Truth and Dare

Dennis Lim on the True/False Film Fest

Left: Oliver Laxe, Todos vós sodes capitáns (You Are All Captains), 2010, still from a black-and-white film, 79 minutes. Right: Pietro Marcello, La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), 2009, still from a color film, 75 minutes.

EVEN THOUGH THE US FILM FESTIVAL LANDSCAPE gets more congested each year—every city, every demographic, and every taste seem catered for by now—America still lacks a truly progressive showcase for nonfiction film. Such events have proliferated in Europe, where many of the most adventurous new festivals of the past decade are nominally devoted to documentaries, among them FIDMarseille (where the boundary-erasing programming has helped shape our current understanding of hybrid cinema), Punto de Vista in Pamplona (which skews toward experimental nonfiction and is named for Jean Vigo’s conception of a “documented point of view”), and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen (which one year awarded its top prize to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers). The dominant American view of documentary film, challenged by woefully few events (MoMA’s far-ranging Documentary Fortnight is one partial exception), has much to do with the type of work that HBO or PBS will finance, that Sundance will program, and that the Academy will nominate. While this system produces several worthwhile films in any given year, it also creates a glut of issue-oriented and celebrity-driven docs, and reinforces a de facto ideology that equates the art of the documentary simply with journalistic storytelling, prizing content over form, and information over contemplation.

The True/False Film Fest, which concluded its eighth edition on Sunday, is a small but significant corrective step, splitting the difference between this traditional perspective and a more pluralistic notion of nonfiction film. Unfolding over three and a half very busy days in the college town of Columbia, Missouri (home to the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College), T/F is also the model of a regional festival, bringing diverse international work to enthusiastic, open-minded local audiences. The mood is celebratory (buskers take the stage between screenings), and while the festival makes a point of avoiding a juried competition, it requires all filmmakers to attend Q&As (a handful are inevitably Skyped in, but almost all make the trek to central Missouri) and there is also a strong industry presence (producers and programmers are brought in to serve as discussion “ringleaders”).

Timed perfectly to skim the Sundance crop, T/F this year included the obligatory Park City news makers and crowd-pleasers. Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters follows, at close range, the harrowing, heroic work of Chicago activists who have tasked themselves with defusing and preventing gang violence. (The film received the festival’s annual True Life Fund, which raises money to help the subjects of a documentary.) Exploring an ethical and philosophical minefield, James Marsh’s Project Nim recounts the tragic life story of a chimpanzee that was raised as a human as part of a hippie-ish psychology experiment and then abandoned to the cruelties of animal research. Andrew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man!, the saga of a loud-neighbor home recording turned underground viral sensation, touches on—and implicates itself in—the perils of hipster irony and freak-show voyeurism. But T/F also made room for smaller, less flashy American films that would be hard to picture at Sundance, like Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (currently playing at MoMA), an exemplary portrait—precise, lived-in, tender but unsentimental—of an endangered junkyard community in the Willets Point section of Queens. Taking a different approach (talking heads, archival footage) but similarly subtle—and political—in its considerations of race, class, and urban space, Chad Friedrichs’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth uses the fate of the titular Saint Louis housing project, long seen as an iconic failure of public housing and modernist architecture, to anchor an intelligent meditation on the decline of American cities.

As its name suggests, True/False takes a special interest in films that inhabit a space between documentary and fiction; and, perhaps inevitably, the most formally daring works could be found among the non-American selections. Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (set for US release next month) revisits the life and work of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar through a complex weave of Brechtian devices: archival footage, scenes from Dunbar’s work staged in the actual setting, actors posed in hyperreal tableaux and lip-synching to audio recordings of Dunbar’s family and friends. The half-hour Out of Love, by the Danish director Birgitte Staermose, enlists Kosovo street kids to deliver scripted monologues about their lives—and, much like The Arbor, the film works up a fruitful tension between distance and intimacy, surrounding the private tragedies of its subjects in an aura of protective mystery.

It speaks to the diligence of T/F’s programming that some of the festival’s best movies have received little to no exposure stateside. Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), a mysterious, beautiful film that reaches for transcendence and often achieves it, tells a real-life love story worthy of a Fassbinder melodrama. The lovers, who met in prison, are Genoa tough guy Enzo and transsexual ex-junkie Mary, and Marcello refracts their grand romance (and that of the old port city’s atmospheric waterfront) through a mist of myth and near subliminal memories, combining love letters and home movies, forgotten stories and invented histories. La bocca del lupo has barely screened in the States and is still without distribution. T/F’s other high point, Oliver Laxe’s You Are All Captains, which showed at Cannes last year, finally made its US premiere here. Although it mirrors the Spanish director’s actual experiences teaching filmmaking to children in Tangiers, the film is not a documentary so much as a metafictional provocation. The film-within-a-film changes course—the on-screen Laxe disappears after a midmovie mutiny—and from there the film we are watching only gets harder to categorize and to contain. While movies that reflect on their own making tend to sink into self-conscious paralysis, You Are All Captains is an altogether rarer and headier sort of intellectual exercise, one that matches conceptual rigor with a liberating sense of play and discovery.

The True/False Film Fest ran March 3–6, 2011. For more details, click here.