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?”

A movie which started life as a gallery exhibit, and was brought to True/False as a cruel prank to torment Katy, The Task consists of forty people in a room, speaking one at a time, at a conference with unknown rules or goals, with an unknown number of plants, spies or actors, speaking in frustrating circles for two hours. The camera crew is visible and the director engages the group towards the end, to their annoyance since this breaks the rules. We seek people in the film to relate to, but find only paranoid enemies focused on their own tiny social obsessions, so instead we try to figure out the big picture – what in the world is going on here?

Sam Adams in Slate:

The Task’s setup is a modified version of the Tavistock method, a process of studying group dynamics that is often used to train psychotherapists, and many of the movie’s participants are veterans of previous conferences. But even they seem wrong-footed by the changes Ledare, a multimedia artist making his feature-film debut, has made to the usual process. The movie doesn’t reveal what those modifications are, and it further wrong-foots the audience by dropping us into the conference on Day 2, when the group has already begun to turn inward and dissect its own evolving dynamics — or, as one participant puts it, the group’s penchant for “absolving itself of its own atrocities.” The sections that follow, each set off by a title card — including successive segments called “Inmates” and “Intimates” — proceed in chronological order … but they’ve been radically pared down, stripped of context so the group’s interpersonal dynamics are made abstract. Sometimes, as when questions of race and gender privilege come to the fore, what remains is familiar. Other dynamics are more particular to the group, as when a speaker admonishes interruptions with a curt “Crosstalk!” … It’s often said that movies aren’t complete until they’re watched, but The Task still doesn’t feel like it’s over. The task is to discover what The Task is, and I’m still figuring it out.

Ledare, interviewed in Art in America:

A Tavistock conference isn’t therapy but rather an intense feedback process. It functions by gathering a group of people, often unknown to one another, and bringing them together with several psychologists in a controlled environment, where, over the course of three days, they begin to enact a temporary institution or community. At its start, each three-day conference is an empty container that soon fills with everything its participants import: identities, roles, projections. The result is a social organism whose complexity and development can be traced, giving participants the opportunity to study their own and others’ experiences, and the group as a system.

The Task … is subdivided into titled chapterlike segments … a chapter where participants divide themselves up along political, racial, and socioeconomic lines; another in which the women reflect on how they undermine one another’s attempts to assume power within the group; and a final chapter where I enter the group after having been sidelined by Tavistock staff members monitoring the conference. While doing so directly challenged the psychologists’ hierarchy, their anxieties around the camera had already altered their relationship to the participants and destabilized their authority, leaving me little choice but to assert my role as director.

After a pretty decent Thursday night at the festival, we plunged right into the deep end on Friday morning with this year’s True Life Fund film, a doc following two cousins who have survived terrible traumas.

I stupidly wondered when their aunt mentioned in the description was going to arrive, not realizing until late that she’s the filmmaker. “Dear diary”… confessions and backstories are staged in uniquely visual ways – one is told to a friend in a lighthouse, one in a theater to an audience, plus the centerpiece long-take of the girls speaking to each other. Ro was kidnapped, beaten and burned, and is recovering from extensive plastic surgery, and Aldana was abused by her dad – both attackers caught and imprisoned with no images of either in the film. But Katy dug up a fascinating fact – the director’s previous film appears to have focused on the abusive dad before his crimes were discovered.

A dead-looking seal on a beach who turns out to be just resting… a crocodile girl… stuttery skype call… gymnastics. The visuals sometimes remind me of LoveTrue, which we saw last year on this same screen. In the final section, the girls are invited from their homes in different parts of Argentina to a performing arts program in Montreal. It’s not clear to me if the Montreal thing is an organized program for dealing with trauma, or if that’s how the girls and their aunt are approaching it, in conjunction with their poetry and stories and crocodile-play. The girls seem smart and open with supportive families – they’re as easy to root for as last year’s family.

The first movie we saw at this year’s great True/False Fest was a pleasant enough way to begin, the fest’s first film from Bhutan, but it sounds like Lovers of the Night was the better monk film. Two siblings play soccer around the family monastery, where their monk father wants older brother Gyembo to attend monk training camp and follow in his footsteps, carrying on the forever-old family tradition. Gyembo is ambivalent about it, and about everything, feints vaguely in the direction of rebellion but will probably end up becoming a monk – we don’t know for sure, since he stops speaking entirely in the second half of the movie.

