Opens dramatically, comparing cinema light to the flares signaling the liberation of Tavernier’s city from nazis. Tavernier has been directing features since the mid-1970’s, and I’ve never seen his work, so thought I’d start with this documentary expounding his cinematic influences. He goes long on one artist at a time, each segment feeling like a standalone TV episode.

Long initial piece on Jacques Becker’s films, and I could do worse than bingeing all of these. He discusses Renoir’s great films, sticks up for their technical skill then goes into the man’s sketchy politics, defends Jean Gabin’s politics and his postwar career, then on to Marcel Carne and composer Maurice Jaubert, all these segments linked by actor Gabin. The composer segment is welcome because film music in the 1930’s was almost universally terrible, but Jaubert’s sounds original, and it’s a nice break after 90 minutes of raving about the most obvious choices in classic french cinema. It’s kind of a square doc about square old films.

After Joseph Kosma, another composer I’m less taken with, finally some action: Eddie Constantine crime flicks. A brief look at Godard, through early Truffaut, to the French cinematheque under Langlois. Edmond Gréville looks downright innovative compared to the others, and it starts getting personal with Melville helping Tavernier to start his career in film – these two were highlights, then we coast to a shaky end with Claude Sautet. It’s got me wanting to watch some Becker, Melville and Gréville, I guess, but Tavernier seems to have aimed this at big fans of his work who haven’t seen any Renoir or Carné or Truffaut, and who would that be?

Woof, this was bad, but I should’ve guessed from the trailer I saw in NYC with all the “you won’t BELIEVE what happens NEXT”-style quotes in huge print across the screen. A seemingly endless (but only 70 minutes!) string of car crashes and weird happenings captured by Russian dash-cams and ripped off youtube.

“Danger in 200 meters” says one car’s navigation system just before encountering a truck driving slowly in reverse, wiping out all the cars in its path. I rewound a couple times the exploding light poles leading to a blackout after a truck tumbles over. “Fucking asshole,” deadpans the driver witnessing this – there are a couple heroes, but mostly the drivers act annoyed but unsurprised by the damage on display.

Typical/hilarious subtitle:

Quick montages of smashes and explosions are used as buffer material between longer single-take segments. With every new edit, you brace yourself anew for something terrible to happen. Along with Caniba, the other True/False movie Katy wisely avoided, the movie gives us nothing and lets us draw our own conclusions – and at least one person probably died in the making of each. I don’t typically click around youtube looking for the best car-crash videos, so I appreciate that someone has spent the time to curate them for us (and some are incredible) but that’s all this is.

Part of a double-feature of misbegotten True/False movies that Katy didn’t want to watch, with The Road Movie. Katy was right – they were both very bad!

The directors of Leviathan have found themselves a potentially interesting subject: almost forty years ago, Issei Sagawa killed a woman and ate her, got free on insanity, and has lived at home fixating on his naughty self, how awesomely perverse he is, writing about his crime and making a comic book version. He apparently lives with his brother, who complains about the manga (“there’s no reason to publish this”) but reads the entire thing, chuckling to himself. The brother shows home movies of themselves as kids, and more recent movies of himself attacking his arms with barbed wire and shears.

Our sensory ethnographers react by placing the camera too close to focus, creating distorted images with long stretches of silence, making me wonder at times whether the movie was still playing. It’s probably the most experimental movie to play True/False this year, but the experiment doesn’t work for me. Feels like with the camera placement, the blurring and extreme close-up, they’re trying to take us inside the head of a killer, but this killer seems more amused by his own celebrity (this is at least the fourth documentary about him) than anything else, so the movie goes on for long minutes, just staring at his elderly, psychotic face, hoping some insight will arrive.

A Tribeca doc we found on netflix. Activists to various degrees – a marine biologist, an environmentalist TV host, and the filmmaker himself – get involved in ethical quandaries while trying to protect the Amazon pink dolphin by bringing media attention to its plight. On-camera confessions and the build-ups to “shocking” revelations feel somewhat like reality TV, and I’m more interested in the larger-scale societal problems barely addressed here (overfishing due to overpopulation, uncontrollable river pollution, government policies destroying livelihoods of entire villages). But it’s an undeniably interesting, twisty story that I’ve been pondering for weeks since watching.

The marine biologist enlists superstar TV host Richard Rasmussen to let the people know that this precious, docile dolphin is being trapped and killed, cut into parts, and used as bait to catch a local catfish that gets exported because it isn’t even healthy enough to be sold within the country. Richard is a fascinating character, honestly passionate about environmental concerns but also a born showman, and sometimes two-faced and underhanded in his methods. He personally enlists a river family to butcher a dolphin so he can get it on camera, then sells them out to publicize the footage, which catches fire in the media and leads to policy changes in the country. It’s easy to pick on Richard’s personality, his potentially illegal/immoral actions, but it’s also guerrilla activism for a purportedly noble cause. “As murky as the waters of the Amazon River itself,” says the official description, ay.

We followed up Bisbee with another great one, the story of an indie film shot in Singapore in Summer 1992 that disappeared without a trace, taking a few friendships along with it. Creative punk kids Sandi and Jasmine and their friend Sophie got the support of a French New Wave enthusiast professor/mentor named George, spent the whole summer shooting their would-be classic, then George vanished with the film, which only resurfaced after his death twenty years later, the sound reels having been lost or destroyed along the way. So Sandi uses scenes from the original Shirkers (with added sound effects) to illustrate her story, reassessing the original drive to make this film, what they accomplished, and the aftermath. Sophie is now chair of a film department, Jasmine still holds a huge grudge, and Sandi claims in the Q&A that she doesn’t blame George, which sounds crazy after he ruined their young dreams. There’s some owning up to past misdeeds and betrayals, some exploration of George’s life and his other creative partners (he stole their work, too) but Sandi still respects the guy, and she’s the one in charge of the Shirkers saga now, so perhaps this movie lets him off easy. This was a blast to see from the balcony of a sold-out theater, but we might have been its final proper audience, since it’s been bought by netflix.

