Part three of our True/False Makeup Weekend. A counselor works with imprisoned refugees, while outside, millions of small crabs are freely migrating across the island. It’s a metaphor, you see – an irresistible one, with the bright crabs giving the film more visual texture, something entrancingly alien to cut to between close-shot stories of human suffering.
The movie opens with an escape, a man scaling a fence then hurtling through the woods, a staged version of something we hear about which may not have even happened, since we learn that the authorities are being misleading on purpose. The counselor’s view is that she can’t be helpful from just a single conversation, and there’s no guarantee if or when she’ll get to visit with her patients again. The final scene shows her packing up to leave the island with her family, the whole endeavor possibly a failure.
Mouseover to migrate the crabs:
In an essential article, The Guardian says the filmmaker and counselor Poh Lin Lee are friends, that the film was made from multiple visits over four years, and that interviews conducted on the island were filmed in secret from the government.
Poh Lin uses a tableau of sand and small toy figures to help one woman process her trauma, poetically describing the grains of sand as mountains that have been reduced to their finest form, but mostly she just listens, and listens, and listens. She’s a willing sponge for their guilt, at one point moving over to sit next to and comfort the Syrian man who weeps as he remembers the various separations that have plagued his young life. It comes as no surprise to subsequently learn that Poh Lin is also in therapy.
Nanfu explores Chinese policy through the personal histories of her own family and neighbors, then expands to the country’s legacy of international adoption and a quest to trace adopted kids to their birth parents. As the country’s present-day propaganda shifts towards telling people that the perfect number of children to have is two, Nanfu tries to get people who lived through the previous era – parents who abandoned newborn children to die in the marketplace, party official abortionists, local government leaders who tore down the homes of residents who disobeyed the policy, families who made a business of selling abandoned babies to adoption agencies only to be imprisoned for human trafficking – to denounce the policy. But after decades of indoctrination, she manages to get one person to say it was a good idea, “but they took it too far.” Feels like too massive of an issue (and a country) for a single doc to cover, but the way she weaves the politics through her family’s own stories and memories makes it work beautifully – one of the best of this year’s T/F docs.
We had a True/False Makeup Weekend to celebrate One Child Nation‘s release in local theaters on the same day Amazing Johnathan premiered on streaming. As with this year’s fest itself, our programming was about half successful. We followed this one for a while, but as the filmmaker lost exclusive access to his subject, who also refused to quit or die, the director turned the movie towards himself (and itself) and tried to manufacture drama and stunts. Given how it ends up being about his competition with other Amazing Johnathan documentaries, and this one’s “twist ending” is its own executive producer credit, I’m surprised they didn’t film an addendum with our dude filming himself signing the Hulu deal. The other finished doc, Always Amazing, apparently scored a David Copperfield interview. In interviews, AJ says he likes the other movie just as much, which Berman says is impossible.
This wasn’t supposed to be our closing night movie – it was gonna be an early night to make up for Treasure Island the night before, then our third Chinese movie One Child Nation in the morning, an undecided afternoon, and The Magic Life of V before the drive home, but a snowstorm changed our plans.
This was an endurance test along the lines of The Task, but far less easy to figure out what is happening and why. Supposedly they are recreating “happenings,” and there’s some mysterious tension but very little happening when a group is approached by a helicopter then asked about about the experience, or when we spend an eternity in a room with a handful of people waiting to be interviewed. These are separated by wandering academic discussions in a library with no tension at all. I focused hard on every detail at the time, hoping to unlock any meaning, even after Katy ditched the movie to go drinking at the Craft Beer Cellar, but no time for post-film note-taking then a stressful drive home has wiped out any useful thoughts. “Repetition is the main concept” says Felipe on letterboxd, and I’m starting to think you need to have studied the Oscar Masotta theories to grasp the film at all… in fact, I’ve belatedly discovered the accompanying 320-page book online.
