A Report from True/False Film Fest 2015
By Eric Hynes
It was when winter finally started conceding to spring, with arctic temperatures reversing course overnight into short-sleeve weather and blinding sunshine, that word came through that Albert Maysles had passed away. There’s not much metaphorical meaning to be divined from the whims of weather, but it did have a merciful effect on the friends, colleagues, students, and admirers of Maysles who were gathered in Columbia, Missouri, for the True/False Film Fest that Friday. At the March March, the annual ramshackle parade that was held that afternoon, director AJ Schnack (Caucus) arrived with a ream of photocopied images from Maysles’s films, which many participants pinned to their backs and chests and flaunted down 9th Street. It was an impromptu tribute that felt truly celebratory of a singular life.
Though we were a thousand miles from Maysles’s New York, it’s telling that a gathering of Maysles’s spiritual offspring felt at home in that little college town. Christian scripture says that where two or more believers are gathered in his name, God is present; if we borrow this and apply it to the secular doc community, there were enough doc diehards present in Columbia to meaningfully conjure a godfather like Maysles several hundred times over. Not only did Albert Maysles never visit True/False, just the day prior his work was invoked as a legacy worth challenging as much as honoring. But rather than as a rebuff or corrective, such discourse only underscores the vigorous health of an art form that Maysles dedicated his life to championing.
On Thursday, as part of the Based on a True Story discussion series presented by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Joshua Oppenheimer spoke at length about his films The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing with Slate critic Dana Stevens, and challenged the notion that a Direct Cinema approach yields objective footage. “People who would have us believe that the masterpieces of direct cinema—and to be sure, there are masterpieces of direct cinema—would ask us to believe that if the camera is there long enough, the mother and the child will forget that the camera crew will behave as though it's not there,” he said. “That's absurd. That's just idiocy. No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it's there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.”
These might be fighting words within academia, where the tiniest of intellectual territory is defined, owned, and protected at all costs, but within documentary film it’s just more fuel for debate, and more often than not, practice. Another movie gets made, and what’s meant, what happens, what’s captured, and what’s interpreted can build toward more movies, and most crucially, toward further evolution of the form. Regardless of whether Oppenheimer thinks Direct Cinema is something to work with or against, it’s still active, relevant, present in the DNA and the struggle. The yield here isn’t fenced-in territories but newly blended creations, new branches grown from disparate, often opposing roots.
In contemporary documentaries a formal fluidity and ethical imprecision is at play—a fundamental, defining instability; this is illustrated both by the wide spectrum of offerings at True/False, and the even wider spectrum of responses they triggered. For all of the tide-rising buoyancy and near-utopian congeniality of True/False, what’s most impressive—and for a critic, quite seductive—about the festival is how activated the environment becomes with debate, discussion, and discovery. It’s a culture defined by lack of definition, of questioning and uncertainty, whether it’s over the ethics of Finders Keepers, a comedic Southern Gothic redemption story, or the very form of White Out, Black In, an obtuse, partly staged, borderline sci-fi evocation of a 1980s Brazilian police raid. It’s a festival at which Oppenheimer crossed paths with English archive-based journalist/essayist Adam Curtis, who crossed paths with fellow countryman, confrontational yellow journalist Nick Broomfield, who crossed paths with low-fi adventurers Bill & Turner Ross, who crossed paths with septuagenarian Polish masters, all breaking dough down at Shakespeare’s Pizza with the college kids.
In its twelfth year, True/False was defined less by preoccupations with fact vs. fiction than by notions of aesthetic assertiveness, formal ambiguity, and breadth of tone and style. Critics have long simplistically played up the hybridity of the festival’s offerings (a crime of which I’ve been as guilty as anyone), but this year True/False showed that it can evolve as much as the art form it’s built to showcase. Consider how many high-profile “True/False films”—hybrids, generally—that premiered at Sundance and elsewhere weren’t even selected for this year’s slate. Perhaps they missed the boat on films like The Nightmare and Listen to Me Marlon (I certainly think they did on the latter), but shifting focus to less obvious titles speaks to a reluctance to be pigeonholed, to a recognition that staying fresh means moving beyond the in-between and into the unforeseen.
