War is never easy to look at, and war is front and center in Waad al-Kateab’s documentary ‘For Sama.’ This is simply one of the most harrowing watches for me, and there were times I wanted to up and leave in the middle of watching it. This is centered in the city of Aleppo in Syria, under the corrupt Assad regime, who continually bombed the rebellious forces in the city with the aid of the Russians. Using that as a backdrop, the documentary documents the filmmaker as she struggles with everyday life with the resistance. It’s a wonder of all wonders that in the middle of all this chaos and strife, she falls in love with a young doctor, and has a child, Sama. This film is a love letter to her child, a sort-of explanation for her on why she stayed in Aleppo. As I said, it’s a tough watch, and the middle part can be exhausting as we get to see over and over and over the ravages of this war. But for me, this is an eye-opener. I will not pretend to know a lot about what is happening in that region, and this film made me want to do more to educate myself.
Thoughts on two documentaries:
I was a little lukewarm over ‘Judy’ as a film so I was glad I liked the new documentary ‘Sid & Judy,’ directed by Stephen Kijak. This is a great film that centers on Garland’s third marriage, though it briefly touches her earlier histories. Garland is obviously a complex character, and they show a bit of that in this film in a mostly dignified manner. I liked that the events did not feel sensationalized and they worked with some great footage including some great spoken word recordings by Garland and Luft themselves. Some dialogue is recreated by Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh and they did not feel too cheesy. The video footage here is great, and we do hear and see a lot of Garland in action doing what she does best. And it is not too much if a depressing film.
That wasn’t the case with ‘Honeyland,’ which is a very interesting, but also very sad film. Set in rural Madeconia, this film by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, is about a woman, Hatidze, who does beekeeping the old-fashioned way. She also cares about the bees – only takes half their honey, for example so they can all live harmoniously. When new neighbors come in, we see them wreck havoc on everything. It is disheartening to seeher live through this, all the while she is taking care of her elderly mother. Scenes where she goes to the market to barter her honey for food make my heart melt. I found myself thinking about her even after seeing the film. I wonder how she is now.
I recently saw two documentaries that had a lot of things in common, both were about historical issues in two Asian countries: China and The Philippines.
The first one is Nanfu Wang’s ‘One Child Nation,’ which centered on China’s policy from 1979 of families only being allowed to have one child. Something needed to be done then on the country’s overpopulation, so the government issued a law curbing population. Wang is herself a child of those times, so she had some personal stake in it. But she also found out the ramifications of that policy. Doctors were performing late-term abortions by the hundreds of thousands, for example. Plus, a lot of female newborns were being given away by families, but since no one wanted female children, most times these newborns were left to die at the markets. Later on, these babies ended up being old in the open market, brought to the United States for adoption in exchange for money. Some of these effects were really disturbing, and tested my squeamish factor. I thought the film was very thought provoking, and opened my eyes on an issue that I didn’t know existed.
Since I am a Marcos baby, there really weren’t a lot of surprising revelations in me from watching Lauren Greenfeld’s ‘The Kingmaker.’ Greenfeld’s pat subjects have always been the rich and their downfall, so it must have been fascinating for her to have the chance to interview Imelda Marcos – this, after all, is a woman who owns a Picaso, a Michaelangelo, and a Monet. But in the course of making the film, she found something else – that the Marcoses are slowly inching back to regain political power in the Philippines. Some people have described this as sort of a dark Cinderella Story, and it’s very apt. You can see how savvy Imelda can be, and how she can easily charm you. I have a friend who know nothing about her and left the theater utterly buying everything she was selling. Greenfeld presents a very balanced subject here, giving equal time to her opponents and detractors, and gives an impartial view of the subject. The film is quite interesting, even for me who has semi-intimate knowledge of these affairs.
The Ralph Lauren design aesthetic is beautiful, in the cleanest and most “American” sense – rugged Western, sailing, polo. It’s not really my aesthetic per se, but I get it. Director Susan Lacy’s documentary of his, stylistically, skews close to the designer’s aesthetic. It’s also as boring as his designs. I guess when looking for documentaries, and especially designer documentaries, I look for a little more drama. I thoroughly enjoyed past designer documentaries like Halston’s, and Alexander McQueen’s because their stories are as interesting as their design. Ralph Lifshitz’s story (before he was Ralph Lauren) is your basic rags-to-riches tome that isn’t even as interesting as other stories of the genre. This feels sanitized,a s if looking at his designs at his showrooms, with every detail in place, not a fringe out of order. They didn’t even include his big cancer scare that was all over the papers in the 80s. I honestly got nothing out of watching this film.
