It’s impossible to think about the 2020 True/False Film Festival outside of the context of the COVID-19 pandemic which really only began to reveal its initial grasp on American life during the week of the festival. Though you wouldn’t have been able to detect them in the densely packed theatres that sprouted up around downtown Columbia, MO the weekend of 4-7 March, anxieties were beginning to rise throughout the film industry. Midway through the weekend the city of Austin, TX itself announced that it had decided to cancel the city’s flagship cultural event, SXSW, which was scheduled to take place the following weekend. The dams were open and a flood of major spring festivals were about to follow their lead in hopes of staving off a virus that had proven to be both relatively deadly and mostly uncontrollable. Just days after my flights home, airports would begin to clear out, cities would go into lockdown and theatres the world over would become utterly empty.
So, it is with much relief that I can report that this year’s True/False was a seemingly miraculous, beauty filled send off into self-isolation. My final film of the weekend, and also the official closing night film, was perhaps the most tonally daring I saw at the festival: Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead. The follow-up to her masterful kaleidoscopic memoir Cameraperson (2016), Johnson’s latest takes up the self-serving task of capturing as much of her father on video as possible before he inevitably succumbs to the lost haze of dementia, the same fate as his dearly departed wife. Rather than taking a blatantly sentimental approach to this task, she instead invents a playful, frequently hilarious way of involving her father in the filmmaking process itself by asking him to help her invent and portray a variety of ways that he could in fact be killed. He agrees to take part, at first fervently so, but as the process moves along, the rapid disintegration of his cognizance begins to cause adjustments in production and moral conundrums to crop up. Throughout, Johnson intercuts highly stylised, raucous slow-mo party sequences of what heaven might be like (obviously Dick’s favourite, Farrah Fawcett is there), alongside imagined accidental deaths and real life snippets of how Dick’s life is rapidly changing – from being a practicing clinical psychologist living within the same home that he raised his family in, to having his car sold off by his children, his life packed up in boxes, and moving in with Kirsten’s family in her metropolitan condo so they can constantly keep an eye on him. The radical shifts in tone, from gallows humour and slapstick comedy to grave emotional seriousness in theory should not work, but Johnson and her brilliant co-writer and editor Nels Bangerter have composed an astonishing work of nonfiction that navigates those shifts with verve by employing the full trick or treat arsenal of fiction to unearth deeper truths about the complexities of how humans deal with aging, disease and death, as well as what it means to create, document and collectively share memories. The film was one of several dealing directly with the theme of aging while embracing humour as an emotional filter to soften the inevitable blow.
It seems the festival’s film programming team – Chris Boeckmann, now acting as director of programming, flanked by Amir George and Jeanelle Augustin – recognized the thematic throughline, balancing their bold closing night film with another funny take on the twilight years of one’s life in Lance Oppenheim’s Some Kind of Heaven for the festival’s opener. Having cut his teeth with a series of well travelled New York Times Op-Doc shorts, Oppenheim’s accomplished debut feature takes direct inspiration from a combination of Errol Morris’ early features Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida by centering his story around The Villages, a massive, candy coloured utopian retirement community located in central Florida where retirees flock by the tens of thousands in hopes of finally revelling in relaxation, taking up new hobbies like synchronised swimming or community theatre, joining social clubs such as the margarita guzzling Parrotheads, and maybe even falling in love. What begins as an observational survey of the vast spectrum of eccentricities that comically bloom when unchained from the grind of our capitalistic society, the film settles into a set of portraits. One thread follows a van dwelling bachelor looking to bed down with an unsuspecting rich old maid as he games the community’s occupancy policies. Another eyes a couple whose marriage has fallen on the rocks as the new agey, spiritualist husband gets busted for drugs, while the last and most heartfelt follows a widow whose searching for authentic companionship in a community wholly built on self reinvention and manufactured aesthetics. Much like Morris, and more recently, AJ Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s community portrait of Branson, Missouri in We Always Lie To Strangers (2013), Oppenheim embraces the absurdity of the circumstances he’s privy to with a biting sense of visual composition, allowing humour to carry the film along without ever floating too far from the emotional gravity of the very real situations his characters have found themselves in. While Some Kind of Heaven loses the richness of its Wiseman-like societal sprawl as the film falls into more emotionally grounded personality portraiture, the film totes a whip-smart critique of this uniquely American tribe’s modest attempt at finding happiness in old age, and remains wholly amusing through to its termination.
Another project that looked directly into the eyes of old age with a hint of humour was So Late So Soon by newcomer Daniel Hymanson, which had its world premiere at the festival. Hymanson embedded in the home of Chicago artists Jackie and Don Seiden over the course of years as their half-century relationship continues to evolve as their health begins to decline before the camera. As a former art student of Jackie’s, Daniel became fast friends with his quirky instructor and soon found himself hanging out and filming the various creative projects that were coming to fruition within the colourful Seiden household. Accompanied by a handful of contextually enriching archival clips of the Seidans as their younger selves, the result is an intimate observational portrait where forms of art and biology begin to fuse and break down in heartbreaking harmony. This stems from the fact that Jackie has spent a lifetime making art out of the discarded and decaying – found objects, blemished or broken, but born anew in the eyes of the artist. She’s always found comfort in the flaws and fragility of physical objects, yet as her and her husband’s bodies begin to really reveal their own physical decay, she is finding no reassurance in mortality. Meanwhile, Don, who had become locally known for his huge outdoor animal sculptures, has found that simply putting pencil to page in the creation of a simple sketch on a regular basis is enough to keep him sane. Yet, the fear that they may at some point have to give up their huge Victorian house because they can no longer physically manoeuvre within it is beginning to loom large in their imagination and there is little they can do but continue to love and support one another as they have all of their adult lives. And while So Late So Soon may sound warm, but somewhat grim, similar to the campy/queasy mode of Grey Gardens it also lavishes in the Seiden’s many droll idiosyncrasies, as Jackie and Don trade seering quips, pursue the pesky mice who’ve claimed the kitchen as their own, continue to critique and cheer on each others’ niche artistic endeavours (Jackie’s interest in digital photo slideshows is a continuous source of wonderment), and honestly reveal how they balance the constant need to create with earnest affection and devoted support for one another, old age be damned.
The devotion on display from Khalik Allah in his latest, IWOW: I Walk On Water is one of a wholly different sort altogether. IWOW follows a similar starting point as his 2015 mid-length breakthrough Field Niggas, once again embedding himself on the corner of 125th and Lexington in East Harlem with an assortment of cameras in hand, taking in the faces and personalities with an open spirit and an eye for extremity. But rather than rehashing his earlier portraiture work or returning to the high-concept rigour of his institutionally backed Black Mother, Allah instead decided to go rogue, creating the work in secret without seeking feedback from the professional contacts he’s garnered from the successes of his last few years. In its lengthy 3 hour+ format that feels very much in the epic personal essayist lineage of Walden, the film is centred around Khalik himself, the “I” of the title literally referencing himself, precariously situated as a holy figure in reflection. In a range of formats ranging from gorgeous 16mm, grainy Hi8, and crisp digital footage, Khalik travels the world with his Italian girlfriend and walks the streets of Harlem searching for a schizophrenic, homeless Haitian man he has long used as a subject, all the while pontificating at length on a wide range of topics in asynchronous audio recordings that include sprawling sermons on religion, the spiritual effects of taking mushrooms, the differences between poverty due to capitalism and institutionalised racism, and his own shifting relationship with art making. In form, there is a sense that this is Allah’s attempt at becoming a streetwise Jonas Mekas, but there are many more subversive tendencies at work that make this work more controversial than anything Mekas ever produced. There is a sense of personal religious fanaticism that seeps deep into the project and sometimes appears exacerbated by his frequent use of mushrooms. At several points throughout the film he suggests that he himself may be the son of god, or god himself – again the title here reinforcing this mythical iconography. At the heart of the work is also the critical question of documentary ethics, as he continually pursues a mentally ill man named Frenchie. Allah not only regularly photographs the clearly unstable man, who may or may not have the capacity to properly consent, but deepens their relationship by bringing the man home with him to shower, cloth him, feed him and pay him for his participation in the project. It is clearly an act of goodwill and fair compensation that most folks would not risk safety or artistic integrity on, yet his willingness to include this aspect of their relationship feels both like a manufactured extension of the religious imagery of a generous holy man and a public interrogation into the reason artists tend to shy away from the transactional nature of the relationship between subject and filmmaker. Khalik seems to be actively criticising the art world’s continued endorsement of ethnocentric and classist “concerned photography” by making himself an active participant in the lives of those he photographs, despite whatever other criticisms might blow back his way. Additionally, Khalik includes footage of his previous work Black Mother playing at several white box institutions and being shown in classrooms, and even goes to the lengths of having Frenchie and others walk the streets of Harlem while displaying posters of the film like human sandwich boards. Within IWOW: I Walk On Water’s densely layered personal portrait, there are no easy answers and Khalik Allah has revealed himself to be anything but a saint, and yet the film remains a work of great visual beauty, deep spiritual complexity and immense hubris that demands to be grappled with, for better or worse.
