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True/False 2011: Page One, Shut Up Little Man!, Life in a Day, & More

No protagonist at True/False was more difficult to identify with than Joshua Milton Blahyi.

True/False Film Fest 2011: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, and Life in a Day
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Slick, evenhanded, and absorbing, Andrew Rossi’s Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times explores the evolving dilemma of what happens when the paper of record is required to become a leading member of the web-driven 24-hour news cycle. Tracking a series of breaking news and meatier, investigative stories (including Sam Zell’s calamitous takeover of the Chicago Tribune and Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’s tenuous partnership with the paper), Rossi makes a fine case for the New York Times’s world-class coverage (not to mention the crippling costs of maintaining it) without shying away from the perhaps-unreasonable demands of an era of instant analysis. Focusing on the paper’s media department (home to intelligent, irrepressible personalities like David Carr, blogger-turned-journo Brian Stelter, and editor Bruce Headlam), Rossi forces his characters to confront the paper’s embattled future; their optimism, even when deluded (who oh who will pony up for the paywall?), is reassuring.

No protagonist at True/False was more difficult to identify with than Joshua Milton Blahyi, the former Liberial rebel leader who—prowling the country clad in nothing but weapons and ammo—ordered the death of tens of thousands of his countrymen during the country’s first civil war (1989-1996). As Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion show in The Redemption of General Butt Naked, his conversion to a fiery preacher wandering the country and atoning, one by one, for his sins, is also tough to stomach. Is Blahyi just obsessed with being admired? How authentic is his grief? The director’s search for clues in his face, and those of his victims, but apart from a few cowardly kinks in Blahyi’s armor (he flees the country in the face of death threats, and later existentially longs to know when his great apology tour will end), his commitment to righteousness seems firm. More difficult to stomach is how successful his efforts at atonement are; the film’s most chilling moment comes when Blahyi takes a teenager whom he effectively orphaned under his wing. Strauss and Anastasion struggle to find logic in such moments; I’m still not sure if this is The Redemption of General Butt Naked’s primary strength or liability.

The most interesting thing about Matthew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is its reminder that viral sensations existed before the Internet did. Its subject is a collection of cassette tapes two Midwestern transplants to San Francisco recorded in the late 1980s, of their neighbors having senselessly, relentlessly belligerent and ingeniously phrased arguments. The tapes spread, inspiring comic and mixtape artists, musicians, and playwrights in a steady snowball. How much you’ll like the film largely depends on your tolerance for ugly, Jerky Boys-style voices (the tapes are played incessantly over zine-y photo collages), but my patience ran out in the film’s third act, as the director’s allegiance to its increasingly greedy, combative, and morally confused protagonists blooms in full.

“Better than I expected” was the surprising consensus about True/False’s closing film, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day, a collection of videos shot by something like 350 citizen filmmakers (of 80,000 submissions uploaded to a YouTube channel) on July 24, 2010. It’s a concept that, I suppose, someone had to try out at some point, but it’s too bad that the chief cinematic inspiration for Life in a Day appears to have been Babies. The first half hour or so of the film (produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, for your information) isn’t much more than an occasionally cute montage of people waking up, making coffee, having breakfast, and heading to work, with enough variations to remind you that there are others in the world who live in entirely different cultures. Progressing through the day, Life in a Day follows suit: The most memorable news event of the day, the fatal stampede at Germany’s Love Parade, gets a couple of tense minutes, but by and large the film is a checklist of the major and minor events of life in this world, all so studiously, fleetingly acknowledged—and vigorously color-corrected—as to make existence seem a lot more rote and predictable than it actually is.

The True/False Film Festival ran from March 3—6.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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