This year was my fifth consecutive visit to the American midwest, lovingly described by the True False Film Festival’s press liaison as “the middle of the middle of the middle.” Geographically, the actual centre of the country is one state to the west in Lebanon, Kansas, but while driving through the yellowed, earthy flatlands between St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri during the tail end of winter, it’s hard not to feel far, far away from the coasts. Thankfully, the beloved nonfiction festival and its home in Columbia itself have long served as a beacon of progressive values and cultural invention in a state littered with Trump lawn signs and sin-shaming billboards. For this reason and many others, the festival’s non-profit governing body, the Ragtag Film Society, was named the 2018 Arts Organization of the Year by the Missouri Arts Council and 2018 Small Business of the Year by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.1 This year’s program, consisting of a rigorously curated 41 features and 18 shorts, was a reflection of the worldly perspective the festival’s programmers aim to present to the 50,000+ locals that attend each year.
While last year the festival’s programming duties were shared by long-time locals Chris Boeckmann and Abby Sun, this year’s iteration saw the addition to the programming team of Chicago-based filmmaker and curator Amir George.2 In years past he was the founder of The Cinema Culture, a grassroots film programming organisation, and co-founder of Black Radical Imagination, a well regarded touring experimental short film series with Erin Christovale. But while George’s background might rest in the curatorial fields of experimentation, this year’s festival was notably short on the formal hybridity that True/False has built its reputation upon.
In a piece for Film Comment on Our Times (Carlos Reygadas), one of the festival’s only overtly boundary pushing films, critic and curator Eric Hynes rightfully began to question the cultural impact of this critically lauded vein of documentary filmmaking:
These aren’t ideal times for treading the soft soil of cinematic hybridity. It’s become harder to justify flights of factual indeterminacy. Questions that might have been stimulating as rhetoric or theory – what is truth? does the camera only lie? are people only ever performing? – feel queasier in a political environment where such indeterminacy has been perverted and weaponized.3
It seems that the True/False programming team may have been riding that same curatorial wavelength with its careful selection of straight laced fare like the thrilling archival wonder Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller), the hope inspiring vérité campaigner Knock Down The House (Rachel Lears), the long in limbo, emotionally ecstatic Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack), and the heartfelt and humorous culture clashing American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert) taking center stage.
While each of these projects may end up ranking among the most beloved docs of 2019 – each of them is spectacular in their own way – none of them explore the realm between fact and fiction the way that Carlos Reygadas’ hermetically charged exploration of a married couple’s experimentation with an open relationship does. The film stars Reygadas himself as famed poet Juan, his wife Natalia López as his fictional wife Esther, and their real life kids as their fictional kids, anchored down by the daily work of raising cattle on their real life ranch in the Mexican countryside. There is a distinct feeling of autobiographic excavation that permeates the film, yet what remains is the overwhelming mystery that’s left when we can clearly see the nonfictional aspects that ground the film on screen, but nothing is shared that confirms narrative leads might have leapt forth from truths birthed of Reygadas and López’s real life relationship. The question that ripples to on the surface is: How does putting one’s personal life on screen in such a brutally honest, yet purposefully opaque light affect one’s relationships with one another? It is this lingering feeling of moral and emotional ambiguity that seemed to form the backbone of this year’s True/False.
Even this year’s repertory Neither/Nor program lacked the hybridity of previous iterations and instead found lasting discomfort in the observational moral ambiguity of Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo’s “Trilogy of the Sacred and the Satanic”: Mysterion (1991), Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (1993) and Atman (1997). A 29 year-old firebrand filmmaker back in 1980, Honkasalo made a name for herself by co-directing, along with Pekka Lehto, the fictional historical epic Flame Top, the most expensive Finnish production up to that point in time. But it turned out that the capitalist nature of big-budget filmmaking was not the world she wanted to inhabit, so she disappeared into photojournalism for a few years before re-emerging behind the camera in the early ‘90s as a newly minted documentarian with a lingering obsession with humanity’s mysterious devotion to religious faiths.