Tim Grierson in Paste:

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 … 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.

At great personal risk, the director of this doc embedded himself with a jihadist family, allowing us to see how these people really live, to feel their personal struggles. Unfortunately, my feeling was “fuck this family” (the opposite of an empathy machine) as we watch the creepy-doll-faced oldest son Osama go from beheading and flaying little birds to military camp. His dad gets blown up by a mine and loses a leg, and it’s alarming to see him so quiet and dazed after getting used to him as a blowhard strongman. I guess this comes down on the side of “documentary that might be useful to someone,” not “movie I actually liked.”

After Whose Streets and Kinshasa Makambo and so many others, it was hard to get used to the police being the good guys again. Fortunately, the majority of them are still portrayed as racist villains destroying the lives of poor people, which is very in-character, but our heroes are the NYPD 12, whistleblowers calling out the force for continuing to require arrest quotas after the practice had been banned. At the same time we’re following an ex-cop, a loud, personable P.I. fighting to free Pedro Hernandez, who was arrested on sketchy evidence. It’s easy to undervalue an issues doc with slick visuals following a big news story in the boundary-pushing environment of True/False, but this is a great primer on the issues the NYPD 12 raise, well-paced and informative without ever resorting to narration or interview footage, which seems hard to pull off. It covers why good policing matters, how retaliation silences other cops and keeps the stinking system running (featuring damning hidden-camera footage of the retaliation), and who it benefits: $1 billion of the city budget comes from arrests. The NYPD 12 case is still unresolved at the end, but Pedro was released from Rikers (and in attendance at the festival). This and one of the secret screenings were both about fighting within the system to stand up for the oppressed, both maybe more “useful” than artistic, but important.

The most narratively straightforward film of the fest – it’s a process doc, showing a man at work, effort and result. It’s also the one movie we saw (until American Animals) that you could watch without guessing it’s a documentary, because the photography is so precise. We chose this one as a different view of Congo than the city-set Kinshasa Makambo, not expecting it to be one of the fest’s most beautiful films.

but this was the only scene I could find to screenshot:

Kabwita chops down an entire tree and burns it under a blanket of earth to create charcoal, which he loads into bags, which are strapped to a bicycle, which he walks thirty miles to the city. He stops at his wife’s sister’s place, drops off shoes for his daughter who lives there. Along the way he loses bags when his bike is knocked down by passing cars, and more bags to bandits. There’s no charcoal wholesaler once he arrives – he has to roam the streets to find a buyer. His goal is to make enough to buy medicine for his youngest child, plus sheet metal to make a roof for his new house, but the metal turns out to be far more expensive than he’d imagined. Before the long walk home to start the whole process again, he stops at a prayer tent, the only time he’s allowed some relaxation and release.

I thought Kabwita was a solitary mad genius with his charcoal-strapped bicycle until one amazing shot on the road when we see other men pass by with the exact same rig – it’s a local industry! The economics are different than here, but it’s still upsetting when Katy calculates each bag of charcoal netted him $1.50. Gras won the top prize at Cannes Critics Week, where this played alongside fellow T/F selection Gabriel and the Mountain, and Ava and Tehran Taboo, and one hopes that after his cinematic victory, he sent our man some sheet metal.

Tim Grierson in Paste:

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 … 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 … With no interest in prettified poverty porn, Gras is drawn to the man’s stoic diligence, and soon so are we.

The cutest onscreen text of the festival:
“Now carrying twins, Boosie careth not about the film”

was soon followed by the most startling:
“Korbyn was buried in the early afternoon”

Individual and community portraits in the area where “Alabama at Night” was set. Instead of telling us a straight story, he selects little character or photographic moments. I tried to compare the editing to Cameraperson or 88:88, then realized we scheduled this in the first place because I saw it being compared to Malick – so, some combination of those. Andrew Crump: “But RaMell Ross has an element on his side that these artists lack — a level of honesty attained only through intimacy. Ross knows his subjects as more than subjects. He knows them as you know your friends, your family, your neighbors.” Ross puts his skills as both photographer and basketball coach to great use, creating a mosaic of moments, many of which I’ve now forgotten, but this seems like one of the True/False films that will survive, so we’ll have a chance to see it again. We stayed for the Q&A, where Ross spoke of a desire to “participate” in a community rather than “consume” it, and said the film wasn’t created to make money, so it has no obligation to act like commercial cinema, a nice distinction.

Tayler Montague in Reverse Shot:

Emancipating the image feels like a goal in Hale County, which loosely follows the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, ballplayers who are simply living and striving and working. … Daniel and Quincy are young men with aspirations beyond Hale County’s city limits. Whether through rapping or hooping, they want to transcend the expectations of life there.

Ross:

I think it was in 2012. I was like, “I need to film these guys. I need to film this community. I need to start making moving images.” The first images I made were of Quincy hanging out with his friends. I knew both Quincy and Daniel for three years before I started, and I asked, “Yo, Quincy, can I start filming? I have no idea what’s going to happen. I just want to be here with the camera.” And he said, “Obviously.” And then the same thing for Daniel.

When I first started, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and things would happen, and they would really move me, and they would stick with me, and then I’d think, “Oh, this is what I want.” … I made a cut of all of my favorite images; I related them based on color, and sunup and sundown, and it was pretty moving. I considered it like a trailer in some sense. And then through the process of looking at films and talking with people, I realized that a film could be something like this. “Whoa, what if I made a trailer of their lives? What does that look like in the long form?”