I knew the songs from ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ before I knew the show. I was very aware of the popular songs out of context, and to be honest, I kind of did not like them, from the vantage point of their 60’s pop arrangements. When I met Sheldon Harnick, I told him I loved ‘Fiddler,’ everyone in our circle kept on telling him how much they loved ‘Fiddler.’ (I was the non-conformist who told him my favorite was ‘The Rothchilds’) It was only when I started getting deep into musical theater research that I truly appreciated “Fiddler,’ the show, and, really, I hadn’t seen any production of it since the 1990 revival. (I hadn’t really grasped the depth of ‘Matchmaker Matchmaker’ as a aong until I saw it on stage) When I started collecting cast recordings, I was amazed by how many recordings the show had and I devoured each one.
So it was wonderful to finally see Max Lewkowicz’s ‘Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles,’ as I had been looking forward to seeing it for weeks. A friend of mine saw it and couldn’t contain his raves. And he is right, this film delivered for me in so many ways, a rare treat for a theater geek like me. It certainly showed how the musical became so beloved, and how it connected with a lot of people (Someone described it as ‘very Japanese,’) I loved how Lewkowicz traced the musical’s origins: Sholem Aleichem’s short stories and Chagall’s paintings, to its troubled out-of-town tryouts that made director Jerome Robbins ‘bludgeon’ the show to to the version that ran on Broadway for eight years. The documentary also touched upon how Robbins was a terror director, although the Master himself Stephen Sondheim in here also says doesn’t know a more creative person than Robbins. These are the kinds of anecdotes that make me live life better. I wish there were more, even as the film packs a lot of them.
After seeing the film, it inspired me to play the original Cast Recording again, and it even gives these songs more texture for me. I know all theater lovers will see this film, but I hope it casts a wider net pulling in people into rediscovering the show.
There’s a lot of things in Ursula Macfarlane’s ‘Untouchable’ that you did not know, but I bet, essentially, you already knew them. As I watch these women narrate their stories here on how they were sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, I couldn’t help but think some of them could be unavoidable. But I shouldn’t judge, as Weinstein yielded so much power that anyone could be blinded by it – there is always going to be that ‘what if’ gnawing at the back of your head somewhere.
This documentary, now streaming on Hulu, felt familiar at times that it bored me. Macfarlane employed a journalistic touch with the reporting, and that is a wise dignified choice for a subject that in itself is already titillating. But its blandness make it a tough watch for me. The stories can be similar, and I at times had a hard time distinguishing one from the other, and perhaps that is also because Weinstein basically had the same modus operandi. But make no mistake, though, these stories are important and should be heard. I just wish they had a little more flash.
I waned to end Pride Month by writing about a movie that touched me deeply. Cecilia Aldarondo produced, directed and wrote the documentary ‘Memories of A Penitent Heart’ in memory of her uncle Miguel Dieppa, who dies from AIDS complications in 1987. She only remembers meeting him once, and very briefly, when he visited his family the Christmas before he died. Years after, Aldarando searches for Miguel’s friends, wanting to immortalize her uncle’s legacy. She was in for some kind of awakening when she met Robert, her uncle’s lover of twelve years. She found out how her family – her grandmother and even her mother – were in denial about Miguel’s sexual orientation, being devout Catholics. Furthermore, they were not very friendly with Robert – Christina;s mother even saying she never knew his last name that’s why she never contacted him. Furthermore, there is a big reveal wherein Miguel supposedly found out that his father was gay, after seeing him at a gay club in Puerto Rico. Aldarondo weaves these stories through interviews, the main one with Robert, who brought along envelopes of photos and memorabilia. It’s all so touching, and I remember hearing all these stories then of men whose last wishes weren’t being honored because of their families’ religious beliefs – I had a friend who wished to be cremated and his family refused to do it because they did not believe in it – the process was not really popular in the late 90s and early 90s. Most of all, I was glad that these stories of men who died from the plague are being told. I wonder sometimes if people would remember me after I die – I have no children and a lot of people probably deem my story as small and insignificant. But I can only hope that I touched people’s lives enough to be remembered.