People watch movies for all sorts of reasons, but one of the strongest may be because we’re fascinated by other people. Other people, other lives, other ways of being in the world. We only have one life, and it’s understandable that part of the allure of sitting in the dark staring at a screen is comparing our experience of being alive with what we perceive in other human beings living theirs.
Nonfiction cinema only makes this tendency more acute. These are, in theory, “real” lives that we’re watching, and we can choose to quietly spy on these people’s worlds in a way that feels more immediate and intense than scripted fare. We look because we’re curious, and we look because we’re wondering how we’d fare in similar circumstances. In a sense, all movies—and certainly all documentaries—could be thought of as vicarious selfies: We see other lives, but we all seek out ourselves.
The 13th edition of the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri—which is also home to the University of Missouri—offered four days of contemplative examination, debuting a few new documentaries but also bringing together notable offerings from Sundance, Venice and other festivals. And, throughout the 20 films I screened at the festival (or before), I rarely stopped thinking about what I was looking at, why the filmmaker wanted me to look at it, or what the subject hoped to achieve by being looked at. There were no “right” answers to these questions, no “better” way for a documentary to approach these concerns—if they were even conscious of them. Still, as a general rule of thumb, the more a movie seemed to be wrestling with its own existence, the greater or more intriguing the results. Most of us grapple with our motives and desires on a personal level—why shouldn’t documentaries awash with messy, urgent life do the same?
Curated by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, alongside programmers Chris Boeckmann and Pamela Cohn, True/False remains as charmingly Midwestern as ever. I say that with no smugness: Growing up in small-town Illinois, I recognize the modest, genial atmosphere of this festival as if it was a childhood friend. This was my fourth True/False—and, full disclosure, the fourth year I’ve been an invited guest—and I’m happy to report that the festival’s no-big-fuss aesthetic remains vibrant and organic. Screening approximately 40 feature-length documentaries, not including shorts and other special programming, True/False has earned its reputation for being a hospitable home for both challenging nonfiction work and the more crowd-pleasing offerings. (Three of this year’s Best Documentary Oscar nominees were featured at last year’s True/False, running the gamut from the searing The Look of Silence to the somewhat more traditional biographical portrait What Happened, Miss Simone?) For the festival’s 13th year, Sturtz and Wilson continue to endorse a wide-ranging appreciation of the documentary form, believing that the slickness of Weiner, about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, can coexist with Helmut Berger, Actor, a confrontational examination of the long-in-the-tooth performer.
No matter its approach, however, each True/False film had to contend with the same underlying questions: What are we looking at and why? The festival’s breadth—not to mention its breadth of responses to that question—was illustrated first by its three premieres. Beyond being nonfiction films, they had precious little in common.
Directors Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca’s The Pearl was the most conventional of the trio, but I use that word advisedly—in their hands, a straightforward, restrained telling provoked sufficient emotion. The Pearl chronicles the everyday reality of four middle-aged transgender women living across the Pacific Northwest and Northern Canada. Dimmock and LaMarca aren’t seeking reality-television drama, nor do they seem particularly invested in delivering well-intentioned-but-preaching-to-the-converted political commentary about inclusiveness and acceptance. Rather, The Pearl is straightforwardly compassionate and attentive, listening to these women as they go about their days, letting their subjects’ ordinary tasks and pedestrian lives be its own kind of political statement. (Tellingly, the filmmakers avoid superficially juicy moments: For instance, they never resolve one woman’s dilemma that her wife and family don’t know that whenever she leaves the house, she sheds her masculine wardrobe and dons a dress or skirt.) By emphasizing the mundane, The Pearl asks viewers to see these women in their natural habitat, which is the same occupied by so many of the rest of us. Valuing simplicity, the movie erases any prejudiced notion of “us” and “them.”
The everyday also seeps out of every pore of Peter and the Farm, a quietly remarkable portrait of Peter Dunning, who runs an organic farm in Vermont. Director Tony Stone, who’s known Dunning for quite some time, wants us to spend about 90 minutes with this bearded, crusty, raggedly funny older man—but I don’t think he ever expects us to fully grasp him. This is not to say that Dunning is particularly enigmatic—he’ll talk about his love life, his depression, that terrible thing that happened to his hand—but Peter and the Farm is a small little gem of keeping an open mind and allowing complexity to flourish. That’s never truer than near the start of the film when a charming introduction of Dunning’s loyal dog is positioned against a shockingly frank scene of a lamb being killed and harvested. How can a man who’s sweet to his pooch be so blasé in his savaging of a sheep that’s equally adorable? Much of Peter and the Farm plays out this way, a collision of accidental revelations and seemingly humdrum moments thoughtfully stitched together.
Like several of the subjects featured in a True/False film, Dunning isn’t opposed to Stone’s camera, but he remains wary of what’s being captured and how it’s going to be used. Dunning’s hesitation provokes our own, especially when this aging loner, despite apparently having some sort of off-camera lady-friend, begins to confess his suicidal feelings. The larger cultural relevance of The Pearl is nowhere in evidence in Peter and the Farm, but Dunning’s meticulous revealing of an anguished life cuts deeper and leaves us more uncertain. We watch because we find Dunning good company, but we also watch because we fear for him.
Empathy is at the forefront too in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, director Brett Story’s masterful collections of vignettes. There’s no central figure, Story instead using her snapshots of different individuals to suggest something grander—namely, Americans’ inescapable entanglement with their country’s prison system. With so many different stylistic techniques—sometimes her subjects address the camera directly, sometimes we’re a fly-on-the-wall observing people from a distance talking to each other—The Prison in Twelve Landscapes may risk didacticism, but such worries are mitigated by Story’s aesthetic adventurousness.
There’s a cumulative power, a headlong rush, in watching one vignette segue into another, the viewer trying to make connections between seemingly dissimilar American portraits. The Brooklyn man who started a business that ships penitentiary-approved goods to inmates, the Detroit P.R. rep who has no idea how slimy he sounds, the St. Louis County resident waiting in long lines—Story deftly makes the point that they’re all invisibly part of the same system, and the juxtaposing, sometimes counterintuitive correlations enliven each snapshot and make The Prison in Twelve Landscapes stronger collectively than in any one sequence. Other filmmakers would mount a frontal assault on the classism and racism rampant in the way we lock up so many people, but Story doesn’t want us to watch the usual images and absorb the normal statistics. She’s asking us to see the dilemma in a new light, and her powerful essay film never stops making us queasy—and, at the same time, alive with anger and sorrow that the dilemma is being communicated so forcefully and innovatively.