The movie itself was a bit frustrating – we’re told that burlesque star Tempest has a famously hot temper (with no examples), that her life was full of fascinating incident (with no details) and that she changed the face of burlesque dancing (with no support). But the stories Tempest told in person were fun, and she’s one of the most interesting people we’ve ever had dinner with.
Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.
William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…
Peter works his own organic farm in Vermont, long abandoned by family. It’s at least the second doc I’ve seen about an artist/farmer – Peter was a painter and sculptor before a sawmill accident mutilated his hands. Not the finest camerawork I’ve seen (also: graphic scenes of sheep killing/butchering and cow exploration), but among the shaky unfocused scenes there are some pretty nice shots. Filmmakers seem to be trying to stay out of the movie themselves, but Peter is always talking with them, asking questions, bossing them around. He’s an alcoholic, pondering getting sober but that would mean leaving the farm for a month. Nothing is really finished at the end – the farm is in decline, and maybe he’ll kill himself.
Despite his occasional delirium, Dunning is painfully self-aware for a drunk who needs to guzzle rum in the middle of the night in order to stave off the DTs. The more he caterwauls into the void, screaming at chickens like a crunchy King Lear, the more comfortable he seems asking for help. He asked Stone to document his suicide, but — over time — it begins to seem as though he wanted the filmmaker there in order to make sure that he didn’t go through with it.
We closed True/False fest with a crowd-pleaser (literally, there was spontaneous mid-film applause) about high school step-dance teammates in their senior year. Can they overcome poverty challenges at home, excel at their school work, get accepted into college and win the coveted state championship while growing as people and taking Black Lives Matter concepts to heart? Yes! Katy’s only reservation is that it’s an advertisement for charter schools at a time when they’re politically contentious. It’s far from the most structurally or artistically interesting movie we saw at the festival, but the girls are wonderful, and we were treated to a pre-film live dance and a post-film Q&A, which the excitable director beamed into via Skype. Enormously good vibes all around.
The same promo image everyone is using:
That wraps our True/False 2017.
13 Strings and a 2 Dollar Bill
Open Mike Eagle
Jesse and Forever
Very Be Careful (three times!)
Good Food and Drink (abridged):
Apples and sausage on a waffle at Cafe Berlin
Pierogies at Cafe Poland
Pizza and burrata at Midici
Excel wine-barrel saison, and Boss tacos at Craft Beer Cellar
Rock Bridge cinnamon imperial milk stout on cask at International Tap House
Double rye IPA and cold nachos (but good service) at Broadway Brewery
Pretzels and an array of belgian ales at Günter Hans
Cast Iron brown ale and a reuben at Uprise Bakery
Beet juice and a breakfast burrito at Main Squeeze
Quinoa Benedict and strange coffee at Nourish
Thai slice at Pizza Tree
Mushroom fries, taro chips and a spicy sour at Room 38
and a Lagunitas at Bier Station Kansas City (on the way)
We thought we’d already seen intense, slippery, ethically complex movies at True/False, and then this one came along, a hybrid documentary in which an actor (Valentijn Dhaenens, playing “Europe”) interacts with classrooms of refugees hoping to be accepted into a European country, taking different approaches. After an immigration-philosophy intro, in Act 1 Dhaenens is harsh and accusatory, says new immigrants will cost his country money and they’ll import religious beliefs which run counter to state law. V. Rizov: “There’s a bracing, hateful clarity in someone who’s willing to say exactly what they mean, even/especially if it’s vile.”
In Act 2 he’s generous and understanding, says Europe owes them all charity due to its colonialist past. Europe has resources to go around, and he points to a study saying that erasing state borders entirely could bring all states greater wealth. In Act 3 he follows the rules, eliminating anyone not eligible for residency in the Netherlands, then he interviews the rest to see whose stories hold up, until just three remain.
