Seeing over a dozen documentaries in near succession over a few days, one notices recurring shots or concepts that, by the end of the weekend, begin to seem like tropes. En route to Columbia, a friend jokingly started taking bets on how many animals we’d see gutted and butchered on film. He guessed four; that’s how many I saw in True/False’s first 24 hours. (That sight, even after you realize it’s a cliché, manages to retain some impact as a means of establishing a film or a character’s bona fides.) It’s an obvious candidate for a game of Documentary Bingo. Other candidates for tiles include egregious swearing, chain-smoking, sun-bleached window views, and glaring suspicions major chunks of a given film was staged.
All of this was on display in Andris Gauja’s brilliant, nearly anarchic Family Instinct, which establishes its backwoods bona fides quickly, and is full of remarkably well-blocked scenes. One of many episodes that will pique your bullshit meter: After spending an hour with Gauja’s hard-nosed heroine, Zanda, and her wildly dysfunctional rural Latvian family, we see Zanda and her daughter having a quiet moment in their tiny, overstuffed home. Her daughter suddenly looks up in abject horror, as does Zanda; cut to a half-naked figure bursting into the house, covered in crimson, collapsing onto the ground. A moment later, he rises, a corkscrew dangling from his chest, the red now obviously paint slathered on by hand.
This gruesome sight gag is not quite the most outrageous moment in Gauja’s film, which revolves around Zanda’s futile attempts to assert matriarchal power over the revolving door of guests and relatives in her home while her partner and children’s father, Valdis (who is also Zanda’s brother), is in jail. Despite the harsh conditions in this rural backwater, nearly every expletive-laced scene of Family Instinct is played for comedy, a bold approach that pays off once you realize its characters are, by and large, performing for the camera. Mostly, it’s a comedy of nihilism and obstinacy, as in a montage where Zanda tries to claim utility money from her tenant relatives and they all ignore her or lie to her, or when a neighbor steals a chicken from the yard and attempts to sell it to the neighbors in order to buy some “hair of the dog.”
Gauja’s film would fall prey to accusations of exploitation and pointlessness were it not for Zanda’s presence as the sole moral force in all this boozy chaos, torn between abandoning her violent brother/children’s father and sticking with the security (from others) he offers. This is decidedly not a film about incest; those incidents, barely and matter-of-factly addressed, just serve to highlight the severe isolation of this family, and (though they’d probably all be better off separated) how much they rely one another. Despite her slight frame and hard, ashen face, Zanda’s truculent movements and outraged attempts to assert some authority over her extended clan are forceful and, on one occasion, heartbreaking. Mainly filmed with gorgeous, hi-def 7D technology (save a couple of grainier scenes set in a social services office), the film offers dozens of memorable, coyly composed images: her cousin cutting down a Christmas tree in the woods in utter darkness, looking (thanks to a headlamp with two bulbs) like the Iron Giant scanning the forest and creeping home; or a tense bit of crosscutting made absurd as Valdis tromps back from prison, stops at a bar to get drunk, and slips and stumbles back to his front door while his sister and children await his return, riddled with fraught anxiety. Whatever Family Instinct may lack in authenticity, its flair is irresistible.
True/False ran from March 3–6. For more information, click here.