True to a Point

Nick Pinkerton at the 11th True/False Film Festival

Bill Ross and Turner Ross, Western, 2015, color, sound, 93 minutes.

TRUE/FALSE, A FOUR-NIGHT, three-day documentary film festival which takes place annually in the central Missouri university town of Columbia, has since its humble beginnings in 2004 acquired a reputation for its curatorial excellence, as well as for the fervid, quasi-mystic loyalty that it inspires in regular attendees—journalists, filmmakers, and most anyone involved in the distribution and exhibition of docs. True/False is scheduled immediately before South by Southwest, where many films and filmmakers decamped to immediately after the party in Columbia ended, and with praise for True/False now so universal, at this point it only remains to wait for it to jump the proverbial shark and begin its downhill tumble, as the festival in Austin did many years before. “I just know it,” one longtime attendee said to me a couple of weeks before True/False, “This is going to be the year when it all goes to hell.”

Doomy prognostications aside, in True/False’s eleventh year, the beat went on. Due to renovations to some regular venues, screenings were spread between eleven locations, including churches and University of Missouri lecture halls repurposed to temporarily serve as movie houses, and the flagship Ragtag theater, specially equipped with 35-mm projection to accommodate archival prints imported for critic-curated Neither/Nor film series. A retro sidebar now in its third year, this year’s Neither/Nor, organized by the Warsaw-born, São Paolo–based writer Ela Bittencourt, was dedicated to Polish cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s, with several filmmakers present in person. Particular standouts in the shorts selection included Andrezej Czarnecki’s Rat Catcher (1986) and the works of Bogdan Dziworski, also cinematographer on Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s Through and Through (1973), an at times exhaustingly virtuoso reenactment of a famous 1930s murder case.

The defining feature of True/False’s programming is the pronounced emphasis on heterodox, formally ambitious documentaries, a broadly encompassing mission statement shared by the likes of FIDMarseilles and Lincoln Center’s newly introduced The Art of the Real. The historical perspective provided by Neither/Nor establishes that work in this vein doesn’t constitute any new, revolutionary development, but is rather rooted in the history of documentary since its very inception—that in fact it’s the doctivist tract and the info-dump op-ed films that are the historical aberrations.

True/False’s catholic definition of “documentary” encompasses films which many programming committees wouldn’t generally categorize as such. Last year’s closing night film, for example, was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, eligible for inclusion for the documentary impulse implicit in its time-spanning conceptual framework. This year, one film on the program which wouldn’t pass the strictest nonfiction scratch test was Benny and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a staged and scripted film about junkies living around Manhattan’s Riverside Park, based on the memoirs of its ex-addict star, Arielle Holmes. Field Niggas, positioned ever so slightly nearer to meeting the traditional criterion for documentary, issues its dispatch from the margins from uptown—posted on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street, in the heart of Harlem, filmmaker Khalik Allah collects testimony from winos, the philosophical homeless, and self-styled stickup men in the months after Eric Garner died at the hands of NYPD officers in Staten Island. Shooting entirely at night, Allah captures his subjects in ultrasaturated slow-motion portraits, accompanied by the out-of-sync audio of their testimonials, his own booming interlocution making him very much a character in the proceedings.

Khalik Allah, Field Niggas, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 60 minutes.

Another fraternal team were represented at True/False—this was Bill and Turner Ross, then fresh from Sundance with their well-received Western. New Yorkers have since had a chance to see Western as part of New Directors/New Films, in which it has been included by a curious logic known only to that festival’s programmers, being as it is the Rosses’ third film, preceded by 45365 (2009) and Tchoupitoulas (2012), set respectively in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, and New Orleans. Like the Rosses’ previous films, Western is a sort of ambient portrait of a place, in this case straddling the Rio Grande. The twin cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, have largely been spared the epidemic cartel violence which has afflicted other border towns, but Western documents the alienation of these longtime good neighbors through skittish, overcautious policy imposed by Washington. The Rosses’ intimate technique creates a mosaic of offhand impressions, details for which they have a marvelous eye, though the story is loosely tethered to two protagonists: Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, who speaks Spanish with a native fluency and steadfastly opposes federal closed-border policy, and Martin Wall, a doting father and profane cattleman whose business is in buying beef south of the border and bringing it north.

The central importance of characters to documentary is a point stressed by two new French films screened at the fest. The first, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard’s rather audaciously titled Rules of the Game, concerns goings-on in a private HR firm subcontracted by the French government to find placement for the unemployed. The movie’s use of “chapter head” intertitles, with coy descriptions of the contents in the fashion of nineteenth-century novels, adds little, but it is blessed with the presence of a genuine star in the form of Lolita, a brusque, sullen teenager whose flagrant disregard for social niceties makes for ripping comedy. Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra likewise deals with recalcitrant outsiders being dragged kicking and screaming into the role of citizens of the French Republic, in this case an immigrant family of Romani. The eponymous adolescent siblings, through court order, are gradually separated from their parents—their father is a feckless alcoholic; their mother a madwoman with a regal, ruined face—placed in the care of a circus performer who lives a responsible, sanitized version of the Romani’s real hand-to-mouth bohemianism.

In Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR, one can view another itinerant lifestyle heretofore hidden from cameras. The film is an “embedded” ride-along with Saeed Torres, an American Muslim and former Black Panther turned FBI antiterror informant, seen here attempting to collect damning evidence against a homegrown suspect in Pittsburgh—it’s a startling exposé of just how unglamorous, morally dicey, and frankly janky our domestic spy game is. Which leads me to the most undefinable and engrossing work that I encountered in Columbia this year, another mission-driven movie: Adirley Queirós’s White Out, Black In. (Set to play New York as part of Art of the Real.) A lo-fi sci-fi piece in which past and future overlap in the liminal zone of dystopian present-day Brasilia, Queirós’s film stars a handful of handicapped middle-aged men, self-sufficient and isolated, yet united by the common past that they share—a memory of the club scene of the mid-1980s, of its music and its dancing, and of the night whose scars they will bear forever, left crippled by a police raid. The survivors’ compulsion to relive their trauma isn’t a matter of self-pity but a crucial act of keeping historical memory alive, providing vital, damning testimony to help a visiting emissary from a tribunal in the far-flung future collect evidence to redress the past injustice. It’s a too-rare instance in which a filmmaker can be found using pop music cues not just to siphon the emotional effect of a song but to signal their function as vessels for collective cultural memory. Here, in this this film with a most fantastic premise, we find a compelling case for the historical necessity of the documentary project.

The True/False Film Festival ran March 5–8 in Columbia, Missouri.