A film like Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (pictured above) drives headlong into that territory, with ambition to spare. Anyone looking for adequate context or reportorial authority regarding migrant culture in Mediterranean Europe is bound to be frustrated by this dreamily elliptical film, but what it lacks in sobriety is compensated by audacious attempts at identification. Director Morgan Knibbe is a young filmmaker and his is a young film, but I find his imperfect attempts at understanding others moving. With a fluid, searching camera that harkens to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Knibbe adopts the perspective of a ghost (complete with whispered, Malickian voiceovers of desire and contemplation), floating into a series of bracingly unromantic environments—a grim apartment, a long-distance phone café, an underpass where junkies get their fixes, an anxious late-night queue for subsistence supplies, a dock where coffins are unceremoniously shipped back home. There’s a whiff of disaster tourism to the proceedings, but for me it’s overwhelmed by Knibbe’s desire to really inhabit these spaces—the camera keeps fixing on the small, insignificant details that actually make us feel most present—and connect with the people he encounters; even, like a fiction writer, getting into their heads and voices. In film the camera is always exterior to what it captures—art comes from the attempt, futile but worthy, to close the gap. That Those Who Feel the Fire Burning exposes its own reach actually deepens its artistry—better an attempt at understanding than an impersonation of knowing.
Formally different but also evocatively unresolved is Almost There, a seemingly familiar character study of an aged outsider artist that becomes a thoroughly self-examining, and open-ended rumination on filmmaker-subject complicity, responsibility, and purpose. Even during the early stages of the narrative, filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden invite us to think about the nature of their relationship with subject Peter Anton, whom they meet sketching children at a local fair in East Chicago, Indiana, and follow home to his jerry-rigged disaster of a home. “They took pictures of my underwear,” Anton narrates via voiceover, effectively critiquing proceedings from a future tense. “People told me to beware. Maybe they were out to take advantage of me. I want my story told, and that’s why I put up with it.” Such mutual interrogation takes place long before the filmmakers find out about a dark chapter in Anton’s damaged life, which forces them to further question the entire endeavor—particularly a gallery show they’ve set up for Anton in Chicago. He’s apologetic about not being truthful to the filmmakers, but doesn’t regret what it’s done to the film. “I’m not just a project,” he says. Yet Rybicky goes one further than exposing the seams of the doc filmmaking process. He interrogates similarities between Anton’s family and his own, which pushes the film past self-reflection into self-exposure. It’s rare for a film to be both sincerely outwardly and inwardly focused, and pretty much unheard of for one to explore, as Almost There does, how they can be effectively the same thing.
The festival was filthy with such self-reckoning—the kind that lingers as an open question rather than perfunctory back-pat contrition. The words “get that fucking camera off me” arrive at the very top of (T)error, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s ballsy and incendiary dive into the lives of an FBI informant and his besieged target, daring us to question whether we should be watching any of what follows. Subject Saeed Torres gradually permits the filmmakers greater access, giving them (and us) a front seat view of an antiterrorism sting in process, in which every new detail and development seems both essential for us to know as citizens and way, way beyond our purview. It’s a film that knows quite well what it’s doing and why, but also finds purpose in stirring the audience into a state of unease. Where Citizenfour was strident and declamatory, (T)error is slippery, unstable, and personal, adopting an anxiety that mirrors that of the surveillance state it’s exposing. Here the government isn’t an all-knowing big brother, but rather a pack of ass-covering desk soldiers desperately trying to justify their power.
On the flipside were films that strategically chose not to disclose personal backstories. Every story has a frame, and outside of that frame is a larger story, or stories, about the shaping of that frame. That remains true regardless, but deciding to keep the narrative focused and free of that larger context can be just as strong a choice—especially if you’ve got subjects at the center of the frame as compelling as those in Spartacus & Cassandra (pictured at top). Director Ioanis Nuguet never nods to his romantic involvement with circus performer subject Camille Brisson in the film, nor of the off-screen parental role he and Brisson have assumed for the titular Roma siblings—those details only came through in the post-screening Q&A. Considering the film is an exquisitely intimate portrait of the troubled thirteen-year-old Spartacus and precocious ten-year-old Cassandra, kids struggling to find a safe home between Brisson’s temporary big top and the terrifying Parisian streets, Nuguet’s story is cinematically superfluous. The person holding the camera is already present—we don’t need his presence addressed and explained, not when the fierce and dynamic Brisson fulfills the role of foster (and potential adoptive) parent quite well, and not when the charismatic children already have a pair of frustratingly complex biological parents who alternately envelop and repel them. A scene in which an aggrieved Spartacus confronts his weepy, inebriated father ranks among the most powerful I’ve ever seen; for all of the exoticism of the film’s gypsy/circus/panhandling milieu, it’s a display of inverted authority that’s universal to anyone who’s ever suffered through the spectacle of a broken parent. And it’s a scene that would be utterly changed if we thought of the person holding the camera as a possible salve for that pain, rather than an instrumental conduit for our empathy and identification.
