True/False’s 10th year was undoubtedly its best run yet, and as the last song played at its closing concert, by Buskers Last Stand, there was a feeling of elation from a weekend having exceeded expectations. There were the name-dropping perks of up-and-coming Chicago duo MNDR DJing the annual @ction Party; Ushio, the star of Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, demonstrating one of his punch paintings on a billboard-sized canvas; Q&As with big-names such as Daniel Dreifuss, the producer of Oscar-nominated No. But there were the unexpected and discreet perks, too, like seeing the twin brothers that comprise the band Flux Bikes use their bikes as instruments to make complex beat symphonies; finding an enormous fort filled with balloons hiding in a back room at a festival party on Saturday; being entertained by volunteers cracking jokes over megaphones while waiting in a theater line. It’s the quirky, charming touches that distinguish True/False from most film festivals, transforming the experience into more than just a series of events; they turn it into a pop-up community that’s utterly engulfing for a handful of days each year.
The most impacting thing True/False does every year is its True Life Fund, which works with the director of one of the more than 1,100 submitted films in order to raise money for a related cause. This year’s recipient was Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, and the money will go to RISC, a nonprofit established by the famed director and journalist Sebastian Junger, that provides three-day, expense-free medical training sessions to war journalists from around the world. Hetherington, a photojournalist legendary for the humanitarian focus he brought to his war coverage, was killed while covering the fighting going on in Libya during the Arab Spring. A shrapnel from a mortar blast hit Hetherington’s leg, and though the wound wasn’t fatal, none of the other war journalists with him knew how to treat it, so he died of blood loss on the way to the hospital. Junger shared a brotherly closeness 15 months in Afghanistan while filming Restrepo, so after receiving news of Hetherington’s death on April 20, 2011, Junger was so thrown that he vowed off covering war ever again and began devoting his efforts to RISC and making this film.
Junger jokes that Kleenex should be the unofficial sponsor of Which Way Is the Front Line. The degree to which Junger admired his best friend was shared by everyone who knew Hetherington, and the earnestness with which Junger portrays the nobility and dignity he brought to photojournalism shows not only how much of a loss Hetherington’s death was to those who knew him but to the entire field of photography. Hetherington wasn’t interested in covering war itself (getting the news, showing the graphic images, taking shots that he knew would sell), but rather with the impact of war on the soldiers who fought it and the civilians who endured it. His philosophy is best described in one of Junger’s interviews in that he saw no difference between being a photographer, being a journalist, being humanitarian, being any of the many professional categories the he himself fell into. These labels were side dishes to his main pursuit of being a committed humanitarian. That was Hetherington’s true profession, and his choice to visually capture human connectivity during our planet’s most raw and dramatic moments inevitably produced what’s widely regarded as one of the most profound and powerful bodies of photojournalistic work ever made.
Junger filmed intensely personal interviews with Hetherington’s parents, colleagues, and the woman he planned to marry. And because the film was made by a photojournalist about a photojournalist, obviously much of the film’s emotional effect is derived from the intensity of the images. But the film is more dimensional than a straight biography. One of the themes of Hetherington’s work and, ultimately, the cause of his death is the addiction of going to war. Junger is by no means unfamiliar with this either, and in an interview he himself provides, he describes how it’s easier to go to war than it is to come back because the risk of death brings out the thrill of feeling fully alive and life anywhere else feels less real. This exploration of the front-line psyche is one of the most fascinating elements of the film, bringing a crazy understanding of why people as humble and well educated and handsome as Hetherington would constantly risk their lives to go to the most physically and emotionally dangerous places on Earth. In the Q&A after the film, Junger related a moral he was once told: how the truth about war isn’t that you might obviously lose your own life, but that you’re definitely going to lose your brothers. With this film and with RISC, Junger has turned his own loss into a bevy of blessings.
Not too long after taking viewers to the depths of war, the festival closed on a much lighter note, literally, with Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, a doc about the lives of backup singers. First and foremost, the film has one of the most extraordinary soundtracks. One could be blindfolded and still love this film simply because of the constant slew of powerful voices singing renowned hits: David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter,” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” But the voices don’t belong to Bowie, Jagger, and Cocker; they’re the powerful voices harmonizing spectacular, soulful backgrounds, transforming chart-toppers into something more legendary.
The idea for the film came from the marijuana-blitzed mind of Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M Records, who became fixated on the backup singers at a Leonard Cohen concert. After sharing his musings with Neville, who then decided to flesh them out on film, Friesen apparently joked that that had been the most expensive joint he had ever smoked, but the outcome, which was recently picked up by the Weinstein Company, is an invaluable venture into a widely overlooked but imperative part of the music industry. Neville quickly dispels the notion that backup singers are just wannabe leads; many of his subjects talk about the overpowering delight of a being a part of a perfectly blended group of voices, and most of them never strived to take center stage. The women he interviews, who’ve worked with all of the greats (Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ike and Tina Turner), are clearly talented enough to go solo, and some of them do, but that’s not what most of them ever wanted, as strange as it sounds to have an end goal be the background. Being a backup singer takes all of the confidence and practice of being a star, but it lacks the diva-ness and self-promotion. It’s about being a piece of a greater whole.
That being said, a few of his subjects, such as Darlene Love and Judith Hill, have used backup singing as a stepping stone to the spotlight, which isn’t an easy path to take. Backup singing is riddled with financial challenges and a certain dependency upon looks, which inevitably leads to some musical careers ending earlier than they should. Hill, who once sang duets with Michael Jackson on tour, had to return to taking jobs swaying in the background on Saturday Night Live after his death. But because the hardships are side effects of an immense love of singing, there’s a certain joyfulness that wallpapers even the tough times, a certain pride that comes from having a gift and feeling it your divine duty to share it with the world.
After the film was over, Neville on stage to a standing ovation from the audience and introduced one of the film’s subjects, Lisa Fischer, the lead female vocalist for the Rolling Stones since 1989 (listen carefully to the roaring vocals behind Jagger’s in “Gimme Shelter” and it’s easy to see why they kept her around). She spoke a bit about what it was like to be in the film and opened up to Neville about her struggle-filled career before inviting willing audience members to gather around a microphone with her for some impromptu a cappella. And with that, True/False went out on a high note.
True/False ran from February 28—March 3.