Filmmaker Sydney Pollack contended that good movies should be two sides of a good argument. “The essence to me of all good drama is argument,” the late Oscar-winner said. “I can’t say that either side is a thousand percent right,” later telling another interviewer that he saw his films as being about “two people in conflict that see life differently.”
That same friction is evident in good film festivals, which can present conflicting viewpoints on the topics their movies examine. Certainly that’s the case with True/False Film Fest, which primarily focuses on documentary filmmaking. It’s simplistic to suggest that nonfiction is “about” something, whereas fiction (because it dwells in the land of make-believe) is more concerned with entertaining an audience than hitting them with messages. But the 15th installment of one of the best documentary festivals on the planet argued that there’s more than a little validity to that received wisdom. Whether by accident or design—whether because of the films programmed or the order in which I saw them—patterns started to form at this year’s True/False, as if the varied slate of nonfiction offerings were debating one another, neither side being “right” but both being true.
True/False’s wealth of cinematic perspectives is appropriate for a festival that’s bighearted in plenty of ways. From the lively musical performances that precede every screening to the generally genial, laidback vibe of the festival—which takes place in Columbia, Mo., a college town of roughly 120,000—True/False highlights provocative work with a Midwesterner’s nonchalance, bringing together world premieres and favorites from the international circuit. Directors are invited to speak after the screenings and hang out over the four-day event, which this year took place during the first weekend in March. It’s a convivial affair that respects its audience’s ability to absorb challenging fare, happily programming a stark documentary about a cannibal alongside a crowd-pleasing portrait of one of public broadcasting’s most beloved educators. This was my sixth True/False—full disclosure: my airfare and accommodations are covered by the festival—and that generous spirit of mixing and matching has never waned.
Juxtaposition reared its head from my first screening, which opened with an 11-minute short from director Sierra Pettengill, Graven Image, about the history of Stone Mountain, Ga.’s racist monument to the Confederacy. Pettengill’s calm, meticulous depiction of the monument’s origins, featuring archival footage and period news items, is a sober illustration of how commemoration reshapes the past and privileges specific agendas—how history is a battle waged between warring vantage points to gain a strategic and ideological foothold on the future. Graven Image is wonderfully infuriating, and its intelligence and discipline were even more impressive in comparison to Our New President, the full-length documentary with which it was paired.
Directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer), the film offers another perspective on propaganda, purporting to tell the story of the 2016 presidential election entirely through Russian television and the internet. The idea is to create a freaky, through-the-looking glass nightmare in which we discover how facts took a backseat amidst Putin’s state-run media warping of his countrymen against Hillary Clinton in favor of his preferred candidate Donald Trump.
There’s been no shortage of documentaries since Trump’s election that have dissected the results of that fateful campaign, and it doesn’t take much for a sensible American like me to be thoroughly enraged all over again by the outcome. And yet, Our New President’s bizarro tour of found footage is pretty weak tea, a scattershot scouring of mass media that rarely unearths the truly surreal, horrifying or damning in the bowels of the Russian collective unconscious. For instance, a YouTube clip of some random Russian boy brandishing a Trump tattoo on his bicep is mildly novel, but Pozdorovkin’s cheeky assortment of online oddities set against some admittedly vile Russian news “commentary” doesn’t add up to much more than a shrug. Where Pettengill takes a scalpel to history, Pozdorovkin seems far too impressed with his mishmash of content, as if burying us in visual ephemera translates to a point of view. We’re all living through the horror of Trump’s compromised, Russian-aided election: Our New President merely pokes the bear rather than offering much in the way of insight.
A documentary festival like True/False is instructive in shattering the notion that “nonfiction” equates to “reality” or “objective truth.” A director makes a thousand choices, each of them altering what’s being captured by the camera into what the artist perceives—an event being turned into an experience and a point of view. Two harmonious expressions of this fundamental truth screened nearly back-to-back during the festival, almost as if they were unconsciously reaching out to each another.
On one side, there was the dazzling Black Mother, which world-premiered at the festival. The latest from Field Niggas director Khalik Allah journeys to Jamaica, the birthplace of his mother, and returns with nothing that could be described as a definitive portrait. Part travelogue, part family history, part photographic study, Black Mother is immersive and seems to have been constructed via intuition, Allah dividing the work into three parts—or trimesters—to challenge how outsiders see the island nation while offering a kaleidoscopic sweep of how the country’s citizens view themselves.