After mastering montage and close-quarters conflict, Stranger closes strong in a new mode with a super-long (both distance/time) shot epilogue; now “out of character” on the street, Dhaenens meets a group of migrants who ask for cigarettes. Given what we’ve been watching for an hour, the suspicion that they might take violent, understandable revenge on the outnumbered teacher (thereby setting up any number of racist headlines about migrants running wild) lurks, but instead everyone has a nice chat. By the time Dhaenens points back to the director behind the camera it’s increasingly clear that this tableaux as staged as anything in the film (for this sequence, the migrants wrote their own dialogue). Here’s another film that summarizes with great clarity a particularly sordid/inhumane strain of contemporary thought it’s attempting to combat, while at the same time pointing out how unhelpful the film itself is in effectuating change.
Katy says the movie, particularly the epilogue conversation, seemed ethically unsound until the director’s Q&A assured us that the refugees were paid participants, aware of the film’s structure and intentions, and the final scene was even scripted (though based on a real conversation).
I’d been looking forward to Sarah Kendzior’s intro, which she read stiffly from a book of notes and didn’t hold half the interest as Jeong’s Star Wars net neutrality essay. Kendzior is still a catastrophist, but at least she humorously acknowledged that her worst predictions about our country haven’t (yet!) come to pass.
Manolo decides to travel from Spain with his loyal donkey Gorrión and hike the Trail of Tears in America. His daughter is supportive, but Manolo has had some health concerns, and it’s hard to find budget transportation for a man and a donkey (and his dog Zafrana). He deals with corporate and government bureaucracy and with a donkey who quietly refuses to cross a bridge for hours on end. It’s a pretty minor story (Manolo doesn’t take the trip) but the filmmaker captures a loving portrait of his uncle Manolo, some Bela Tarr close-ups of the implacable donkey, and a nice windmill shot at the end to justify the title.
Pereira, from an essential interview by Pamela Cohn in Filmmaker:
More than anything, I think that Manolo’s relationship with these animals is what the film is documenting. In other words, I think it’s the most documentary aspect. From the beginning, both Zafrana and Gorrión are almost in every shot, and we always see the three of them together … And they communicate with one another in various ways — man to animal, and also animal to animal. This is a way of understanding friendship or understanding how humans and animals can enrich each other’s lives, opening our own concepts of friendship and spending complex time with non-humans.
Great hook for a film – small town poet with cerebral palsy becomes famous online, her fame and newfound self-confidence shaking up her home life. We booked our True/False schedule based mostly on subject matter of the documentaries (Katy is going to Hubei, where this movie is set), not watching trailers or knowing anything about their formal presentations, so we were bowled over by the cinematic beauty in Strong Island, LoveTrue, Manifesto and this one. It’s an amazing story on its own, but the filmmaker also finds ways to visualize Xiuhua’s poetry, showing text onscreen and filming the natural environment around the house where she wrote the words.
The poetry and the film are extremely bittersweet. She uses her fame and money to get a divorce from the husband she’s never loved while her mother is dying of cancer. The husband is open on-camera about his contempt for her and has a girlfriend in Beijing, though he seems to love Xiuhua’s parents and their child. She’s invited to academic conferences, press events and even reality TV, and her media people are concerned that the divorce will hurt her fame. She finally pays off the husband and after the divorce they ride home together, with him grinning like mad. She seems very independent, giving confident answers to press and fan questions, flirting with the filmmaker and a conference panelist, but she’s deeply vulnerable in the poetry, and says her life has been a failure if she hasn’t found love.
“If you love someone, you love them forever.”
A movie about different kinds of love across the country. I picked this for Katy’s sake, figuring some love stories would be a nice break from films about rats, family murder, refugees and more family murder. It turned out to be a really beautifully constructed film. On the surface, we’ve got three stories: Alaskan Blake falls for spindly nerdy guy, Hawaiian surfer Will’s relationship has broken up but he loves his young son, and New York girl Victory lives and works with her musical family. But then the filmmaker casts actors and coworkers to play the younger (and future) selves of the first two and the missing mom of Victory, filming poetic flashbacks and reenactments, and the actors start interacting with the real-life subjects and changing their present-day stories. Pretty much custom made for a festival called True/False.
