When looking at a map it’s hard to fathom the success of the True/False Film Festival, a four day celebration – in every sense of the word, with live music prior to every screening, parades through the streets and parties all weekend long – of non-fiction cinema that focuses on that formal hinterland where fact and fiction intermingle. The festival floats aloft a midwestern sea of red state politics smack dab between St. Louis and Kansas City in the little Missourian city of Columbia, a surprisingly liberal college town bolstered by a trinity of higher educational institutions that populate its bustling downtown with ample youth to support enough record, comic and coffee shops, and let’s not forget, cinemas, to fill a city twice its size (remarkably, the festival even publishes an annual post – fest environmental sustainability report).1 According to the most recent U.S. Census, 120,612 people call Columbia, MO home,2 yet in 2017 True/False drew a staggering 52,400 cinema goers over the course of its brief four days – an immense growth from the 4,200 viewers that attended the inaugural iteration cultivated by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, the festival’s self proclaimed co-conspirators, from the homegrown roots of their Ragtag Film Society back in 2003.
Nowadays, the festival’s tightly curated program (just 40 new features, five retrospective films and 24 shorts) is assembled by Chris Boeckmann and Abby Sun, both Columbia natives who came of age as the festival found its legs throughout the late ‘00s. Boeckmann began his curatorial career at the Ragtag Cinema, the festival’s modest two screen homebase, as a teenage volunteer and now serves as its year round programmer, while Sun joined the programming team after studying at Harvard’s prestigious Sensory Ethnography Lab under the filmmaking duo Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor themselves returned to Columbia this year with their much debated study of known Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa, Caniba, after being honoured by the festival in 2013 with its True Vision Award, which “is given to a mid-career filmmaker(s) for advancing the art of nonfiction cinema.”
This year’s True Vision Award honoree was the Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi, whose brutal vérité depictions of his afflicted homeland in National Diploma (2014) and Mama Colonel (2017) have left a discernible impact on the festival circuit in recent years as one of the few native voices from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).3 In tribute, the festival screened not only his international breakthrough National Diploma, which follows a group of students who form their own school in a self motivated effort to pass the national exam, but Hamadi’s latest Kinshasa Makambo. A harrowing, defiant import from the 2018 Berlinale, Kinshasa Makambo materialised as a response to an attempt by Joseph Kabila, the President of the DRC, to establish a constitutional amendment that would allow him to be elected president for a third time. Hamadi follows a trio of men at the fore of the resistance – Ben, who’s called back to the struggle from his exile abroad, Jean Marie, who was only recently released from prison for his public campaign against the current regime, and Christian, a young man who willfully puts his life on the line amidst gunfire in the streets of Kinshasa – each exploring different avenues of dissent. Structured around the contested hope that oppositional former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi might unseat Kabila in a transitional council by the close of 2017, Kinshasa Makambo daringly depicts the resistance as a fractured assemblage of discordant voices – including the filmmaker himself – at once forlorn and unfaltering.
Pinned on the calendar in the wake of IDFA, Rotterdam, Sundance and the Berlinale, True/False is surely a “festival of festivals”, plucking the bulk of its selections from the best of those that come before it. The shadow of Sundance loomed large this year, with films like Morgan Neville’s deeply affecting, formally unadventurous crowd-pleaser Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about the beloved American children’s television personality Fred Rogers, and Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers, which chronicles the lives of a trio of identical triplets who were separated at birth and grew up under varying circumstances, at the fanatical centre of festival attention (so much so that I failed to manage a ticket to the latter at the massive 1,732-seat Jesse Auditorium). In digging through Rogers’ extensive archive of television clips and behind-the-scenes video, Neville’s film proves that despite an aesthetic approach that mimics its subject’s vintage gentility, if one is keen to read between the lines, politically profound ideas like the validity of children’s emotions, the acceptance of the other, and the dangerousness of fascism might be at play in even the most wholesome of places. Who would have guessed such a seemingly conservative public icon might serve as the perfect antidote to the swell of right-wing politics that is currently gripping the western world?