In Black Mother, the images we see on the screen don’t always match with what we hear on the soundtrack—and even when the voiceover interview comes from the onscreen subject, the words don’t match the mouth—and the effect is initially jarring. But acquiesce to Allah’s strategy and something remarkable happens: We get wrapped up in Black Mother’s drifting rhythms and the filmmaker’s unresolved, perhaps conflicted feelings about a country that no one movie could possible encapsulate. (What country could be?) Part of Black Mother’s power is its acknowledgement of its limitations, and there’s humility and compassion in that recognition, which inspires the viewer to approach the work in the same spirit of openness, discovery and empathy.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
is no less ambitious and also no less attuned to its own subliminal design. Director RaMell Ross moved to Hale County, Ala., to teach and coach basketball when he hit upon the idea of capturing what life was like in the small Southern community. From that notion comes a documentary that, like Black Mother, could be lazily pegged as Malick-ian because of its meditative shots of nature and its unhurried, plotless stretches. Ross focuses on a few central figures, but individual lives aren’t the takeaway from Hale County—rather, it’s the idea of how an ecosystem functions, as seen from the inside.
Ross has said that part of his strategy was to deemphasize the need to force a traditional narrative onto these lives. We mostly see black faces in Hale County—as we do in Black Mother—and Ross provocatively suggests that presenting African-American life in casual, un-momentous ways is a radical act. He’s right: As Hollywood continues to struggle with its own lack of diversity and inclusiveness, it’s hard to think of many movies that show black characters simply going through the mundane, unguarded moments of everyday life—and the same is true of documentaries.
Hale County warmly embraces everything and everyone that passes in front of its camera. Questions concerning poverty and racism creep up throughout the documentary, but these people’s troubles don’t feel like “issues” or “themes”—they’re just part of the ebb and flow of a day, as elemental as a lightning storm or familiar as some kids shooting hoops, to cite just two examples of offhand vibrancy that Ross includes in his film. As a result, there’s something heroic and commonplace about his subjects, who collectively create a poignant sense of what it means to be alive.
Allah’s and Ross’ movies pay special attention to the world of children, but nowhere as intensely as documentaries from two very different filmmakers—one British, one Syrian.
Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers revisits the endless nature-versus-nurture debate with the incredible story of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, perfect strangers who discovered in the early 1980s that they looked eerily similar and were, in fact, triplets who had been separated at birth. With flashy precision, Wardle quickly recaps how they found one another—two of the brothers serve as the film’s lively talking heads—and sets the audience up for a happy ending about long-lost siblings finally reconnecting. But even if you’re not familiar with the actual events, Three Identical Strangers clearly intends to trip us up with its feel-good opening, paving the way for a tale that gets odder and sadder as it goes along.
It’s best not to know much going into Three Identical Strangers, but Wardle’s slickly tells his juicy story for maximum dramatic impact and compulsive watchability. (Not a surprise that the montages of the brothers’ rising celebrity are scored to super-catchy pop hits of the era.) And when storm clouds begin to form on the horizon of this happy tale, the film cannily replays some of the same cheerful archival footage that had been presented earlier, giving it a darker new meaning as the men’s joyful reunion suddenly becomes more complicated. Three Identical Strangers can be too polished and cookie-cutter for its own good—the movie will air on CNN, and I could occasionally feel where the commercial breaks would appear—but nonetheless Wardle fixes his eye on the ways that people are forever shaped by their childhood, and how those years can do untold damage that’s only fully experienced later in adulthood.
That sobering thought is magnified by Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki’s gutsy and incredible piece of undercover reportage. The filmmaker bluffed his way into the lair of Abu Osama, an Al Nusra fighter in Syria, by convincing him that he was sympathetic to his cause. The film that Derki brought back from his experience is the most distorted twist on the coming-of-age drama I’ve seen in recent years.
