Tickled is about a Kiwi investigative journalist looking into the “sport” of competitive endurance tickling. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
You know how, for most of the movie-going population, the criteria by which they judge horror films is, “If it isn’t core-shakingly scary, it sucks”? It’s so unfair. And yet, in the first part of Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Festival this year, I fell into a similar trap. I’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing nothing but excellent films there, that when the first handful I caught were merely okay rather than outright masterpieces, I felt like the festival was a disappointment. The last two T/Fs have yielded what went on to be my favorite film of the year (in 2014 it was Jodorowsky’s Dune, and in 2015 it was The Look of Silence), and it’s not an exaggeration to say that a full 17 of the 20 total films I saw there between 2014 and 2015 were absolutely excellent. As you can guess, it’s hard to keep up this kind of thing.
And yet, True/False does, again and again. This year I saw 11 films, and the final tally is that 8 of the 11 were excellent, and the remaining 3 weren’t bad, just somewhat disappointing. Sure, there wasn’t any one film that really knocked me over, like Dune or Silence did in their respective years, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an abundance of incredible filmmaking on display.
On the theme of favorite movies of the year, the film that John Waters named as the best of 2015, Helmut Berger, Actor, had its North American premiere at this year’s T/F. I perhaps didn’t like it quite as much as Mr. Waters did, but that’s not to say I wasn’t stunned by it, either. Helmut Berger is the Austrian actor famous mostly from the movies of his then-lover Luchino Visconti of the ’60s and ’70s (such as 1969’s The Damned), and was at one time recognized as one of the most beautiful men in the world.
These days, he’s gross and old and mean. About 80% of Helmut Berger, Actor consists of Berger berating the film’s director, Andreas Horvath; another 10% trying to convince Horvath to let him (Berger) blow him; and the final 10% trying to get Horvath to turn on the TV (he claims to not know how to use a remote control). At one point, Horvath satisfyingly snaps, chasing after Berger with the camera and calling him a “pathetic motherfucker,” among other things. The film concludes with what is not far off from a sex crime. Somehow, despite how relentlessly unpleasant the films sounds (and is), it’s mostly funny and not quite as deadening as one might expect.
Where Helmut Berger, Actor was the film I was most looking forward to going into the festival, the fest’s biggest get this year was Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sonita, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (the two biggest awards for which it was eligible) at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year in the World Cinema – Documentary category. Sonita follows the teenaged Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan girl living in Tehran, as she pursues her dream of becoming a rapper. I’ve struggled somewhat with my reaction to this film: It’s almost as if I’m preemptively having some kind of backlash against it.
Let’s be clear: The film is very well made, and young Sonita is legitimately talented. My hesitation is the movie is breezily uplifting to the point that I expect it to be embraced by bourgeois women, all patting themselves on the back for even seeing a documentary in the first place, much less one about a teenaged Afghan rapper. But that’s totally unfair of me; even if that situation happens, good! If more people are seeing strong documentaries, there’s no reason for me to be creating problems.
One of the many things that makes True/False so damned fun to attend is, in the half-hour prior to each film’s start time, they have buskers play good music as people find their seats. On the whole, T/F is a fairly musical festival: The buskers get their own showcase and everything, and Columbia’s a good town for live music to start with. (The venerable Blue Note is one of the festival’s regular venues.) With this in mind, and with Sonita Alizadeh in attendance for Q&As after her film, I was amazed there was no word of her performing in town during the fest. I attended the first of three screenings of Sonita, and was later alarmed to learn that Sonita did actually perform a song (the one linked above, “Brides for Sale”) at the second screening, yet not at the one I attended.
I flexed my press pass muscles to attend the Q&A for the third screening, and again she performed “Brides for Sale,” which was handled exceptionally well by the fest. She came onstage, unlit, as the film’s credits scrolled, doing the whisper-intro. As the audience started to piece together what was happening, the lights came on, a translation of the lyrics appeared on the screen behind her, and she performed the main part of the track at full volume. It was quite a moment, and she’s truly as talented as the film implies.
This also leads me to another thing that makes True/False a reliably excellent experience: The citizens of Columbia really get behind the festival. I’ve written about this before, but note here that, across its three screenings, Sonita filled approximately 4,600 seats at this year’s True/False: That’s the equivalent of filling the main screen at the Tivoli more than 10 times. I can’t imagine lazy-assed St. Louis moviegoers doing the same thing. So, to sum up: (1) Seeing Sonita was great; (2) the opportunity to see Ms. Alizadeh perform was amazing; and (3) doing numbers 1 and 2 in a crowd of 1,700 attentive, well-behaved patrons was about as good as you can get.