While Allah brazenly looked inward as he documented the world around him, Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document (Single Channel) reaches out into the world as a lush cinematic mixtape on the power and fragility of black femininity like a knowing embrace. Gary’s mid-length work took home the Moving Ahead Award from Locarno last year for “engaging with new forms of narration and innovation in filmic language”.1 And while The Giverny Document does indeed feel vivaciously fresh, in form it feels akin to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s monumental feminist visual album Lemonade with its swirl of sexually charged modern and classic visual interpolations; in spirit with Terence Nance’s formally playful and poetic modern commentaries on African American life; and in conversation the racially incisive essayistic work of the Black Audio Film Collective, fuelled by rage and formal wit. The central and most compassionate of these sections are a series of casual interviews shot in beautifully grainy 16mm on the streets of Harlem. Like Gerald Temaner and Gordon Quinn’s Inquiring Nuns (1968) in which the central question, “Are you happy?”, is asked of random strangers – Gary, with mic in hand, asks passing black women, young and old, “Do you feel safe?”. Their candour and instant rapport is disarming, and their answers either demonstrate remarkable resilience and strength in their day to day life, or reveal just how tenuous one’s feeling of safety can be on a moment to moment basis. Intercut alongside these scenes are shots of Gary herself, wandering Claude Monet’s famed gardens in Giverny, France, lensed as if she herself was painted among the regal, floral landscape – not by the hand of Monet, but rather in the striking portraiture style of Kehinde Wiley, oozing with a tenacity of spirit and physical electricity. Add to that Gary’s inclusion of a famously intense, wildly raw performance by Nina Simone at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, and a variety of short clips, including various snippets of painted abstraction in the style of Stan Brakhage, and a brief excerpt from the infinitely shocking video of Diamond Reynolds shrieking in panic, originally broadcast on Facebook Live just seconds after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. These fragments cut together create an endlessly complex inquiry into how black women must navigate the world while balancing a healthy sense of self defined beauty and simple human dignity against a well known history of violence and insecurity that haunts them. Ja’Tovia Gary shows no insecurities within. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is a mid-length masterwork that I can’t wait to see again.
Now in its seventh year, this was the first of True/False’s Neither/Nor programs not curated by a single guest critic, nor centred around a single formal movement or individual filmmaker. Also strangely (and sadly) absent was the beautifully composed contextual monograph of previous years on the work of those included in the program. Regardless, this year’s retrospective program centred on the diverse curiosities of Missouri-born nonfiction filmmakers Christopher Harris, Lisa Steele, Mike Henderson and Tom Palazzolo.
Paired to screen alongside The Giverny Document (Single Channel), Christopher Harris’ 2004 short Reckless Eyeballing takes archival footage of Angela Davis, images of Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, and a selection of infamous clips from D.W. Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation involving the black farm hand Gus, whose pursuit of a woman causes her to leap to her death to avoid being raped, and optically manipulates them into rhythmic oblivion. The constant and repetitive cutting between images of sexualised black bodies and depictions of the incriminated, optical reversals of colour, and hypnotically structured audio phrasing cause a deeply conflicting and formally confrontational inquiry into how we view black bodies. Additionally, his 2001 feature debut still/here, was also included and projected at the festival from a beautiful 16mm print. Markedly different from Reckless Eyeballing, still/here is a mournful landscape film documenting the predominantly black neighbourhoods of north St. Louis as they decayed into ruins. Harris’ camera rolls past countless empty lots, crumbling buildings, peeling billboards and returns over and over to the Criterion Theater which opened its doors back in 1910, sat boarded up for decades, and was demolished in 2007. Layering these images are intermittent solo bass tracks and an intricately designed soundscape of daily grind happenings and ambience. It’s deeply haunting, rigorously composed and leaves plenty of space for us to wonder what happened in this neighbourhood and how it all lead to this?
While Lisa Steele was born in Kansas City, MO, she eventually made a name for herself as a pioneer in video art and co-founder of Vtape in Toronto, producing lo-fi feminist works like the three included here. In A Very Personal Story (1974), Steele recounts finding her dead mother, direct to camera as if it were an intimate diary entry. Similarly, in Talking Tongues (1982) she plays the fictional role of Beatrice Small as she delivers a monologue about her relationship with her abusive husband. Both proceeded the quartet of vignettes titled The Gloria Tapes (1980), in which Steele plays Gloria, a single mother on welfare whose unreasonable fear and astounding naiveté reveal the very real hardships of wading into the role of motherhood while attempting to navigate the murky waters of the welfare system. While clearly influenced by outmoded daytime television soap opera aesthetics of the time, there is an element of intimate quirk ingrained in all three pieces, with each character infused with a semi-comedic awkwardness that feels like an early take on something like the documentary influenced The Office. And yet, Steele works from a woman’s perspective while dealing with serious subject matter, from the psychological repercussions of physical and sexual abuse, to the mental strains of child rearing and welfare investigations. While somewhat difficult to watch within the context of modern filmmaking styles due to its formal constraints of the time of their production, Steele’s works remain uncommon depictions of women’s lives during a time when they were sorely lacking.