Furthering this discussion, it hardly matters that collaborating director Roberto Carro, of the Italian collective Cyop & Kaf, was once a child participant in the chaotic folk ritual depicted in Il Segreto. Such perspective would create a barrier between the audience and the pure, ceaseless action of the movie. For 89 heedless minutes, we watch as street boys in Naples spend endless January days bartering, competing for, and imperiling themselves in order to obtain second-hand Christmas trees, which they drag through the ancient streets by hand and by moped, and stack within an abandoned lot. You’re never sure exactly what all this industry is really about, but the withholding of context isn’t coy—it’s crucial for keeping us focused on the industry and process of the boys’ endeavor, which comes to seem as an essential if baffling ritual, words that could be used to quantify any local custom to the outside world. Whether we’re riding a moped through frightfully narrow alleys, watching kids climb walls or acrobatically shimmy trees down from upstairs apartments, or dance around the culmination of all that labor, Il Segreto is a sensorial knockout.
It’s clear that poverty and gang-like factionalism factor into the events of Il Segreto, but it privileges action and aesthetics over overt topicality, a common tactic among the festival’s offerings. In Rules of the Game, a longitudinal look at a French job center for the young and unemployed gives rise not to talking points about class and income disparity, but rather complex character portraiture and deadpan comedy, leaving larger implications as troublesome aftertaste. Political and societal ramifications are more on the surface of Western, the latest film from Tchoupitoulas directors Bill and Turner Ross, in which the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, struggle to maintain an ancient symbiosis in the face of rising cartel violence. But the Rosses are less interested in currency than in the stubborn persistence of legend, land, metaphor, and iconic imagery, and the soul-restoring transcendence of human persistence.
In Of Men and War (pictured above), Laurent Bécue-Renard explores PTSD in the military via a retreat center in California’s Napa Valley, where questions about the efficacy of war take a backseat to the trials and traumas of veterans living in its aftermath. We spend the majority of the time in group therapy sessions, with men struggling to give voice to the violence they’ve seen, suffered, and perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seek and avoid vulnerability, and teeter between codependence and tentative optimism for a future outside the center. Considering the horrific and scarring content of these sessions, and the political malfeasance that led these men into such situations, it’s refreshing that the scrupulously unadorned Of Men and War keeps us trained on the hearts and minds of individuals, rooting for momentary respites from their guilt and pain.
By contrast, Sundance double-winner Cartel Land, which tracks anti-drug cartel uprisings in both Mexico and Arizona, offers undeniably gripping footage of urban warfare, but falters on the level of the personal. Director Matthew Heineman burrows deep into extremely dangerous territory to witness bullet-flurried battles between the ruling cartels and the Autodefensas, a ragtag vigilante army led by charismatic physician Mireles Valverde. But he’s less adept at burrowing into the psyches of his subjects. There are a series of last act revelations that rather than reveal new complexities, suggest that the preceding hour offered a shallow understanding of the country’s extraordinarily complex social and political realities. Either the filmmakers believed they were pursuing a Robin Hood–like tale of good uprising against evil, or they thought it was important to persuade the audience of that narrative in the editing stage, but either way it’s simplistic and inadequate for the subject at hand, and sets up a canned kind of complication.
There are simplifications aplenty in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake, which tells a near-century-long history of Western meddling in Afghanistan, but there are more than enough formal and philosophical complexities in play, not to mention reliably provocative musical cues, to guide us well beneath the surface of things. Curtis took home True/False’s annual True Vision Award, given for his “dedication and advancement of nonfiction filmmaking,” which he received with humility despite his evident discomfort with the film festival setting. As he argued at length during an audiovisual lecture on Friday morning, Curtis (whose wildly conjecturing, unceasingly compelling The Century of the Self also screened over the weekend) is less interested in playing the filmmaker than in refining and adapting the task of the journalist to the cynical realities of the current world. But such distinctions conversely drew only more attention to his evolution as a filmmaker, as he drifts away from swift montages and toward longer takes, less overtly functional sequences, and more complex metaphors. One needn’t strictly accept Curtis’s definitions in order to divine meaning from his argument. If journalists could manage to pursue more effective forms for their reporting, while filmmakers continued to search for innovative ways of pursuing truth, I couldn’t care less what anybody insists on calling him- or herself.
For the third consecutive year, the terrain implied by the slash in True/False was most directly and fruitfully tilled by the Neither/Nor series, in which a visiting critic programs a thematically arranged series of historical “chimeras.” This time Ela Bittencourt (a Reverse Shot contributor) took the reigns and jockeyed the most extensive program yet, introducing Columbia audiences to a handful of features and a sack of shorts from post-thaw Poland. Considering Bittencourt wrote an invaluable monograph to accompany the program, there’s no way of doing it justice in this rambling account, but I’ll briefly say that any understanding and appreciation of the art of nonfiction cinema isn’t close to complete without time spent with the stunning work of DP and director Bogdan Dziworski (last seen roller-skating at a festival party—he’s 73) and director Marcel Lozinski, who Bittencourt calls an “arch-provocateur” and whose filmic interventions—such as planting an appeaser and a troublemaker within How to Live’s queasy communist family camp—sought to, in his words, “thicken reality, but never distort it.”
The surfeit of revelatory shorts in the Polish series was well matched by the especially strong slate within the festival proper. Indeed, the formal and tonal expanse of features actually paled in comparison to that of the shorts program, pointing toward seemingly infinite new paths for nonfiction form. Freed from standard narrative arcs and feature-length pacing and shaping, offerings spanned the deceptively simple (in “The Reagan Shorts,” Pacho Velez plucked three three-minute moments from the Presidential archives that serve as arch distillations of awkwardness and absurdity); the densely layered and deliberate (Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson’s rigorously unsentimental yet devastating 37-minute tweener Abandoned Goods); the pictorial, wry, and life-sized (Jason Tippet’s big-hearted My Gal, Rosemarie; Matt Lenski’s hilarious N.Y. character study Call of Duty; Sean Clark’s perfectly apportioned sociological snapshot Mallwalkers); and the playfully theoretical, pop essayistic (Kevin B. Lee’s “desktop doc” Transformers: The Premake, Jessica Bardsley’s klepto-Winona Ryder-rumination The Blazing World, Elizabeth Price’s percussive, wordless pastiche of empathy The Woolsworth Choir of 1979, and Benjamin Pearson’s frankly baffling, strangely exhilarating mini-masterpiece Former Models, in which the fabrications of Milli Vanilli propel toward a cheekily persuasive critique of modern capitalism).
Yet two of my favorite sequences at this year’s True/False emerged from a rather classically observational, Maysles–worthy film, the mid-length Jeff, Embrace Your Past, a profile of artist Jeff Koons belatedly constructed from footage captured by director Roger Teich at a San Francisco retrospective in 1992. After preparing the galleries for his glimmeringly blank installations, doctored pop ready-mades, and tackily pornographic icons, Koons visits a local hairdresser who’s clearly never heard of him or his art. Struggling to maintain his aw-shucks cocksureness in the face of the man’s ignorance, Koons describes his work simply and accurately . . . which only serves to expose their vacancy. The hairdresser politely, and inadvertently damningly, offers requisite rejoinders like, “Oh, that sounds great," as if he were he were hearing about the tee ball exploits of somebody's grandkid.
Then at the museum opening, the filmmaker corners Koons’s very kind elderly father in, of all places, the men’s bathroom. During a ludicrous and weirdly moving exchange worthy of Grey Gardens, the elder Koons remembers the early years of his famous son while men keep invading the frame to access the unseen urinals, hock loogies, and inspect their hair in the mirror. Repeatedly, the door opens directly into the path of the shot, which Teich narrowly preserves by thrusting his hand against the oncoming door—a drama within a comedic scene within an art profile within a possible retrospective satire. I have no idea why the scene was shot that way, why the elder Koons seems so at ease and reflective leaned against the tiled wall of the increasingly crowded loo, nor exactly what I was even looking at (are we behind the door, next to the door, in a stall?). I just know I watched especially closely and excitedly, and felt activated by the uncertainty, enlivened by the odd, evident, mysterious truth of it.