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.
Set inside one of Tehran’s juvenile corrections facilities, Starless Dreams affords a group of teenage girls the opportunity to tell their own stories—and they do so with a remarkable and heartbreaking self-awareness of the injustices they’ve suffered. Oskouei understands that his most vital role is a minimal one: His voice is heard, off-camera, gently prompting a broader considerations on the nature of happiness, forgiveness, and faith. Likewise, his aesthetic choices offer only subtle expansions on the thoughts and ideas expressed by his subjects. When one girl describes the corrections facility as a place where “pain drips from the walls,” Oskouei responds with an image of thawing snow trickling down a windowpane, like tears.
It’s a brilliant shot that not only suggests the sadness of the girl’s reality, but also evokes the hope for change Oskouei invests in her—a hope which pays off in the improving circumstances of at least some of the inmates by the end of the film. These gestures deepen the 75-minute film’s sense of artistry, but its emotional capacity is reached through its humanist ambitions. Much like Edet Belzberg’s magnificent Children Underground from 2000, the true masterstroke here is in giving the purest platform to otherwise voiceless souls of such boundless strength and character.
Strong in a different sense is Oksman’s O Futebol, which sacrifices little, if any, emotional payoff in its application of a strict aesthetic sensibility. The first scene finds Oksman standing next to his father in the center of the frame. The date, as the first of many on-screen titles informs us, is April 13th, 2013. We learn from the two men’s belabored dialogue that Oksman is visiting his father in São Paulo, and that it’s the first time they’ve seen each other in 20 years. Soon, the former announces that he’ll go back home to Madrid the next day, but not before making a plan for the future: On June 12th of next year, at the start of a Brazil-hosted World Cup, he’ll return to São Paulo to watch the games with his father, just as he did when he was a boy. Not long after this is agreed, a heavy rain sets in, driving both men out of the frame. Oksman lingers on the vacant composition, emphasizing the uncontrollable forces that can disrupt even the most carefully thought-through plans. Later, this sequence proves a miraculous, if also very sad, act of foreshadowing.
The ultimate destination of Oksman’s film could not possibly have been predicted or planned for, and is best discovered firsthand. Suffice it to say that the film is never about sports, or even really the father-son dynamic at its center. Instead, it’s largely about minutia at a quotidian level; its strict, static framing and repetition of on-screen titles corresponding to the various team match-ups at the World Cup and the specific dates they took place call attention to the way the progression of our lives is often marked by the scheduling of day-to-day events. A very late scene in the film, involving the excavation of a small archive of word-puzzle magazines, gives a further sense of the aesthetic organization Oksman is employing here. The contents of the pages are sprawled across the screen, a network of meticulously filled-in grids that resembles nothing so much as a calendar. When, in the film’s concluding passage, Oksman offers up a series of entirely vacant compositions, this time these shots carry the full weight of their absence. O Futebol is a moving variation on the nonfiction elegy.
If both Starless Dreams and O Futebol use documentary as a means to locate truth in nonfiction, albeit with varying strategies, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine seems expressly concerned with burying it. The film offers an intriguing, if immediately dubious, setup: Greene invites real-life actress Kate Lyn Sheil to film a series of dramatic recreations in the life of the late news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who’s known to some, if at all, for committing suicide before a live national television audience in 1974. Much of the film involves Sheil’s preparation process: She gets a tan, tries on wigs, reads from prepared scripts, and generally bemoans her limited access to any material that would give her an idea of who Chubbuck actually was; there isn’t any video footage of the woman available online, let alone of her infamous suicide, which has long since been buried by WXLT-TV (now WWSB), an ABC affiliate in Sarasota, Florida. Later, Sheil routinely challenges Greene, and the various other actors he’s hired, as she struggles to find any meaning in the project and, ultimately, in the life of Chubbuck herself.
Of course, this being Greene, how much of Kate Plays Christine is earnest nonfiction and how much is a staged stunt is entirely up for debate—and, crucially, also unknowable. What is known is that Chubbuck was a real person who really committed suicide, and for reasons that, again, no one will ever completely know. What also seems clear is that Greene’s approach isn’t concerned with engaging that legacy, but rather always one that puts the filmmaker and Sheil’s own self-interests at the forefront. Greene’s perspective in all this is so suspiciously absent (at most he gives the actors some advice in the scenes they perform, or gives purely clinical direction to Sheil) that it can feel like a calculated rejection of responsibility. Instead, Sheil is given the most agency, including the freedom to perform a Network-quoting finale that even fans of this film (of which there are many) seem to recognize as a decisive misstep. One early admission from Sheil, that she’s sick of being praised as a performer for her “subtlety,” at the very least, seems true. It also serves as something of a tell for the rest of Kate Plays Christine: This is a work of substantial ambitions, but it also seems less interested in the actual provocation of thought than earning recognition for inciting it.