What is great about documentaries is that they often present stories which are stranger than fiction, stories that seem to be straight out of a novel or a fiction film. Astrid Bussink’s The Angelmakers tells one such tale about a group of Hungarian women who were convicted of poisoning and killing over 150 people in 1929. The women, feeling trapped by their husbands or other men in their lives (almost all the victims were men), poisoned them with arsenic the women had extracted from flypaper by dissolving it in water.
Instead of relying on recreations or archival photographs (although the photos do end up in the credits), Bussink tells the story through the memories of the local villagers in Nabyrév. Many of the people she talks with were related to or familiar with one or more of the convicted women. They tell the story as though it happened just last year. And because they are in their own settings and the camera work is casual, the interviews never feel like talking heads.
The story unfolds slowly with the villagers’ memories intercut with various shots of village life. A teacher teaches her students about arsenic, a group of men drink and dance in a bar, a women’s dance club performs outside. The cutaway shots are successful in conveying a certain feel for the small village.
In addition to the interviews and village set-up shots, Bussink develops another theme as well. She includes observations of various women speaking about the modern state of domestic issues. Do local women still face difficulty in being allowed to go out? Why is the current divorce rate so high? These observations are a nice counterpoint to the feelings of the women of 1929, who apparently felt they couldn’t escape the male-dominated society and were stuck for life in marriages their parents had arranged for them.
Although a few of the shots and scenes seem unrelated to the rest of the piece, these instances are slight compared to the number of truly individual moments that make the film unique.