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.
Those Who Jump, fresh from its Berlin premiere, is a firsthand account of the refugee experience with a very deliberate intermediary: the German filmmakers (Moritz Siebert, Estephan Wagner) who gifted Moroccan youth Abou Bakar Sidibé and his friends a camera and asked them to document their attempts at scaling the forbidding fences that surround the tiny Spanish city of Melilla (located on the north coast of Africa). Not unlike the Hurricane Katrina doc Trouble the Water, the strongest moments here are the ones authored by the subjects themselves, given the agency to tell their own story of exclusion and frustration. A fervent man plants himself at the center of his camp and improvises a harrowing song of oppression and the Western world’s indifference; Abou leaves a sobering voicemail to inform a woman that her son’s been killed in a border skirmish; and at one point, a mini-tribunal is formed to judge a man in the group for ratting out their activities to the local authorities, ultimately leading to passive extradition rather than the more violent punishment that’s initially proposed.
In contrast, the weaker elements here often relate to the instigating German filmmakers’ exerted influences. These include a needless, if sparingly used, voiceover and some jarringly deployed government-surveillance footage, which is suggested to time-sync with Abou and company’s border-crossing attempts, though it’s hard not to wonder what circumstances the filmmakers would need to create to be granted such access. These choices give an outsider perspective that somewhat dilutes the pure experience of the refugees. But in its context at True/False, the added distance actually offers its own potential for galvanization: It’s hard not to imagine the audience of fly-over-state moviegoers engaging with even the faceless figures in that surveillance footage. Siebert, Wagner, and Sidibé also find an evocative parallel in their film’s formal technique, a kind of affectation of the found-object aesthetic so prevalent in the refugees lives — as exemplified in the secondhand Western-capitalist product that litters their camps and a barely audible radio signal of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is another complement to the experience of considering black lives through a white lens. Directed by first-time Canadian filmmaker Brett Story, the loosely mounted essay film is essentially an assemblage of snapshots gathered from across the United States aiming to examine the effects of an out-of-control prison system on both small and large communities. Though a handful of the film’s subjects are white or Hispanic (including a Bronx man who runs a warehouse dealing in prison-regulation goods and food, struggling to explain the ridiculous contradiction of allowing serrated tuna cans, but not flimsy audio CDs inside prison walls), most are black men and women who are either former inmates themselves or have had their lives forcibly altered by the rampant incarceration efforts of law enforcement over the last 50 years. This is especially true of Story’s film when it abruptly pivots from the present to archival footage of the 1967 12th Street Riots in Detroit, scenes which lay an ostensible essayistic groundwork for the later sequences set in Ferguson and Baltimore, respectively.
But The Prison in Twelve Landscapes never really hangs together in any meaningful way beyond its obvious message: that the U.S. has a serious prison problem. And in fact, Story’s refusal to assert that message more directly, to circle around it with her variety of evasive, self-conscious documentarian techniques — the character sketch, the interview, haphazard essay, and inconsistently expressive landscape photography — feels less like an organic outgrowth of the film’s balanced critique than a personally motivated effort to not come off as a message-mongerer, a concern ultimately discarded anyway by the film’s misjudged final vignette. In a dubiously “observed” conversation on one of New York City’s busiest blocks, two women trade stories of their prison visits, and arrive at a mouthpiece-worthy conclusion: “At the end of the day, it’s all about money.”
All of this year’s True/False screenings have been prefaced by music performances from a large cache of unpaid buskers ( a red plastic hat is passed around between audience members for voluntary donations). Sometimes these shows feel of a piece with the screenings they presage, like that of Ghanian xylophonist SK Kakraba, whose familiar world music-oriented sound seems exactly the kind of accepted compromise of European and African perspectives appropriate to intro the joint cultural effort of Those Who Jump. Other times the connection is more tenuous, as was the case with Kansas native Your Friend (a.k.a. Taryn Miller), whose chilled-out guitar drone and shy croon lead to only unwanted conclusions about the subsequent film (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes), and its similarly directionless progression. Either way, this element serves to thread together the fest’s main attraction—the films—with its less heralded one: proper music shows hosted each afternoon and night at various venues across the city.
Lee Fields and the Expressions filled the festival’s opening-night slot, and indeed it’s probably the banner show of the whole music program this year. Another all-white band fronted by a powerful black performer, Seratones, served as the opening act, and though the stage sound of that show was a lot less dynamic, especially in comparison to the pristine mix carefully arrived at by the Expressions’s meticulous stage setup, Seratones still made an impression largely on the strength of their caterwauling front-woman.
Hailing from Shreveport, Louisiana, Seratones frontwoman AJ Haynes has all the guitar-wielding stage swagger of Jimi Hendrix or prime Lenny Kravitz, but with a sexuality that’s distinctly feminine and a voice that channels the spiritual fervor of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta. With her reasonably tight rhythm section, Haynes wailed, growled, and purred her way through a set list of mostly original material, showcasing a heavy, psych-accented garage rock with shadings of funk and blues. The standout was easily the band’s 2015 single “Necromancer,” with its thick vibrato vocal hook and pummeling percussion. The fast-paced nature of the set left time for only minimal stage banter, but Haynes did get to announce that the band’s debut, Get Gone, will be released in May. It’s probably worth keeping an ear out for it.
Lee Fields, maybe the last holdout of the classic-’60s soul belters, took the stage around midnight, with a JBs-esque introduction by his whip-smart backing band the Expressions. His aging voice crackled through a couple notes before sharply coming into its full power, like a vintage guitar amp clicking to life. “Just Can’t Win,” the retrospective-minded anthem of Fields’s late-blooming career, opened a set that went on a bit more than an hour, and scarcely seemed to lose any of its roiling momentum.
A lot of the best moments came from Fields’s last album, 2014’s underrated Emma Jean. At the time, that one sounded less emphatic than its two showy predecessors, 2009’s career-resuscitating My World and its follow-up, Faithful Man. But songs like “Standing by Your Side” and “Eye to Eye” now come across with a disarmingly romantic grandeur—and with a compositional and lyrical maturity that serves to expand Fields’s repertoire, especially in the context of a set heavy on songs about cheating women and women that make a man want to cheat. Fields made even his more standard scoundrel-themed fare feel special, though, especially when it brought out his still-formidable physicality, or awakened his playful impulse to bring the music down to a controlled whisper, as he flirted casually with the women in the audience.
Fields is a one-of-a-kind showman, and in a lot of ways because of his advancing age; there’s a deep grain in his powerful instrument that forbearers like Otis Redding never got old enough to possess. For their part, the Expressions, despite a sometimes too academic playing style that curtails the potential of Field’s funkiest workouts, are an exceptional backing band, especially capable when it comes to the kind of clean, in-the-pocket soul preferred by the Stylistics and the Delfonics. Fields never seemed too tired to keep going, but if he did he could’ve definitely given the drummer some.
The True/False Film Festival runs from March 3—6.