Meanwhile, Robert Greene, who moved to Columbia in 2014 to teach at the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri, dug deep into America’s immigrant experience with the brilliant performative documentary experiment Bisbee ‘17. Expanding upon his fascination with the relationships between real life and acted experiences he explored with Fake It So Real (2012), Actress (2014) and Kate Plays Christine (2016), all of which played True/False in previous years, Bisbee centres around Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper-mining town just a few miles from the Mexican border where Greene and his crew aimed to organise a reenactment of the city’s infamous Bisbee Deportation of 1917, during which 1,200 striking miners, many of whom were immigrants or social outcasts, were violently taken from their homes and sent to the desert toward certain death. With hopes of stirring up community debate around the event’s 100th anniversary, Greene cast a host of locals as part of the onscreen proceedings, most of them non-actors and many of whom’s family members actively took part in the deportation – in effect mirroring the tactic that Kitty Green employed last year in her community based dissection of the world’s most famous child-murder case in Casting JonBenet. Perhaps unsurprisingly as the surviving inhabitants of Bisbee, few viewed the event as a mark of shame in their hometown’s history, at least not until they took part in the reenactment themselves, much like their performance obsessed neighbours over in Tombstone. The play between past and present political predicaments of immigration, unionisation and corporate corruption piercingly resonate thanks to Greene’s ingenious sense of staging, allowing us to witness this historical event unfold upon modern settings (cars, neon signs, etc., appear in gorgeously reenacted sequences shot by cinematographer Jarred Alterman, as well as frequent Greene collaborators Bill and Turner Ross, and Rob Kolodny), actively reminding viewers that these issues haunt the modern world with no less sense of urgency. Far and away more formally rigorous and politically engaged than any of his previous work, with Bisbee ‘17 Greene has assembled his finest film to date.
Several other powerful portraits dealt directly with the tenuous relationship that the United States has with its immigrant population. Miko Revereza’s fiery Disintegration 93-96, an import from the International Film Festival Rotterdam that played as part of the Kombucha 71 shorts program, sees its filmmaker employing home video and self-portraiture as a means of exploring his family’s relocation from Manila to Los Angeles and his tenuous illegal status in the states 20 years later. Revereza delivers his tale in a flat, matter-of-fact voiceover paired with degrading family video that eventually descends into a sea of static. The essayistic juxtaposition accentuates the cold, illicit relationship he shares with his adopted homeland while singling out the innate tragedy and shear ridiculousness of his current situation. Revereza also appeared on stage as one of the festival’s five Provocateurs, who are invited to give a five-minute Ted Talk-style discussion before a handful of films throughout the fest (Revereza was oddly paired as the intro for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). Though Disintegration 93-96 played in the shorts program alongside Charlie Lyne’s quirkily entertaining examination of the Pizzagate saga and his own fascination with conspiracy theories in Personal Truth, Nate Truesdell’s stomach-churning look at the Libertarian-leaning politics that lead to the horrific death of a child in The Water Slide (both world premieres), Juan Pablo González’s heartbreaking one-shot doc that sees a Mexican shop owner orate on his unwanted entanglement with criminals in Las Nubes, and one of True/False’s famed hush-hush secret screenings, Revereza’s film may have made more curatorial sense if paired with Sandra Luz López Barroso’s intimate portrait of a spunky ten year-old boy and his mother Coco, who were forced to relocate from California back to rural Mexico in Artemio (2017).
Having debuted at Mexico’s Ambulante Documentary Film Festival nearly a full year prior, Artemio went on to win the New Talent Award at the Sheffield Doc/Fest last June4 before making its way to Columbia. Within, Barroso and her camera seem to wholly assimilate with the family, disappearing behind the lens as international borders separate Coco from her daughter and Artemio from his beloved older sister. Having been born and raised in the States, Artemio is unwilling to come to grips with the fact that the culture, language and family structure that he’s always known has been ripped away, though we’re never privy to the circumstances that led to their current situation. Instead, Barroso’s observational interests lie in Artemio’s constantly fluctuating emotional state and the fluidity with which he and his mother navigate the boundaries between languages. Though surely a film of Mexican heritage, Artemio is moreso a poignant, heartbreaking commentary on the tragic absurdity of border walls and the emotional and financial devastation that rash immigration laws often propagate.
