Zero Day, Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief, The Armstrong Lie, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Taxi to the Darkside; just a handful of documentaries directed by Alex Gibney, a documentary powerhouse whose latest film, Citizen K, explores Russian plutocrat Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russian politics and power are touchy subjects, which Gibney does not shy away from here.
Russian businessman Khodorkovsky’s life story is told through a series of significant events and dates from his Soviet upbringing to post-Communism life as an Anti-Putin dissident. In this unwaveringly one-sided documentary, a very calm Khodorkovsky contradicts all events as he reflects on them. Following 1991, Khodorkovsky was seen as Russia’s richest man, owner of the oil company Yukos and an eventual member of the Oligarchs. His take on the creation of Russia’s ‘gangster model of capitalism’ is described in the film.
Utilising a Scorsese-like opening featuring segments from the end of the story, Gibney uses a clever and creative montage representing the key characters and moments in Khodorkovsky’s journey.
As we are being introduced to Khodorkovsky’s version of the story, we understand that the highly intelligent and decisive individual became a threat to Putin.
Gibney displays Putin as a villain, a ruthless and radical dictator through showcasing remarkable raw footage of protestors being attacked, instances where Putin was directly challenged at a public event and the culprit sedated and removed, and astonishing footage of ex-military with regards to the murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Citizen K is a long, enigmatic documentary and history lesson, tackling deep social issues in Russia and sparking curiosity around Putin’s motivations. Is this a case of Stalin repeating itself? Gibney does not appear to have resolved the Khodorkovsky story fully, instead merely telling one side of the story. After spending a decade in jail and being exiled from Russia completely, including not being shown on Russian screens or even being able to step foot into a Russian embassy, a changed Khodorkovsky sends a message of hope that one day Russia will become the democratic country it deserves to be.
Matias Bolla’s documentary about Gauchos (Patagonian cowboys) is beautiful, affecting and shows us what cinema does best: transports us into an otherwise distant world, providing empathy and self-reflection.
This is a sublime and deeply moving documentary about the sad, hard and lonely life of a beekeeper and her 85-year-old mother. (And with a broader ecological message.) Beautifully made over three years, and pared down from 400 hours of footage, its events unfold against the stark yet highly photogenic backdrop of the Macedonian countryside. That’s when they’re not transpiring in the dark and claustrophobic confines of the very primitive cottage the two women – who are actually ethnically Turkish – call home. Or when the younger one goes into town (with its attendant culture clash) to sell her honey.
Life is really tough here, for both the people and their animals, but though the doco’s atmosphere is abidingly downbeat there is some pleasure to be had in the revelations about the nuts and bolts of wild beekeeping. Hatidze Muratova’s (the daughter) uphill struggle gets even harder when a large and unaccommodating family (and its cattle) moves in next door. Their approach to apiary has serious repercussions. And then there is the ongoing plight of Hatidze’s virtually bed-ridden mother, Nazife. “You can’t take me out”, says Nazife, matter-of-factly and without self-pity. “I’ve become like a tree.”
Cinema – even of the fictional variety – tends inherently to be a window on another world, but it’s especially true of a microcosmic life-in-the-raw study like this one. Honeyland was well shot and very deftly edited, and it stays with you after viewing and actually becomes even more affecting.
My brain is one big scatter, I can’t think of any way around it, so writes a young Claire Murray in her diary, wistful and cross-legged, sitting against her front door of a still evening in Shireen Narayanan’s dramatised true-crime documentary, Wild Butterfly.
The background details of Claire Murray’s life were either unacknowledged or unknown. Needing a second liver transplant in 2010 saw a trial by Australian media – including the betrayal of a 60 Minutes reporter – and a general public lapping up its focus devoted to her as a ‘junkie mother’ who seemingly squandered the gift of her first liver transplant after a heroin relapse.
The story was news-worthy hype where divisions were felt, and mass public outcry and prejudice ensued.
Should it be taxpayer assisted again? Was she worthy of a second transplant after screwing up the first? What media outlets chose to overlook, was the long-term suffering and more personal and tragic convolutions of Claire’s past to fully understand why it got to the point of needing a second transplant, despite how candid Claire’s father, Michael, had been on such matters to different reporters.
Wild Butterfly recovers important gaps and context, traced back to an adverse childhood event of immense and lasting impact. Narayanan, with almost thirty years’ experience as a clinician in mental health, structures the documentary by reflecting upon its practice. What seems at first a disruption of unsettling and scattered events, both at home and at school, reveals to be a poignant joining of the dots. In the manner of trauma narrative, Claire’s tumultuous life is broken down into parts to be rebuilt as a smooth and lucid timeline in order to make sense of it.
