Practical Magic: An Overview of the 2014 True/False Film Festival

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While attending last month’s True/False Film Festival, I had a discussion with some colleagues about the silliest critical clichés that crop up in studios’ advertising blurbs for their movies. Has anyone, for instance, ever actually been at the edge of his seat while watching a thriller? Did a movie ever restore your faith in film? (And if so, how easily is your faith shaken?)

In hindsight, I realize that there was one cliché we didn’t mention: the habit of calling films or performances “magical.” It’s understandable why it’s used—sometimes on tight deadlines, critics will settle for the word to hint at a movie’s ineffable greatness—but “magical” doesn’t really encapsulate much of anything. Like “enchanting” or “wondrous,” “magical” conjures up a cinematic experience that’s otherworldly, almost as if it’s beyond the abilities of either its makers or its audience to fully comprehend. (The Merriam-Webster definition that most applies is “being so extraordinary or abnormal as to suggest powers which violate the laws of nature.”)

What made it so strange that my colleagues and I didn’t invoke the m-word in our discussion was that we were at a film festival that was using magic as its theme. The 2014 edition of True/False, now in its 11th year as one of the world’s premier documentary festivals, was built around the notion of “Magic/Realism.” David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who dub themselves the festival’s co-conspirators, explained their rationale in the festival’s booklet. “Magic may be older, but since cinema burst onto the scene at the turn of the 20th century, the two arts that wed science and imagination have been inextricably linked, and attracted ambitious tinkerers and storytellers,” they wrote. “With this year’s theme ‘Magic/Realism,’ honesty and trickery may be strange bedfellows, but we posit that both magic and documentary deploy artifice and misdirection to illuminate a new reality.”

And so we have two different descriptions of magic: one that evokes the sublime, and one that evokes deception. The films that were part of True/False’s four-day event danced between these two definitions, collectively questioning what we want from reality when we’re shown it on screen.

Of course, there’s the question of what constitutes “reality” in the first place. Years of staged, scripted reality television have conditioned viewers to be suspicious of the idea that what they’re seeing is any sort of truth. Add to that the factual fudging that goes on even in Oscar-winners in fiction (Argo) and documentary (Searching for Sugar Man), and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that looking to Hollywood for history lessons is foolish.

In its very name, True/False embraces this collective recognition of the thin line between “reality” and “entertainment.” Set in Columbia, Mo., near the campus of the University of Missouri, and held during late February and early March, the festival caters to an audience of Midwesterners, filmmakers showing their movies, and invited journalists, which for the second year in a row included me. The “true/false” distinction doesn’t just acknowledge the inherent tension within nonfiction filmmaking—the director takes “truth” and shapes it to get at larger themes or to provide commentary—but also helps to explain why the programmers will include a few narrative films as part of the overall package of almost 40 feature-length offerings. (This year, those were Richard Linklater’s exceptional Boyhood and Sam Fleischner’s gently affecting Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.) It’s a reminder that all movies are, in a sense, a capturing of truth—and, at the same time, that they’re also the product of manipulating that truth.

After thoroughly enjoying the True/False experience last year, I was curious (and a bit apprehensive) how my second trip would be. There are few things sadder than going back to a beloved locale and discovering that its aura—its “magic,” if you will—has faded, either because it’s changed or because you’re less charmed the second time ’round. But True/False’s warm college-town vibe remains, even though the snowy winter conditions remind me why I’m happier living in Los Angeles than in my Illinois hometown.

Still, I confess that I did detect myself getting a little more cynical about the festival’s welcoming, adoring audiences this year—a product, no doubt, of me attending too many festivals and noticing the overly rah-rah atmosphere that greets mediocre premieres. But my minor grousing is irrelevant: Every festival should be judged not by its attendees’ enthusiasm but, rather, on the quality of its programming, and Wilson and Sturtz (along with their fellow programmer Chris Boeckmann) once again compiled a fine overview of what’s noteworthy in the world of nonfiction filmmaking, both in terms of sure-to-be popular successes and artistic heavyweights. (Consider that four of this year’s five Best Documentary Oscars nominees, including eventual winner 20 Feet From Stardom, played the 2013 festival. Add to that list two others, Leviathan and Stories We Tell, which were strong finishers in end-of-the-year polls. And if that’s not sufficiently impressive, another 2013 offering, Blackfish, might be the most influential in terms of inspiring real-world change, as SeaWorld’s beleaguered administrators would no doubt attest.)

