Despite the unrelenting cold and long queue lines, I very much enjoyed my first True/False experience.
Stories We Tell
Downtown Columbia, Mo., sits on a grid that measures barely one square mile. Still, over 4,500 people flocked to this small college town—braving treacherous snow banks and limited footpaths—to attend the True/False Film Festival, one of the most respected and successful documentary festivals in the country. Celebrating its 10th year in existence, the 2013 fest included 40-plus films that spanned an enormous range of subjects, viewpoints, and styles.
Over my three and a half days in Columbia I was able to see seven very different films (and one series of short docs), some of which I very much enjoyed, while others left me very cold. The only real detrimental aspect of True/False, in comparison to other festivals, is its approach to ticketing. Most passholders are able to reserve tickets online before the festival even begins, but many overpurchase, which means each venue is never really sure how many “ticket holders” will really show up. This means that many people who wait in line for the film may not get in, leaving them to scramble for the next show. (As press, I was unable to reserve tickets and was only able to stand in the queue. As a result, the overall number of films I could have seen was severely limited.)
The first film I saw was Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, one of the more recognizable titles of the festival. Polley, an actor-turned-filmmaker (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), invites the audience to peer into her family’s life and the dark secrets that have been kept for over 20 years. To give away the central story would be to insult Polley. What can be said, though, is that the film’s impetus was, strange as it may seem, a result of a journalist confronting Polley with a discovery she herself hadn’t yet decided how to handle. To counteract the journalist potentially exposing the secret, Polley crafted Stories We Tell, a document that explains—but never excuses—the many mistakes of her family’s past. Polley orchestrates the revelations on her own terms and at the pace which pleases her. Despite the numerous players involved in the drama that unfolds, this is Polley’s story to tell. It is a magnificent film, and stuck with me throughout the rest of the festival.
Going into Blackfish I knew I was going to be tested emotionally. As a very dedicated animal lover, I stay away from any places (zoos, theme parks, etc.) that exploit animals for humans’ enjoyment. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film focuses on orcas (“killer” whales) that are kept in captivity at places like Sea World, and features interviews with half a dozen former Sea World trainers who give detailed accounts of how poorly the whales were treated. In many ways, Blackfish can be seen as a sister film to The Cove, another documentary that was very hard to watch. The main “story” of Blackfish details the lead up to and cause of a whale named Tilikum who, in 2010, attacked and killed a trainer named Dawn Brancheau. Through a very comprehensive (and disturbing) history of orca captivity, we see that the whale cannot be held at fault. One whale expert points out that there is no record of an orca ever attacking a human in the wild. In captivity, though, Cowperthwaite shows that orca attacks are frequent and predictable. It is a heartbreaking film that, like The Cove, will hopefully move people to action.
Rarely do I seek out short films, narrative or documentary, though I have no specific aversion to them. The Ascent of Man, a collection of four shorts, will do nothing to change that. The first film, “Primate Cinema: Apes as Family,” felt like an MFA thesis that was thought up the night before it was due. The only hypothesis I could glean was that apes are very empathetic, even when watching their kin on television. “Untitled” focuses on a boy and his mother who live in the woods (sort of) and the boy wants to go to a public school instead of his private school. “Praxis” is a disgusting look at a Portuguese university where hazing rituals are condoned by the administration and supported by the society at large. Most depressing was “Resistance,” which focuses on a man near the end of his life. Overall, I was very disappointed by all four films.
The Act of Killing was probably the film that generated the most conversation between me and my wife after we saw it. In Indonesia in 1965, a military coup overthrew the existing government, resulting in a violent fascist regime that still survives today. Through interviews with former and current gangsters and death squad leaders, we learn the various ways communists and suspected communists were executed en masse by the government. The men who willingly take part in the recreation of the atrocious acts they committed discuss their experiences with levity, as if they were recalling a time their car got stuck in the mud. The men are treated as celebrities and, since they believe that what they were doing was right, have no problem giving play-by-play recaps of the hundreds of murders in which they took part. As a narrative, the film has its problems, but as a social documentary it succeeds in spurring copious amounts of dialogue.
By far the most entertaining film I saw at True/False was Twenty Feet from Stardom, from veteran music documentarian Morgan Neville. The film premiered at Sundance this past January, with True/False being only the second time it has been screened for audiences. Stardom celebrates the unsung heroes of the music industry: the backup singers. These incredible performers (mostly women) are clearly just as talented, if not more so, than the artists they work behind. With interviews from Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Sheryl Crow, we discover that even though their names aren’t famous to the public at large, the key people in the industry know who the best singers really are—women like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton have sung for The Rolling Stones, Elton John, The Beatles and more—but they were never able to break out on their own. Under the caring eye of Neville, though, these women are finally given the spotlight they deserve.
Two films that were very similar in theme were Dirty Wars and The Gatekeepers. The premise of both documentaries was that governmental military powers are rarely as forthcoming with the truth as we would like to believe. Directed by Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars follows journalist Jeremy Scahill as he tries to uncover the reason behind a U.S. attack on a small village in Afghanistan which killed many innocent men, women and children even though there was no discernible terrorist ties in the area. Through his dogged research and travels, Scahill discovers that the U.S. government—and President Obama, in particular—has a very specific “kill list” of people who may or may not actually be terrorists. Similarly, in The Gatekeepers, we learn that the most secretive and powerful Israeli government arm, the Shin Bet, regularly carries out operations aimed solely at killing suspected terrorists, irrespective of potential civilian fatalities. Through interviews with past heads of Shin Bet, we discover that, in war, morality is a very relative and pliable concept.
The last film I saw was The Institute, directed by Spencer McCall. The film is shrouded in more secrecy than the next Christopher Nolan film, and that is how it should stay. Without giving too much away, I can say the film tracks an “urban playground movement” in San Francisco that turns the entire city into a game board. Through never ending scavenger hunts, the “players” discover more about the game but also learn quite a bit about themselves. The participants either don’t know or don’t care what is real and it is an absolute blast to watch. McCall develops the film like a cross between The Game and Exit Through the Gift Shop, but the experience for the viewer is more akin to eXistenZ. The Institute is definitely worth exploring when it is eventually released.
Despite the unrelenting cold and long queue lines, I very much enjoyed my first True/False experience. Hopefully next year will be just as engaging, but with much less snow and better ticketing options. | Matthew Newlin