For my trip to Columbia, Missouri, home to the exemplary True/False festival, I ambitiously (pretentiously?) packed a copy of A Journal of the Plague Year by novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe. Based on reports and statistics about the Great Plague of London in 1665-66, Defoe's simulated account seemed in the spirit of documentary art. Little did I know just how artful the nonfiction films on display at True/False would turn out to be, and with none of the virulent disease.
Entering its 10th year with a rich four-day lineup of 40-odd films and programs, the festival continues to honor filmmaking chops over issue bait, facile arcs, and shapeless austerity. The programming team (“co-conspirators” Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, and associate programmer Chris Boeckmann) cherry-pick from international festivals that have lower profiles in this country, and from Sundance as well. Enthusiastic local crowds, which reached record numbers this year, pack its downtown venues; the flagship is the Ragtag Cinema, a laid-back combination of moviehouse, bakeshop, and bar. Bands from all over perform before screenings and lend a relaxing, utterly unforced feel of community. (As the busker’s basket made its way through the audience, one woman chuckled to her husband: “I feel like I’m at church.”) The well-worked-out philosophy, in terms of running a festival and of cinema in general, renders the notion of getting attention through premieres less relevant, but they’ve thought of that too: “secret screenings” of unannounced titles offer a startling trove of soft previews for films making their official splash elsewhere.
One movie that should be no secret is Sleepless Nights, directed by Lebanese filmmaker (and programmer) Eliane Raheb. Playful and aggressive, elegant and confrontational, sardonic and melancholic, this dense film looks at the legacy of Lebanon’s sectarian civil war (1975-1990) through its legacy of discontents. Chief among Raheb’s subjects are Assaad Shaftari, an ordinary-looking intelligence officer let off scot-free by the sweeping postwar amnesty, and Maryam Saiidi, the furious, desperate mother of a Communist fighter who disappeared during a university raid. The film’s voices of experience are heard in a variety of encounters, interviews, and tag-alongs in many settings. Raheb herself is a palpable presence even when off screen, bringing an appealing Ophulsian tenacity to her questioning and a Godardian restlessness to the film’s overlays, asides, and cutaways.
In one morbidly hilarious and satisfying scene Saiidi bitingly dismiss the psychobabble of a therapist blithely sweeping matters under the rug; in another, Shaftari performs as a clown in a theater exercise. These are “scenes” in the sense that Raheb is constantly searching for new twists and turns on engaging with and reconsidering the past. I happened to meet her briefly later in the festival—one of the pleasures of True/False is how easily the conversation continues with filmmakers, who participate in a number of events. When I at first didn’t recognize Raheb, she echoed her film’s quickness with a self-aware joke: perhaps it was because she wasn’t sternly saying “Why did you kill all those people?”
The Captain and His Pirate
Another duel, or duet, unfolds in The Captain and His Pirate, directed by German windsurfer-turned-filmmaker Andy Wolff (with whom I spoke on a panel at a conference held shortly before the festival at the nearby Missouri School of Journalism, one of a few educational institutions also key to Columbia’s identity). Like Raheb (and Joshua Oppenheimer, whose Act of Killing also screened), Wolff enters treacherous waters. Two people on either side of trauma alternate their separate accounts: German captain Krzysztof Kotiuk, whose freighter was held hostage by Somali pirates from April to August 2009, and the lead pirate on board, Mogadishu’s own “Ahado” (no further name given).
Middle-aged Kotiuk recalls the hijacking with lingering shock, still resentful about his treatment in the German press. The qhat-chewing Ahado, still at large and raised amid the gunfire and chopper din of his war-torn country, prides himself on his professionalism and shows a mix of pity and respect toward his former captive. Kotiuk is also shown undergoing exposure therapy (including getting reaccustomed to loud noises), though Ahado’s tough take on his victim is fairly spot on: Kotiuk's sense of masculinity was devastated by his ordeal, during which the crew turned against him. Wolff, who doesn’t appear on screen, suspends the viewer in a state of unease, ultimately, with this singular, tonally nimble double portrait of a brutal site-specific relationship.
The Garden of Eden
All is not well in The Garden of Eden, title notwithstanding. Israeli director Ran Tal uses his country’s Sakhne National Park—regularly mobbed by Israelis and Arabs seeking escape in the waters of its popular stream—as a microcosm for a society riven by differences and tensions. That might have been the beginning and end of the film in the hands of many other documentarians (that, or a more explicit investigation à la Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen), but Tal brilliantly interweaves the personal histories of parkgoers, through their own voiceover and interludes that cut away to other locations. We hear tragic arias of love and families lost, soul-baring confessions, and moving recollections—an Arab forbidden from marrying his Jewish girlfriend, a woman starting afresh after years of spousal abuse. We hear, in other words, what the parkgoers are trying to forget, or set aside for the moment, and see where they do so.
Across the globe in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light, a True/False world premiere, accumulates its own weight of human experience through the forbearance and love in three blue-collar families whose fathers participate in competitive snowmobile racing. Their calling is only part of a film that’s a perhaps overly scattered mosaic of moments among parents and children, life partners and friends, all rendered with lucent beauty by cinematographer Bentgen, making his directorial debut. When the lap numbers flash on screen during a final race and climb into the hundreds, it’s hard not to feel the grinding passage of years behind the pursuit of victory. One woman’s words of encouragement run: “Love you, God bless you, go fast.” It’s an elegantly assembled work that gathers slowly, as is The Last Station, from Chilean filmmakers Cristian Soto and Catalina Vergara. Observing the wrinkled, snoozy residents of several homes for the elderly, the film is a study in light and stillness, and a kind of cinematic vigil.
While these films were having their North American or world premieres, the programming at True/False also shined a different light on titles that had already received some recognition: Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Pablo Larraín’s No, shuffled into the nonfiction lineup as retro-video exercises in reconstruction; the heavyweight The Act of Killing, found a counterpart and a run for its money in Sleepless Nights; Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, outshined by more formally adventurous films but resonating anew with Columbia residents scarred by local abortion battles; and The Invisible War, whose director Kirby Dick, at a panel, showed footage of testimonials about general military misogyny that he shrewdly cut from the final film.
These Birds Walk
Festival regulars were also able to watch the growth of a film that was workshopped here last year: These Birds Walk, directed by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq. Opening by quoting the final shots of The 400 Blows, Mullick and Tariq’s doc follows a sad-eyed but spirited Karachi kid who is taken in at a well-known shelter for runaways, and also spends time with a young ambulance driver working for the institution. One of several films at True/False shot by evident connoisseurs of subtle color gradients and fleet-footed camerawork, These Birds Walk also well captured what screening presenter Robert Greene (director of Kati with an I) called the rough-and-tumble “social logic” among children in the home.
Having thrived long enough to boast its own history, the festival appropriately marked its decade of existence by launching a guest-curated series that added a retrospective dimension. Dubbed Neither/Nor, the section aims to showcase what the festival dubbed “chimeras—films straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction,” though even that dichotomy quickly comes to seem inadequate for the range of claims and formal strategies in play. Critic Eric Hynes (a past Film Comment contributor) programmed the inaugural lineup, which brought to bear the raucous, unkempt late-Sixties experimentation of 1 P.M., The Fall, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, and David Holzman’s Diary (director Jim McBride was in attendance). They’re the sort of films that one would not even think to begin describing as “not like your ordinary documentary,” and the same can be said of the best selections of True/False, an advocate and a beacon for good filmmaking, period.