamiliar and dire to nearly everyone. It centers on one woman’s endurance, courage, and tenacity to simply live her life the only way she knows how, one foot in front of the other. With gorgeous cinematography, the documentary is very slow-paced and not an easy watch but mirrors the pace of life in the harsh mountains of Macedonia.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

For Sama-2019

For Sama-2019

Director-Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Starring-Waad al-Kateab, Hanza al-Kateab

Scott’s Review #1,044

Reviewed July 25, 2020

Grade: B+

The wonderful thing about documentaries is that a viewer can absorb and learn something they have not been exposed to and know little or nothing about. Aware via news outlets of unrest in Syria, For Sama (2019) personalizes and humanizes the battles as the film chronicles the life of a young Syrian woman and her husband, both rebels and he a doctor, with a young daughter born and raised amid the war ravaged city of Aleppo from 2011-2016.

For Sama is horrifically brutal and unkind at times, but to soften the experience would be to do an injustice to those on the front lines living with war every day. The viewer should see firsthand the inhumanity and terror imposed on innocent civilians before they are cavalier to what the effects of war really are.  The film bravely shows both human suffering and death including dead children. Waad al-Kateab wrote, produced, co-directed and stars in this brutal yet hopeful production. She also narrates it.

Waad al-Kateab focuses on a five-year span of time living in Aleppo, Syria before and during the infamous Battle of Aleppo, a major military confrontation between the Syrian government and its opposition. She is a marketing student when the documentary begins and highly intelligent. Waad al-Kateab meets and falls in love with Hamza, a skilled doctor whose wife has already fled for safety leaving him behind. Waad gives birth to her first daughter Sama and navigates motherhood all while the conflict begins to engulf the city.

Waad and Hamza work at one of the few remaining hospitals in the city, facing daily agonizing decisions whether to flee to safety or stay behind to help the innocent victims of war. Despite having Sama and later becoming pregnant again, they cannot bring themselves to leave as it would be abandoning those who rely on them. The documentary features their friends who also stay on, refusing to leave the city they still love. The group tries for brief moments of pleasure, sitting around and chatting, all while the constant threat of bombings is a daily occurrence.

Intriguing is that For Sama is told from the perspective of the female. This is unusual in the war genre, whether it be a film or a documentary feature as more common is for it to be male driven. When she provides narration, Waad gives off a warmth and a kindness that is tough not to fall in love with. She cares for Sama, never knowing if today will be their last day alive. In one frightening moment, Waad quickly gives Sama to another person to hide when the bombs start hitting the hospital, determined that Sama’s life might be spared if she is thought to be an orphan, rather than the spawn of hated rebels.

Props must be given for getting this project off the ground and released, rewarded with wide acclaim and recognition. In a country as volatile as Syria, how inspiring to have someone like Edward Watts, an English film maker, able to follow through with For Sama. Amazing is how some footage especially during the bombings was spared.

Waad explains how determined she was to film as much as she possibly could, even during very personal moments. In the most heartbreaking scene, a pregnant woman is injured during a bombing and her lifeless baby is born. After minutes of real-time uncertainty, the baby finally coughs and gags and is alive. Watts and Waad go to horrific depths to show how close the baby comes to dying and the scene is fraught with sadness and finally relief. I have never seen moments as chilling as these in any documentary.

Other scenes feature young boy’s whose playmates or siblings have just been killed by bombs and their emotional exhaustion and grief. Thankfully, the documentary tries to add as many moments of human connection through what laughs and good times can possibly be mustered when fear is the main ingredient of daily life.

For an experience baring the ugliness of war, the constant fear and peril, and a humanistic story of raising one’s child during frightening times, For Sama (2019) also shows the love and dedication to one’s flesh and blood and the beauty of spirit and perseverance during tragic times. It is heartbreaking, humanistic, and inspiring.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Scott’s Review #671

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

Fire at Sea was honored with a coveted 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar award nomination, but despite this high achievement, was met with largely negative reviews from its viewers- this is not as surprising as it might seem. Furthermore, the documentary was also the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language film category, but was not chosen. In this way, the piece is rather a hybrid between a “typical” film and a documentary, making it all the more unique in itself.

