The True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri completed its eighth year last weekend, and that title as a terse talking point is only more and more pervasive. At this very moment, a class-action lawsuit against Catfish demands to know what was staged and what was real (true/false indeed). This question of how to approach the many hybrid documentaries rising up has preoccupied film writers for the last year, leading to a mind-numbing, redundant slew of essays on the subject. (Full disclosure: I was supposed to speak on a panel about this and almost completely missed it, so the notes below here are something like what I might have said.) Trying to empirically pin down a film’s “truth,” shot by shot, is a parlor game to evade thinking about a film’s form, meaning, context, etc. In that respect, much documentary criticism fixates on questions of what’s staged and what isn’t. The hard work of taking a film apart and building it back up block by block, trying to reassemble it in written form, is set aside for faux-journalistic inquiry.
One of the best films at the festival was You Are All Captains, whose very nice director Oliver Laxe introduced it by noting that everything in it was false. This, as it turned out, wasn’t the stumbling block for some viewers: the real problem was that at least 20 people walked out, and I’m told that a third of the screening later in the day did the same. I loved it, but I’m an arthound: this is a movie made for me. The stumbling block was artiness: You Are All Captains is serene, black-and-white and contemplative. Very much in the spirit of Abbas Kiarostami’s work, especially in its presentation of children—whose responsiveness to the world matters more than their cuteness—the film gives us a way of looking at a difficult part of Morocco that transcends the direness of what we see. If you wanted straight reportage (but why?), this was not the place to be.
In other words, it’s potential pain for people who don’t necessarily want to see long shots of olive trees swaying in the wind. Since there’s no fake controversy here to pick apart (as in the zippier Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop), no one cared, which speaks volumes about the true/false divide. Yet somehow teasing this stuff out has become an ethical question, as if Banksy’s stunt-or-not grandstanding might hurt people in the real world. “Truth” has nothing to do with it: when your execution stumbles or is at odds with the audience, everything else becomes meaningless. And if, in writing about You Are All Captains (or any other documentary) you can’t grapple with the form and stick to boring questions about veracity, you’ve failed to address anything the film has to offer. The verifiability or lack thereof is not what’s at stake.
It’s hard, and almost invariably dangerously close to pretentious/moralistic gibberish, to suggest that film is a matter of morality, that the act of seeing a transcendent film can gently prod you to think about being a better person. You Are All Captains became a film that, for a variety of reasons, made me feel really happy. I was lucky enough to have lunch with, among others, the director, who talked about two things I’d never even touch: how horrible the world seems to be and how we can seek immanence (divinity in the everyday material world) and try to make our peace with the world as it exists. That frame of mind, much less articulated, was roughly what seeing the film made me feel like, which is an obviously uncommon feeling, one that can’t even begin to be approached by wondering what’s been captured spontaneously and what was staged.
The act of writing well about small, underfinanced films is hard for multiple reasons: there’s the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to collude with filmmakers whose work you admire to promote what you believe in, the worry that what you’re writing may inadvertently hurt a film and the fear that you’re dangerously misrepresenting a film due to whatever intangibles are floating through your head. Criticism is a battle against solipsism; so is filmmaking. When a film moves you outside of your head, it’s almost irrelevant what shooting methods it used to do that.
Most film writers (myself included) watch more narrative films than documentaries. Often, the terms of review focus on the worst traits of narrative film criticism: Is the subject relatable/sympathetic? Is there an engaging narrative with a clear, strong story? And yes: What’s real and what’s fake? These questions are a way of avoiding talking (hopefully non-pretentiously, though it’s hard) about form and, by extension, intangible euphorias. They’re intertwined: To convey a truth you believe in, you have an absolute obligation as a filmmaker to present it in a narrative form expressing what you would do in a completely controlled, artificial narrative. Playing amateur detective with this stuff helps neither filmmaker nor viewer.
All this is prompted by the festival, so one final point: this is my second year attending True/False, and I’ll hopefully be attending regularly in the future. By doing so—and by getting a free hotel room, swag, etc.—I am in an act of collusion I feel comfortable with. Not every film here is as adventurous as I could wish: Some are presentational acts of talking-heads documentation rather than engagement. That’s normal. But ultimately what I think the festival is trying to do is push that baseline definition of the documentary at its most banal—to offer documentaries that encourage viewers to reevaluate what the form can be. These aren’t new issues, but they’re very over-discussed right now, so let’s try to pay attention to the films rather than the facts.