All film festivals are Choose Your Own Adventure books, the experience and the outcome very much dictated by one’s own decisions about what’s seen and what’s skipped. Invest your time in promising-sounding movies that turn out to be duds while hearing from others who rave about diamonds in the rough that you bypassed, and you’re likely to feel shortchanged. Additionally, the subject matter of the films you choose shapes your impression of the festival. (See too many dramas, and you’re bound to think it was a pretty bleak slate. See too many comedies, and you’ll deduce the festival was rather lightweight.) No two people’s experience at the same festival will be alike, which is both wonderful and anxiety-inducing: Will you choose wisely?
The 12th annual True/False Film Festival, held in the college town of Columbia, Mo., underlines this delightful dilemma. Focusing on the best of nonfiction cinema from around the globe, while including one or two narrative films that incorporate elements of documentary or the capturing of reality, the festival spotlighted about 60 features and shorts this year over its four days. Last year’s edition was built around the theme of “Magic/Realism,” and so one couldn’t help but look at the selections through the prism of alchemy: how filmmaking in general (and documentary in specific) is shaped by a convergence of luck, chance and the intangible.
This year, the theme was “The Long Now,” an evocative phrase open to interpretation. Did it suggest the power of the present? Was it alluding to documentary’s skill at preserving moments in time for eternity? For me, this year’s True/False circled around another theme, one that began to assert itself one screening at a time. Other festivalgoers no doubt constructed their own internal narratives based on the films they saw, but walking through Columbia from theater to theater, I was struck by the fact that so much of my True/False was informed by my first movie on the first day.
Although hardly the most scintillating or groundbreaking film at the festival, director Jerry Rothwell’s How to Change the World began an unexpected conversation with many of the movies I saw at this year’s True/False, touching on issues that linked the documentaries, their subjects and even the festival itself. Repeatedly, the films on display grappled with the notion of whether anyone can change the world. Can a group of activists? Can a person with a camera? Can a festival?
How to Change the World
makes some of these concerns its central focus. A chronicling of the early days of the Greenpeace movement, Rothwell’s film brings together the organization’s founders and initial members to discuss the political climate that inspired its formation. Yet despite being granted unfettered access to the organization’s rich archives, including film the members shot during the 1970s, Rothwell goes beyond simply making Greenpeace: The Oral History, examining how the idealistic founders discovered that their noble intentions to save the planet weren’t always enough in the face of their own egos and warring personalities.
The group’s inner conflicts are best encapsulated by one comment made by co-founder Paul Watson, who was more militant and combative than his colleagues. While others in Greenpeace were content with nonviolent, noninterventionist protests—essentially, serving as a silent censure to atrocities they witnessed by filming them—Watson found such a stance pointless. What good does bearing witness do?, Watson asks in How to Change the World, comparing it to being a bystander while a woman gets raped. It’s a crude, inflammatory comparison, but Watson’s comment gets to the heart of the tensions that roiled Greenpeace—and it stuck with me for the rest of the festival as, again and again, I watched movies that wrestled with the power and limitations of bearing witness.
The discussion was picked up next by Cartel Land, a gripping, nuanced look at two different responses to the ongoing violence and death strewn by the vicious drug cartels plaguing both sides of the Mexican/American border. Director Matthew Heineman introduces us to Tim “Nailer” Foley, part of the Arizona Border Recon, which has taken up arms to police the border, keeping an eye out for drug-runners. Despising the term “vigilante,” Foley is the face of the militia movement that has grown since Obama took office, but he’s too complicated a figure to pin down to one simplistic political ideology. Unfortunately, Cartel Land discovers that not all those in Foley’s group share his honorable mission to protect American from drug cartels: One member makes racist comments on camera that suggest he just doesn’t like Mexicans.
Ironic, then, that the film’s central figure is Mireles Valverde, who lives in the Mexican state of Michoácan. Like Foley, he has grown tired waiting for the federal government to thwart the cartels, and so he’s formed Autodefensas, a grassroots community of concerned, armed citizens who have made it their duty to root out criminals. Are they a force for good in an impoverished, corrupt pocket of the world? Or are they dangerous vigilantes barely held together by the levelheadedness and intelligence of Valverde? Cartel Land lets that question linger uncomfortably in the air, utilizing ride-along footage as Heineman films Autodefensas on their missions, which sometimes result in shootouts with the cartel. Never deemphasizing the legitimate terror of the cartels or the failures of the Mexican and American governments to squash them, Cartel Land is also clear-eyed about the risk of individuals deciding to take the law into their own hands. This is especially true in Michoácan, as we see the noble intentions of Autodefensas give way to arrogance, thuggery, corruption and (in the case of Valverde) an ignoble fall from grace. As with How to Change the World, Cartel Land is a portrait of urgent, necessary activism undercut by the flawed humanity of its practitioners.
If those two films demonstrate the disadvantages that ordinary individuals face squaring off with powerful interests, The Chinese Mayor offers a wry alternate perspective. Director Zhou Hao takes us to the city of Datong, a once-thriving Chinese city that’s fallen on hard times now that its financial linchpin, the coal industry, has floundered. The titular mayor is Geng Yanbo, who wants to change Datong’s fortunes, planning ambitious construction and renovation that, he hopes, will attract tourists to the area. But there’s a problem: These potential improvements mean relocating a large percentage of the population, many of whom are poor and don’t have any other place to go.
Zhou spent a few years with Geng, and the intimacy of the camerawork as the director tags along with the mayor is striking. Policy buffs will be enthralled by the inner workings of Chinese bureaucracy, but it’s Zhou’s deft, subtle switch of our sympathies that’s The Chinese Mayor’s most impressive feature. Hardworking and relentlessly determined, Geng runs (sometimes literally) from meeting to meeting, his vision of a renewed Datong inspiring—until, that is, we start to meet Datong’s citizens, who feel like they’re getting bulldozed over by their government in the name of progress. Never tipping his hand to where his own sympathies lie, Zhou lets us see the situation in all its complexity, lending The Chinese Mayor a fascinating ambiguity. And even though Geng is the man in power, we will eventually discover that he, too, can’t control his own destiny. In a final twist best not to reveal, the documentary articulates, like other films at True/False, the frustrating reality that individual aspirations can be meaningless when stronger, more ingrained institutions hold all the cards.
Perhaps, then, it’ll be a consolation for the subjects of How to Change the World, Cartel Land and The Chinese Mayor to know that not even the planet’s most potent nations can change the world with impunity. That’s the grim lesson taken from Bitter Lake, a sober-sided documentary from filmmaker Adam Curtis, whose 2002 opus, The Century of the Self, also screened at the festival. More political journalist than artist—a description with which Curtis would agree, and prefer—the BAFTA-winning English documentarian has crafted a two-hour-plus examination into the history of Afghanistan, utilizing the BBC’s archives to construct a film essay arguing the country’s importance in global politics over the last 70 years.
It’s a dense but fascinating overview, weaving everything from Nine Inch Nails instrumentals to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris into the mix. But Bitter Lake’s mashup of images and sounds is never done to be cheeky: Curtis intercuts between America’s current involvement with the Middle Eastern nation and earlier countries’ Afghan entanglements, illustrating how the West’s arrogant belief that it could shape the country’s future while harvesting its resources has led to the heroin trade, economic instability, oil dependence, 9/11 and ISIS. Because Curtis relies on archival footage—including TV interviews, movie clips and news reports—Bitter Lake doesn’t have the vérité intimacy of the aforementioned True/False entries. But that lack of first-person subjects only makes Bitter Lake more monolithically imposing, rendering Western nations as unfeeling, inhuman institutions blind to the hardships they create. And yet, these nations, too, believe they’re helping to bring good to the world—another reminder at True/False about the limits and dangers of activism.
But the festival’s selections—programmed by Paul Sturtz, David Wilson and Chris Boeckmann—didn’t just cast a wary eye on individuals and groups out to make a difference. Some of the documentaries themselves were attempts to influence change, generating a useful tension between their aspirations and their real-world effectiveness.
The breezy, engaging Best of Enemies is ostensibly a recap of the juicy televised debates between conservative stalwart William F. Buckley and liberal champion Gore Vidal that took place around the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. But directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s slickly assembled documentary—incorporating clips from the debates as well as present-day interviews with political commentators and those who were there at the time—also has a higher purpose. As Neville explained during a post-screening Q&A at the large, lovely Missouri Theatre, Best of Enemies means to address the lack of vital, substantial discourse in our current political debate.
Indeed, Buckley and Vidal’s erudite verbal jousting feels far removed from the mindless yelling witnessed on contemporary cable chat shows—even though the debates’ most infamous moment occurred when the conservative (in a moment of rage) called the gay liberal a “queer” on national television.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Best of Enemies isn’t just nostalgic but also mournful, showing how far we’ve come from a time when two witty thinkers would have a chance to engage one another in such a public sphere. And yet, as the documentary notes, ABC’s decision to recruit Buckley and Vidal wasn’t based on the network’s hopes for elevating national discourse: Buried in the ratings behind NBC and CBS, the news department needed a gimmick in order to compete.
The desire to bring awareness to a subject—or a person—also informs Heaven Knows What, a fiction film from Benny and Joshua Safdie. The filmmakers behind the gripping, naturalistic 2009 drama Daddy Longlegs, the brother duo build their new movie around Arielle Holmes, a drug addict the Safdies befriended in New York. Moved by her tales of living on the streets begging for change, they encouraged her to write about her experiences, which form the basis for Heaven Knows What’s tale of Harley (played by Holmes), who’s as rudderless because she’s been dumped by her junkie boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones) as she is due to her constant smack craving.
Films about addiction are nothing new, but the Safdies work conscientiously to strip away the genre’s doomed romanticism. Wielding handheld cameras and shooting on location, Heaven Knows What embodies True/False’s interest in exploring the porous line between fiction and nonfiction. Even with the festival’s documentary selections, the programmers want the audience to question the notion of reality—how it’s captured, how it’s represented, whose reality it is—but a film like Heaven Knows What twists this conceit, wondering how a narrative feature inspired by actual events can articulate reality in ways that even a nonfiction film cannot. Watching the strikingly effortless, expressive Holmes guide us through this junkie nightmare, we judge the movie based on traditional criteria such as performance and craftsmanship, but we also think about the underlying truth that’s being revealed: what drug addiction looks and feels like, and how the rest of us choose to ignore its victims. With subtlety, Heaven Knows What is a work of advocacy disguised as narrative filmmaking.
But cinema’s feebleness in the face of the world’s horrors is confronted head-on in Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, a stark documentary whose two makers actively engage in conversation about the benefits (or lack thereof) of recording hardships. Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed fled his country for Paris in 2011, and the deeply mixed emotions he feels about his abandoned homeland form the emotional through-line for this collection of often bleak images provided by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a teacher still living in Syria. Constructed as a back-and-forth exchange through narrated correspondence, Syria Self-Portrait is the very act of bearing witness that would have frustrated Greenpeace’s Paul Watson: “What good,” he might argue, “is documenting scenes of President Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny and the ongoing bloody civil war if you’re not going to do anything about it?”
But while Syria Self-Portrait can sometimes devolve into mere navel-gazing concern, the filmmakers’ sad, stunned response is understandable, even appropriate, for a documentary about the limits of empathy. As Mohammed and Simav watch the atrocities recorded by everyday Syrians, their hearts break, but they also grow frustrated: Does one shut off his emotions and stop paying attention so as not to go insane? Or does the act of continuing to watch—and making others watch—keep such injustices at the forefront of society’s consciousness? That the filmmakers have no answer is hardly a criticism; these are questions that churn through so many nonfiction films that want to address the world around them.
When one can’t affect change, however, occasionally the best response is to get angry about it. Frustration and outrage are the primary emotional takeaways from Tales of the Grim Sleeper, the latest from documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer). The film begins as an investigation into a mysterious serial killer who ran roughshod over one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles for 25 years, murdering women in a predominantly African-American community. But in Broomfield’s inimitable way, wandering around with a boom mic talking to anyone who will speak to him, Tales of the Grim Sleeper soon morphs from a whodunit into a snapshot of a community betrayed by its city government and by its local police force, both of whom have seemingly turned their back on the most vulnerable citizens. With dark humor—Broomfield has a gift for finding the most outlandish characters—the film is a calmly enraged portrait, shaming those in power for their incompetence. Eventually, the serial killer is caught, but Tales asks forcefully what other hells await these citizens.
A different sort of advocacy powers Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney’s methodical takedown of the religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard. On one level, Gibney has an easy assignment considering the cultural currency that comes from mocking Hubbard’s Church and its more bizarre proponents, like movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But at the same time, those built-in prejudices nonbelievers have against Scientology could work against Gibney: How do you shock or amuse viewers already predisposed to ridicule the Church?
Thankfully, Gibney tackles this problem with stone-cold sincerity, taking Scientology seriously enough so that he can convey to audiences why followers devote themselves to the Church’s bizarre tenets. Featuring interviews with eight former Scientologists, Going Clear reserves judgment, letting its subjects struggle to explain why they long accepted Hubbard’s teachings. (One of the interview subjects, Crash filmmaker Paul Haggis, was a Scientologist for 30 years.) Rather than treating Scientology as a scary bogeyman, though, Gibney is exploring how belief can blind otherwise-reasonable people. The documentary is blessedly sympathetic to former members while being highly critical of the Church’s intimidation tactics and highly questionable nonprofit, tax-exempt status.
Sometimes, advocacy can come with a light touch, though. The Visit sports a breezy, coolly intelligent vibe and a fantastic hook: How would the world’s governments respond if aliens landed? Director Michael Madsen (Into Eternity) talks to scientists, thinkers and former defense personnel to get their insights and speculation, but it becomes clear that the documentary is more about understanding humanity than it is fathoming the likelihood of an alien arrival. This is an exceedingly clever way to get around clichéd, age-old questions about our place in the universe while condemning humanity for its constant shortcomings: The Visit simply asks viewers to imagine what aliens would make of us. If you’re a filmmaker trying to change the world, scaring people into behaving, lest our extraterrestrial overlords judge us harshly, is one good way to do it.