This article appeared in the March 15, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Three Promises (Yousef Srouji, 2023)

Every year, during the first weekend of March, the programming team behind Missouri’s True/False Film Festival offers something of a rarity in the often overwhelming festival scene: a concise but reliably solid lineup of nonfiction films, live music, and multidisciplinary art installations that make for a robust but manageable viewing experience. Located in the college town of Columbia, True/False unfolds in an intimate and gloriously walkable setting. It’s blissfully free of the cloying networking that pervades industry behemoths like Sundance, and provides a unique environment where you’re just as likely to strike up a conversation with a local teacher as with a seasoned Hollywood veteran.

At its 21st edition, which wrapped on March 3, True/False continued its tradition of programming an eclectic array of international premieres alongside crowd favorites from other festivals. This year’s lineup included Sundance highlights UnionAgent of HappinessSeeking Mavis Beacon, and Daughters, as well as the Missouri-set Girls State. Shorts, often an afterthought at other festivals, tend to shine—and frequently sell out—at True/False. Standouts in this edition included Daniela Muñoz Barroso’s cackle-inducing golf comedy Four Holes; Lynne Sachs’s Contractions, a poetic eulogy for the dwindling right to safe abortions across the U.S.; and Hanna Cho’s Queen’s Crochet, an irreverent, queer portrait of becoming.

The world premieres included gems like Elizabeth Nichols’s Flying Lessons, a surprisingly tender film that filters the fight for affordable housing through the bond between the filmmaker and her neighbor, Philly Abe, the late grand dame of New York’s 1980s downtown film and performance scene. Ambitiously, Nichols attempts to combine a portrait of her friend with a much broader critique of the greedy landlords and arcane bureaucracies that made Abe’s final years difficult. While the film occasionally falters by trying to cover too much ground, intimate scenes of Abe’s day-to-day life offer its strongest moments, highlighting her singular vigor and aplomb. Though the word “inspiring” gets thrown around too easily, Abe’s fierce independence and deliciously weird aura make her a rare figure deserving of the adjective.

Feats of defiance are similarly at the heart of Cyril Aris’s Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, a devastating but darkly humorous film-about-a-film set in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion—a tragedy of government ineptitude that continues to reverberate across Lebanese society. Among its many consequences, the explosion forced a halt in production on Mounia Akl’s film Costa Brava, Lebanon, which eventually premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021. With Dancing, Aris follows Akl and her crew as they navigate constant geopolitical and environmental hurdles, from unexpected floods to the maddeningly difficult circumstances faced by Palestinian lead actor Saleh Bakri as he attempts to travel from Haifa to Beirut while dealing with the hostility of Israeli authorities. A meditation on what it means to make art in the wake of disaster, Dancing achieves something profound and cathartically funny, despite its scenes of protests and Israeli rockets blustering across the sky.

The ever-present reality of settler violence emerged as a theme across this year’s lineup, pulsing through a particularly strong crop of first features. Another world premiere, Yintah, chronicles a decade of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s ongoing efforts to defend their territories from incursions by oil and gas companies enabled by the Canadian government. Sweeping drone shots display the natural beauty of the Yintah (the Wet’suwet’en term for “territory”) while also evoking the surveillance to which Indigenous communities are constantly subjected. Directed by Wet’suwet’en land defenders Jennifer Wickham and Brenda Michell and Canadian photojournalist Michael Toledano, the film unfolds like a thriller, capturing tense standoffs between the Canadian police and protagonists Howilhkat Freda Huson and Sleydo’ Molly Wickham (sister of one of the directors), who emerge as resilient strategists. Clocking in at just over two hours, Yintah doesn’t waste any time on explanatory talking heads, an approach that yields an energizing pace and makes plain the directors’ intended audience, even if it leaves non-Canadian viewers in the dark on certain political nuances. (A Canadian friend kindly explained to me the schisms between hereditary and elected Indigenous chiefs that emerge in some scenes.) Much like its subjects, Yintah is a film that knows its purpose, and serves it defiantly.

Three Promises, the captivating documentary from Palestinian director Yousef Srouji, likewise bears witness to the violence of a colonial state. Gathering a series of home movies created by the filmmaker’s mother, Suha, the film offers an intimate portrait of a family as they weather the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, torn between fleeing for their lives and remaining in solidarity with their community in Beit Jala, Palestine. Suha, regal onscreen with her flowing curls and keen fashion sense, guides the footage in poetic voiceover. Her reflections grow increasingly melancholy as she recounts the events that led to the family’s eventual displacement to Qatar and its effects on her children. “I felt that Yousef had lost his childhood,” she recalls, and describes the “soulless eyes” she would draw if she were to illustrate his face with pencil and paper. It’s a heart-wrenching scene that underscores the sense of powerlessness that comes from being unable to protect the ones you love.

Running just 61 minutes, Three Promises is tightly edited, and never shows us violence up close. Still, the destruction wrought by the Israeli army looms large, as giddy scenes of Christmas celebrations and children at play give way to those of panicked nights spent hiding below ground. As Israel’s current assault on Gaza (a mere 45 miles from Beit Jala) stretches into its sixth month, Three Promises mounts a forceful rebuttal to framings of the current violence as a form of “self-defense.” The crystal-clear time stamps on each piece of footage remind us that the present circumstances have grown out of a decades-long occupation which has cost the world countless lives, homes, and entire communities, as well as crucial historical testimony. A remarkably poignant work, Three Promises is all the more astounding when you consider that it’s Srouji’s first-ever film.

In the U.S., where expressions of support for Palestine have been met with canceled exhibitions, firings, and other acts of censure, it bears mentioning that True/False is one of few film festivals to express solidarity publicly with the Palestinian people. Srouji (who returned to Palestine in 2019 after living in exile in Qatar for many years) was also named the recipient of this year’s True Life Fund, True/False’s annual fundraising program designed to support the subjects of a chosen documentary by gathering donations from festival attendees. The fund, accepting contributions through April 30, is a direct (and all-too-rare) response to the common audience refrain of “how can I help?” Srouji has noted that he plans to use the money to build “a digital archive space for preserving vital footage from pivotal historical and cultural moments,” with any leftover cash to be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

Dessane Lopez Cassell is a New York–based editor, writer, and curator who examines the intersections of moving images and visual art.