The lackluster comments are undoubtedly due to both the very slow pace and the way the documentary is jagged- interspersing snippets of story not seeming to go together with the main message. Compounded by the sheer length of the film (one hour and fifty four minutes is very long for a documentary), the work will not go down in history as a rousing crowd-pleaser. But it is an important film.

The story tells of a group of modest individuals inhabiting a tiny Sicilian fishing island named Lampedusa, located somewhere between Sicily and Libya. The island is prominent for being a rescue area for migrants forging a treacherous journey from African countries (mostly Libya and Sudan) to the island for safety and medical treatment. It is implied that the migrants do not actually stay on the island for very long, but rather Lampedusa serves as a temporary sanctuary. It is not explained where the migrants go or what happens to them after medical treatment.

After a slightly tedious start, I began to become immersed in the various stories and began to appreciate the slow pace- I actually found this calming. We see snippets of the ordinary daily events of the residents: a young boy and his friend carve faces out of cactus plants, later the boy experiences an eye exam and is told he needs glasses- later we see a lengthy scene merely of his family eating pasta. We also get to know a resident doctor, grandmother, disc jockey, and scuba diver.

Admittedly, I began to wonder what a young boy preparing a sling-shot, or a grandmother preparing sauce,  had to do with the main content of the documentary- that of migrants coming to the island. Then I realized that director Gianfranco Rosi is telling a human story and witnessing the ordinary Lampedusa citizens going about their lives is in strong contrast to the fleeing and terrified migrants. I was able to put all the pieces together.

Told without narration and with the dialogue in Italian containing  sub-titles, additional unique aspects to the project, Fire At Sea is unusual, but I admired its important message.

The most powerful scene in the film is a quiet one- a resident doctor describing his experiences with the migrants. He professes how any decent person should help any needy souls and describes the grisly task of performing autopsies on the people (many women and children), who do not survive the harried journey across the Mediterranean Sea- many dying of hunger and thirst or being burned by the diesel fuels from the tiny boat they are stuffed into. His long, yet powerful account will move one to tears.

This testimonial by the doctor speaks volumes regarding the current influx of needy individuals, mainly from Syria, who need help from both neighboring countries and countries far away. Some have been kind and have let individuals into their countries, while others have shunned the migrants (namely in 2017 the United States). The honest account from the doctor summarizes the message of humanity that Fire at Sea represents.

Another powerful scene emerges towards the end of the documentary as several African men are rushed from their ship to another ship and tended to by rescue individuals. Sadly, the barely alive, yet conscious men are not long for this world as a few minutes later we see a series of body bags lined up containing the expired men. This tragic realization speaks volumes for the need for such humanistic individuals as some who reside on Lampedusa.

Fire at Sea, the title a World War II reference to the fiery waters that the residents could see from a far distance during that time, is a story that is worth watching. It provides a lesson in kindness and good decency and a reminder that some people are just good, generous souls, all but willing to help those in need. We can all learn from this documentary.

5 Broken Cameras-2012

5 Broken Cameras-2012

Director-Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Starring-Emad Burnat

Scott’s Review #452

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Reviewed July 22, 2016

Grade: B-

5 Broken Cameras is a 2012 documentary spoken in the Arabic language, which received critical acclaim upon release and heaps of award nominations.

A documentary about a Palestinian farmers- Emad Burnat- recount of Israeli soldiers overtaking his land over the span of several years, it became a Best Documentary Oscar nominee. Non political in his life, he is threatened as the Israelis build a wall through his land, which he refuses to part with.

As important as the subject matter is, it never really captures my attention and I found it to drag a bit, which pains me to say because I was hoping to be really into it given the topic.

This could simply be my opinion since it is a critically acclaimed piece. I would have definitely voted in the far superior Invisible War, from the same year, for Oscar glory.