Wednesday, August 28, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.05: One Child Nation, The Pollinators, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and For the BIrds

Sunday at IFFBoston wasn't quite planned as a documentary day but wound up that way once the overlapping showtimes, need to get back and forth on the subway (though I think this was the first year in a long time when the MBTA didn't have the Red Line shut down north of Harvard for the festival's weekend), and Sunday schedule which has the last shows of the day during the 8pm hour rather than after 9pm, etc., finished asserting themselves. I basically started wanting to see One Child Nation - that Amazon had already purchased it and it would run for a while in August and September seemed unlikely for what seemed like a niche film - it was easier to stick around the Brattle for The Pollinators. That had a long-enough Q&A to make Cold Case Hammarskjöld the best option after returning to Davis, and then a quick turnaround to get into For the Birds seemed more interesting to me than Gutterbug.

First guests of the day were for Pollinators, including editor/producer Michael Reuter, producer Sally Roy, and director Peter Nelson, with the Q&A being hosted by Barbara Moran of WBUR. Nelson is at least kind of local, as were many of the subjects, so there were a lot of people in the audience that knew either him or beekeeping (or both), which can stretch this sort of thing out but, fortunately, didn't let it devolve into minutiae. One of the interesting things that came up in the Q&A was how it can be easy to misrepresent the nature and extent of someone's expertise. David Hackenberg, for instance, absolutely looks the part of an old farmer who has certain practical knowledge but which can be either misguided or the common sense everyone needs to hear, but he's apparently also a skilled researcher who is often at the center of discovering what is actually going on when the bee community is facing a crisis. You can see the respect for him in the film, but not the totality of his influence

Last movie of the day was For the Birds, with the fest's Joe Arino (l) hosting a Q&A with director Richard Miron and producer Jeffrey Starr. I have apparently reached the age when someone like Miron looks about twelve to me, but it seems like he didn't quite stumble into a good movie but certainly was able to recognize one when it presented itself, as he was volunteering at the farm animal sanctuary featured in the film when all of this started. It was kind of a touchy matter getting the buy-in of everyone involved, and there was some stuff around the edges which was kind of surprising (sanctuary employee Sheila Hyslop returned home to the UK and died soon after her part of the film was over; the stress of this experience being part of the former though likely not the latter).

I did find myself scratching my head a bit when then talked about the story the film tells, because the story of Kathy getting free of her compulsions doesn't really happen on-screen, but seemingly between the last full chapter and the epilogue. The film mostly shows her static intransigence, with the growth and change they talked about less shown than alluded to. Which is fine; though we're often taught that stories are about change, stubbornness is real too, and sometimes what a person gets from a movie is more important than what its makers feel they've put out there.

One Child Nation (aka Born in China)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston, DCP)

China's "One Child Per Family" policy was launched in 1979, made an official part of their constitution in 1987, and officially ended in 2015, and the rest of the world often took it for granted, looking at the country's ten-figure population and figuring that yes, this is draconian, but something needed to change. As filmmaker Wang Nanfu points out, this message took hold with even more force in China itself, except that ignoring the implications of it there was an active (but seemingly necessary) choice. This film's close-up view leaves some questions unasked and unanswered, but also makes it impossible to simply view it as an abstraction.

Wang grew up in China, in Diangxi Province's Wang village, and her family was unusual in that she had a younger brother. Her family wasn't breaking the law in this - there was a process by which one could petition for the right to have a second child - but growing up at the height of the country's propaganda push for the policy, it was a black mark on her family. She would later go to college in the United States and marry there, returning home to visit after the birth of her first child, and finding the idea of the government involving itself so closely in her family newly chilling, she starts asking questions.

The thing about China's one child per family policy that has fascinated me in recent years is how it leads to a society not just without siblings, but without aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I always wondered to what extent if eliminating extended family as a support system outside the state was the goal. This is not a particular focus for this film's makers; the actual why of it is not particularly important, and only a little more time is spent on why the practice was ended. Nor should it be, considering the more immediate and personal interests that the filmmakers have. That focus guides the film, sometimes constraining it, but also constantly emphasizing the human reaction as opposed to just the theoretical. Wang and co-director Lynn Zhang Jialing seldom take a broad view, but focus closely on individual stories, often to the point of discomfort.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The Pollinators

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston, DCP)

Mention bees and farming to most people, and certain images leap to mind, along with the specific ways that human beings have messed up the natural order of things. These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete, sometimes in surprising ways. The Pollinators comes from deep enough inside this industry that one must sometimes account for a skewed perspective, but it presents a picture of modern agriculture from a point of view few think about, and does so in a way that is properly alarming but not necessarily alarmist.