All three films in her thematically tied trilogy pursue the act of spiritual pilgrimage in some form or another, whether it’s through the farm work and prayer routines of Külliki Rannu and the Russian Orthodox nuns in Mysterion, the incorporeal quest taken up by her parents to try to awaken their disturbed child Tanjuska from the terrifying mystery of silence in Tanjuaska and the 7 Devils, or the grieving cross-country journey taken by the legless Jamana Lal and his family in the wake of his mother’s death in Atman. While Atman’s journey is much more a traditional pilgrimage in the sense that the protagonist sets off on a physical journey across India to the holy city of Haridwar in search of emotional peace and possibly spiritual enlightenment, we as an audience follow along with little context outside of occasional intertitles that help move us along from one location to the next, but don’t really explain what exactly is happening on a scene by scene basis. The film operates in a mode akin to Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, ethnographically observational, though tightly focused on a single individual rather than as an unconventional city symphony.[ 4. Scott Macdonald, Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary & Avant-Garde Cinema, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 5.] Though Honkasalo and Gardner’s films share in their most bleak moments – images of discarded bodies floating in the Ganges while other corpses burn in ceremony on the shorelines – Atman maintains a tone of positive transformation, tenuous as it may be, through Pirjo’s rigorous and patient observation of Jamana Lal’s world weary face as he discovers love in the throes of grief.
In the Neither/Nor monograph published in conjunction with the series, critic Pamela Cohn poignantly ruminated on the unique quality that ties Pirjo’s films together, “When an inwardly perceived event such as a dream, premonition, or vision has a correspondence in external reality, it is sometimes referred to as prescient, extrasensory – or miraculous. This type of confluence in Pirjo’s film work has happened not just once or twice, but several times – often helped along with doses of mischievous manipulation and string-pulling on her part.”4 It is this miraculous confluence that most comes to mind while watching Pirjo’s first documentary, Mysterion, a film that looks and feels like it was shot a century before its 1991 release. The camera seems to act as a sort of 16mm time machine, taking us back to a period in which nuns live off the land, communally harvest blocks of ice from a frozen lake, stack gathered firewood to the height of three story buildings, and sing in unison the prayers of women committed to a rustic life of worship. Wholly observational outside the occasional employment of Külliki Rannu as poetic narrator and 12 chapter cards that read as more mysterious than contextual, Mysterion is a staggeringly beautiful bit of filmmaking. In the film’s final sequence, Pirjo’s ability to shoot low-light celluloid amidst a candle light procession from the depths of a dark cathedral into the gloom of night is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Following a reading of Erika Balsom’s An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea, I’m reminded of the letters written by the French Nobel Prize winning writer Romain Rolland to his friend Sigmund Freud which described his deep feelings of “spontaneous religious sentiment or, more exactly, of religious feeling, which is…the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the ‘eternal’ (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits…)” – an “oceanic feeling” as Freud later defined it, despite his own lack of religious faith.[ 6. William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling. Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 36.] Like Freud, I find it difficult to find this religious oceanic feeling and for this reason I thought I might naturally gravitate toward Honkasolo’s unholy follow-up to Mysterion, but for me, the first film in her trilogy stands as the strongest effort.
Birthed with a disturbing sense of moral ambiguity, Tanjuaska and the 7 Devils is an immensely unpleasant, if artfully constructed watch. While Atman and Mysterion both thrive off of raw visual beauty and vivid spiritual exploration, Tanjuaska lives in a perpetual sense of visual and spiritual dread as we watch the flailing parents of a disturbed young girl named Tanjuaska attempt to cure her unsettling muteness by any means necessary. When we first meet the 12 year-old Tanjuaska and her father, they have been living for months under the oversight of Father Vasili, an exorcist from Estonia who believes that the girl has been possessed and only he can cast out the evil that lies within her. Tanjuaska’s tale is recounted in lengthy, increasingly uncomfortable, uncut orations from both her father, and in turn, her mother, yet the cause of Tanjuaska’s silence remains frighteningly undetermined. As we witness a parade of desperate disciples being whipped in the face with mops full of holy water at the altar of the terrifying Father Vasili as he shouts a barrage of degradations, we’re left to wonder not only if the girl ever improves, but what, if anything, was actually wrong with her to begin with and has the extremism of her “treatment” actually worsened her condition? Though it may be Honkasalo’s least pleasurable work to actually watch, it may be her most memorable for its chillingly austere depiction of spiritual desperation.
The festival’s True Vision Award celebrated another underrated international female voice by screening a trio of films from the Spanish-born, Mexico-based filmmaker Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda. In a curatorial sleight of hand, Ibáñez Castañeda’s The Naked Room poetically mirrored the trauma of Tanjuaska, as it centres around a series of raw, soul bearing therapy sessions with children who suffer from mental illness. Where Tanjuaska is set in a restlessly depicted Old Testament world of grit and grime where silence is a sign of ambitious evil, The Naked Room takes place in the unadorned white rooms of medical offices where expressing one’s darkest demons sparks immense empathy and understanding. Ibáñez Castañeda’s camera sits motionlessly as portraiture as kids of varying age share details about why they started cutting themselves, how they tried to kill themselves or how they continuously endure delusional thoughts with hesitation in their voices and tears streaming down their faces.
Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda’s other two films, her debut, The Tightrope (2009), and her latest, A Wild Stream, reside aesthetically in the vein of quiet, slice of life observation where ramshackle families form on the fringes of Mexican society from a basic need to survive. The Tightrope follows the Circus Aztlán, a five member family production that travels around rural Mexico performing not unlike the Circus Alekan of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Always on the verge of financial collapse thanks to increasingly sparse attendances, the family business has been a lifelong labour of love for the aging couple at the helm, but their trapeze artist daughter and her acrobatic strongman lover aren’t sure they want to inherit the constant struggles that come with the travelling circus life. As they debate their futures, Ibáñez Castañeda seems to become part of the fabric of the big top, falling into a daily rhythm of watching physical training, animal care, local promotion, and performance that is very much in conversation with the dying art of Indian travelling cinemas at the heart of The Cinema Travellers (Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, 2016). Mournful and darkly comedic in form, yet deeply respectful of the talent and devotion depicted within, The Tightrope is a deeply felt ode to a tradition of entertainment that recedes before our eyes like a heartbreaking act of unrehearsed three ring magic.
Wrapping up Ibáñez Castañeda’s True Vision retrospective, A Wild Stream, sees the filmmaker training her patient lens on two men hunkered down on a remote beach on Baja California. Living off the grid and away from humanity at large, they become unlikely friends as Omar teaches the newcomer Chilo to harvest food from the ocean, share meals together and talk late into the night. These aging men, despite their hardened and cynical views about the potential of communal living, develop a unique sense of intimacy that frequently borders on the romantic, and by some kind of miracle Ibáñez Castañeda managed to capture their relationship with an easy-going tenderness and eye for natural beauty that remains exceedingly rare in nonfiction cinema. Frequently photographed with a meditative feel for the coastal landscape that these men obviously thrive off of in between intimate conversational two shots that reveal dark pasts and deeply felt emotions, oceanic feelings, unspiritual and naturally harmonious as they may be, are unquestionably conjured. In a program promulgated with political strife and unambiguous aspirations, A Wild Stream felt like a rejuvenating reprieve from the madness of the world, where cowboy bromances can enigmatically flourish on the glimmering seashores of Mexico before a looming camera held by a strong willed, visionary woman.
True False Film Festival
February 28 – March 3 2019
Festival website: https://truefalse.org/
- Emily Edwards, “Ragtag Film Society Names New Executive Director”, True False Film Festival, 23 August 2018. ↩
- Amir George, “About Me”, Amir George. ↩
- Eric Hynes, “The All-Seeing Eye”, Film Comment, March-April 2019. ↩
- Pamela Cohn, “Pilgrimage: Movements of Body, Breath, and Desire”, Neither/Nor: Pirjo Honkasalo’s Trilogy of the Sacred and the Satanic, 2019, p 10. ↩