True/False 2022: Welcome Home
This article appeared in the March 10, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Riotsville, USA (Sierra Pettengill, 2022)
There’s a way in which the True/False Film Festival is Columbia, Missouri at its very best. I moved back to the town in 2021, living here for the first time since leaving as a middle schooler. I’d describe Columbia as comfortable and monotonous: it isn’t as alienating as Maryville, the much smaller Missouri town I moved away to, but it isn’t especially welcoming in the way that college towns in conservative states can be, with their anomalous oases of progressive politics and diasporic communities. Nevertheless, during the Thursday to Sunday stretch of this year’s festival weekend, a vibrant ad-hoc community of enthusiastic locals and visitors congregated in bustling downtown cinemas—marking the return of the festival to its usual habitat after the pandemic forced it outdoors in 2021.
From the impressive and varied roster of nonfiction works in this year’s lineup, two films stood out by eschewing classical documentary form. Francesco Montagner’s Brotherhood, winner of the Golden Leopard prize for Cinema of the Present at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival, follows the three sons of Bosnian Islamist cleric Ibrahim Delić for a four-year period before, during, and after his 23-month prison sentence for traveling to Syria in support of Daesh. Owing in no small part to Prokop Souček’s cinematography, which punctuates the narrative with stunning shots of the bucolic landscapes of rural Bosnia, the boundary between stylized fiction feature and more rigidly structured documentary blurs—the film coalesces into a kind of magical realism. Eventually, our grasp of the passage of time (evident only in the maturation of the adolescent boys’ faces) and the very facticity of the story also loosens.
The tensions among and between the boys—Jabir, Usama, and Useir—and their father offers a microscopic examination of cultural patriarchies and a Bosnian terrain still marked by the memories and scars of genocide—which are re-enfleshed, in a way, by the shooting games the two youngest brothers play in grazing fields. Ibrahim was a mujahid fighting against the Serbs during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, and it is because of his increased religiosity during the war, his subsequent missionary work, and the similarities he perceived between the Bosnian and Syrian conflicts that he felt compelled to travel to Syria. Montagner resists easy ethnographic tropes of communities presumed to be terrorists, instead allowing familial masculinities to organically unfold in challenging and ambivalent ways.
Danish filmmaker Rikke Nørgaard’s Eventually—so named, the director said, for the rock band Tame Impala’s elegiac breakup song from their 2015 album Currents—made its international debut at the festival. Completed as a student project, the film follows a pair of college-age ex-lovers, Laura and Malik, who were invited by the director to restage critical moments from their tumultuous four-year relationship using amateur actors, and then watch the filmed reenactments together in an empty cinema. It’s a meta-autobiography: a documentary about the making of narratives drawn from real-life. We see the couple offering directions about their romantic motivations to the actors and tearfully assessing their memories in the cinema. Those layers provide the film its heartbreaking gravitas: the deep fears and reservations disclosed in Laura and Malik’s discussions with the actors appear to reveal feelings they had never shared with one another. In the Q&A, Nørgaard revealed each person’s reasons for participating in the project: Laura, always the more invested of the pair, needed closure, and Malik, whose subsequent relationships fell into the same pattern, needed something of an intervention. As the two of them try to articulate what their love actually means, Eventually reminds us that love is not just a sensation or a noun but an active verb, requiring introspection and movement.
Two other highlights at True/False broached U.S. militarism in distinct but complementary ways. Comprised entirely of archival state and public television footage, Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, USA distills the American government’s political imaginary by tracing the histories of two model towns, both named Riotsville, that the U.S. military constructed in the 1960s to train municipal police forces to respond to the uprisings and Black rebellions erupting across the nation. As evinced in the poetic narration scripted by Tobi Haslett (and read by Charlene Modeste), the riot is an expression of life suffocated by the oppressions of race and class. It is the sublime destruction of, to quote the poet June Jordan, the “psychological crucifixion” of the urban gridlock.
Depicting the pageant-like training exercises that took place at the Riotsvilles in front of applauding audiences of police and military officers, the movie is unsettlingly comedic as it lays bare the state’s completely farcical conception of itself. Yet the link between these games and the coordinated violence wrested upon Black people becomes clear in the film’s latter portion. Here, Riotsville, USA shifts focus to the 1968 Republican National Convention, held in Miami Beach because the area’s urban layout was believed to be unsuited to the kind of large-scale, disruptive gatherings seen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that same year. Just miles away in Liberty City, however, protests erupted over economic and political inequities and racist policing, inviting devastatingly heavy-handed responses from the National Guard. The use of archival footage of police violence can easily become trite given the saturation of images of anti-Black brutality in our current mediascape. But in illuminating lesser-known histories of state violence, Pettengill illustrates the grim inertia of American racial policy: very little has changed in 50 years.
Following the social tumult of the 1960s, Richard Davis, founder of Second Chance Body Armor, invented the lightweight modern bulletproof vest now commonly worn by American police. In a punny nod to both the company name and Davis’s twisted biography, Ramin Bahrani’s 2nd Chance quietly charts the story of this quintessentially American invention as a crucial element in the militarization and armament of the country’s police forces. Alongside interviews with Davis, Bahrani uses Davis’s home videos and professional recordings to capture the larger-than-life persona and mythomania undergirding his product. Like the rehearsal-trainings of the Riotsvilles, Davis’s marketing videos both show off his ingenuity as an engineer and capitalize on the intense paranoias of law enforcement: some of the videos stage encounters between the police and shooters; in others, Davis shoots himself while wearing one of his vests (a stunt he allegedly performed 200 times over the years).
A vehement supporter of law enforcement, Davis seems keenly aware of the political implications of his business model, going so far as to say that people who shoot at police officers should be killed, and that if any officer saved by one of his vests killed their shooters, he would “reward them with a gun.” Many critics have highlighted the gut-punchy “twist” at the end of the film, in which a man who shot at a police officer, the likes of whom had thus far been cast as singularly villainous by Davis, turns out to be a far more morally complex figure. But it is less a twist than a wrenching and unexpected moral resolution in which a victim predictably offers commentary on the toxic society that enables his degradation.
Zoé Samudzi is a sociologist and art writer based in Missouri.