The biggest event in Missouri during the week of the True/False Film Fest in March was not the True/False Film Fest. The day before the first batch of screenings, the U.S. Department of Justice released its report on the despicable practices of the Ferguson police department. A few days later, President Obama commemorated the 1965 Selma march with a speech emphasizing that the protest’s symbolic journey was far from over. It was not an easy moment to settle into a seat at the festival’s flagship Ragtag Cinema, after tucking into a greasy sammy from the adjoining bakery, and lose oneself in the glory of documentary (a field which also experienced the loss of Albert Maysles). The feeling of unease certainly didn’t abate later as I found myself sitting at one of True/False’s regular pre-screening music shows, inches away from a tiny harpist crooning: “No one else is quite like you.”
All of this probably had less effect on my frame of mind than simple familiarity with the widely adored festival taking some of the shine off. True/False’s cherry-picked program, canny cultivation of guests, choice local eats, and entertaining group activities had all elicited reviews that sounded like wide-eyed, wow-mouthed raves about a spa retreat (my own bewildered first report included). No doubt True/False’s standing remains hard to beat for its judicious focus on the cream of the crop as well as the influence of its taste-making in programming and critical circles. But going into this edition with a much greater proportion of the slate already under my belt than on prior visits, I found the returns on my trip diminishing considerably, which no amount of festival bonhomie could alleviate.
The Chinese Mayor
I was of course more than happy to catch up with a genuine Sundance find such as The Chinese Mayor, Hao Zhou’s exemplary look at a small-town (well, small-city) politician making tough decisions in the name of economic progress and profile-raising. “Hurry up” are the first words we hear in what becomes a vital documentary complement to the globalization dramas of Jia Zhang-ke; eviction, demolition, and exploitation of tradition are all undertaken, even as the mayor ultimately remains at the whims of regional Communist Party apparatchiks. In its nuanced view of human nature, Hao Zhou’s film was a suitable antidote to the tiresome insinuations and pseudo-analysis of Bitter Lake, a bloated essay on Afghanistan and the West by True/False award-winner Adam Curtis, whose knack for mapping out complex cultural-historical narratives utterly fails him here. Pockmarked with misreadings (or misrepresentations) of key points in 20th-century history, it’s a difficult work to take half as seriously as Curtis, who presents the film’s conclusions as revelatory—despite the fact that they were being made years ago.
Life According to Ohad
If a reliable chunk of the True/False lineup consists of titles from Sundance (and, to a lesser but significant extent, IDFA), there are also lovely unheralded films from far-flung quarters. Two Israeli films caught my attention this year, both wrestling with the double binds of personal ethics and familial obligation. Eri Daniel Erlich’s Life According to Ohad gets almost uncomfortably close to a young animal-rights activist whose radical beliefs have fueled estrangement from and fractious reunion with his parents and siblings. In Avigail Sperber’s Probation Time, the director’s mother copes with an adopted Ethiopian daughter, the family’s tenth child, who keeps running afoul of the law; Sperber, meanwhile, is trying to raise her own child after separating from a girlfriend. Rather than following curving paths of resolution, these two documentaries hold up their respective tangles to the light for contemplation (and worry).
Spartacus & Cassandra
There were also a couple of entries in what might be considered a True/False subgenre, the kinetically photographed street-level chronicle, epitomized by 2013 standout These Birds Walk. Il Segreto by Italian street artists Cyop & Kaf and Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra serve the purpose this time, one looking at Neapolitan street kids carrying out a holiday ritual of gathering trees for a bonfire (though this background is withheld for a perversely long time), and the other at a Roma brother and sister in France facing the usual merciless state-imposed choices of family or assimilation.
This year’s Neither/Nor sidebar, programmed by critic Ela Bittencourt, took up a strand in the Polish tradition of nonfiction, from the frisky, semi-surreal shorts of cinematographer Bogdan Dziworski to Grzegorz Krolikiewicz’s daring experimental dramas to the subversive work of Marcel Lozinski (whose How to Live screened in Film Comment Selects earlier this year). Hear My Cry, the 1991 story of a self-immolation protest at a Warsaw harvest festival, seared its own special imprint on my brain with its iterative use of archival footage, occasioning witty apercus by editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz, who was in attendance for the sidebar, as were Krolikiewicz and Dziworski. But I’ll leave the final word on documentary theory and practice to Khalik Allah, director of the superb Harlem night-flight chronicle Field Niggas, which features this explanation to one subject: “I’m not even in my body anymore, G. I just use it to hold my camera.”