After a misdiagnosis of ADHD in her early teens to the more correct identification of post-traumatic stress with an emerging personality disorder as her drug use spirals, the overarching questions of how and why and where everything led her fall into place.
‘Blaming the past’ as a term can sometimes sound abstract. Dissecting it into a linear sequence of events, while identifying a person or an incident that ultimately caused the evolving destruction of another, is more precise. This is what Wild Butterfly achieves. It’s a moving portrait of resilience after pain, the erosion of self and how ongoing struggles from childhood trauma into adulthood can be the saddest of all.
This is a mantra that echoes through a lot of political discourse, and one that has only heightened in relevance in the age of Greta Thunberg, Howey Ou, and the subject of this film in particular, Dujuan Hoosan. Will the youth of tomorrow finally put right the errors of today? It is a mentality that occasionally leads to a lethargic “let them sort it out” attitude, and there is a continuing argument about just how much importance we place on the young to fight our battles… but in the face of issues that really should have been remedied long ago, it can mean everything that at least someone is doing the talking. And in light of the subject of this film, it’s talking that needs to be done.
A candid depiction of Dujuan, his family and his local community, the intimate framing allows the raw reality to shine through. Watching Dujuan talk about his culture, his living conditions, and his position as a healer within his community, it’s all too easy to see how this is the same kid who spoke to the United Nations about the treatment of kids like him.
Not that he’s shown as any kind of home-grown wunderkind or anything as sensationalised as that; just that he’s someone who can see what is happening around him and process it in a rather preternatural way. And the things he notices around him are quite unsettling. The film at large, beyond just being a portrait of the young man himself, is one that looks at the current state of the Australian education system, specifically as it pertains to Indigenous students.
The shots of his lessons in a state school, where the teacher laughs her way through discussing the Aboriginal Dreamtime and the ‘heroes’ of the First Fleet, is a snapshot of the problem. If you were sent to a school that insisted on telling you that your beliefs mean nothing, chances are you’d act out a bit too.
Through that, the haunting visage of juvenile detention centres, and archive footage of Indigenous protestors, the film presents a child in the middle of a tug-of-war between learning about his own culture honestly, and learning about what has become the new dominant culture. It helps put a lot of knee-jerk ‘don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time’ excuses into context, and as personified through Dujuan, it shows a need to fix a system that almost seems designed to let down a specific part of its constituents.
No child should have to go to a school just to learn that there’s something supposedly wrong with them, and with education being such an important backbone of a nation no matter where it resides, it makes an empathetic and hearty argument for the culture of the Arrernte people, and all other First Peoples, to be acknowledged and not forgotten.
Sex on film has existed for as long as film itself. Art is meant to reflect the entire spectrum of human emotional connection, and the good ol’ genital IKEA instructions are no exception to that. However, what a lot of erotically-tinged films tend to run into is an issue of balance: satisfying the urges of the brain and the… other brain, as it were. This is especially true in the realm of documentary cinema, where sexual activity is often attached to the production’s own aims for realism. And with this look at famous ex-porn-star Jonathan Agassi, it somehow manages to maintain that balance, and yet mishandle it at the same time.
The depiction we get of Agassi is one that ends up hitting a lot of unfortunately familiar points when it comes to stereotypes attached to the industry: neglected childhood, daddy issues, a need for an ulterior identity (the title is a quote from Agassi himself); it may be true to the man himself, but it doesn’t make for particularly revelatory content. If anything, it keeps reaching moments of cringe when it shows Agassi discussing elements of his work, even watching some of it, with his mother. As a basis for the inner family drama, it holds up okay, but it ends up getting lost in the speedy shuffle of the rest of the footage.
If anything, that problem exists with most of what we are shown. We get ample exposure to Agassi at work, along with his foray into drug use to keep himself going, but rather than making for a vital look at either him or his place within the business, it comes across like its ultimate fate will be as a collection of scenes that gay men, straight women and the odd straight man will watch on mute ‘for the articles’. It lacks the subversive fire of a Bruce LaBruce feature, the insider’s insight of Wash Westmoreland or even the personal liberation of John Cameron Mitchell. Even more so, it lacks the vitality that documentaries need to establish their own existence, as its timing doesn’t feel particularly urgent, the context is sparse, and the insights made…
Actually, that last one may be its strongest attribute, as even with its lingering shrug of an impact on the audience, the process of participating in this production appears to have had a lasting effect on Agassi himself. His working relationship with director Tomer Heymann seems to have given him some kind of closure in regards to his relationships with his work and his family, namely his father. It’s the kind of outsider’s eye effect that shows documentary filmmaking as its own branch of therapy for those involved. And to that end, it’s difficult to be too harsh about the film as a whole, since it gave at least one person in the world a chance for clarity. But from the outside looking in, it’s just as difficult to vibe with that kind of confession outside of its own bubble.