Director Peter Nelson, a beekeeper himself, spends most of the film with others doing the same work, starting with old hand David Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries. His company's business is not primarily honey or mead or wax candles, but the bees themselves: Though it is common knowledge that bees are vital for pollination, there simply aren't enough wild bees to go around; colony collapse disorder is not the issue that it was from 2005 to 2008, but between pesticide use and the way American industrial agriculture often tends to vast fields of one type of crop, native pollinators are stretched thin and in some cases threatened. The solution is folks like Hackenberg putting hives on pallets, and pallets onto trucks, and going where they're needed. It's possible because pollination seasons for different crops are staggered, but supply isn't far from demand and California's almond crop requires almost every bee-for-hire in America

One wonders, watching this, just how many systems like mobile apiaries their food supply relies on, and just what sort of state they're in. That these businesses are already stretched thin enough that things like a breed of mite which attacks queen bees or the adoption of new pesticides can create a genuine crisis gives the film a bit of urgency and something like a story, but in a lot of ways it serves to illustrate the way that this business seems genuinely odd to outsiders, with these living, autonomous things treated as equipment. It's an odd feeling to go from close-up photography of bees seemingly behaving like they're in the wild to a clearing full of dead ones because a neighboring farmer sprayed their crops without warning. Queens are replaced and rotated like engine parts.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (IFFBoston, DCP)

In Cold Case Hammarskjöld, satirical documentarian Mads Brügger does a convincing imitation of a dog who has finally caught the tail he's been chasing and realizes he's got no idea of what comes next. It doesn't quite become a repudiation of Brügger's life's work, and that of the thriving industry that uses comedy to help people process what is often an insane world, but it runs hard into the limits of that approach. I half-suspect that the film still has the form it does both because reshaping it would have felt less honest and because hitting those limits wound up fascinating him.

The film offers a refresher on Dag Hammarskjöld - or primer, if your education was like mine and gave him just a cursory mention - that he was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953, and more activist in the role than many anticipated, until he did in a plane crash on the way to attempt mediation in the Congo in 1961. Many suspected foul play than and for decades later, but nothing was proven. Swedish private detective and aid worker Göran Björkdahl has what he believes is new evidence, and teams with Brügger to document the investigation. They are particularly focused on Jan Van Risseghem, a Belgian pilot and alleged soldier of fortune who cuts the figure of a James Bond villain in the one photograph they have, and may have been the one to shoot the plane down.

That image is so striking that Brügger appropriates the trademark white suit and the like to narrate the film, renting hotel rooms and having a pair of African women serve as secretaries transcribing it. Why two? As he himself mentions, it's an idea he had early on, maybe something that could be worked into the film as a commentary about details not lining up, or him disposing of lackeys as he grows more drawn into the character and obsessed. After all, as he admits, this investigation isn't going to go anywhere, but it may serve as a good jumping-off point for a movie about seeing conspiracies in every corner or how our knowledge of even recent history is incomplete or white dilettantes in Africa. And there is still a lot of that plan visible: Those interstitials in the hotel rooms are still in the movie and as off-kilter as one would hope, and there's a sort of archness to the scenes of Brügger and Björkdahl conducting their initial investigation. The earnest Björkdahl recedes a bit in order to play up Brügger not treating it as a joke but knowing that he's making something of a meta-movie.

Full review on EFilmCritic

For the Birds

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #4 (IFFBoston, DCP)

Sometimes the filmmakers won't let a documentary be over until it's all the way over, and that's the case with For the Birds, whose epilogue isn't exactly long but is very much something else after the main thread is tied up. It goes on and can't help but feel like it's drifting too far from the movie you came to see. Of course, the main body of the film can be drawn out and uncomfortable itself, but it's not like you'd want a story of hoarding and self-destructive behavior to go down easy.

It starts innocently enough, with VHS footage of upstate New York resident Kathy Murphy befriending a duck she names Innes Peep. Fast forward a few years to 2020, though, and there are dozens of ducks, turkeys, and chickens in and around the small house she shares with husband Gary, and it's obviously a bad situation. The place is impossible to keep clean, many of the birds are growing sickly, Kathy almost never goes out, and though it may not be the main reason their daughter is estranged, it's not helping. A call to the local Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary brings employee Sheila Hyslop to visit, and she convinces Kathy to let her bring some of the birds away with her, though Kathy is not necessarily aware that they won't be coming back (even if one of her beloved turkeys wasn't so sick it didn't survive very long).

Hoarding is not necessarily an activity one associates with living things, so it's interesting to see Hyslop both casually identify Kathy's behavior as such and also be alarmed by the extent of it. What's a bit surprising is that there is never much indication as to whether any of the birds return some of Kathy's affection or seem out of sorts when rescued and placed in a new environment. It could cause a bit of a disconnect, as the movie on the one hand points out that the animal abuse is what makes this a bit worse than garden-variety hoarding but leaves that abuse a bit abstract, but never quite does. Instead, it highlights just how carelessly one-sided this situation is, and gives a fair window into the neediness that seems to be driving her. There are comments dropped that sometimes offer the beginnings of an explanation, but filmmaker Richard Miron is more interested in looking at the facts of her situation rather than trying to figure it out.

Full review on EFilmCritic

No comments: