Different film festivals have their selling points, chief of which is often their ability to be launching pads for highly anticipated movies. That’s true of Cannes or Sundance or Venice, but a smartly curated local festival like True/False Film Fest can offer something just as valuable: the sense of community. Such a touchy-feely phrase may cause some to roll their eyes, but in its 14th year (and my fifth attending), True/False continues to deliver on that promise, remaining one of the homiest festivals on the yearly calendar.
That sense of community extends beyond the inviting crowds, comforting unpretentiousness of the location (Columbia, Missouri, also home to the University of Missouri) and the no-fuss style of the festival’s organizers Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, alongside programmers Chris Boeckmann, Abby Sun and others. This year, community was the connective tissue for many of the 35 or so feature documentaries shown during the four-day event. Again and again, filmmakers brought us into cloistered worlds—some as intimate as a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, others as vast as the legendary fan base for an iconic rock band—to study how they operate. Not all communities are created equal, but if this edition of True/False had an unofficial theme, it’s that, ultimately, audiences seek out community because we’ve all learned that, in a world growing more unpredictable and upsetting, community is one of the few ways that we can truly take care of each other.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m an invited guest of the festival, with my flight and lodging compensated. But then let me also add that I’d be saying glowing things about this festival even if I weren’t going on someone else’s dime. Besides cherry-picking from the globe’s best festivals’ lineups to create one-stop-shopping for world-class documentaries, True/False has premiered superb new nonfiction films the last couple years, not to mention screening one of last year’s finest movies, I Am Not Your Negro. The programming runs from the adventurous/experimental to the traditional/uplifting, so no audience bloc feels left out.
Whether by design or accident, True/False this year leaned in to the most obvious tension within its Midwestern community, that of the racial strife between whites and African Americans. Last year’s festival began the conversation, which was inevitable in the wake of the Ferguson shooting just a few hours away and, more close to home, the University of Missouri protests organized by the group Concerned Student 1950. At the 2016 festival, documentaries such as The Prison in Twelve Landscapes and Concerned Student 1950 directly addressed those tensions, and there was electricity buzzing through the screenings. This year’s edition was even more pronounced in its depiction of the ongoing Black Lives Matter struggle, the films playing to the festival’s predominantly white audience.
Some of these documentaries seemed to speak to one another. Director Sabaah Folayan’s bruised, Ferguson-themed Whose Streets? presents the madness and rage of Michael Brown’s murder with its fallout, in real-time immediacy, chronicling the protests but also some of the protestors so that we get a sense of their daily lives. By contrast, filmmaker Peter Nicks highlights a complementary community in The Force, which looks at the years-long scandal that roiled the Oakland police department over its use of excessive force, among other indiscretions.
What’s remarkable about The Force is how we meet people, particularly new chief Sean Whent, who want to transform a toxic culture, making Oakland’s a police department accountable to its citizenry. In other words, it’s a documentary unwittingly trying to address the ills affecting the subjects of Whose Streets?, despite the two worlds being separated by thousands of miles. But The Force is clear-eyed about the limits of bringing about change in a corrupt, entrenched bureaucracy. As we see Whent get laid low by his own scandals, we see why it’s so hard for minorities to feel like they can trust those assigned to protect them. Two communities pull in opposite directions, perhaps permanently.
Other documentaries focused on black families—some bonded by blood, others brought together through a shared passion. Quest, the recipient of this year’s True/False True Life Fund, which raises money for the documentary’s subjects, introduces us to the Rainey family, a North Philadelphia clan whose seeming ordinariness opens the door to a quietly moving story of resilience. Father Christopher is a record producer who makes albums in his basement studio. The mother, Christine, works at a homeless shelter. Alongside their two kids, one who will face terrible hardship over the course of Quest, the Raineys are followed by first-time documentary filmmaker Jon Olshefski during the span of about 10 years—and, crucially, from the dawn of the Obama administration to the dawn of the Trump era. Without ever pushing the significance, Olshefski, who’s white, illustrates how one African American family’s brushes with crime, poverty and drug addiction in their larger community are indicative of more systemic worries. The Raineys don’t receive a reassuring respite from their troubles by the film’s end, but the family’s determination to keep moving forward—in part because, really, what other choice do they have?—is its own kind of victory.
Then there’s Step, one of the breakout hits at this January’s Sundance. Directed by Amanda Lipitz, who’s white, the film spotlights a Baltimore dance team led by female black teens who, too often, don’t have much in their life outside this afterschool activity. There are encouraging stories of perseverance—one of the young woman who is eyeing to be her class’s valedictorian—but the documentary’s central subject, Blessin, is struggling to graduate high school, the possibility of college starting to feel like a very remote possibility.
A crowd-pleaser that works the well-worn documentary convention of building toward a big third-act competition, Step may be a bit formulaic, but that also allows Lipitz to sneak in timely messages, chief among them the value of arts education at a time when it’s being threatened by cost-conscious schools. For these women, dance isn’t just a sport but a way of working through issues that hound them elsewhere. Dance becomes a form of self-care, which makes the movie’s big finale almost beside the point: Does winning or losing really mean that much?
Other documentaries tackled different sides of the same issue without realizing it, both from a personal perspective. African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (Can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness is part of its strength.
Rawness is also essential to the appeal of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Travis Wilkerson’s live performance piece combining spoken-word narration with clips of film and music. Wilkerson sits alone on the side of the stage, a laptop on a desk in front of him, as he admits to a shameful family secret: His great-grandfather S.E. Branch, a white man, killed Bill Spann, a black man, in 1946 in Alabama, a crime for which he was never convicted.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is Wilkerson’s apology, but it’s also an investigation into whiteness in America, which he considers to be a sickness and a scourge. Though sometimes terribly overwrought—despite Wilkerson’s restrained delivery, he can be a little too proud of his self-evisceration—the performance is captivating, not least of which because Wilkerson’s physical presence is dwarfed by the screen behind him, which lays out his family’s racist past visually like a powerful condemnation. At the performance I attended, Yance Ford also was in the building—and was clearly impressed by what he saw. Unconsciously, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? reaches out to Strong Island, offering an acknowledgement of all the work still needed to be done in a country that can sometimes be so morally ugly.
Imperiled families—and not just the one in Quest—were popular forms of community in the True/False slate, and all kinds were represented. On the more heartwarming side was Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy.
There’s a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them.
Other families didn’t seem so fortunate. First-time director Anna Zamecka tracks a Polish family falling apart in Communion. With Mom long gone and Dad barely a presence in the home, 14-year-old Ola is forced to take charge, which mostly means caring for her younger, autistic brother Nikodem as he prepares to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Like Quest, Communion is a triumph of small, intimate moments, but its impact is even stronger, in part because the family unit portrayed here looks far wobblier.
It would be inaccurate to say that Zamecka’s documentary is full of twists, but despite its slender 77-minute running time, Communion keeps revealing new information about Ola and those around her that deepens our relationship with these individuals. It’s hard to know what will become of these people, but what’s clear is that Ola is the only grounded person in the group—when we finally meet her mother, it’s as disappointing as we feared—and that she’s practically heroic for keeping her household running as smoothly as she does. You leave Communion impressed by Ola but enraged by her circumstance: Who will help this young woman who’s so busy helping others?