Having now sampled a little under half of True/False’s feature-length slate, I keep returning to this theme of magic. (It was hard not to: The festival ran a different bumper each day in front of its films that focused on specific elements of prestidigitation.) But where exactly does magic fit into filmmaking? When discussing their narrative films, directors and actors will often describe the creative combustion and unlikely wizardry of diverse personalities and unique circumstances that went into producing the final product. (Their comments make movies sound like the working of a mad scientist, or an unpredictable mixture of volatile chemicals.) But I suspect that, by comparison, a documentary’s road to completion remains a mystery to audiences: The director just interviews some people, does some background research, hires someone to do some infotainment graphics, and then slaps it all together, right? If narratives are presumed to be the work of mercurial, artistic geniuses, then documentaries are too easily perceived to be mere journalism, highlighting an important issue or event in an easy-to-follow presentation. There’s no sense that creativity—that ineffable magic—happens in the world of the documentary.

The best of True/False’s programming argues against such a simplistic explanation of the documentary process. There’s skill, artistry and wit involved as well—and don’t forget luck. Over and over, the festival’s finest films were the result of their makers’ talent, but I was reminded yet again that the all-time greatest nonfiction movies are also sometimes the product of being at the right place at the right time when history unfolded (such as Gimme Shelter’s grim recording of the Rolling Stones’ fatal 1969 Altamont concert) or when lives twisted in unexpected ways (just think of Hoop Dreams’ focus on two teens’ extraordinarily dramatic pursuit of basketball greatness). This isn’t to say that documentary filmmakers are at the mercy of blind chance—or that great documentaries are accidents. But stellar documentaries sometimes come about when prepared artists are patient enough to allow their stories time to unfold. What can happen may feel like magic, but that illusion of effortlessness is probably these directors’ greatest trick.

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Two of the festival’s premieres—a rarity for the low-key True/False, which also doesn’t give out competitive prizes or audience awards—illustrated this concept beautifully. Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant chronicles the opening of a New Jersey free school, which doesn’t have conventional classes and allows its young students a vote in what takes place during the day. Filmed in black-and-white and eschewing traditional talking-head interviews, the documentary sets us up to assume that Alex Khost, the school’s leader, will be exposed as an idealist fool who lacks the discipline and structure to corral these rambunctious kids. But by investing enough time in the project, Wilder sticks around and observes a narrative shift. Alex begins to build a rapport with these kids—who at first seem emboldened by their freedom and choose to act out—and a rising conflict between him and one student escalates in ways that are remarkable, precisely because they could only play out in an environment like a free school. (A testament to the twisty, enthralling Approaching the Elephant is that it’s very hard to discuss story specifics without risking spoiling some of the ample surprises.) Where fiction is more dependent on realistically charting characters’ changes, a documentary like Approaching the Elephant can floor us with the unexpected, real life always too quicksilver to ever fully predict.

Likewise, Robert Greene (who edited Approaching the Elephant) uses what might be considered sleight of hand with his latest, Actress. The director of Kati With an I and Fake It So Real, Greene presents Actress as a portrait of Brandy Burre, an actress whose showiest credit was a recurring role on The Wire. She left her profession behind to focus on motherhood, but now that it’s been a few years, she’s getting the itch to start acting again. This would seem to indicate that Actress will be a look into Burre’s comeback, probably with insights into the struggles of a 30-something actress who’s been out of the game. Except that’s just one facet of Actress, which confidently wanders along with Burre as she begins to make decisions that don’t just affect her career but her home life. As with Approaching the Elephant, the surprises are best not to spoil in Actress, not just because they add to the film’s melancholy spell but because they also enhance Greene’s meditation on role-playing and identity. Those might not have been the filmmaker’s themes when he started, but Burre’s life created the opening, and Greene is smart enough to explore where it leads, serving as a compassionate but clear-eyed witness to her unexpected tribulations.

