The Week in Screenings: 'Honeyland,' 'The Kingmaker,' 'The Elephant Queen,' 'On the President's Orders' and More
Awards hopefuls introduce (or re-introduce) themselves to influential audiences
You don't have to look at the calendar to know it's awards season. You can simply tell by the tsunami of screenings for awards-contending films.
It's been another busy week of playdates in LA for prominent documentary films and I got to as many of them as possible. The week began with the IDA's screening of Who Will Write Our History, Roberta Grossman's nonfiction film that brings to life the Ringelblum Archive, an extraordinary but little-known collection of documents assembled in the Warsaw Ghetto in the midst of World War II.
I've spent my entire life... reading and obsessing about the Holocaust, and I'd never heard this story. And that's a great reason to make a documentary is when you're outraged that you yourself don't know the story and other people don't know the story.
That screening took place Sunday afternoon on the Universal Studios lot - home, not coincidentally, of Steven Spielberg's production company, Amblin'. Spielberg's younger sister, Nancy Spielberg, executive-producer of Who Will Write Our History, participated in a Q&A afterwards with Grossman and two other panelists - Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, and Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (journalists, writers and artists were among those who contributed to the Ringelblum Archive; the vast majority of them were killed by the Nazis including Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum himself, the guiding force behind the archive).
Monday (September 23) brought a screening of The Kingmaker, Lauren Greenfield's new documentary about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos. This was one of the first opportunities for audiences in LA to see the film, which just held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, before it headed to Telluride and then the Toronto International Film Festival.
On Wednesday, The Kingmaker was named to the DOC NYC shortlist of the year's best documentary films.
On Tuesday afternoon I was supposed to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the fictional telling of Mister Rogers' story, with Tom Hanks as the children's television pioneer (yes, there are screenings of narrative/feature films going on as well). I missed that, but in the evening got to see On the President's Orders, the documentary directed by James Jones and Olivier Sarbil. That was programmed as part of Deadline Hollywood's fall doc screening series.
Like The Kingmaker, On the President's Orders is set in the Philippines. But the focus here is on President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal crackdown on alleged drug users and dealers, which has led to the extrajudicial slaughter of thousands of people. Duterte has denounced the film, which reportedly will be used by the International Criminal Court as part of its investigation into the Philippine government's violent anti-drug crusade.
During the Q&A I asked Jones what he saw as Duterte's political objective in eliminating drug users and pushers.
"He presents the Philippines as if it's some narco-state, like out of control," Jones replied. "He chose that in his election campaign as the issue that would show he was different, he was tough. And he is in many ways like Trump... he is part of this phenomenon of right wing nationalist-populist leaders who create an enemy within society, whether that's drug pushers, whether it's immigrants in Europe, it's refugees. He's turned drug pushers into the scapegoat for everyone's problems."
On the President's Orders screened in theater 4 at the Landmark in West LA. Right next door, in theater 3, the IDA was showing Honeyland, the acclaimed documentary directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. I popped over there right after the Q&A wrapped for On the President's Orders, just in time for the Honeyland Q&A.
The filmmakers discussed how they found their central character, Hatidze Muratova, the last female wild beekeeper in Europe, whose example of care for nature and humanity has touched viewers around the world. It was while working on an unrelated environmental project that Stefanov and Kotevska stumbled across Hatidze's beekeeping operation. Their documentary won more awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January than any other film.
I didn't attend any screenings on Wednesday, but there were three on Thursday. The day began with a morning screening of Honeyland at SoHo House in West Hollywood - always a lovely experience watching a movie cosseted in that plush red velvet screening room.
It was my honor afterwards to moderate a Q&A with Kotevska and Stefanov before an intimate group of noted figures in filmmaking, including Oscar-nominated director Feras Fayyad (The Cave, Last Men in Aleppo), Avi Belkin (Mike Wallace Is Here), Alex Ago, director of programming and special projects at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and editor/producer Doug Blush, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
In the afternoon, dare I say I went to see a fictional film, the Palme d'Or winning Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho. He's a virtuosic filmmaker and I thoroughly enjoyed the dark, twisted tale.
In the evening it was over to The London in West Hollywood for the IDA's screening of The Elephant Queen, the first documentary project from Apple's about-to-be-launched streaming platform, Apple TV+. Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone directed the nature film, which follows elephant matriarch Athena across the African savanna as she leads her herd to safety after their watering holes disappear to drought.
Judging from the lavish reception afterwards, Apple is prepared to put money behind an awards campaign for the film. The Elephant Queen will open in theaters October 18 before debuting on Apple TV+ November 1, the day the service launches.
A selection of pictures from the week's doc screenings
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.