Of Fathers and Sons demonstrates, as if we need to be reminded, that what’s most chilling about evil men is their inability to see their acts as evil. At first glance, the Abu we meet seems very similar to plenty of stern fathers—it’s only as Of Fathers and Sons continues that we observe the jihadist lessons he’s teaching his young children and the military training he’s providing them.
Derki spent two years with Abu’s family, and the footage mostly focuses on the father, but it’s impossible not to absorb what’s happening to these children, who are bullied and beaten into obeying him. That shock is compounded by the seeming normalcy of the world that Of Fathers and Sons depicts, as well as the worrying sense that this toxic mindset is being passed down from generation to generation in the same way that some families hand off a beloved heirloom or sentimental knickknack. Excellent Syrian documentaries such as Last Men in Aleppo have shown the scope of the country’s horrors, but the behind-the-scenes, claustrophobic intimacy of Of Fathers and Sons has its own gripping force, illustrating how monstrous behavior is learned at such an early age.
Making sense of one’s past can be a lifelong undertaking, and two True/False offerings examined how thorny the proposition can be—whether it’s a personal history or a community’s. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, making a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly.
Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of.
So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot.
The burden of the past is even more spikily depicted in Bisbee ’17, the new movie from Actress and Kate Plays Christine director Robert Greene, who trains his camera on a fraught centennial commemoration. On July 12, 1917, in the mining community of Bisbee, Az., striking migrant workers were rounded up by the local police and dropped off in the New Mexico desert with little concern for their fate. Greene travels to Bisbee to spend time with different townspeople—including some whose ancestors were connected to the 1917 incident (now known as the Bisbee Deportation)—to offer an impressionistic overview of a city wrestling with its terrible history.
Those familiar with Greene’s earlier work won’t be surprised that Bisbee ’17 weaves together ideas, moods and conflicting viewpoints—the documentary gives equal room to those who defend the deportation and those aghast that it ever happened—but never before has the filmmaker crafted such an Altman-esque overview of a community. As revealed in Greene’s probing documentary, Bisbee feels like a surreal way station for odd ducks and old souls, but the townspeople’s grappling with racism, justice and economic hard times becomes eerily relevant to so much that the country as a whole has been forced to reckon with since Trump’s election. As Bisbee ’17 moves closer to its astonishing finale—in which the townspeople reenact the deportation, playing either law enforcement or powerless migrant workers—the film asks how we can ever make peace with our nation’s unconscionable misdeeds, and also how those past sins continue to inform our current actions.
Greene’s superb sense of emotional distance—not detached, but also not blindly empathetic—speaks to one of the core challenges in any kind of filmmaking, which is how to portray unsympathetic subjects. A pair of True/False entries—one a fiction feature based on actual events, the other an intimate vérité sketch—show different ways to approach this conundrum. One is far more successful than the other.
In American Animals, we meet Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), going-nowhere buds who hatch a crazy scheme to steal some valuable rare books from their local library, recruiting a couple other vacant dudes (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) to help with the robbery. True/False will program the occasional narrative film that flirts with nonfiction elements, so writer-director Bart Layton’s feature debut (he made the 2012 documentary The Imposter) is an obvious choice, as it sports talking-head interviews from the actual participants that are interspersed with the actors’ dramatic recreations.
Crafted to be a breezy, self-conscious heist film—the characters study Rififi for inspiration, and a key fantasy sequence is scored to the remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” which was memorably used in Ocean’s Eleven—American Animals uses a lot of giddy flash to make a sobering point: These callow losers are incredibly privileged white males with little reason to execute this crime except for the fact that they’re bored. But despite strong performances from Peters and Keoghan, who both hook into their characters’ suffocating vapidity, Layton never entirely makes the case that his movie has much more intellectual heft than his protagonists. American Animals is a zippy, forgettable film about dunderheads, which isn’t the same as having a sharp perspective on those boobs.
By comparison, look at the quiet wonders achieved by documentarian Rok Bicek in his searching film The Family. As the movie begins, we are thrust into the middle of what should be the most wonderful day of Slovenian teenager Matej’s life: His girlfriend Barbara is giving birth to their daughter Nia. But it’s a sign of The Family’s unblinking starkness that the camera never looks away from the birth canal as Barbara forcefully pushes out the child—nothing that transpires over the next 100 minutes will be any less difficult to watch.