We picked up a biscuit with butter and jam from a biscuit-focused food truck, stopped at Gunther Hans, then headed to the Globe for a double feature… and there was The River Arkansas again, still good. I believe this was a new restoration – shockingly clear photography with lots of close-ups. Journey film with slightly confusing storyline, though it seems like it should’ve been straightforward, intertitles explaining each phase. Katy is concerned with shooting India as an outsider, not understanding the Hindu rituals or family dynamics. I don’t know what anyone else thinks, since this was missing from letterboxd until now, but the Finnish director was present to tell horror stories of the difficulty of filming (or maybe I read that in the Neither/Nor book afterwards, I forget).
Back to Main Squeeze on Saturday morning, then our third film of the weekend at the Missouri, preceded by a guy with one of those whirlygig keyboard amps. This doc felt longer than its 95 minutes, but I wouldn’t mind watching it indefinitely. Wide variety of New Yorkers asked about their futures with good photography. I kept feeling that like Treasure Island, a central point of focus wasn’t coming through, but I also wasn’t hoping for a climate change essay doc, so I went with it. Starts to revisit its subjects – somewhat racist ex-cops in a bar, a white couple concerned about media reports of crime, the Afronaut. I need to watch more NYC movies – maybe In Jackson Heights.
Story in Filmmaker:
I’m interested in how power circulates, the ways in which it micro- and macro-confines us and can liberate us . I also think that, sure, we can call all films in some ways political, insofar as they’re made within certain power structures and get launched into the world within existing power structures. They can either reinforce the status quo, because they do very little to shake up our understandings of how the world works, or they can enable us to grapple with things differently … I also dislike message-y films, or whatever you want to call the films that see their role as delivering a particular policy line and/or demanding that people respond in very narrow terms to whatever they’re seeing. I’m much more interested in how cinema can reawaken the senses and our critical capacity to be in the world differently. That, for me, can have longer term results.
Jenn Takahashi opened, promoting her website where she makes fun of things people say on neighborhood message boards, I’m not sure why. My notes say “a variety of weird-tempo rock songs, each better than the last – get the EP” but who was the band? Summer Like The Season? They also say “Katy very tired, did not like movie, then hotel stole her toiletries,” which is accurate, and the Hilton Garden Inn still owes us restitution.
My notes do NOT say anything about the movie, which was a multi-angled portrait of youth at a French water park, mainly memorable for the extremely confident dude who picks up a bunch of girls to meet him after hours.
This was in theaters the week we got back and, as I write this, is still at the Fernbank Imax. Not knowing it’d stick around in theaters for most of the year, it was a hot ticket at T/F and we sat up front crammed into a corner. The picture worked out, but I think the sound was muffled up there. You can easily tell which is the newly-restored 70mm footage, and it’s mostly front-loaded. I’m no fan of the bass-drone dum-dum-dum-dum score, but overall a real good space movie.
A.A. Dowd in AV Club:
Including hindsight recollections would have spoiled the manufactured present tense – the way director Todd Douglas Miller, working with a trove of stunningly preserved archival footage, creates the sensation of experiencing these historic events as though they were happening right before you, not half a century ago.
Really there were only a few crowd-pleasing hits at this year’s T/F, which was interrupted (for us) by a snowstorm and fouled by some too-late nights and difficult film picks. This was one of them, despite being a two-plus-hour crackpot investigation into unprovable murder cases. I caught up with Brügger’s The Red Chapel shortly before this year’s festival slate was announced, and this was the #1 Sundance movie I was pulling for.
Some good uncomfortable laughter, some twisty investigation and humor in construction/presentation offset the ultimate topic: power grabs, espionage, mercenaries, murders, white supremacy, attempted genocide – US and UK governments blatantly destroying Africa’s hopes of self-sufficiency. Göran sparks off the investigation and does all the background research, and Mads provides context, theatrical antics and the overall sense that we can’t tell how much of this is true.
Opener was River Arkansas again, but with new songs, and we grabbed a juice at Main Squeeze beforehand.