Alaska (in a Swiss Army Man-reminiscent school bus):
Things don’t really work out. Blake’s boyfriend Joel leaves her (and the film) right after she has decided to quit her stripping job, throwing her already precarious life out of balance. Victory’s real mom opens up to her stand-in, and ugly history is revealed. Her dad has at least one girlfriend, is a charismatic family man and band leader who may also be an abuser. Will has violent disagreements with his ex and her new man, but would still do anything for the little boy, even after discovering he’s not the father. I don’t know if the filmmaker set out to find love stories that would become so twisted and complicated (because we ditched the Q&A to find food before our next screening) but she sure found ’em.
Ha’rel’s playful formalism never settles down. Recurring segments follow various subjects reflecting on their lives, as onscreen text highlights their words; often, the text continues while the voiceover fades away. It’s a striking device that effectively poeticizes their rambling declarations. The filmmaker is just as capable of landing on intriguing images, from the sight of a high-heeled woman crossing a creek to a spellbinding shot of Will holding flowers to an unseen target just outside the frame. These elegant moments are paired with frank discussions about sex, abandonment, and heartbreak, which don’t always arrive at poignant conclusions but certainly speak to the movie’s larger themes … Ha’rel’s unique vision holds tremendous value for the craft of non-fiction filmmaking, which so often suffers from formulaic approaches.
“You do not know your killer will make you out to be a monster. You do not realize that there will be no trial. You don’t know that 23 white people will decide no crime has even been committed.”
A mirror image to Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? This time it’s the family member of the murdered man telling the story, again speaking directly to the audience filled with regret and shame and rage, again with a black victim whose white killer doesn’t even go to trial. The tone of this one is pure anguish, told by the brother* of someone who was killed for no reason and will receive no justice, the family left behind in ruins.
*I’ve found Yance called both “he” and “she” online, and Katy and I found evidence of both within the film, but Yance’s self-written 2017 IMDB bio uses “he”.
Ford worked at PBS’s documentary showcase POV for a decade, viewing documentaries day in and out, while deciding how to tell his own family’s story. He ultimately came up with a visually distinct approach of direct address into the camera (sometimes speaking to the brother, sometimes to the audience), filmed photographs and lingering shots of the locations where events took place, in addition to the necessary usual elements (interviews and investigations).
Complications… mom is in a coma at the movie’s end. Yance feels guilty about the death, because he kept a secret about older brother William’s prior outburst at the garage where he would later be killed. There’s a section that was confusingly stuck at the end of the movie about William’s activity before his death, losing weight to apply for work and testifying about a crime he’d helped bring to justice. Yance doesn’t know what the killer looks like, saying he looks like all white people, that he sees the killer everywhere, a statement that bounced hauntingly around the church full of white faces where we sat. It had been chilly for the first couple days of the True/False fest, and during the closing credits we walked out into the warm late morning sun and it felt like another world.
It’s actually on the level of style that Ford tinkers most provocatively with the first-person template. While there’s a rawness of feeling to much of what’s expressed in the film, it’s complicated by the overtly cinematic visual approach taken by Ford and DP Alan Jacobsen. Even that opening phone call—exceedingly common and banal as documentary actions go—is aggressively lit and framed. The strategy doesn’t convey fictionalization so much as intense reflection. Footage here isn’t happened upon, it isn’t automatic or diaristic, but rather deeply, perhaps obsessively deliberated—sincerely captured after decades of traumatized anticipation. Ford’s verbal address also toggles between seemingly rehearsed and spontaneous, complexly underscoring his sincerity. Do you really think someone who’s had a quarter-century to think and feel through such a life-altering trauma could ever be either fully in the emotional moment or, conversely, fully in control of these emotions? Somewhere between first-person and third-person, showing and telling, recording and expressing, is where these personal truths reside.