Plot spoilers are also necessary to avoid in The Overnighters, which had received much acclaim when it premiered at this year’s Sundance. Like Approaching the Elephant and Actress, filmmaker Jesse Moss’s documentary creates an impression of the sort of movie it’s going to be—engaging, heartfelt and timely—and then sideswipes us with revelations we couldn’t have guessed. To set the scene, The Overnighters documents a small town in North Dakota that’s been overrun by outsiders hoping to earn a living working at the newly opened oil fields nearby. Offering his church as a temporary home for some of these weary travelers, Pastor Jay Reinke embodies the Christian attitude of loving thy neighbor, but his actual neighbors aren’t as happy to have these interlopers in their community, their distrust spurred on by a rash of violent crimes perpetuated by the so-called Overnighters.

That’s a potent idea for a documentary, but Moss stumbles upon secrets that reframe the narrative, and the director’s establishment of trust with his subjects pays off, resulting in a series of knotty scenes that are all the more affecting because we know these people—or, at least we think we do. The Overnighters is a kindhearted fable that morphs into a tragedy, benefiting from Moss (who also shot the film) capturing incredible off-the-cuff moments. (There’s a scene in which the introduction of a shotgun frighteningly raises the stakes.) But it’s not just Moss’s close reporting that distinguishes The Overnighters: He has assembled his raw material into a moving study of the failures of basic decency, highlighted by a beautiful opening shot whose impact isn’t entirely felt until the ending.

But the problem with magic is that audiences may grow tired of tricks they once found dazzling. How else to explain the generally ambivalent reviews that have greeted The Unknown Known, the latest from Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris? Akin to his Fog of War, which was a one-on-one with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morris in The Unknown Known interviews George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. As is typical for Morris, he stays behind the camera, allowing center stage to be dominated by Rumsfeld, who recounts the highlights of his career and analyzes the 9/11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq War.

I’ve been beating the drum for this exceptional documentary since I saw it last year. While my colleagues seem generally disappointed that Morris doesn’t “crack” Rumsfeld in the same way that he did McNamara, I’d gone in assuming that such a breakthrough was never possible with such a hardheaded, impossibly self-assured man as Rumsfeld. The Unknown Known isn’t about revelation as much as about reminder: No piece of art in the last several years has brought back the visceral anger and arrogance of the Bush years as potently as Morris’s movie does. In a sense, Morris is a victim of his own success. (We’ve come to expect greatness from him, and his patented techniques—the Interrotron interview equipment, the coolly intelligent style—have grown familiar.) But Rumsfeld’s condescending, snake-like charisma is a sight to behold, and Morris presents it uncut. The movie’s detractors accuse Morris of giving Rumsfeld a pass: I say that he’s served up a brilliant, egotistical, flawed, dangerous man on a plate, waiting for history to tear him apart.

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For some films at True/False, the emotional resonance was compounded by the surroundings. Columbia is about a three-hour drive from Rich Hill, the impoverished community at the heart of directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill. The film would have been heartrending regardless, what with its look at the lives of three teen boys wrestling with broken families and personal issues. But seeing Rich Hill in such close proximity to the actual Rich Hill gave the material an extra tug. Though I haven’t lived in the Midwest in over 20 years, I recognized the rural poverty and struggling kids from my own childhood: Above all, Rich Hill is a worrying meditation on how much luck, genes and environment shape our destinies.

Maybe I wasn’t alone in drawing that conclusion. When Rich Hill’s filmmakers came out after the screening and introduced their subjects (along with a few family members), the packed audience at Columbia’s gorgeous, 1700-seat Jesse Auditorium gave them a standing ovation. I found the reaction to be genuine but also bittersweet: The crowd was no doubt responding to a documentary that moved them, but how much good does applause do for young people trying to survive tough economic conditions? (By that same token, how much good does a documentary do?) But by screening Rich Hill, True/False asked its patrons to remember that hardships don’t just happen “out there”—sometimes they’re in our own backyards.

