True/False Film Festival | 2017

Life is seldom simple, and trying to reduce it to dichotomies of good and bad may mean that you miss everything that is important.

I only got to three films at True/False this year, but they were all well worth seeing. Also worthy of note: two were directed by women, and the third by a transgender man. I didn’t plan that, and in fact none of the directors were on my radar before I saw their films, but they certainly will be now. Some day, when women and transgender individuals have achieved parity in the film industry, it won’t be noteworthy to see a film is directed by someone other than a cisgender man, but that’s not the world we live in today. So way to go ladies and gentleman, and keep on making great films!

Strong Island, directed by Yance Ford, is an investigation into the death of the filmmaker’s brother, and of the family’s experience with the criminal justice system (a grand jury decided to not charge his killer with any crime). In the process of telling this story, Ford also delves into his family history and their experiences as black people in America. On the face of it, the Ford family did everything right and had achieved their own share of the American dream, including a pleasant home on Long Island and private school education followed by college for the children. Even so, racial prejudice affected their lives on many levels, from a grandfather who died of an asthma attack because the emergency room prioritized white patients over black to the fact that they lived where they did because black people could only buy homes in tiny segments of Long Island, while most neighborhoods remained exclusively white.

In his first feature film, Ford displays a strong visual sense that raises this film above the many true-crime documentaries now in circulation. He has the interview subjects speak directly into the camera, sometimes in extreme close-up, a choice that underlines his determination to get down to the smallest details that might explain his brother’s death, while also acknowledging that the full truth may never be known. He incorporates many family snapshots into the film, but rather than treating them as abstractions, Ken Burns style, he shows people handling the photos while speaking about them, emphasizing their status as family heirlooms as well as documentation of particular moments in time.

If you live anywhere near Long Island, you may immediately guess a crucial fact about this case (hint—it involves a garage and towing business on Long Island), and wonder why Ford and his family did not immediately understand that context and what it would mean for their hopes to see justice. There’s also an important fact that is revealed later in the film that may change how you feel about the grand jury decision, and which adds another layer of complexity to the story. But that complexity is the point—life is seldom simple, and trying to reduce it to dichotomies of good and bad may mean that you miss everything that is important.

Casting JonBenet, directed by Kitty Green, is, to steal a phrase from the person who introduced the film, perhaps the most True/False film ever. It’s also hugely entertaining while offering some pointed commentary on celebrity culture and the grief porn industry. Green builds her film around auditions for a television movie about the death of JonBenet Ramsey. That’s a great idea in and of itself, given the lurid nature of the crime (on December 26, 1996, the six-year-old JonBenet, famous for her participation in child beauty pageants, was found murdered in her home) and the long history of exploiting such tragedies in fictional form.

In fact, Green’s concept is so genius you have to wonder why such a film wasn’t made long ago. Audition scenes are often hilarious, particularly when the actors are nonprofessionals (many in this case being residents of Boulder, Colorado, where the crime took place), and these do not disappoint. It gets even better when the actors are encouraged to talk about themselves, because their lack of guile makes for much unintentional hilarity (the champion in that regard being the “sex instructor” who demonstrates different whipping techniques). And it gets even better when the actors are encouraged to offer up their theories about what happened (the case remains unsolved), in the process revealing much about themselves and their consumption of media coverage of the case. Green keeps it light, however, and you never get the feeling that she’s pulling an Errol Morris move by making fun of people who aren’t sophisticated enough to understand how they come across on camera.

Whose Streets, directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, offers a new look at the death of Michael Brown, with an emphasis on the local Ferguson, Missouri, community and its response both to his death and to the militarized police reaction to their subsequent protests. To interject a personal note, the absolute pointlessness of mainstream press coverage of Brown’s death and the protests (when they mention either at all) was what started me using social media as a news source. Whose Streets takes a similar tactic, using footage shot on phones and small cameras by community members and focusing on the whole lived experience of the community rather than on occasional acts of vandalism (of course, burning buildings looks more impressive on television). Watching Whose Streets is the next best thing to being there, with the advantage that you don’t risk being teargassed or arrested in the process.

One of the most important gifts of Whose Streets is that it individualizes and humanizes the people who took part in the protests and helped organize the community. They’re people like you, with children and homes and jobs, and what they want is pretty much what you would want in their circumstances: that is, to be able to live their lives and not worry about being shot by the police for looking “like a demon” (the very words of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown). They also want to not be victimized by a court system accustomed to treating residents like a piggy bank, levying ridiculous fines for minor offenses and jailing those who cannot pay. Whose Streets is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand what happened in Ferguson, and who is looking for rays of hope in a community that has been victimized far too often. | Sarah Boslaugh

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