This year’s True/False bursted with new possibilities for the documentary form: The career scrapbooking of cinematographer Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson, the polemical impressionism of Petition director Zhao Liang’s Behemoth, the slow-cinema aesthetic of Sergio Oksman’s narratively structured O Futebol, and whatever truth or fallacy of fiction ultimately informs the nucleus of hometown Columbia hero Robert Greene’s deliberate, obscurantist acting exercise Kate Plays Christine. But besting all of these was Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s markedly more conventional Starless Dreams. The recipient of this year’s True Vision award at the festival, Oskouei relies largely on that most normative documentary technique: the interview.
True False Film Festival (#1–10 of 31)
Kicking off less than a week removed from the end of Black History Month and the controversies of this year’s almost exclusively white Oscars, the 13th annual True/False Film Festival already seems to have the country’s most important social issue on its agenda. Here in the modestly bustling college town of Columbia, Missouri, everyone from out-of-town press to the general, local public has surrendered to a five-day open discussion on social and aesthetic concerns in the real world, one that this festival’s all-nonfiction-film program seems uniquely prepared to provoke. This being the Midwest, the audience is predominantly white—and on day one at least, the art has seemed to be a calculated exploitation of that demographic.
1. “Percy Sledge Dies at 74.” The R&B singer, whose soulful ballad of eternal love and rejection, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” topped the charts in 1966, dies on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, LA.
“Mr. Sledge, sometimes called the King of Slow Soul, was a sentimental crooner and one of the South’s first soul stars, having risen to fame from jobs picking cotton and working as a hospital orderly while performing at clubs and colleges on the weekends. ’I was singing every style of music: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Motown, Sam Cooke, the Platters,’ he once said. ’When a Man Loves a Woman’ was his first recording for Atlantic Records, after a patient at the hospital introduced him to the record producer Quin Ivy. It reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1966 and sold more than a million copies, becoming the label’s first gold record. (The Recording Industry Association of America began certifying records as gold in 1958.) Raw and lovelorn, the song was a response to a woman who had left him for another man, Mr. Sledge said. He called its composition a ’miracle.’”
1. “Galaxies Inside His Head.” Terrance Hayes uses poetry to show that there is more to him, and to anyone, than what you expect.
“Hayes has written poems that speak to, or for, the 1980s TV star Mr. T; the black nationalist poet Amiri Baraka; the segregationist senator (and secret father of a black daughter) Strom Thurmond; the Russian modernist poet and provocateur Vladimir Mayakovsky; and the poet Etheridge Knight, who began writing in prison. His most revealing impersonations, though, invoke chameleonic pop stars like Michael Jackson and David Bowie. His work explores multiple identities and multiple forms of masculinity—how to be, or become, various kinds of men—but it is also an art of evasion: To become a full-time poet, Hayes had to leave a house of prison guards. Hayes works to escape not the African-American identity but the demand that he (or anyone) express that identity in the same way all the time. When Hayes read in South Carolina last month, ’a young white girl pretty much accosted me and said, ’Why do you write so much about being black?’’ he told me. It wasn’t the first time he was asked. ’Because I am black. I’m black, I’m Southern, I’m male, I’m obsessive, I’m weird, I’m half-blind,’ he answered.”
A lazy, sensationalistic piece of cinematic journalism based on a masterpiece of narrative reportage, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear takes the revelations of Lawrence Wright’s work exposing the inner workings of the Church of Scientology and twists them into two hours of talking-head interviews, reenactments, and pointless scaremongering. The prolific director reliably releases two or three features a year on infamous celebrities or provocative subjects, and his approach is fluid, sweeping, and at this point dispiritingly formulaic. Gibney’s ambition is to create the definitive documentary on each of his subjects; as such, his films refuse to dwell on the ambiguities or hypocrisies that might make them more worthwhile than a half hour on YouTube and Wikipedia.
Wright’s presence in Going Clear is a persistent reminder of what the film could have been. Early on, he declares an interest in systems of belief with a “crushing certainty that erases doubt,” but the film’s synopsis of Scientology is delivered with a sneer. The religion’s duped apostates speak of signing billion-year contracts, spending vast sums of money on elevating the church’s baroque hierarchy of spiritual achievement, and being treated cruelly as lesser acolytes (John Travolta, Tom Cruise) are festooned with honors intended to keep them espousing the religion’s benefits. Wright explains how L. Ron Hubbard transformed his work in science fiction into a formal set of beliefs, and the film quickly reminds us that Hubbard was “prone to invention,” dredging up inflated war stories and some heinous treatment of his lovers and children.
The schism between local and national politics in China is massive: Figures like Geng Yanbo, the titular subject of The Chinese Mayor, are directly engaged with and responsible to the citizenry, while regional and statewide communist officials are largely sheltered from media scrutiny and political scandal. This helps to explain the surprising access gained by director Zhou Hao, who listens in on Geng’s phone calls and follows him through meetings and travel junkets, but doesn’t account for the film’s light comedy and intricate characterization. As Geng balances ambitions to transform the city of Datong into a shrine to Chinese culture and history with bureaucratic mandates to demolish 30% of the city’s housing (and relocate half a million residents), Zhou’s film plays out like an episode of Parks and Recreation directed by the Maysles brothers.