The other such uncomfortable pairing of documentary and surroundings was Happy Valley, director Amir Bar-Lev’s examination of Penn State in the wake of football coach Jerry Sandusky’s 2012 conviction for child molestation. The recipient of this year’s True Vision Award—an honorary award given to a rising documentary filmmaker who’s established a notable body of work in a short amount of time—Bar-Lev is continuing in the vein of his fine 2010 documentary The Tillman Story, observing our willingness to construct hero narratives and salute institutions, especially when it comes to sports. Seeing Happy Valley on a college campus, I found it hard to be too critical of the Penn State faithful who tried to paint themselves as the victims of this tragedy once their football program is stripped of glory. As Frederick Wiseman’s exceptional At Berkeley demonstrated last year, universities (no matter their sterling academic pedigree and encouragement of fresh ideas) are places that instill notions of conformity and groupthink, in a sense beginning the process of turning individuals into cogs in organizations, whether they be political affiliation, favorite sports team or corporate brand. As I walked out into the night after Happy Valley and looked around at the Mizzou campus, I noted its beauty but also its imposing edifices. Institutions are everywhere, even at inviting film festivals.

This is a challenge all film festivals face: how to stay exciting and distinctive while growing in influence and size. After 11 years, True/False continues to be nimble and handmade, successfully eschewing the sterile, monolithic formality that can make festivals such as Sundance and Toronto feel like little more than joyless film-biz obligations.

And yet the festival’s stature continues to rise: True/False was featured in a New York Times profile right before this year’s launch, and the article outlined True/False’s unique partnership with a local Evangelical Presbyterian church for the True Life Fund, which gives money to the subjects of a documentary. (This year, that went to Private Violence, a well-intentioned, troubling but also undernourished look into the phenomenon of domestic violence.)

Additionally, Wilson and Sturtz have been very strategic about courting influential younger writers and critics from publications like The New York Times, The Dissolve, Cinema Scope and Criticwire to cover the festival. Frankly, being invited gives you a feeling of inclusion in the cool club. (Since my return from this year’s edition, I’ve had a couple writers express curiosity and wonder about this amazing festival called True/False that they’ve heard so much about.) But that doesn’t mean that the festival is in danger of falling victim to toxic hipness: There’s a genuinely folksy quality to True/False with its annual 5K run, agreeably ragged downtown parade and diverse buskers who perform before each show.

So even if festival-cynicism was starting to seep in a little, I remain enamored by True/False’s combination of discerning taste and winning modesty. I can’t say what sort of place Columbia is the rest of the year, but for four days it has the collegial spirit of a really fun, stimulating sleepover. Even the festival’s offerings that recalled familiar documentary types came bearing an engaging twist or a fresh perspective this year. E-Team, co-directed by Ross Kauffman (who won an Oscar for co-directing Born Into Brothels), is a political-activist documentary about a special division of Human Rights Watch, dubbed the E-Team, that goes into dangerous areas of the planet where atrocities are occurring and tries to raise media awareness. The film is fortunate to have such photogenic, charismatic subjects as romantic partners Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang front and center since E-Team is more engaging as a rough-and-tumble look at their life-threatening work than it is as an exploration of why such atrocities happen and what the world’s responsibility to the victims is.

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Likewise, 20,000 Days on Earth rethinks the fawning rockumentary by profiling brooding troubadour Nick Cave as if he were the star of his own narrative, incorporating scripted therapy sessions as well as dreamlike conversations between the singer-songwriter and colleagues as diverse as Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. I confess not to be entirely on Cave’s doomed-poet wavelength—in general, I prefer his persona to his songs—but directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard make a convincing case for his gloomy theatrics and oversized tortured-writer mystique. Plus, 20,000’s final shot is a real stunner.

And if you’ve had your fill of gooey first-person docs where the director makes the movie about herself as much as about the subject, you may be caught off-guard by Dusty Stacks of Mom, animator and filmmaker Jodie Mack’s 50-minute tribute to her mother’s defunct poster shop. Using stop-motion animation and incorporating a song-by-song remake of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—she hired different musicians to record new versions of the tracks, to which she sang fresh lyrics—Mack risks cutesiness at every turn. Maybe it’s because she performed the vocals live in the room, but Dusty Stacks of Mom ends up sufficiently delightful, proving the inexhaustibility of one of rock’s greatest albums as well as our endless fascination with the disposability of pop-culture stardom.

