MCC Home Video Scorecard #20: Oscar-Hopeful Documentaries 2020


In a fairer world the stars of Honeyland would be dividing up this year’s Oscars like this, not honeycombs.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s more like a newsletter in which I’ve jotted down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. In this batch: the past month’s worth of comfy-chair viewing as prep for next Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. Every year I chase down all the Best Picture nominees whether I want to see them or not, and nearly always catch them all before the big day. (Sole exception in the past twenty years: when Ray was nominated, it was 100% rented out for weeks from every Blockbuster near our old apartment. Yes, it’s been a while.) But in recent times, I’ve also been exploring the fun to be had in chasing down other Oscar nominees for extra credit.

For the second year in a row I decided to see how many nominees I could watch from the Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short Film categories, either free via legal means or via my existing streaming-service subscriptions. Last year I managed to catch nine of the ten nominees on time. The standoffish exception, National Geographic’s vertiginous climb-along Free Solo, aired the following Sunday night once they’d secured their statuette. This year I’ve managed to see eight available out of ten. Of the two holdouts, MTV has their very first nominee St. Louis Superman on lockdown for the time being, with some alleged special presentation in the works TBD; the other, The Cave, is another National Geographic entrant obligated to follow their stingy playbook.

My sincerest gratitude goes out to the rights-holders of the other eight, who actually want their works seen in this critical moment when people are most curious about them. First up are the four viewable nominees for Best Documentary Feature:

* Honeyland (Hulu): Also nominated for Best International Feature (the category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film), this exquisitely shot gem follows a fiftysomething Macedonian beekeeper named Hatidze who lives alone with her elderly mother in what’s otherwise a mountainside ghost town — no electricity, phones, or services. Every so often Hatidze takes a long train ride to sell her expertly cultivated honey to other vendors at a bazaar for reasonable prices. Their lives are simple, but largely they seem okay with their rhythm…until a family of nomadic livestock farmers with eight or nine ragamuffins wagon-trains in and moves into the abandoned hovel next door. It’s bad enough when their cattle and their kids get in the way and disturb the peace, but neighborhood relations worsen when the father takes a few superficial beekeeping tips from her and decides he wants to be a beekeeper, too, because it looks just that easy.

After we’ve settled in with Hatidze and her mom for so long, it’s tough to sit through the ensuing capitalist competition. The bad apiarist is clearly in over his head producing an inferior product, undercutting her on prices, meanwhile letting his farm animals wander and rot, and making grave mistakes that soon begin to affect her own hives. In between elegantly framed shots of desolate surroundings in natural lighting, I was outraged and mentally pumping my fist and screaming, “DRAG HIM, HATIDZE!” because I know all too well the pain of watching someone else copying what you do but then doing it lousily and making money off it anyway. It’s also an apt allegory of man’s incompetence ruining nature versus someone living in harmony with it, but until the bitter end I wanted to see Hatidze’s bees tearing the wings off his.

* American Factory (Netflix): Remember that one recession when GM shut down plants and thousands of Americans lost their jobs? Once upon a time in 2009 a Chinese windshield manufacturer named Fuyao bought some of GM’s discarded remains outside Dayton, Ohio, renovated and reopened it years later as Fuyao Glass America, with promises to bring thousands of jobs back to the area, not to mention dignity and livelihood to all comers. Of course there was a catch: the new owners naturally assumed their new workforce would be happy and willing to be drastically overworked, underpaid, micromanaged, and subject to condescension at their discretion. The culture clashes cover the near-stereotypical — the Americans are slower and expect more coddling compliments, while back in China they’re used to spending hours sorting deadly shards without protective gear — but intensify when our home team invokes the dreaded “U” word. The CEO referred to throughout as “Chairman Cao” (no one dares a single pun) lays it down in no uncertain terms: if they unionize, they shut down. Period.

The debut film from Higher Ground Productions, co-founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, reminds me of the time I saw Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho at the theater when I was 14. Even at that age I knew it wasn’t a good film, but thirty-three years later the sides remains the same: Asians with established, unchecked practices who don’t get low Western standards teeing off against blue-collar laborers who recoil and rebel if you raise baseline expectations out of reasonable reach. Here the filmmakers embed within each side and explore their respective desires and nuances, telling stories in microcosm of the loyal families GM screwed and what they’ve had to do to get by ever since, as well as getting to know the hundreds of Fuyao supervisors who leave their families behind for months and years on company orders to convince their adopted underlings to be more like them. It’s a telling look at differences between international manufacturing concerns that transcends “America rules, not-America drools” from a ground-level perspective.

* For Sama ( The never-ending struggle of Syrians to keep living and hoping amid the wreckage of Aleppo remains a steady source of Oscar-nominated documentaries — see also The White Helmets, Last Men in Aleppo, NatGeo’s aforementioned The Cave, and doubtlessly earlier ones I missed before I started paying closer attention. Homegrown journalist Waad al-Kateab shares everyday recordings of her rapidly disintegrating metropolis and the echoes of rattling explosions as she nonetheless discovers love, marriage, childbirth, and parenting whenever they can retreat into surviving buildings or into the catacomb-shaped piles of rubble that pockmark the Syrian horizons.

Aired here as an episode of PBS’ Frontline, For Sama captures happy moments, quiet respites, military hardware cacophony, and loathsome tragedies. The cameras keep rolling as the viewer and Waad begin to wonder: at what point do they finally give up on their homeland for the baby’s sake? It’s easy here in our non-bombed houses to say, “Yep, I’d be outta there and up in Canada at the sight of Bomb One,” but sometimes leaving a home that you take so much pride in, that you want to share with your children as a gift and a legacy, isn’t a snap decision.

* The Edge Of Democracy (Netflix) Count your blessings that our government has lasted intact for as long as it has. Brazil keeps alternating between democracy and dictatorships, and, if I’m reading correctly, is currently on its seventh Constitution. This would-be cautionary tale, whose director/narrator Petra Costa has indirect family ties to the subject revealed mid-film, begins its coverage with the election of the populist favorite Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002, then follows the happy early days of his presidency until his two terms are up and his hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff wins one term by a landslide and a second term by a razor-thin margin…because meanwhile behind the scenes, things were falling apart.

Our man “Lula” is soon embroiled in scandals involving bribery and other political favors that eventually land him in prison, to the delight of his enemies. Rousseff’s reign seems to get off to a fruitful start until her sweeping interest rate reductions lead to recession, which in turn invites the dreaded specter of austerity measures. Those same political rivals make it their mission to undermine her, turn the tide of public opinion against her, preside over her successful impeachment, and ultimately all but hand the President’s office over to one of their own under the guise of restoring whatever the Portuguese equivalent of “the good ol’ days” is, arguably working within whatever passes for “the system”. Much of the film is a suspenseful seesaw act as vicissitudes ebb and flow for the ostensible “good guys”…and yet their opposition doesn’t really come off as dictators so much as they’re just slightly meaner American Republicans.

We’re privy to sorrowful interviews with average citizens too easily hornswoggled by shallow us-vs.-them tribalism, but what I thought would be a total horror-show tragedy about resurrected tyranny kinda petered out by the end to “Nooo, my favorite team lost, whyyyyyy” while seemingly downplaying or forgiving any and all of her two favorite Presidents’ crimes and sins.

…that’s a lot of words already. Documentary Shorts will get their own entry, then. To be continued!

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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