It’s Saturday at the True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, MO, which means that all of the usual attributes of a half-over film festival are visible in full force. Filmmakers have become recognizable members of the town from their post-film Q&As with audiences and are stopped by fans on the street, filmgoers have seen enough to compare opinions and doll out recommendations, and everyone except for the organized few who’ve managed to pace themselves has bleary eyes from too many hours staring at screens.
Zachary Heinzerling’s debut film, Cutie and the Boxer, has been one of the films more prominent on everyone’s lips this weekend. A portrait of the Japanese artist couple Ushio Shinohara, who rose to fame in the ’60s, and his wife, Noriko, who’s first stepping into her own artistic spotlight now, the film is less a history lesson about how Ushio’s “action painting” (donning boxing gloves, dunking them in paint, and punching canvases) affected the art world and more an examination of the 40-year marriage between the two wildly eccentric artists. Though they’re not the type to express their love to each other in explicit, Hallmark-esque terms, their devotion to one another is tangible. Without Noriko to manage the more diplomatic side of his career with art dealers and museum curators, Ushio’s lack of business sense would have left him fumbling for support long ago; Ushio’s creative genius invariably drives Noriko to want to reclaim her own identity as an artist.
Archival footage shows clips of Ushio sitting with Andy Warhol, and Ethan Cohen, one of the most influential art dealers in the world, regularly visits Ushio’s studio and exhibits his work, but the nuanced rapport between Ushio and Noriko is a work of art itself, hence why Heinzerling chose not to focus the film on Ushio’s career. Despite their age (the film opens with Ushio’s 80th birthday), the two bicker and flirt incessantly, and even after years of Ushio’s alcoholism (though he’s now sober) and often inability to pay rent on time due to the non-lucrative nature of being an artist, their relationship is far more fresh and energized than that of most newlyweds. In between bites of his birthday fruit tart, Ushio remarks to Noriko, “I don’t listen to you. That’s how I stay young.” Later, he scrubs a painting of a canvas after Noriko teased him about it looking bad. Their tongue-in-cheek verbal communication is clearly more for entertainment purposes than for conveying what they’re actually thinking or feeling, but after 40 years together, they don’t need to say that much, and through nearly two years of filming, Heinzerling was able to capture this unsaid rapport. What he’s made is clearly a work of art, too, and just as Ushio’s art will inevitably increase in value as time goes by, the film will likely become more increasingly more cherished for capturing one of the most creative artist relationships of the past century.
Greg Barker’s Manhunt may sound like Zero Dark Thirty from its plot synopsis, but—being a documentary—it tells what actually happened in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the team of women in the C.I.A. who were responsible for much of mission’s success. The film starts at the beginning, back in the early ’90s when the U.S. didn’t even know Al Qaeda existed, and linearly goes through each mission, capture, attack, and informational breakthrough that culminated in the night when Obama stood at a podium in the White House and pronounced bin Laden dead. But amid the chronological slew of hard facts (names and faces of Al Qaeda members, flowcharts of the terrorist organization, maps, C.I.A. memos and documents), Barker scattered in moments of the humanity of his interview subjects, most of whom are current and former C.I.A. members and journalists and typically not associated with softer sides. The history of the War on Terror is fascinating enough, but hearing what the two-decade-long operation was like emotionally for those involved is even more so. There was the sisterhood camaraderie of the C.I.A. women trying to combat the gender stereotypes of male-dominated Washington. There was all-absorbing passion that was necessary for success. There were the stabbing daggers of blame from Congress after 9/11, saying that it was the C.I.A.’s fault for not having known enough in time to stop it, despite the fact that the C.I.A. had issued multiple warnings of a terrorist attack to the president and were doing all they could to find out more. And there was, of course, the excruciating guilt that 9/11 actually happened too. The women and men that Barker interviews aren’t at all like the cold, all-serious Maya (who turns out to be a fictional amalgamation of the women in Barker’s film) from Zero Dark Thirty. They crack jokes, they admit faults, they cry.
One of Barker’s goals for the film was to show that killing bin Laden was an enormous accomplishment, but it’s not the answer to preventing more terrorist attacks like 9/11. The only way to ensure total prevention is by eradicating the philosophy of Jihad, which is far more pervasive than being solely embodied in a single individual. Video clips from Al Qaeda propaganda are interspersed throughout, which are brutal in their conviction to inflict harm to America, and when they’re sidled up next to the segment of the film that addresses water boarding and advanced interrogation techniques, it’s difficult not say that the film does comment on this commentary, despite Barker’s approach to filmmaking that attempts to leave out any and all subjectivity. But opinions or not, the documentary is an astounding feat. It’s not often that C.I.A. members divulge to a camera, but the fact that members were willing to dispel their shroud of secrecy in order to tell their story further speaks to the enormity of what they pulled off. Barker, too, contributed to history by making this film.
True/False runs from February 28—March 3.