True/False 2015 Wrap-Up

tf_75In all, True/False 2015 was as great as I’ve come to expect from the festival.




In two and a half days at the 2014 True/False Film Festival I saw ten movies, of which nine were excellent and one was so-so, and we got an ice storm in the middle of the fest. For the 2015 iteration of the festival, again I saw ten movies in two and a half days, with this time eight being excellent and two being disappointing, but the weather was very nice for the whole fest. It’s like a puzzle—which one was the better experience? Either way, 85% excellent films in the festival over two years is an awfully high percentage, so there’s no need to quibble over deciding which year was the better of the two.

True/False is of course Columbia, Missouri’s annual weekend-long documentary film festival, which right now bears some similarity to the South by Southwest Film Festival as it was about twelve years ago—each year it keeps getting bigger and bigger and more and more noticed and attended and important. This probably because of that programming—the festival has long had a reputation for being of reliable quality, and when you can keep that up as programmers of course the festival’s going to grow.

The best film of the 2015 fest is one that could have been predicted by any attendees of 2013’s T/F, or just anyone who’s been keeping up with modern documentaries at all. The film of which I speak is The Look of Silence, MacArthur Genius Grant winner Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to 2013’s masterpiece The Act of Killing, an alum of T/F 2013 (not to mention Oscar nominee). One might think that The Look of Silence, which is on a similar subject as The Act of Killing and was knocked out by Oppenheimer in a relatively short amount of time after the release of Killing, would be something better suited to being a special feature on Killing’s home video release. This is not the case, though; The Look of Silence is yet another full-stop Great Film from Oppenheimer, and stands on its own from The Act of Killing, if for some reason you haven’t seen that film. (That said, seeing one film will enrich the other—the order in which you watch them isn’t terribly important.) The Look of Silence primarily follows Adi Rukun, an optometrist in Indonesia whose older brother was a victim of the genocide covered in The Act of Killing. In Look, Adi calmly confronts those who committed the genocidal acts (who are still in power, by the way, so the making of this film put Rukun and Oppenheimer’s lives in danger), often while checking their vision in a routine checkup. The obvious antecedent to this film is less The Act of Killing than it is Shoah, and (despite that Shoah is one of the most respected documentaries ever made) my initial impression is to say that The Look of Silence is the better film—content aside, Joshua Oppenheimer is frankly a stronger filmmaker than Shoah’s Claude Lanzmann.

tf_400I went into the festival most looking forward to seeing The Look of Silence, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that that’s the film I wound up liking the best. Among films I hadn’t heard of going into the festival was Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas, which is quite a find—it’s a beautifully photographed hour-long documentary shot entirely at the intersection of 125th and Lexington in Harlem, a known hotspot for drugs and criminal activity. Field Niggas is composed almost entirely of footage of 125 and Lex’s regulars, many of whom are homeless, and you listen to its residents speak while looking at their faces, though the film wasn’t shot with synchronized sound, which is to say that their mouths aren’t moving as you’re listening to them talk. Allah’s background is in still photography, and when many of his subjects were being filmed they assumed Allah was taking a still photograph of them, so their near lack of movement adds to the dreamy, hypnotic quality of the film. And despite its title (an allusion to Malcolm X’s speech “Message to the Grass Roots”) and inclusion of the footage of cops choking Eric Garner to death on Staten Island (which event took place as Field Niggas was shooting), Field Niggas is not an overly political film—it’s more a film about culture and people, and doesn’t seem entirely unlike something that Godfrey Reggio and Errol Morris would make together, were they ever to team up.

Here’s a good place to point out that T/F is great about bringing directors, subjects, producers, etc. in to do Q&As after their films screen. The Look of Silence had Oppenheimer in person, which is a huge deal, and perhaps even more amazing was the presence of Adi via Skype. One of the more memorable moments for me of T/F ’15 came during the Q&A for Field Niggas, when an audience member asked Allah why he decided to keep his own voice in the film, prompting his subjects to speak at length about various things. Allah explained that one of his favorite documentarians is Werner Herzog, and he was basically just emulating Herzog in approaching his interview style that way, as Herzog’s personality is always a big part of his films. Now, I adore Werner Herzog myself, but what really lodged this in my head is that when Allah answered this question, none other than Joshua Oppenheimer was sitting directly in front of him—front row, center seat, amongst all of the regular festival goers—and Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was produced by Herzog. Did Allah realize this in the moment? I’m guessing not. I wouldn’t even expect him to have recognized Oppenheimer, unless he’d just been at one of the two prior screenings of The Look of Silence when this went down. Anyway, it was sweet, and all parties involved came off very well.