Showing no interest in on-camera interviews or any other conventional road markers that would help orient the audience, Bicek simply plunges us into Matej’s day-to-day existence, which includes living with parents and a brother who are all intellectually disabled. Their working-class life is unglamorous, and Matej doesn’t strike the viewer as some lovable scamp whose charm, heart and drive will help lift him out of these meager conditions. Quite the opposite: The Family follows him over about a 10-year span, showing how his tenuous relationship with Barbara quickly disintegrates, both of them taking on new lovers without much improvement to their situation.
Because Bicek offers little in the way of handholding—his roving camerawork and diegetic soundtrack are unashamedly unpolished—it can be challenging to embrace a young man who is, without question, a massive screw-up stumbling through life and potentially jeopardizing his daughter’s future. The Family never tries to force a happy ending on these proceedings, and as a result the film is uniquely attuned to difficult questions about how we view those less fortunate than us. There’s no doubt that Matej was born into a difficult situation, but when do his problems become self-inflicted? And if he can’t pull himself out of his own mediocrity, what becomes of him? The Family is empathetic while being clear-eyed, depicting vapidity as an enigmatic condition with far more insight than American Animals dares.
In the age of #MeToo, toxic masculinity has become a convenient cultural catchphrase whose ubiquity can both water down its meaning and simplify the complexity of modern manhood in all its good and ill. The True/False programmers contributed to the conversation with two off-center depictions of masculinity that were, respectively, tender and wryly comic, illustrating how gendered social pressures can shape individuals and societies.
A hit at Directors’ Fortnight at last year’s Cannes, The Rider draws from the lives of its untrained actors to craft a fictional scenario. The movie stars Brady Jandreau, a real-life cowboy, as Brady, a rodeo rider who’s trying to pick up the pieces after suffering a serious head injury. Writer-director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) incorporated Jandreau’s personal story for her tale, which compassionately chronicles how this rugged, rural South Dakota community views Brady and his brethren. Practically invisible without their dangerous, old-school macho jobs, guys like Brady have no choice but to get back on the horse, metaphorically and literally, but The Rider examines what they lose by rushing their recovery in order to regain their manhood.
The poignancy and beauty of Zhao’s story found an unlikely, but amusing, counterpoint in Playing Men, Slovenian documentarian Matjaž Ivanišin’s delightedly quizzical look at a selection of random games and contests, largely undertaken by men, around the Mediterranean. Homoerotic wrestling matches—watch where you put your hand, bub—and cheese-slinging events are on display, not to mention an intense, hyperbolic version of Rock Paper Scissors. Ivanišin doesn’t bother introducing us to the participants or even explaining the rules of these games: He’s going for a cheeky slideshow of various forms of play, juxtaposing the silliness of the endeavors with the seriousness of the combatants.
More a selection of short films than a cohesive feature-length documentary, Playing Men intriguingly shifts gears in its second half—Ivanišin becomes a comical central figure in his own movie—before arriving at a tableaux that dryly illustrates humanity’s thirst to reward (and bask in the glory of) athletic greatness. Games may be primarily thought of as amusements for children, but Playing Men argues that, when it comes to manhood, they’re a lifelong pursuit—even if the participants don’t realize how ridiculous they are pursuing such fleeting victory.
In a time of social-media advocacy, from the Green Revolution to Time’s Up, it’s inspiring to see ordinary people stand up to oppression of all forms, but the question remains whether revolutionary movements can permanently bring down the corrupt power structures they’re fighting. True/False took on that challenge with two documentaries that were inspiring but also sobering, shining a light on the limits of protest and the obstacles that prevent meaningful social change. It just so happens that one of the films wove those themes within the portrait of a pop-star rebel.
But first, let’s turn our attention to Kinshasa Makambo, in which documentarian Dieudo Hamadi follows a few young men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they plot the overthrow of President Joseph Kabila, who’s lead the nation since his father was assassinated early this century. Filmed over the course of about two years, Kinshasa Makambo takes us through the country’s recent woes—Kabila’s crooked government promised to allow an election in 2016 and then kept delaying a vote—and shows how the Congolese responded by taking to the streets to demand change.