Moving on, there were actually films I liked better than either Sonita or Helmut Berger, Actor. I had no clear personal favorite of the festival, but if forced to choose one, it would be between Weiner, Tickled, and Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Weiner is a documentary about the embattled New York politician Anthony Weiner. I was familiar with his scandal(s), but the documentary gave me a much greater appreciation for his work in Congress, and the work he perhaps could have done had he been elected mayor of New York a few years back (a race he lost to Bill de Blasio).
Not that he shouldn’t have resigned from Congress or should have been elected; his well-documented dick pic scandal was a pretty major betrayal of trust that would be hard for anyone to recover from—but the film’s enough to make you wish he weren’t so self-immolating, so that he didn’t have to end his promising political career. The movie is also wise in nearly making Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin (an advisor to Hillary Clinton), the real main character, as she is herself quite compelling, and her perspective on Weiner’s indiscretions helps put a human face on the film.
Tickled is perhaps the easiest sell of the festival. Get this synopsis: It’s about a Kiwi investigative journalist looking into the “sport” (?) of competitive endurance tickling. Yes, you read that correctly. And if that isn’t strange enough, co-director/frontman David Farrier falls into a rabbit hole of a very secretive society by merely trying to figure out what’s the deal with “competitive endurance tickling” in the first place. In the end, the film plays not unlike a cross between 2015 T/F alums Going Clear and Finders Keepers, with maybe a splash of Roger & Me thrown in for good measure. Magnolia has picked up this one for U.S. distribution later this year, and if it doesn’t do the documentary equivalent of hitting it big, something is seriously wrong.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is director Jeff Feuerzeig’s first feature-length documentary since 2005’s much-loved The Devil & Daniel Johnston. In that film, he makes memorable use of Johnston’s track “Held the Hand,” which includes the lyrics, “Oh Laura/ What has happened to you?/ Held the hand of the devil,” lyrics which pretty accurately describe the plot of Author. The “Laura” in question as related to Author is Laura Albert, a writer who not only wrote novels and short stories, but also completely fabricated their author, whom she dubbed JT LeRoy (“JT” stands for “Jeremiah Terminator”). She invented plenty of biographical detail for this alter ego—androgynous son of a truck stop prostitute, homeless for many years, and so on—and talked her husband’s sister into playing him in public. LeRoy’s fiction won many celebrity admirers, both people I personally love (Tom Waits, Mary Karr, the aforementioned John Waters), and people I don’t so much like (Courtney Love, Billy Corgan). The film is at once an interesting story, biographical document, and exploration into authorship and how we come to like the things we like.
True/False selections often explore the line between narrative films and documentaries, as implied by the name of the festival. While this is, of course, a theme in Author, perhaps the film that dealt with that dichotomy most directly was David Sington’s The Fear of 13, which is essentially an extended monologue from death row prisoner Nick Yarris. Yarris has spent much of his time in prison reading and studying oration, and as such, his story feels very practiced and actorly. This means that, while his story is told in a much more interesting way than what you’d see in many comparable films, he’s inherently difficult to trust. He seems too polished to be convincing, and of course he’s trying to tell you that he’s innocent of the crime for which he’s been sentenced to death. So, can you believe him?
Another strong entry was Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, a documentary about the Sherpas of Mt. Everest. The film firmly takes their side, and makes rich Americans who pay tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain look like total assholes, while the Sherpas do the heavy lifting—both literally and figuratively. At one point, when the Sherpas refuse to climb the mountain out of respect for more than 10 Sherpas who died in an avalanche a few days prior, an American tourist likens them to “terrorists” for not helping them get up the mountain.
Also, there was Life, Animated, about an autistic young man who learns to interact with the world through Disney movies. This premise sounds like it would be horribly cloying, and while it took about half an hour before hooking me, it eventually does transcend what sounds like treacly subject matter and says something substantial about Being Human. Not for nothing that, of all of the people I saw in documentaries at True/False this year, I’m probably the most like Life, Animated’s subject, Owen Suskind. He’s not the only person I know who learned to socialize by watching movies, after all. [Looks at self in mirror.]
Varying degrees of disappointing were Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, Pieter-Jan De Pue’s The Land of the Enlightened, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. However, none of the three were without merit: Kate Plays Christine takes a Michael Haneke–like approach to chastising you for being entertained by watching people suffer; The Land of the Enlightened featured some of the best cinematography of the festival (and it was shot on film, no less—how often is that the case with documentaries these days?); and Norman Lear is a good primer for those not overly familiar with Lear’s politics or body of work.
Here I am at the end of my piece, and I still haven’t mentioned how Spike Lee made a surprise appearance, or how a couple of guys were kicked out of the first screening of Tickled for trying to surreptitiously record it (they were presumed to be part of the Tickle Mob…seriously), or how, during the final screening of Sonita, a fire alarm was pulled, and the 1,700-seat Jesse Auditorium was evacuated and refilled in 23 minutes’ time.
That is to say, True/False 2016 left me with plenty to write about, plenty to think about, and plenty to be happy about—as it always does. | Pete Timmermann