As in past years, True/False did its best to appeal to both the mainstream/accessible audience and the highbrow/challenging crowd. (The Columbia weekly Vox Magazine provides a cheat-sheet of sorts, offering a full-page “Doc Matrix” graphic that divides True/False’s slate onto a X/Y graph of “Uplifting”/“Heavy” and “Mainstream”/“Artsy.”) On the “Heavy” side, the polemic Concerning Violence took a fiercely didactic approach, with filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson dividing his documentary into nine chapters, each structured around a sample of political theorist Frantz Fanon’s writings about the perils of colonialism in the second half of the 20th century. Using found footage mostly taken across Africa, Concerning Violence has an impressively coldblooded approach to its material, with singer Lauryn Hill’s admittedly strident voiceover suggesting the deep-seated anger that will eventually rise to the surface. And Dutch filmmaker Jaap Van Hoewijk’s Killing Time is especially sobering, looking at a day in the life of a black Texas family as they await the execution of one of their kin. We’ve seen other films about America’s death row policy—Dead Man Walking, Werner Herzog’s searing Into the Abyss—but what makes Killing Time stand out is its quiet bewilderment. Van Hoewijk doesn’t insert himself into the action because he doesn’t need to do so: The madness of how we as a nation treat the killing of our criminals is shameful, especially when we see it through the lens of an outsider.

But the “Uplifting” offerings were no slouches. The lively Particle Fever traces the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, the 20-year-long labor of love designed by scientists across the globe to locate the so-called “God particle.” If director Mark Levinson fails to make his lovable collection of physicists the distinctive characters one would hope, the movie nonetheless examines another kind of magic: the teasing mystery of the cosmos and our incredibly infinitesimal place in it.

And no film at True/False—or, frankly, anywhere else right now—makes the tag “uplifting” more of a compliment than Boyhood. Screening as one of the festival’s closing night films—its director, Richard Linklater, couldn’t attend because he was at the Oscars the same evening for his nominated screenplay for Before MidnightBoyhood was a bold choice. Though it’s a narrative, Boyhood captures “reality” by filming its stars (particularly lead Ellar Coltrane) over a series of years, watching as they get older and reflect their changing time periods. (When the movie begins in 2002, Coldplay’s “Yellow” is on the soundtrack, and the road to the Iraq War is already being built.) An accidental time capsule of post-9/11 America, Boyhood is full of the lucky accidents and creative sparks that fiction films are habitually credited with. (For one thing, there was no guarantee that Coltrane, a complete novice when he started as a boy, would actually grow into a solid actor.) But it’s remarkable how many of the themes of True/False’s slate of films—20,000 Days on Earth’s musing about art and identity, Stand Clear of the Closing Door’s portrait of adolescence, Actress’s investigation of life’s peaks and valleys, Approaching the Elephant’s concerns about the best way to prepare a child for the world—are subsumed in Boyhood’s 164 minutes, easily Linklater’s longest film. Only time will tell if it’s also his best.

So where does that leave Manakamana? Nowhere on Vox Magazine’s grid, interestingly enough—perhaps a simple editorial slip-up or maybe a sign of how that dazzling film evades categorization. I caught Manakamana in True/False’s smallest venue—the Little Ragtag, which seats just 75—but its impact was amphitheater-sized. Unobtrusively filming 11 different groups or individuals as they travel either up or down a mountain in Nepal, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s documentary uses these unbroken shots to celebrate human beings in repose—a simple but astonishingly profound, moving experience. When I reviewed the film during True/False, I stumbled to articulate what I had just witnessed. Weeks later, I’m not sure I could any better describe what Manakamana did to me. But while there were films at True/False that were better, none more precisely encapsulated the festival’s idea of “Magic/Realism.” I can’t say that I learned anything significant about the people on those cable car rides—nor did I discover anything new about the world like I did in Particle Fever or E-Team—but after it was over, I felt like I had touched something true about existence. Those moments are so rare and so fleeting. Call them magic until we find a better word.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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