The Unexpected
A Report from True/False Film Fest 2020
by Chloe Lizotte

While waiting to enter a noon screening at the Ragtag, the homey nonprofit cinema in Columbia, Missouri, a man with shoulder-length white hair and a glass of red wine approaches us. When he asks if we’re in line for the film or for coffee, he seems agitated, but I can’t tell if it’s because of the chaotic queue situation, extending through the middle of the venue’s packed café, or something about us personally. But he brightens up when he realizes how far we’ve traveled for such earnest purposes. “You probably don’t get around these parts much, huh?” he jokes, which makes my partner, who hails from Lawrence, Kansas, bristle. I take it in stride, but we talk more about it later: the illusion of cultural difference people fall back on whenever he goes back to the Midwest.

So what is unique about going to True/False? Columbia’s city center seemed to convene on the festival grounds—the opposite of emerging from a venue onto a crowded street, where life rushes on in other directions. Many screenings are held in converted spaces: hotel ballrooms, churches, university buildings, or concert venues, lightly tinged with the scent of IPAs instead of sponsor-ordained cocktails. Live music, performed while audiences filtered into venues, ran heavy on local funk and folk acts, but often conjured the mid-aughts through electropop and Sigur Rós-style soundscapes. There was no separation of press into media screenings, so my primary memories are of the audiences, who brought a genuine curiosity to friendly preshow chatter and talkbacks. Does this cue a sweeping claim that True/False was an unplugged utopia of togetherness? All I can say is that it certainly felt like an unusually tuned-in, almost collegial four days away from everyday life. But now, that escapist quality takes on an uncannier tint: with hand sanitizer presence at venues and travelers carrying packs of alcohol wipes, we were aware that life was in the process of reconfiguring itself, but it didn’t quite seem real yet.

Some of my strongest impressions from the festival are of Garrett Bradley’s Time. It spans a period of two decades during which Fox Rich, an auto entrepreneur and mother of six, fought for the release of her husband, Robert, from a 60-year prison sentence without parole: an exorbitant ruling after the couple, hoping to save their clothing business from the brink of bankruptcy, robbed a bank in their early twenties, and Robert’s lawyer advised him to reject a weak-seeming plea deal. Fox expresses how Robert’s absence alters the way time seems to pass, so Bradley detaches Time from linearity. She interweaves 18 years of digital video footage—Fox’s diaristic vlogs, her children taking their first steps, memories of holidays with Robert—with present-day footage of Fox and her children, now teenagers and young adults, and their continued advocacy. All the same, a cardboard cutout of Robert, made from a photo taken 21 years earlier, hangs on their wall. These frozen memories create a parallel timeline of lost years, but they also keep the stakes immediate, even as the carceral state weaponizes two decades against resistance or hope.

Applying lyrical touches, like black-and-white cinematography and lush piano pieces from Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun and ex-POW, Bradley frames Time’s expressionism as a dialogue between herself and her subject—the film expands Fox’s perspective rather than editorializes on it. And across True/False, that spirit of dialogue opened filmmakers up to greater creativity and fluidity. On the observational, fly-on-the-wall side, Alexander Nanau’s Collective captures a public health crisis in Romania with the urgency of a thriller. In the aftermath of a nightclub fire in Bucharest, it follows indefatigable journalists as they uncover widespread pharmaceutical corruption that prevents burn victims from receiving proper care. Halfway through, the film smartly pivots from the outside to the inside via the newly appointed Minister of Health, a well-intentioned ex-activist named Vlad Voiculescu. The film crew’s level of access into government meetings—including their attempts at botched damage control when their hospital system enters gory, dire phases of overcrowding—is arresting, especially as Voiculescu’s wearied old-regime staff attempts to talk him down from taking more drastic measures, far too late.

Collective is conventionally told, but Nanau seeks to deepen its complexity across its runtime, which can’t be said for Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s well-meaning but limited Boys State. The film takes place at a weeklong program organized by the American Legion for teenage boys in Texas, who endeavor to create a temporary representative government. As the boys campaign for leadership roles within two political parties, Moss and McBaine select a handful of avatars to follow—an earnest progressive kid, a canny fixer—but by alternating between talking heads and footage of the boys’ caucus speeches, the filmmakers largely avoid the camp’s group dynamics. The scale of that omission becomes apparent in cursory glimpses of the kids’ Instagram feeds, including a significant passage involving one party leveraging racist memes against the other. Leaving aside the difficulty of fully sketching out their social media interactions, those instances paradoxically highlight how cleanly character-driven much of the film is; scenes of downtime or a greater range of interviewees might have broadened it in unrulier directions.

Other directors opted for understated atmospheric interventions, including Inês Gil’s muted Unskinned, which depicts the day-to-day rhythms of a tannery in rural Portugal. Dreamily lit scenes of churning, behemoth machinery, often improbably shot from within, are laid over workers discussing the danger of their tasks—how one thoughtless move in the monotony might cost them a finger or limb. The recent vanishing of a former worker, a young woman named Patricia, speaks to the fragility of their workplace, which, due to economic downturn, has shrunk from 50 to 10 employees. Gil gravitates toward the domestic pressures on the final two women left working at the plant, especially their dynamics with their husbands, alternately sources of resentment and rejuvenation. She pushes their precariousness in vignettes, as when one husband climbs a tree to prune its branches: he dismisses his wife’s claims that he might fall, but when Gil cuts away, we hear the sound of a soft thud. In the same way that she constructs the film around Patricia’s disappearance, Gil’s elisions imbue this snapshot of their lives with a quiet foreboding—and seem to portend imminent abandonment.

Another subdued rural study was Ina Luchsperger’s Catskin, a tri-generational portrait of a teenage boy, his father, and his grandmother—Luchsperger’s grandfather’s first wife—in remote Germany. The filmmaker conveys the men’s nationalist leanings amid unsettling reminders of their isolation: while stargazing, the 13-year-old remarks that the H’s on Luchsperger’s camera remind him of Hitler; his father decries immigration while Luchsperger pans around their neighboring wheat fields, now placid, but only half a century removed from World War II. Yet Luchsperger always mixes in ambient sound from a nearby highway, a reminder that the family is not so sequestered from globalist interconnectivity. The grandmother insists that her son isn’t a Nazi, but “something else,” yet worries that he’ll impress his racism on her grandson—meanwhile, her pet cats reappear with startling injuries, and catskin pelts pile up on her porch. Luchsperger watches and listens with a careful distance, but as texturally haunting as Catskin is on violence festering within generational and regional change, her subjects ultimately feel underexplored.

That distance can still be difficult to reconcile even when filmmakers self-reflexively insert themselves into their films, a tension that becomes the subject of Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s Crestone. Hertzler, in voiceover, explains that she’s traveled out to an off-the-grid house in rural Colorado to visit some of her high school friends, who are now SoundCloud rappers. She adds that she thinks their attempts to drop out of society—with a dumpster-diving, back-to-nature ethos reminiscent of Mojave-bound hippies—are philosophically earnest, despite their documentation of it all on Instagram. In her interviews, Hertzler traces a spiral into nothingness in the rappers’ everyday lives, where isolation permits an escape into imaginary virtual worlds and stoned tangents, and posting a song online seems an immaterial offering to a data-saturated void. All the same, Crestone falters when it cops out into collaborative sketches: the obvious point that her friends ceaselessly “perform” themselves is less engaging than her frustration with how it shapes their lifestyle.

Perhaps the most drastically self-reflexive film in the program, Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead, constantly probes the very premise of “control.” After Johnson’s clinical psychiatrist dad, Dick, consents to preemptively enact his final moments in a cinematic experiment, Johnson lets the film morph in freewheeling directions: from working with stunt people on black-humor stagings of his death, to directing Dick through ecstatic film-set party versions of heaven, Johnson adopts levity as a rebellion against the inevitable. But Johnson only takes this mood as a starting point (for example, the chocolate cake Dick gleefully eats in fantasy scenes seems an ultra-luxe indulgence, but the tenor of the dessert changes with the revelation that it caused his first heart attack). Johnson lets the tone shift according to the world around her; she engages the people they meet in candid conversations about death, which take on greater weight as Dick’s memory loss accelerates and he moves in with her. The film disrupts any false sense that their onscreen heart-to-hearts are not mediated—a camera might jostle and allow a gaffer into the frame—but Johnson doesn’t claim to contain their relationship within a single movie. Instead, she strives to evoke the constantly fluctuating nature of what they’re going through, in all of its specificity and universality.

The films with the strongest points of view strove to upend perspectives we take for granted. The short film How to Disappear, made by the Austrian post-Situationist collective Total Refusal, is a video essay that twists the internal rules of the first-person shooter game Battlefield V. The filmmakers seek out any and all behavior that’s possible beyond combat: they run soldiers toward the edges of levels in attempts to desert, only for them to be executed by invisible assailants. They find that the game doesn’t allow for more complicated acts of violence, like friendly fire. And it turns out that the only peaceful gestures are absurd, like making soldiers drop to the ground and crawl in spirals, or walk so far into the game’s camera that it can no longer register their animated skins, and their faces start to melt away. The collective manages to scramble the game’s priorities and wield them against their makers—which lets them refashion the ideology of warfare as mutable dada.

But a real-world example of uprooting the familiar came through the vividly hued cinematography of John Skoog’s Ridge, another standout,on which there’s more to come soon in these virtual pages. Skoog portrays the landscape of rural Sweden as a force unto itself: residents of the remote Kvidinge narrate tales in voiceover of locals and the wilderness, which converge on individuals pulled toward retreat. He begins with a story of cows vanishing from the herd, a total rebellion against their instincts as we perceive them. Yet Skoog’s stylized views of the fields only solidify the longevity of the land, glimpsed in eerily graceful, omniscient dolly shots. The figures within these spaces come and go, through farms and unnaturally silent suburbs, and move through meandering improvisations seemingly designed to unravel our social conditioning. Skoog uses his bold aesthetic to explore a world whose habits will outlast us—and in that sense, he knows that a film is never finished.