Gyembo and Tashi, crushing your head:

We first mistook his short-haired younger sister Tashi for a boy. She refuses the color pink, wants to swap clothes with her brother, talks with him about picking up girls, and even the parents say she has the soul of a boy, but when she doesn’t make the team at soccer camp, her future is left even more open-ended than her brother’s.

Dad is a goofball monk, doing traditional dances and blessing people (for money) with colorful phalluses. He tells Gyembo that he wants him to be happy, and his future is his own decision, and he doesn’t have to become a monk, but if he doesn’t, the tradition held by their family for untold generations will come to a crashing end and they’ll lose the monastery and all will be lost, but no pressure, make your own decisions. His repetitive lectures even become a joke within the movie as one scene shows Gyembo falling asleep while his dad rambles on, but the joke doesn’t make his nagging any easier to take. The mountainous scenery and colorful festivities are lovely.


Durango (2016, Matt Sukkar)

We liked the opening short even more than the feature, and they fit very well together. Two Colorado siblings: the younger a long-haired boy we first mistook for a girl (and a great skateboarder) and his older brother restless, threatening to leave town and move to Seattle, their mom crazy and father dead. More spoken venting and fighting and confessions and hopes/dreams than in The Next Guardian, which is content to watch quietly as everyone wrestles silently with their fates. The provocation by Aja Romano was about Harry Potter fandom and the author letting everyone down, which is a nonissue I’d already read too much about.

One week in 1953, things went very badly for military scientist Frank Olson (played by Peter Saarsgard in reenactment footage). After he’s given LSD at a cabin getaway, he does something wrong (“they laughed at me”) then asks to be fired from his job. Instead he’s escorted to NYC, taken to see a psychiatrist (actually an allergist) and a magician, and one night he goes out the window of his hotel room and falls to his death. Few specifics are known for sure – what happened in the cabin, who else was in the hotel room, what the NYC trip was even for – but Frank’s son Eric has spent six decades learning all he can, trying to piece it together. So the film follows his investigation, fleshing out the story more and more as he learns details over the decades from court cases and document searches and unofficial visits.

Eric’s collage art must have inspired some of Morris’s compositions:

Dr. Balaban… I thought this was Morris and his interrotron when I first saw it:

Saarsgard is lost in the reenactment scenes, dazed or drugged or having a breakdown, and we barely see or discuss him behaving normally before the fateful week. Other actors hover about, such as Tim Blake Nelson as sinister boss Gottlieb (who once tried to assassinate Lumumba) and Bob Balaban as the allergist, but these scenes never quite come together, because the investigation doesn’t. We get close enough to make assumptions – that Frank was dropped out the window, staged as a suicide – but it all leads up to the terrible final moments of the Eric Olson interview:
“I remembered my father but I forgot who I was… you become lost in a sea of questions, all of which pertain to the other, none of which pertain to yourself… Because the value of the lost one is infinite, the sacrifice becomes infinite.”

It’s a powerful ending, and I love some of the editing tricks, echoing and split-screening the interview images. But something is off with the big-picture editing – the episodes were either meant to be watched a week apart (watching two in one sitting yields too little progress, too much repetition) or they had enough material for four good episodes and extended it to six when they got the netflix deal.

The Tabloid television setup:

chemist Robert Lashbrook:

Lawrence Garcia in the new Cinema Scope:

Uncertainty, unknowability, and the nature of truth are subjects that Morris has revisited throughout his career, specifically in relation to (American) structures and systems of authority. And despite its overt epistemological explorations, conspiratorial tone, and more unconventional trappings, Wormwood still bears the hallmarks of traditional journalistic reportage. But there’s been a marked change as well: the relative certainty of something like the Randall Dale Adams case — built around a clear miscarriage of justice, with a self-evident corrective goal — has been traded in for McNamara’s fog, Rumsfeld’s flurry of memos (nicknamed “snowflakes”), or the recurring image of the sea in The Unknown Known. It’s a shift from thin blue line to churning, Rorschachian haze.