Datong is a former imperial capital in northern China and, thanks to local coal-mining outfits, it’s the country’s most polluted city. Many of its residents have lived in informal housing for generations, and are only now being punished for lacking official property forms. Citizens line up at the gate of Geng’s home and stand in front of steamrollers to protest the impending demolition of their home; the mayor, good-natured and genuinely concerned for the welfare of his city, manages their concerns on a case-by-case basis, without impeding the progress of his rebuilding plans. Zhao hangs back with some of these residents, but also gains access to higher-level meetings of regional mayors and party members, racing after Geng as he rushes through walled compounds and into appointments. The mayor is a workhorse, and his wife—the scene-stealer of this year’s True/False—fears for his health, worrying he’ll toil himself to death. “Are you tired of living?” she pleads repeatedly, both over the phone and as she enters a meeting, unbidden.
A work of astounding sensitivity and precision, Of Men and War argues for emotional honesty as a moral and psychic imperative. The second part of his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy (the first, War Wearied, followed three widows in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia), Laurent Bécue-Renard’s film avoids the politics of modern warfare, maintaining a rigorous focus on past traumas and present struggles of its subjects, a group of PTSD-inflicted veterans residing at a health-care facility in California’s Napa Valley.
Early in the film, a veteran, fixed in a tight close-up, recalls his first experience killing another man: “I don’t know what he looked like before he got shot. I know what he looked like after.” Bécue-Renard’s camera pans away from the soldiers face to reveal a room full of soldiers gripped by similar images they can’t escape, regrets they can’t shake, or decisions they can’t take back. This camera movement simply, devastatingly defines the format of treatment at work here—group therapy—and its ultimate purpose: As one doctor puts it, “to bear witness to you sharing yourself.”
Director Joshua Oppenheimer emphatically suggests that all of humankind’s troubles begin and end with the body. With The Act of Killing and its companion piece, The Look of Silence, the filmmaker offers startling concentration of how members (though mostly men) of a community can be so stridently abusive and murderous to one another, but still carry out such operations with a smiling, almost carefree abandon, that when asked to recount their deeds, they do so with a willingness that suggests they’re talking about something as seemingly innocuous as their days in elementary school.
Such a comparison isn’t arbitrary, however, because unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is directly concerned with generational lore, as attitudes and values both personal and political are disseminated in schools and perpetuated as fact rather than roundly unfounded propaganda. Adi Rukun sits and watches videos of members of the Indonesian death squad’s featured in The Act of Killing; in effect, Adi is watching that film, often in tight close-up, with nary a change of expression to his emotionless face. Adi’s brother Rimli was killed during the coup, but the killer’s explain over and over again that he was castrated, even fully reenacting (with one of them bent over) the actual action as it took place. Oppenheimer has an uncanny ability to get grown men to act like adolescents, playing out their actual murders as if they were simply childhood fantasies of war and adulthood.
A repetitive journey through the streets and tunnels of Naples, Il Segreto follows a gang of seemingly rootless, pre-teen children scavenging for discarded or abandoned Christmas trees. For an hour, directors Cyop & Kaf shape the film as a process documentary with no discernible endgame. On foot and moped, the filmmakers track the group of entrepreneurial preteens as they maraud the city. They knock on the doors of luxury apartment buildings, rummage through dumpsters, negotiate with business owners and building administrators, but mostly just drag pines and firs of all shapes, sizes, and states of health through the amber-hued nightlight of the city’s Spanish Quarter.
Just as they withhold information about where these trees are headed, and what the kids hope to gain from them, the directors are intent on emphasizing the headstrong, driven nature of their subjects, parading unsupervised through the night. Through a ruthless focus on process, Cyop & Kaf capture both the unbridled energy and fundamental weakness of the children, who struggle to drag a tree with an intact root structure as they inflate their productivity to one another. They espouse prowess and power, but struggle to demonstrate it. Slowly, innumerable minor details about the demographic strata of the city pile up: working-class business owners call the children “wild beasts,” the younger and well-heeled rich gingerly try to assist or ignore them, and the adults in their neighborhood are both tolerant of and enervated by all of this late-night activity.
Director Brett Morgen distinguishes the biographical documentary by viewing himself as more of a curator than a film director. He locates unseen or previously discarded archival elements and orchestrates them into an experiential mode that understands insight less as emanating from authority-based reflections than providing an immersion within the subject at hand. That’s certainly the approach he took in a remarkable entry from 2010 into ESPN’s “30 for 30” series called June 17, 1994, in which media footage and coverage from the day is organized to recreate events without the intrusion of voiceovers or explanatory segments whatsoever.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is Morgen’s attempt to apply this approach to the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, as previously unseen footage and audio montages from Cobain’s personal materials are collaged together in an epic-length documentary that seeks to stand as the definitive portrait of Cobain’s oft-contested biography. As much sonically as visually inclined, Morgen draws on track after track of Cobain’s music to offer a series of montages, each with a differing visual component. The film opens with images of 1950s America as a place of booming consumerism following World War II, but set to various grunge riffs that explicate Morgen’s aesthetic aims, as he attempts various forms of clashes between sound and image throughout. These were happy times for Cobain’s parents, but the seedlings of youthful dissent and aggression were already being sewn.