The biggest ticket of the festival was to Alex Gibney’s new film, Going Clear, which is an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name on the Church of Scientology. I had a hard ticket to the first screening of the fest of this film, so was only made aware later just how hard it was to get in—that first screening was held in the 1200-seat Missouri Theatre, and I came to find out that at the film’s start time there were still more than 300 people outside, hoping to get in, when it was officially announced that the auditorium was full. (Comparatively, big auditoriums in St. Louis, such as the Hi-Pointe or the big screen at the Tivoli, have less than 500 seats.) Gibney’s filmmaking style is often a bit dry for my tastes, but Going Clear is his best film since 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. If nothing else, Going Clear deepened my already vast appreciation for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. There’s a running debate in the film regarding whether Scientology should be considered a religion by the IRS, which seems somewhat silly—they’re founded on obvious lies, populated by crackpots, and are a danger to society… sounds like a religion to me! Maybe a more interesting question is where the IRS draws the line on this type of thing—I don’t remember the Branch Davidians getting any tax breaks.

tf_300Apart from The Look of Silence, there was a fair amount of daredevil filmmaking in this year’s festival. Chief among them were Sundance alums Cartel Land and (T)Error, with the former exploring how cartels are shaping the face of Mexico in the present, the latter looking at the FBI and how it uses informants to catch suspected terrorists in the making. Cartel Land, directed by Escape Fire’s Matthew Heineman, features a lot of just stunning, truly scary footage of a grassroots campaign of Michoácan cartel fighters, and during these sequences the film is nothing short of incredible. It gets a little bogged down with less interesting or vital footage following what’s going on on the Arizona side of the border, but despite that misstep, it’s still a pretty great film. (T)Error, on the other hand, starts out a bit slow as it follows its FBI informant, Shariff, as he tries to catch a potential would-be terrorist named Kalifah, who is a Pennsylvanian white boy turned Islam convert, who conducts himself as a caricature of how a would-be jihadist would. What makes the film stand out at first is that Shariff allows the film’s directors, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, to film him without telling the FBI that he’s got two people following him around with a camera. But then what really makes (T)Error stand out amongst the stellar company of the rest of the festival is that, about an hour in, Cabral and Sutcliffe also start interviewing Kalifah on the sly, with no one being told anything—Shariff doesn’t know they’re talking to Kalifah, Kalifah doesn’t know they’re talking to Shariff, the FBI doesn’t know Shariff is talking to the directors, Kalifah doesn’t know the FBI is after him… it’s as interesting as it sounds. Which is to say, very.

The remaining successes of my festival jaunt this year were Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s Finders Keepers, and Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies. My past experiences with Morgen have been uniformly disappointing—he has a tendency to make films about subjects I’m fascinated in (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10), but the end result has always been lacking, and so I was nonplussed when I first heard a while back that Courtney Love agreed to give him access to tons of previously-unreleased materials of Cobain’s to aid in the making of this documentary. As it turns out, Montage of Heck is easily Morgen’s best films—all of the unreleased stuff is interesting, Cobain’s mother (who is one of the interviewees here, as is Love) is an interesting character, and a lot of individual scenes stand out as being particularly strong, such as a part where teenage Kurt is trying to lose his virginity, set to a string quartet version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Also, Morgen gets bonus points for being the only filmmaker at a screening I attended pay tribute to the recently departed documentarians Albert Maysles and Bruce Sinofsky, both of whom I love (and the latter a T/F alum himself).

Finders Keepers was easily the funniest film in the festival—it’s about a man who buys a grill at an auction, only to find a human foot in it, and then the battle between him and the foot’s original owner over legal possession of the severed limb. The film suffers a few minor problems—it doesn’t seem to trust its characterization and is constantly re-telling you who each person is (a problem shared with The King of Kong, whose director, Seth Gordon, is a producer here), and it insultingly subtitles the southern-accented characters. But even the questionable subtitles served their purpose, as people were laughing themselves stupid at the film, and it allowed for you to not miss any dialogue.

That leaves Best of Enemies, about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The film goes to great pains to not take either’s side, but I couldn’t help but interpret it as favoring Vidal. Perhaps this is simply because I favor Vidal between those two men, so of course I’d be prone to reading it that way. Anyway, Best of Enemies, like Finders Keepers, is good for a chuckle, and handy as a history lesson and study of modern political coverage besides.


Of the two subpar films I saw, I can only speak about one. For the first time in several years, I attended one of T/F’s “secret screenings” this year, which are under perma-embargo, which means that I can’t ever tell you what it was. No matter. I didn’t like it, and feel no need to dwell on it. That leaves The Visit, Michael Madsen (no relation to Mr. Blonde)’s sort-of mockumentary about how the government would handle an alien arriving at Planet Earth. It’s interesting in theory but boring and a little frustrating in execution, which is pretty much how I felt about the only other Madsen film I’ve ever seen, 2010’s Into Eternity.

In all, T/F ’15 was as great as I’ve come to expect from the festival. Despite being a huge movie lover and hating basically all sports, I know plenty of people who don’t hesitate to take a daytrip to Columbia to catch a Mizzou football game, and yet I don’t know very many St. Louisans who attend True/False. This is a grievous oversight that I plan to personally do my part to change in the coming years. | Pete Timmermann

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