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By Eric Hynes
As suggested by the slash, the True/False Festival plays around the line between fiction and non-fiction. The slanted punctuation doesn’t pose a question, make a claim, or even assume an opposition. This highly concentrated, highly curated weekend survey distinguishes itself from a glut of North American film festivals not by taking a local or easily defined thematic angle, but by making a strong critical claim against formal distinctions between documentary and fiction.
This past year, as True/False celebrated its eighth anniversary—it ran from March 3-6 in the culture-rich college town of Columbia, Missouri—that claim reached the mainstream as questionable docs Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop became modest box-office hits, with the latter ultimately receiving an Academy Award nomination, a remarkable achievement for a film many consider to be a work of veiled fiction. With recent films like Alamar (2009), Sweetgrass (2009), and Our Beloved Month of August (2008) approaching non-fiction filmmaking as an artistic as much as a factual pursuit, and the vérité model of witness seemingly ceding ground to a kind of Bazinian interest in reality as defined by cinematic time and space, the argument behind True/False, echoed in these pages by Robert Koehler, and later by Dennis Lim in The New York Times, seems more prescient and relevant than ever. What Koehler coined “a cinema of in-betweenness”—using documentary or real-life elements to tell a fictional story, or fictive elements marshaled toward a non-fictional end, or thwarting expectations from either side— dominated the excellent slate of 38 features at this year’s fest. In a material, mechanical, ethical, and narrative sense, all films freight elements of both fiction and non-fiction, a truth that’s been floating around since Flaherty and the Lumières. But after years dominated by issue-oriented, blandly talking-head docs, there are signs that the art of non-fiction film is learning to embrace rather than deny its ambiguities, and that this might be a time when non-fiction films resemble the print non-fiction of the New Journalism movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s: a time for creative non-fiction on film.
Though the fest hosted numerous North American premieres, sneak previews, and secret screenings, it also borrowed from higher profile fests like Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes. Straightforward crowd-pleasers like Buck and Page One: Inside the New York Times were strange fits for True/False—though I’d love to see a shaggier version of the latter, with more patience-testing, let-the-camera-run footage of NYT editorial meetings and testy phone interviews. Others seemed right at home alongside their boundary-pushing brethren, like the disconcertingly gorgeous war doc Armadillo, the true-life challenge to Judeo-Christian notions of forgiveness and reinvention that is The Redemption of General Butt Naked, the scruffy, frankly adorable Sundance winner Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, and fellow Sundance selection The Interrupters, Steve James’ unique collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Kotlowitz.
An unsentimental, surprisingly funny and frequently transcendent portrait of the reformed gang members behind CeaseFire, a Chicago-based violence intervention organization, the film is of a piece with James’ equally epic Hoop Dreams (1994) but also with Kotlowitz’s rigorous, long-form non-fiction reportage. The lives of three main characters—Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra—form the spine of a narrative, yet no other subject, great or small, ever seems subordinate to that narrative. In the corner of every room, and nearly every frame, stands a person whose story is just as worthy of our time, and James and Kotlowitz never ask you to believe otherwise. The Interrupters should be seen no matter how or when, but at the Missouri Theater Center for the Arts, the largest venue with the largest screen in the festival, there was a kind of collective catharsis that could only happen in a packed, rapt theatre. The nearly three-hour running time presents a challenge, but here’s hoping there’s an ambitious theatrical plan in the works.
Based on visuals alone, The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975, comprised of forgotten archival footage from Swedish TV, is a remarkable document. Unfortunately there aren’t just visuals, but also an intrusive, entirely unnecessary soundtrack of newly recorded interviews that belabour everything we’ve just watched. Regardless of good intentions, half-baked history lessons by Erykah Badu do nothing but make a mockery of Angela Davis’ or Stokely Carmichael’s complex legacies. Meanwhile, sound barely registers in Eric Brach’s quietly transgressive Habana Muda, which follows a deaf-mute Cuban man’s relationships with his deaf-mute wife and his non-deaf male Mexican lover. Sparsely scored, and featuring only brief snippets of spoken dialogue, it’s nevertheless one of the talkiest silent movies you’ll ever see, with every complication, from money and class to parenting and safe sex, thoroughly negotiated by hand.
Yet True/False’s defiantly ambiguous, whatsit spirit was most exemplified by three films from three largely unknown filmmakers, all of which obscured distinctions between objectivity and collaboration. Andris Gauja’s Family Instinct runs headlong into, rather than away from, the terrain of exploitation, as the director convinced his rural Latvian subjects to stage florid exaggerations of their boozy, destitute, nihilistic lives. Genuinely terrifying, uncomfortably funny and highly questionable, it recalls the slumming dilettantism of Harmony Korine at its worst, and the dangerously weird majesty of Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4 at its best. Oliver Laxe’s You Are All Captains starts off like a bemusing, Kiarostami-directs-Small Change self-reflection about an ill-fated filmmaking project with Moroccan orphans, before purposefully exploding into a free-associative tableau of pure cinema. “Film is about faces and places,” Laxe said afterwards, which would make You Are All Captains, beautifully shot in 35mm black-and-white, an exemplar of the form. Marcin Sauter’s North from Calabria charms its way past questions of documentary vs. fiction with waves of humour, craft, and affection for the sleepy Polish bordertown of Chelmsko Slaskie. Sauter imported 12 actors to work alongside actual townspeople, creating scenes and scenarios that he in turn shot with an observing eye. But such backstory couldn’t matter in the slightest, because whether or not it was scripted, cast, or storyboarded, what ended up on screen is undeniably live. True or false, North from Calabria is a lovely piece of work.
This being my first trip to True/False and Columbia, I was impressed by the enthusiasm for film in a small town two hours from both St. Louis and Kansas City. At the centre of Columbia’s film culture is the Ragtag Cinema, a fully functioning café, bar, and two-screen theatre that projects arthouse fare year-round. What started as a peripatetic film society is now a brick-and-mortar institution, but jammed as it is into an old Coca-Cola bottling factory, and with its small screening room filled with mismatched, well-worn couches and sitting chairs, it still retains an ad hoc spirit. Before every screening at the Ragtag, as well as at other venues like the two-tiered, sticky-floored Blue Note (one-time home for the Ragtag) and the aforementioned, majestic Missouri, local young folk musicians played earnest half-hour sets as cinemagoers found their seats. Contrast that pre-show programming with the eclectic montage of vintage music videos, low-rent institutional propaganda and sketch-comedy skits before screenings at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theatre/pub franchise that started the same year as the Ragtag (1997), and you can see the cultural shift from True/False to SXSW—two festivals that are separated by three days, 800 miles, and a vast difference in scale and focus.
Unlike the Tribeca Film Festival—which, thanks to famous figureheads and deep-pocketed sponsors, was overweight on arrival and has since scrambled to live up to its size—the SXSW Film Festival experienced a more natural progression to bloat, growing out of the eponymous, now massive music fest 17 years ago and steadily expanding to the point where it now showcases nearly 150 feature films. Despite being credited, and equal parts blamed, for serving as an incubator for the “mumblecore” films of Bujalski, Swanberg, Katz and countless lesser lights, the programming at SXSW has never really made an impact on the larger culture, especially when compared, perhaps unfairly, to the well-oiled and well-workshopped films of the Sundance narrative competition. Of the 145 films in this year’s festival, only 16 (eight fiction, eight documentary) compete in the main competition. The rest are spread into bafflingly arranged sections that seem to serve little public purpose. The festival is basically saying, “Here’s a mess of films: do whatever you want with them.” I can appreciate the wealth and freedom, but some clearer logic, as well as a discernible curatorial personality, would be nice—and no, “low-budget indie” doesn’t count as a genre or style, since those words say nothing about what winds up on screen, and “mumblecore” is just another word for something that everyone would rather disown and outgrow.
This year, the best films at SXSW were lumped together in the opaquely named Emerging Visions section, a teeming mélange of documentary and narrative, premiere and non-premiere, American and non-American features, with quality ranging from the embarrassingly undercooked (Bad Fever) to the fiendishly inspired (Todd Rohal’s The Catechism Cataclysm). Filmed on a 16mm Bolex and arranged, without synch sound, into a flash-cut, free-verse pastiche, Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is an elliptical portrait of Throbbing Gristle visionary Genesis P-Orridge, as well as a gloriously weird celebration of the artist’s love affair with his muse. As Genesis and Lady Jaye pursue the ideal of the pandrogyne, muting their physical differences through elective plastic surgery, Losier’s handmade film roughly harmonizes with Genesis’ out-there musical and bodily constructions, a piece of underground art that’s kindred to yet independent from the work of its subject. Jarrod Alterman takes a more classically cinematographic approach to his own slanted family portrait, Convento, tracking over the grounds of a 400-year-old Portuguese monastery and sculpting its objects and inhabitants with dramatic lighting. It’s a meticulously arranged triptych, with Dutch kinetic artist Christiaan Zwanikken and his half-skeletal, half-robotic contraptions forming the centrepiece, while his earthier mother (a retired dancer) and his animal-loving brother form the flanks. Alterman’s debut maintains an elegant inscrutability throughout 52 compacted minutes.
There were also frustrating, too-familiar entries like Surrogate Valentine, David Boyle’s muted tale of the hard knockabout life of a listless indie rocker harbouring an unrequited love, and Alison Bagnall’s The Dish and the Spoon, a film that’s smart about the erotics of ambiguously Platonic romance but lazy when it comes to the nuts and bolts of plot and character. Competition doc Kumaré has the nerve, as well as the personal anger, to punk the pseudo-Hindu new age-ism of suburban Arizona with an elaborate, Borat-style stunt, but loses that nerve once director-actor Vikram Gandhi realizes that someone could get hurt, and ultimately turns to mush when he refuses to own up to any of the complications or consequences of what he’s wrought, opting instead for a far more rancid tone of self-congratulation. It’s tempting to accentuate the positive of these films, to appreciate that Surrogate Valentine’s insouciant indie rock star, Goh Nakamura, isn’t as immediately punchable as mumblecore favorite Justin Rice, or to thank Gandhi for “starting a conversation” about religion, gurus, and gullibility. But that’s judging on a SXSWesterly curve, and nothing good will come of that. Certainly not better films.
One of the great discoveries of the festival brought me back to where my Midwestern trip began. With Turkey Bowl, Columbia, Missouri native Kyle Smith constructs a dramatic narrative entirely out of a semi-competitive touch football game. Eight old friends, along with two new ones, gather to reconnect, air old grievances, and test the limits of their aging bodies over the course of a game shown in its entirely, in real time—or I should say presented in real time, as Smith and DP Jeff Powers deftly find different ways of looking at the same ten sweaty people running down the field. The game is by turns exciting and boring, as such a game would be, with characters and relationships emerging via the action at hand, the actors all using their real names to play exaggerated versions of themselves. Turkey Bowl is unquestionably a work of fiction, but its respect for time and the rules of space represent a reality recorded; of people, as much as in North from Calabria and You Are All Captains, animated and captured by film.