A Trio of Documentaries Treating: Soviet History, Sustainable Agriculture, and the New Democrats

At the Movies - May 2019

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Werner Herzog (left) interviews Mikhail Gorbachev in the new documentary “Meeting Gorbachev.” Courtesy 1091 Media; photo by Brandon Peters

Meeting Gorbachev
German director Werner Herzog is a polymath filmmaker, having divided his career (since 1962) between fictional narratives and documentaries. In “Meeting Gorbachev,” (co-directed with Andre Singer) he turns again to the latter, combining a tour d’horizon of Mikhail Gorbachev’s career with an expansive interview done over three visits to Moscow over a six-month period. For history buffs the film will fascinate, though Herzog’s indominable presence and his almost Olympian voice will be too brash for some (the film, which opened in the DC area on May 24th, runs 92 minutes and is unrated).

Herzog, as the on-screen interviewer, starts off with a jarring and caustic comment: “I’m a German, and the first German you ever met probably wanted to kill you,” to which Gorbachev can only chuckle “No.” And while Herzog regularly inserts himself into the exchange, he also clearly expresses affection for the man, recognizing Gorbachev’s remarkable achievements such as negotiating with the U.S. to reduce nuclear weapons, ceding military control of Eastern Europe, and accepting the reunification of Germany. Those accomplishments are captured in chronological order through ample archive footage and filmed statements from other figures of his time, including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Shultz, James Baker, and Lech Walesa.

The demise of the Soviet Union also gets appropriate coverage, recalling how Gorbachev himself was ousted in 1991, his leadership role pulled out from under him while he was on vacation in the Crimea. What is given short shrift, however, is Gorbachev’s activities in the Russia of Yeltsin and Putin, and how and why his political fortunes dissipated. We learn little of his life after 1991. Herzog himself said that “I was anxious not to film a biography of (Gorbachev) but to try to understand the character of such an important figure.” He mainly achieves that.

Mikhail Gorbachev is now 87 and battling illness, far from the once vigorous and visionary Secretary of the U.S.S.R who introduced “perestroika” and “glasnost” to the world in his effort to reform his nation. He has mellowed and sometimes looks burdened, as when he talks wistfully about his beloved Raisa, who died in 1999 and who was obviously the key influence in his life. Still, he shows flashes of wit and a full awareness of his past, regretting little. He was a man who tried to genuinely achieve a more peaceful world. When asked by Herzog near the end of the film what he would like inscribed on his gravestone, he replies, “We tried.”

Molly and John Chester are the creators of the “The Biggest Little Farm,” from NEON and LD Entertainment. Photo by Christina Zisa.

The Biggest Little Farm
This heart-warming documentary chronicles an eight-year quest of the Chester family of Los Angeles to achieve a long-time dream: to launch a diverse, well-rounded farm. They are additionally motivated by the need to find a roaming space for their noisy dog Todd, who barks his way too insistently through city life. With luck and pluck, John, a cinematographer, and Molly, a chef, locate 200 acres of barren farmland about an hour from LA and begin “Apricot Lane Farm,” their experiment to live in bountiful harmony with nature (now out in selected cinemas, the film is rated “PG” and runs 91 mins).

With John as narrator, we are taken year by dogged year through the Chesters’ revitalizing the land, aided by a ready supply of volunteer farmhands and especially, a grizzled “food consultant” named Alex York, full of cryptic but worthwhile advice. Over time, they plant 10,000 orchard trees and over 200 different crops, exquisitely balanced, and raise dozens of farm animals of every kind, including a singular pig named Emma and her ready companion, Greasy the rooster. Emma’s offspring provide one commercial crop, pork, while the farm’s prime income comes from their organically grown fruits, such as peaches sold at farmers’ markets.

The Chesters exhibit dogged perseverance encountering numerous setbacks over the years, from wolves killing their sheep, through insects invading their fruit trees, to rain storms wracking their fields. Still, with patience and resolve, they unlock a biodiverse design which we see in several magical cinematic panoramas, an Edenic farm lovingly realized on screen (It doesn’t hurt that John, the pro cinematographer, controls the imagery throughout).

A missing piece of this documentary is: where did their stake come from, not only for the land but the myriad of improvements they must make over the years? The land purchase is glossed over by noting they “found investors,” and one wonders if their ongoing expenses were covered by selling the farm’s produce. Still, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a contemporary rhapsody of what a sustainable farm can be and a wonderful dream realized.

Knock Down the House
Here’s one for political junkies: “Knock Down the House” is a fascinating process film looking at a new kind of campaign fostering female newcomers to politics. The film’s idea came from director Rachel Lears, who, right after the 2o16 election, looked for “charismatic female candidates” to follow in the 2018 election. With assistance from the non-profit groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress and money from Kickstarter, she identified four first-time women candidates running in upcoming Congressional races. The film thus plays the long game, following the newly-minted candidates from their campaign beginnings in 2016 to their eventual races.

Lear’s choices were fortuitous in that each has a compelling story: Cori Bush, running for Congress in Missouri in the wake of the Ferguson riots, Paula Jean Swearengin, running for Senate in West Virginia on an environmental theme, Amy Vilela, running for Congress in Nevada, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeking a House seat against a formidable primary opponent in a Queens-Bronx district. While all the women’s stories have resonance (Vilela’s is particularly touching), Lear’s prescience shows primarily in picking AOC, now a national media star. But here, we see a much more diffident Ocasio-Cortez, both practical and charming, and struggling in humble beginnings before being shaped into a formidable contender right before our eyes.

In fact, the film’s real worth is not in “discovering” Ocasio-Cortez, but in showing, in intricate (but never numbing) detail the patient slog of political campaigning, how coalitions are formed, money is raised, staffs are trained…all the nitty-gritty leading up to the final race itself. Election documentaries have a now-lengthy history, beginning with the landmark Kennedy-Humphrey duel in Wisconsin shown in “Primary” (1960). “Knock Down the House” is as good as any of them.

While the film, released November 1, had a short big-screen life, it is reviewed here because politically-minded DC viewers can still see it on Netflix.

 

To Note: Another fine documentary reviewed in this column last month, “The River and the Wall,” never had a regular run at any DC area theater. The film, however, can be viewed On-Demand through vehicles like iTunes, Xfinity, and others.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.