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.

Musicians seen:
13 Strings and a 2 Dollar Bill
Mirah
Prahlad
Open Mike Eagle
Jesse and Forever
Mary Lattimore
US Girls
Thanya Iyer
Very Be Careful (three times!)
Travis McFarlane
Bella Donna
DeQn Sue

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.

Rizov:

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):

Hawaii:

New York:

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.

Eric Kohn:

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.

Eric Hynes:

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.

Travis, an ace photographer and committed activist, explores his own sordid family history, which only gets more shameful as he goes on, trying to atone for the crimes of his heritage by at least bringing them to light. Travis was in the room, reading live narration and triggering clips, making the experience more interesting and confrontational. His research leads him through some truly fiction-sounding scenarios – he’s told to quit searching and is chased out of town, and eventually digs up multiple rapes and another murder. This one has been written up extensively, and more elegantly than I can manage.

A. Taubin from Sundance:

Set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S.E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences … How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question — at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be — is more than enough.

J. Cronk:

What he found, and what we watch and listen to him deliberate upon, was not news of a single murder, but an entire history of racism and brutal violence against the local black community. Branch, he discovers, was an outspoken bigot linked to multiple instances of violence and abuse against black men and women. With only a pair of vague news clippings and Spann’s death certificate as evidence, Wilkerson proceeded to trace the entwined fates of the Branch and Spann families … The futility of this quest is the crux of the film and the aspect of the project that most plagues Wilkerson, whose narration is in a constant state of second-guessing, self-indictment, and flat-out shame at the extent of the atrocities … When, in the course of his research, Wilkerson discovers that his mother’s sister is a practising white supremacist, the film takes on an increasingly disturbing urgency.

V. Murthi:

Wilkerson isn’t being disingenuous in his emotions or approach, but some of the moves on display feel too forced to be truly effective, especially when they’re juxtaposed next to others that are above board. This is the one film I feel most conflicted about. On one hand, I’m not sure I should judge an individual’s personal, politically motivated expression, but on the other hand, I can’t lie and say that there weren’t times when it made me feel uncomfortable outside the scope of Wilkerson’s perceived intentions. With that being said, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? was one of the very best things I saw at the festival precisely because it got under my skin.

One of the Roughs, a Kosmos (Carmine Grimaldi)

It was late… let’s see if I remember… a girl and her very beardy dad doing farm things on the farm. She climbs trees. There’s a laptop… and ducks. My notes say “like a more fun Ben Rivers film,” which I meant as a great compliment.


All Good Things (Chloe Domont)

Daughter records her parents, who are still married and living together, but mom has a new boyfriend, who she’s been seeing for a couple years. He comes and goes, accepted in theory by the husband, though their comic bickering makes the film worth watching, more than just home movies of an unusual family.


Happy Happy Baby (Jan Soldat)

Oh shit. It’s intense to watch five films in one day, and we maybe should’ve gone home or checked if the Cafe Berlin concert wasn’t sold out, but instead here we were, tired at 11:30pm, watching a long-take mini-doc shot in dimly lit basement, where an “adult baby” has playtime with his fellow-kink friends then goes to bed in a giant crib, then his much younger “daddy” explains how he got involved in all this. Or what does he explain? I don’t recall because we raced into the cold night the instant it was over, the other two shorts forgotten, Katy railing against Happy Happy Baby, saying it went against the spirit of all the other films we’d seen by presenting people with unusual kinks and holding them up like zoo animals.

Eight years in the life of a Philly family. Dad runs a local recording studio, but his star artist Price is progressing further as an addict than a musician. Mom makes peanuts working at a shelter. Their older son has a kid but can’t look for work due to his cancer treatments, and their bright, active daughter gets an eye shot out from gang fighting down the street. Style of the film is low-key observational, and overall mood (when nobody is getting shot) is of great generosity and warmth.

Amy Taubin:

Their daughter P.J. grows from a lively 8-year-old to a high school graduate during the course of this 105-minute film, and when something traumatic happens to her, half the audience at the screening I attended gasped “Oh no!” Quest opens with the 2008 Obama election, and his eight-year presidency is a source of pride and hope, but it doesn’t raise their income above the poverty line.

Photos from a promo site, can’t remember if they appear in the film: