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 light opening scene, we’re suddenly plunged into a street protest that turns violent, in high-color, stuttery shaky-cam. The filmmaker follows protests against Congo’s presidential government (which promised open elections but keeps postponing), primarily following three young guys. Christian is a fiery youth leader. Ben returns from exile, shares his individual ideas with the protest organizations. Jean-Marie was captured and tortured by the secret police, recently released. They have the same goals, just don’t always agree on tactics, and they’re getting nowhere but always feel like they’re close. All their hopes are pinned on an aging Lumumba-era politician – this is who they’d vote for, though his own positions in the present day aren’t clear. At the end of filming, Ben’s back in exile, Jean-Marie is nabbed again, and their politician has died, but the struggle goes on. This year at True/False we saw more than one movie that puts the film crew and their subjects in harm’s way, but this is the one where you feel it the most urgently.

Vadim Rizov in Filmmaker:

Preparations alternate with regular counterpushes of violence, the feeling that something must be done repeatedly butting up against the reality when attempts are made and nothing changes. This is not an excuse to just give up, simply a record of grim odds. Towards the end, we see one subject, bullhorn in hand, dropping truth in the middle of a market, but no one’s listening — they all have shopping to do, and lending an ear might be dangerous anyway. It’s a brilliant micro-image for the oft-futility and necessity of activism; a title card tells us elections delayed in December 2017 were delayed once again in December 2018. That date has yet to come, but a colleague noted the particular poignancy that the card will probably be true by then.

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.

Picturesque and moody, which is to say it’s slow in that 1980’s arthouse sort of way, with drone music which put Katy briefly to sleep. This is a mixed blessing, since she missed the siamese twins separation surgery scene.

Abena (Tania Rogers of a Dr. Who two-parter) is a journalist returning to Ghana after having fled for decades. She’s here to track down the film set of Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde and shame them for misrepresenting Africa, and also incidentally to reconnect with her former communist revolutionary friends, who remained in country and seem withdrawn and broken and not especially glad to see her. In end Abena seems to have taken responsibility for her part in the communist experiment failure – I’m not sure this was the intention, but it’s what I thought was happening. Either way, this makes a good follow-up to In The Intense Now. And she does track down the Cobra Verde set in the end, lingering on all the skull imagery and saying that Europeans have always been better at leaving testaments.

Daniel Kasman on Mubi, from where I also stole the above image:

The soundtrack, flush with ambient synths, simmering orchestrations, and local songs of lament and longing, as well as the brilliantly and variously interpolated archival footage from across Ghana’s post-independence history, is unique to the collective. The result is an elegantly mournful story where this specific woman becomes something more grand, a conduit not only for a personal history of exile and political dismay, but a national and perhaps even continental one.

Akomfrah:

In the 1960s, they’d all, in different parts of Africa, effectively lost a war of independence, one which had started with them as radicals, Marxists and socialists who wanted to take their countries in a certain direction. As the decade ground on, one by one those countries had been turned around, overthrown, or coups had been planned. Many of these people had left Britain or Europe to go back to Africa to plan these new anti-colonial moves, and, irony of ironies, had to run back to the countries they’d left. They were now back in the so-called mother countries begging for refuge … If you were from one of those exile families, like me, that melancholy was the overwhelming feeling that your childhood seemed to be suffused by. I knew I wanted to do something around that feeling of exile as a sort of space of emotional stasis.

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.

A great improvement on that Black Mirror with the inflatable husband-substitute… three acts of interactions with holograms programmed to behave like lost loved ones. First, Lois Smith (Minority Report, and not Almereyda’s Twister but the other one) is given a virtual version of her late husband, as his handsome younger self (Black Mirror star Jon Hamm), by their daughter Geena Davis and husband Tim Robbins. Here the word “prime” refers to the A.I. replica, not the original, as in World of Tomorrow. Already things are unsteady, since Hamm Prime is learning how to be a more accurate version of himself, and ditto Smith since her memory is becoming unreliable.

In the second part, Smith has passed away, and her prime provides little comfort for her daughter, who has committed suicide by part three, and whose prime provides little comfort for Tim Robbins. Great final scene where the three primes chat with each other, being open about topics which were forbidden to the living. Some of my favorite actors together in a room with a good script, something you’d assume would be done all the time, but which seems hard to pull off in practice. You can tell it’s based on a play, but it’s not overly stagey, with low-light and backlight effects and great unsettling string music by Mica Levi (Under the Skin).