Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov originally intended to make an environmental film about the river Bregalnica and the preservation of the surrounding region, yet they accidentally stumbled upon Hatidže Muratova, a middle-aged Macedonian beekeeper living a hard life in the remote village of Bekirlija.
Filmed in a cinema vérité manner, “Honeyland” follows Hatidže as she tries to make a living by harvesting honey and selling it in the capital city of Skopje, takes care of her bedridden and half-blind mother, develops a friendship with the neighbors’ young boy, and faces unexpected challenges that threaten her hard-earned livelihood. The result is a bittersweet documentary that tackles life, family, loneliness, and poverty in a most intimate way.
4. American Factory
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, “American Factory” focuses on the culture clash between Chinese and American workers at a multinational factory from Ohio.
In 2014, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang opened an automobile glass factory in the place of a defunct General Motors plant. From 2015 to 2017, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the lives of people working at the Fuyao factory, focusing mostly on the work culture differences between the two nations. Using a fly-on-the-wall approach, “American Factory” feels honest and doesn’t ever take any side, managing to provide an ample and insightful look at the impact the globalization of work has on post-industrial America, while at the same time being one of the most entertaining documentaries of 2019.
3. For Sama
26-year-old filmmaker Waad al-Kateab documents life under siege in Aleppo during the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Intended as a love letter for her to-be-born daughter Sama, the film is an intimate, harrowing, and very raw depiction of al-Kateab’s experience amid the war. Many of the images that al-Kateab manages to capture are extremely difficult to watch. Parents see their children dying, hospitals are bombed, people are being dragged out of piles of debris. War is a terrible thing and, as gruesome as some of the things depicted in this documentary are, for those of us who have never experienced something similar, the images can feel almost surreal. “For Sama” is heartbreaking, revolting, and a very powerful film, yet for most of us the tragedy that Syrian people went through these past years still remains unfathomable.
2. Varda by Agnès
For over six decades, French New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda has changed the world of cinema with her intimate films, groundbreaking documentaries, and way ahead of its time avant-garde art. Sadly, Varda passed away last year, at the age of 90, leaving behind an incredible body of work that includes dozens of films, shorts, and documentaries.
“Varda by Agnès”, the autobiographical documentary that premiered at the 2019 Berlinale just one month before her death, now feels like a swan song that “the grandmother of the nouvelle vague” left us as a testament to her amazing life, but also a roadmap for her entire oeuvre as a filmmaker and artist. It is a very personable film that will move her lifelong admirers and should be seen by every aspiring filmmaker and cinema lover.
1. Apollo 11
Using solely archival footage, including 70 mm film previously unreleased images, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary gives us a breathtaking look at the Apollo 11 mission 50 years after the first Moon landing.
Among the many other documentaries on the same subject, last year’s “Apollo 11” is probably the most authentic representation of the Moon landing we’ll ever get to see. The film does not feature narration, old news clips, interviews, or any newly-shot scenes and CGI recreations. Despite being a documentary, “Apollo 11” rather feels like an entertaining sci-fi thriller, and the incredible quality of the restored footage makes it hard to believe that everything we see on screen is real.
This is a fascinating, eye-opening, and very important documentary that acts as a celebration of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It is a film that everyone should experience once in their life, a journey in time that brings history back to life and is more entertaining, awe-inspiring, and marvelous than any other film of 2019.