Hamadi, who received the festival’s annual True Vision Award (given to “a midcareer filmmaker for advancing the art of nonfiction cinema”), presents us with a familiar narrative arc that has a bittersweet ending. As everyday Congolese face off with riot police or meet in secret to strategize, Kinshasa Makambo swirls with revolutionary spirit, connecting viewers to media images of recent rallies in the Middle East and even across America. But to the protestors’ frustration, Kabila won’t be toppled so easily, and the film’s three central figures—Ben, Christian and Jean-Marie—can’t always agree on what the best course of action should be, revealing internal divisions within the revolt.
Startling, shaky images from street protests, as Hamadi and the revolutionaries run for their lives, are balanced with static closed-door meetings, but Kinshasa Makambo makes the case for why both forms of resistance are necessary. Political uprisings start with such passion, but they can easily flame out—sustained resistance is hard—and this nuanced look at social upheaval has no illusions about the prolonged fight the Congolese have in store. In Congo, as elsewhere, the work goes on, and the outcome is far from certain.
For another perspective on radical political change, the festival offered MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., a candid look at the singer Maya Arulpragasam, popularly known as M.I.A. The film has been a long time coming. About 10 years ago, the “Paper Planes” star turned over hours of home videos to director Steve Loveridge. What happened after that could almost form the basis of its own documentary—at one point in 2013, Loveridge declared that he “would rather die” than keep working on the project—but what has emerged is an uncommonly unadorned look at a young artist growing up before our eyes. Think Amy without the crushing heartbreak—although that’s not to say that M.I.A. doesn’t have its share of sobering moments.
“He took all of my cool out,” the musician told Billboard after the film’s Sundance premiere. “He took all the shows where I look good and tossed it in the bin. … I didn’t know that my music wouldn’t really be a part of this. I find that to be a little hard, because that is my life. It’s not the film that I would have made.” Her assessment is inaccurate—among M.I.A.’s highlights is its booming version of her galloping Kala track “Bamboo Banga”—and it also fails to appreciate how much care Loveridge has taken in shaping his story about a young woman reconciling her family history with her own burgeoning political awareness.
As her fans no doubt know, M.I.A. was born in London but grew up in Sri Lanka, where her father Arul formed the revolutionary organization the Tamil Tigers. Arul’s activities became a cloud over her head during her early career—perhaps burnishing her reputation as a musical rebel but also inspiring protests from those who labeled him a terrorist—and M.I.A. chronicles in nearly real time how the performer educates herself on Sri Lanka’s political strife and incorporates it into her daring, electric music.
In recent years, M.I.A. has fallen out of critical favor for myriad reasons—the furor over her decision to flip off the camera during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, her inability to repeat the phenomenal success of “Paper Planes”—but the film makes no attempt to rehabilitate her career. Instead, Loveridge, who went to art school with M.I.A., is after something far more profound: mapping the risks and rewards of being a potent but imperfect political artist in an age when sensationalism is everywhere and nuanced rhetoric is, sadly, in short supply. It’s a sign of M.I.A.’s unfinished maturation that she can’t quite grasp the gift her friend has given her.
Portraiture was also the impetus for two other True/False entries, which could serve as a double bill of extremes. On one side, there was a stark, experimental look at unknowable evil—on the other, a rather straightforward salute to uncomplicated goodness. It’s hard to imagine the two documentaries’ subjects occupying the same planet, let alone the same film festival.
The directing team of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are among today’s most exciting nonfiction filmmakers—their 2012 film Leviathan was a revelation, and dizzyingly immersive—but their latest offers a provocation that isn’t quite as gratifying. Caniba is an intensely intimate study of Issei Sagawa, a man you’d never want to meet. Nearly 40 years ago, while he was living in Paris, he famously killed and feasted on a Dutch woman. He escaped sentencing after being deemed legally insane, however, and he currently lives in Japan under the care of his brother. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor visited Sagawa, who turns 69 next month, not to glamorize or condemn his crimes—his cannibalistic urges had cropped up prior to the Paris attack—but to question a central belief about documentaries, which is that a person can be understood if you put a camera in front of him.