Of the four filmmakers included in Neither/Nor this year, the Marshall, MO native Mike Henderson was the most uncategorisable. His series of shorts produced throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s received an Academy backed retrospective as part of the New York Film Festival’s experimental Projections program back in 2017 and here included Money (1970), Dufus (aka Art) (1970), Down Hear (1972) The Rocking Chair Film (1972), Pitchfork and the Devil (1979), The Shape of Things (1979), Ducks are no Dinners (1983), Just Another Notion (1983) and When & Where (1984). At times his work feels like the ethnographic meta-doc work of Ben Rivers, as in The Rocking Chair Film, where his own cinematic experiment with a rocking chair intersects with another film involving samurai, and at other times like the playful dress-up portraiture of Cindy Sherman, as in Dufus (aka Art), his take on racial stereotypes, each always bubbling with uniquely mischievous energy, unpretentious and wholly steeped in African American cultural heritage. The film that stood out most for me was Down Hear, which depicts Henderson and his brother Raymond acting out the history of slave trade in their kitchen. It also included a blues performance by the director himself, as did several of the films, with Henderson strumming out chords on a ragged old acoustic guitar, either on screen or as overdubbed narration. Indeed Henderson has described his work as “blues cinema”, and the term is fitting – it’s loose, short and relatively simple in form, but rich with history and goes down like warm whisky.
One of the most purely enjoyable screenings of the entire festival was a selection of shorts by Tom Palazzolo, a filmmaker who was born and raised in St. Louis, but soon found himself documenting public events around Chicago throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of the films included in the program had the observational zeal and warm community vibe of much of Les Blank’s work of the same period. This feeling was particularly evident in Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think) (1974), yet another film handling with warm humour the lives of elderly subjects, and which sees Palazzolo joyously roaming around a parkside picnic for senior citizens, complete with hot dog giveaways, field games and live musical performances by attendees (including the titular track, which had the crowd at this particular screening break out in laughter and a rollicking group sing-a-long). Though pitched as a dark comedy in the festival program, it feels less like Palazzolo is there to leverage the oddity of the situation than he merely recognised the pure joy these folks were experiencing while partaking in the event himself. Again, a comparison to Blank is apt – there is no denying the silliness of polka subculture within Blank’s In Heaven There Is No Beer?, yet we know that Blank himself is thoroughly enjoying the music, the drinking and the company regardless of how funny it all seems. In Labor Day East Chicago, Palazzolo embeds himself on stage alongside a gang of old men as they publicly interrogate a gang of primmed pageant contestants as they compete to become Miss East Side 1978. Once again, it rings of humour with a hint of discomfort because of the obscene power dynamic of the judges and the judged, yet the film remains generous of heart and is genuinely touching when the title of Miss East Side 1978 is awarded, with Palazzolo’s lens keeping close on the young woman’s face as she bursts into a joyful rain of tears. Ricky and Rocky (1972) follows this observational form as it bears witness to a Italian/Polish backyard wedding shower with a cast of characters that feel ready for their own sitcom, bearing gifts and wisecracks all along the way, while the program closer Love It/Leave It (1970) stylistically and politically diverges. Taking a loose montage and deeply critical approach to tackle the last gasp of the flower generation during the tail end of the Vietnam War, Palazzolo cross cuts between bodies parading in the buff at the annual Naked City beauty pageant in Roselawn, Indiana, with patriotic celebrations at a Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago, wrestling matches, and sports car races, exaggerating the inherent absurdity and community building aspects of each. The musique concrète soundtrack by Ray Whilding White adds to the surreal nature of the picture as classical music booms, a woman pitches an automobile, a man proclaims his pride in the military, and finally, the soundscape descends into an abstract chorus of chants of “Love it, leave it”, as snippets of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”, which was released the year before, fade in and out – “We don’t smoke marijuana…We don’t burn our draft cards…” The film was included in Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 set a few years ago, and with good reason, though I’m deeply thankful I was given the opportunity at True/False to view some of Tom Palazzolo’s other work, as it would seem Love It/Leave It is somewhat a stylistic outlier within a catalogue of work that lives more within the world of observational nonfiction filmmaking in the lineage of the American verité pioneers than the canon of experimental film – further proof that the festival’s Neither/Nor program continues to serve as fertile ground for rediscovery of documentary works worth revisiting.
True/False Film Fest
5-8 March 2020
Festival website: https://truefalse.org/