Honeyland

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The D.C. Environmental Film Festival was set to be City Paper‘s cover story last week. But, like nearly every other event, the festival was canceled to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Festival organizers decided to salvage what they could of the event and produce it digitally. Three of the films City Paper reviewed made it into the virtual festival: Dark Waters, Honeyland, and Stuffed. Read our reviews and watch the films here. We will update this post if any more films we’ve reviewed are added to the festival. Stick around for more to come from DCEFF, which says it plans to host a smaller festival in the fall, and will schedule other screenings later in the year.

Dark WatersDirected by Todd HaynesA necessary masterclass in bleakness, Dark Waters takes the whistleblower drama and stretches it until its sense of justice is almost unrecognizable. The film is based on the true story of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a defense attorney for chemical companies who reversed course when he learned of the tragic environmental impact on a small West Virginia town caused by Dupont, his firm’s biggest client.

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On the surface, it’s a classical take on the well-worn genre marked by Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, but director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven) digs underneath the usual conventions to cinematically express the toxicity at the core of our justice system. Every frame is tinted a sickly green or jaundiced yellow, and a share of the performers, especially Bill Camp, who plays a family farmer driven mad by his suspicions of corporate malfeasance, veer toward the cartoonish. Even Ruffalo, normally a stalwart everyman for intellectuals, opts out of likability and leans into his character’s obsessive pursuits with hunched shoulders and ubiquitous pout.

With its off-putting style, Dark Waters is a difficult watch—which could explain the poor grosses it received at the box-office last fall—but it’s supposed to be. Haynes has made a whistleblower drama for our time, when corporate corruption has spread and even those of who believe in justice are beginning to have doubts. The victories are incremental, while the stench of defeat continues to grow. —Noah Gittell

HoneylandDirected by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara KotevskaThe central figure of Honeyland, a Macedonian woman named Hatidze, lives an isolated existence in a remote village. There is no electricity or running water. Her only companion is her octogenarian mother, who can’t get out of bed. By trade, she is a beekeeper, but it’s also her purpose. She makes long treks along dangerous mountain ridges to capture the queen bee, then brings it home and carefully stewards the hive in a natural setting.

For Hatidze and her mother, it’s a quiet, steady existence that is shattered when a family of five arrives in their RV and decides to live next door. Their plan is to farm cattle, but they’re not great at it, so Hatidze teaches them how to keep bees. Turns out, not everyone is meant for such a delicate trade. What emerges in this acclaimed documentary (it was nominated for two Oscars this year) is a contrast and conflict between those who seek equilibrium with their environment and others who will squeeze every last dollar from it. 

When Hatidze harvests the honey to sell at a city market, she only takes half so that the bees can continue to thrive, and she can continue to reap the rewards. Her new neighbors don’t share her restraint, and it threatens to ruin them all. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov film their story with an effective blend of incredible intimacy and respectful distance. The remoteness of their location allows a narrowly personal story to serve as an environmental allegory, showing how our interactions with the natural world reveal our character and will ultimately determine our survival. —Noah Gittell

StuffedDirected by Erin DerhamOnly a few of the taxidermists featured in Stuffed are hunters. As a whole, they’re not in the trade to preserve trophies or prove man’s dominion over beast. Instead, Stuffed introduces the viewer to an eclectic group of artists with an abiding love for animals, which may shock some. The documentary pushes over and over again to convince skeptics that taxidermy, practiced with love and care, is more than a freaky hobby and more than a scientific pursuit—it transcends those categories to become, almost, an act of worshipping nature. It’s certainly an act of conferring immortality.

The subjects run the gamut: We meet both the typical buttoned-up scientists who taxidermy animals for natural history museums and the freaky, goth practitioners of a gory art. But underneath the skin of a quirky documentary about a strange profession and its trade conference, there’s a carefully assembled, deliberately sculpted film about our relationships with life, death, and preservation that sparkles. In its most affecting scenes, a team carefully, gently, and faithfully recreates a zebra foal. The way they paint, sew, and mount it shows both an artist’s singular focus on craft and an animal lover’s delight in the workings of nature. When it’s finished, the calf looks alive: spooked, scared, panting, glimmering, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. And yes, there’s a spot of the craftsman’s hubris: “I get to make that golden eagle immortal. I’m immortal in that too,” says one taxidermist at the film’s conclusion. —Emma Sarappo

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