To illustrate the fallacy in this belief, Caniba purposely exaggerates the lens’ power to “reveal” a subject, the directors placing their camera uncomfortably close to Sagawa’s face. The strategy, presumably, is partly to force us to confront this man and his inner darkness, but it also succeeds in turning him into an abstraction, arguing that he cannot be understood. Spending time with Sagawa and his brother can be a queasy experience—not because of any gore but because of the film’s formal strictures—but Caniba’s intentionally opaque strategies can feel a bit monotonous. In Leviathan, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor plunged us into the world of fishermen, turning a seemingly familiar industry into a violent, surreal phantasmagoria—you could never see that world the same way again. With Caniba, the filmmakers go the opposite direction, giving us a tight pinhole-view of one man, shutting out everything around him.
Morgan Neville’s winning portrait Won’t You Be My Neighbor? stands in contrast to Caniba’s enigmatic, withholding darkness. Which makes sense since the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom has turned his attention to Fred Rogers, a kindly TV personality who entertained a couple generations of kids with his benign PBS program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark show, so expect plenty of tributes over the next several months. (PBS has already gotten the ball rolling, airing its own tribute, Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like.) As an official chronicling of the man’s life and legacy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t remotely innovative. We get polished interviews from colleagues, family members and Rogers’ widow. There are plenty of clips from his show, as well as other archival material. And there’s a gimmick-y recurring use of animation to illustrate parts of his story that’s the only truly cloying element of a film that mostly eschews mawkishness.
And yet, while Rogers is arguably far less fascinating a documentary subject than Sagawa, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a stunningly moving film that also feels just the teensiest bit radical. That word will be used a lot during this golden anniversary for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as his fans remind everyone that, rather than starring a smiling square who couldn’t have looked less manly, the show was actually a pretty progressive program that frankly discussed everything from race relations to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Neville accentuates Rogers’ unembarrassed sweetness as an example of his principled stand against bigotry and injustice, making the case with conviction and gusto.
At my True/False screening, the audience was warned before Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that we ought to have Kleenex in hand to prepare for what we were going to experience. I’m an unashamed movie crier, but I resent being prepped for how I should feel about a movie I’m about to see. And yet, the warning was warranted: The tears elicited from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are a testament to Neville’s tasteful, loving (but not fawning) depiction of a decent, unassuming man. The movie’s not just a balm in the age of Trump—it’s an opportunity for viewers to reconnect with their own decency, and Neville’s gentle skill at arguing for goodness ends up being a minor miracle.
Compassion for the underprivileged is an admirable quality, but in documentary filmmaking it can come across as painfully patronizing. Two of the festival’s stronger entries offered distinct lessons in how to avoid that trap. The first was Voices of the Sea, from British filmmaker Kim Hopkins, who previously chronicled the recording of the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue albums in 1999’s Man in the Sand. This time, she follows a Cuban family torn between braving the perilous ocean journey to America or remaining in their homeland, where conditions are less than ideal both culturally and financially.
Hopkins takes her time introducing us to different members of this family, including Pita, the patriarch who’s married to the much younger Mariela. (She was married before—he drowned trying to get to Florida on a rickety raft.) Pita is a fisherman who has no intention of leaving, while Mariela and others are itching for a new life in the States. Hopkins’ shot-on-the-fly approach to their story allows us to casually drop in on these people’s lives, but she doesn’t lean one way or the other in terms of what the right course of action should be for their future. We observe the family’s relatively shabby living conditions, but those moments are offset by gorgeous, magic-hour photography of Pita as he’s out on his boat—it’s quite clear why he thinks he’s already residing in paradise.
Voices of the Sea isn’t exactly action-packed, but the film’s languid tone nonetheless makes room for a couple melancholy twists along the way. Hopkins shows a respectful restraint around her subjects, never trying to force any sweeping declarations about the Cuban people onto her slender, wistful documentary. She humanizes through specificity.
French director Emmanuel Gras does the same in his extraordinary film Makala, which won the top prize at Critics’ Week at last year’s Cannes. Gras spent time with Kabwita, a young Congolese who’s readying to visit a nearby market to pick up essentials for his family, including medicine. But the trip isn’t that simple: Without a car, he’ll need to travel by foot, lugging behind him a copious amount of charcoal he’ll use as barter.