Another project born in the heart of Mexico was Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s América, which one might understandably assume to be a grand examination of the state of things, but is actually another big-hearted family portrait that transcends borders. Centering on a trio of brothers who band together after years of separation to care for their sweet, Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother majestically named América, while their father lingers in jail for a charge of supposed neglect. Diego, Rodrigo and Bruno are trained circus performers, acrobatic and quick-witted before the camera – they frequently appear on stilts, on unicycles or dangling athletically from tapestries – but never seem emotionally guarded. Of the brothers, Diego displays the deepest compassion for América, remaining physically caring and emotionally curious even when the disease has its firmest grip on his grandmother. Working on a trio of True/False alums in Remote Area Medical (Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman, 2013), Lifelike (Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll, 2011), 5and Good White People (Jarrod Cann, Erick Stoll, 2016), 6 Stoll perfected a rigorous style of observational cinematography, this time capturing both performative and passionate moments with aesthetically aware spontaneity, while Whiteside served remotely as the sharp editorial voice, finding beauty, humour and tenderness in circumstances that might otherwise be devoid of hope. If América reverberates with deep emotion as it explores the power and limits of caring for ailing loved ones on the homefront, one criticism does unfortunately come to mind – the potentially exploitative nature of depicting this very sick women in several unflattering situations without her knowing consent.
Though there was undoubtedly a vein of elegant observational naturalism that cut through the experimentation that True/False is generally known for, the fifth edition of the festival’s Neither/Nor series, featuring a four-film retrospective of the work of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) curated by writer and programmer Ashley Clark, served to remind viewers that daring experimentation in documentary has long been forming new pathways of understanding and cultural critique. The hard-edged, immensely articulate multimedia artist philosophers that made up the group – John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph – became regular contributors to Britain’s Channel 4, which launched in 1982 as one of the first independent television stations in the U.K., beaming wildly inventive cinematic essays on the repercussions of colonialism from the perspective of the African diaspora, directly into the homes of millions of people living under the crushing rule of Margaret Thatcher.
Consisting of Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1986), Testament (John Akomfrah, 1988), Twilight City (Reece Auguiste, 1989) and Who Needs a Heart (John Akomfrah, 1991), the series demonstrated the collective’s considerable talent for multilayered storytelling, eviscerating historical critique, and unsurprisingly, mind-bending aural experimentation thanks to Trevor Mathison, who scored nearly every BAFC production. Their second official cinematic release, Handsworth Songs depicts the 1985 riots in Handsworth and London through the lens of archival news footage of the chaos on the streets and mixed media collage of the black and Asian immigrant day-to-day experience, creating a jarring juxtaposition of form and narrative that calls to mind the politically engaged work of Chris Marker. The production sparked a heated national debate between Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie and Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall, the latter fiercely in support of the film’s vanguard aesthetic approach, while the former derided the project as just another riot doc. I’m fully on board with Hall here, though of the quartet of BAFC films shown, it was Akomfrah’s haunting postcolonial canvas Testament that left the greatest impression. The first of the group’s work to integrate fictional elements into its fluctuating mixed media form, Testament follows an English-raised Ghanaian broadcast journalist named Abena (Tania Rogers) who returns to her home country to cover the illusive real-life production of Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde (1987), which explores the ravages of colonialism from an entirely different (Akomfrah not so subtly suggests exploitative) perspective. Riffing on Akomfrah’s own Ghanaian diasporic experience, his protagonist has lived abroad since the ousting of Ghana’s first socialist revolutionary president, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1966, and the restored presence of Abena in her native homeland brings with it the burn of dashed hopes and memories past as she reconnects with friends and acquaintances that may or may not be happy to reconnect with someone who so quickly abandoned the Ghanaian socialist movement in the wake of the collapse of the Nkrumah regime. Abena’s journalistic journey, captured on stunning 16mm by cinematographer David Scott acts as a devastating social critique where utopian dreams are abandoned, buried, and covered over with grief. Like so many films at True/False this year, the eerie allure and overwhelming sense of loss that reverberates between the dark historical realities and their relationship to artistic performance are one of many keys that might help unlock our understanding of the past.
1-4 March 2018
Festival website: https://truefalse.org/
- “Sustainability Report 2018” True/False Film Festival. ↩
- See “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Columbia city.” U.S. Census Bureau. ↩
- See “2018 True Vision Award recipient: Dieudo Hamadi” True Vision Award. ↩
- See “Award Winners 2017” Sheffield Doc/Fest. ↩
- View Lifelike here, published 27 November 2012 ↩
- View GOOD WHITE PEOPLE: A Short Film About Gentrification here, published 27 November 2016. ↩