Observation elevated to the level of poetry—but not at the expense of dramatizing Kabwita’s plight—Makala is a powerfully meditative film that’s also highly sensitive to the struggle of those in impoverished circumstances. Makala makes its subject’s ordeal clear from the outset as we watch him meticulously chop down a mammoth tree in order to turn it into the charcoal he desperately needs. Work is slow and grueling in the film, and Gras strips it down to its essence, encapsulating a lifetime of drudgery into Kabwita’s arduous journey to the market.
It’s snide to refer to the subjects of documentaries as “actors” or “characters”—almost as if implying that they’re faking their experience, or that they’re fictional figures immune to real-world consequences—so let me just say that Kabwita is an incredible presence in Makala, ignoring the camera and simply going about his business. With no interest in prettified poverty porn, Gras is drawn to the man’s stoic diligence, and soon so are we. Kabwita becomes a modern-day Job, but there’s no faux-pity to Makala, which constantly admires his work ethic and his refusal to feel sorry for himself. And yet, the movie is also enormously life-affirming and even moving on occasion—this was as close to a spiritual experience as this consistently rewarding festival achieved in 2018.
But the unwitting conversations (or arguments) going on between films at True/False reached their zenith with what may end up being the festival’s most singular work—certainly it was the documentary that most personified the festival’s spirit of animated back-and-forth. Not only did it seem to encompass all the different debates occurring in other films, but the film itself was a sustained debate. And just as potently, the film inspired some impassioned post-screening discussions.
Multidisciplinary artist Leigh Ledare makes his directorial debut with The Task, based on a social experiment he conducted in Chicago in 2017 in which he filmed a group of about 30 participants over three days. The point of this experiment was simple but willfully vague: Put the people in a room and have them figure out the purpose for why they’re there, encouraging them to talk honestly about whatever emotions or observations arise. Like a cross between Lars von Trier and the Stanford Prison Experiment, The Task is a recording of what took place over those three days—there’s no outright violence, but the tension and hostility can be overwhelming at times.
Ledare’s participants are a cross-section of humanity: white, black, Asian, men, women, young, old, emotionally open, carefully guarded. And as we dip in and out of his subjects’ conversations, The Task began to speak to many issues raised at True/False’s four-day event. Playing Men and The Rider’s contrasting studies of masculinity figured into the experiment’s slowly widening gap between its male and female participants. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Caniba’s conflicting approaches to illuminating the lives of their subjects were echoed by one of The Task’s most fascinating elements, which involved asking your fellow viewers afterward which of the group’s participants they responded to or not. (I’ve yet to find any two audience members who have the same answers.) Kinshasa Makambo and M.I.A. wrestle with the limits of making change in this world; so do the people in The Task, who discuss sexism, racism and the dangers of making assumptions about others, leading to frustration in the room when they can’t come up with meaningful solutions. The Family and American Animals dared to make unpalatable individuals the focal points of their films; Ledare’s experiment leaves us trapped with a group of people, some of whom will drive you crazy with the way they raise points or generally behave. (Again, which people will infuriate you will depend entirely on your individual viewpoint.)
The Task had its festival premiere at True/False, and by all accounts the response was, well, animated. Slate’s Sam Adams attended a different screening than I did, but he notes that his audience “grew audibly restless during one especially opaque section midway through. But instead of distracting from the film, the crowd’s restlessness enhanced it. For a thrilling extended moment, it felt as if the film’s confrontations might spill off the screen and into the room.” The experience was comparable to my screening’s—not so much the restlessness but the sense that the audience was actively engaged, almost as if we were all participants as well.
This feels intentional. It’s impossible to watch The Task and not sense that you’re being drawn into the social experiment that Ledare has crafted. And in a sense, we already were before we started watching the movie. Being part of a society—even going to a film festival, or simply going to a movie—we’re tacitly agreeing to interact with other elements of life, some we enjoy and some that shake us or enrage us. Nothing gets resolved in The Task, but the audacity of its design and the passionate crosstalk of its participants’ ideas and differing viewpoints are central to what makes an event like True/False so vital. Maybe not all good films are two sides of a good argument. But it’s really just another way of saying that good movies are ones that get you talking. With True/False, the conversation never ends.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.