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Adventures in Nonfiction Filmmaking at True/False 2018

The Missouri festival has created a unique space for such diverse films as Khalik Allah's "Black Mother" and Leilah Weinraub's "SHAKEDOWN".
For those exhausted, jaded, or just plain disinterested in what’s going on in the still-strong, ever-vibrant world of cinema, the True/False Film Festival should provide a powerful remedy. Hosted in Columbia, Missouri and now in its 15th year, True/False has quietly but noticeably attracted a reputation very rare indeed among the many film festivals in the United States. Unfolding over four days with a focus on bold nonfiction cinema which crossfades between straightforward documentaries, the currently trendy but in fact long-existent “hybrid cinema” that blends the (ahem) true and the false, and fiction films that productively flirt with documentary qualities, if the 2018 edition was sole proof, True/False is one of the few film festivals in this country that takes a focused position on what kind of cinema is exciting, valuable, diverse and adventurous. Crucially, through a remarkable trust between programmers and audiences, that sense of adventure isn’t felt just reflecting back from the silver screens, but rather can be seen in how the local audiences take chances on films often with no recognizable actors, made by unknown people, and about obscure subjects. It is an experience with a distinctly diverse and open-minded curatorial sensibility and a pleasantly fluid and communal atmosphere, with several venues, mostly pop-up cinemas, including one in a church and another in a hotel ballroom, within easy walking distance of Columbia’s downtown and each screening preceded by sets by local and visiting musicians. Above all, it is a festival that is invigorating in its modest yet direct declaration of a program of cinema that matters here and now.
The 2018 edition’s poster child for this stance is without a doubt the second feature by New York street photographer Khalik Allah, Black Mother, which was presented in a world premiere. True/False effectively made Allah’s name in the film world by selecting his extraordinary debut, Field Niggas (2015), the portrait documentary shot on a corner 125th Street in Harlem, from the artist’s YouTube and Vimeo pages and premiering it in Missouri, after which it traveled the world to much acclaim. (Between the two features, Allah worked on Beyoncé’s powerful album-film, Lemonade.) This kind of idiosyncratic scouting and (now by showing his second film) fostering of talent, is something readily apparent throughout the festival as guests one year return with a film the following, and festival alumni show up without a new work simply to see what’s new in their field.
Another portrait film but of considerably expanded scope, Black Mother sees the New York-based director returns to his mother’s home of Jamaica to make an impressionist combination of polyphonic character diary and concatenation of Jamaican identity as seen by a grandson of the island. As in his first film, Allah separates his images from his sounds, so that his portraits, which gravitate towards the downtrodden, the damaged, the veterans of life, and an effulgence of beautiful women, are seen out of sync with the soundtrack, which is predominantly interviews with and rhapsodies by the subjects we are watching. Allah’s talent for finding bodies and faces of profound soul and character has been easily transposed to Jamaica, and his photographic eye, using a hip combination of multiple shooting formats both celluloid and digital, is unfailing in its exaltation.
The story, such as it is, is divided into trimesters and structured around the birth of a child. In this way, Allah is able to quite loosely fly through a survey of a Jamaican character birthed from a complex combination of the texture of the streets, those who live hard or live fun on them, the hybrid importance of Christianity and Rastafarianism, slave history, black beauty, political protest, and the serene and healthful embrace of the island’s spiritual and sensual possibilities. Allah’s cinema is as exciting as ever: The sense of time in the picture is precisely in the now but also aged and ever-renewing. He seems to have picked up the gauntlet thrown by the contemporary cinema of Terrence Malick, which allows for a floating, ecstatic freedom of camera, of character, and of storytelling, and has re-invented it for the Vimeo era of gaspingly pretty, highly individualized art-filmmaking. One image, slow motion, of the director standing by a flowing river as he rewinds the film in his Bolex, the camera gliding towards these two flows, that of film and of water, epitomize the personal vision of this enthralling work.
Another film very cleverly scouted by the festival is Sophy Romvari’s razor-sharp and discomfortingly funny Pumpkin Movie, originally a contribution to the feature film Aos Sí, a horror-themed omnibus challenge to disparate directors. Extracted from that context this short film nevertheless is bracing in the best of ways, telling of a Halloween tradition between two long distance friends (Romvari, in Vancouver, and Leah Collins Lipsette in Halifax), in which the two call each other to share stories of everyday harassment and discrimination as young women, all the while each carving a pumpkin. Shooting the Vancouver scene in a master shot, surrounded by light strings and a Maurice Stiller movie running in the background, Romvari effortlessly creates the sense of a ritualistic purification powerful enough to reach across her country, connecting her fancy city flat with the dim distance of Lipsette’s kitchen glanced through Skype’s shabby palette.
In excellent True/False fashion, the film is clearly staged yet the conversation is obviously free; the stories in fact were gathered through a wider call for contributions from other women, and thus while Romvari and Lipsette at first seem to be speaking about themselves, it’s revealed that this communion between two friends over life’s constant, often quotidian onslaught of misogyny, is a truth-telling exorcism of even greater reach. The artifice of the fake ritual (if only it were true!) clashes and combines with the palpable friendship and sympathy between the women, whose off-hand and wry asides lets the casual horror of the stories or their reactions often appear very humorous—not least because both actresses are natural comic talents—right as they stick in your throat. All the while, of course, each woman gets to casually indulge in the gruesome carving as if it’s the most normal thing (and isn’t it?), so that the bonding catharsis of speaking out and of commiseration is also channeled into the satisfaction of vengeance, however symbolic.
A documentary more straightforward in form but as radical in content is Leilah Weinraub’s exuberant SHAKEDOWN. Using video footage shot in 2004, Weinraub’s seductively illicit and frequently joyous film lets us voyeuristically enter an underground black lesbian strip club in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles and revel in the frenzied atmosphere of exuberant nudity, physical prowess, and, above all, black queer desire.  Hassled occasionally by the L.A.P.D., who we see often shut the club down for solicitation—which seems unlikely but is neither confirmed nor defined by the film—the status of the club and its dancers is shown to be always in danger of being illegal through the sheer and wonderful audacity of running such a club, as one eager attendee remarks, “in the hood.”
Why this film was made now and not around the time Weintraub shot it is not clear, nor, exactly, is its story, which seems in-part a vivid snapshot of Weintraub’s archive of footage while working at the club, and a slimmer effort at telling the evolution and sudden shutdown of the Shakedown by catching up with some of the dancers, the club’s founder, and a pioneering dancer and organizer a decade later (though still not in the present). All this material provides for tantalizing glimpses into the culture (including a fabulous montage of cheap but wondrous promotional art for numerous strip parties), the pressures, and reflections of participating in such a radical enterprise. But the core of the film is its original footage, which has the lustrously fogged texture of early 2000s consumer digital photography, and which feels like a combination (at least for this straight white male) of barely authorized voyeurism and an enthralled and participatory queer gaze at the extraordinary bodies and efforts of dancers like Egypt and the show's star, Jazmine. Their work at the club seems to exist in a unique place between labor and pleasure, as the tremendous erotic-gymnastic efforts required to dance are readily seen, while in interviews they speak often of acting out and evolving their public roles, as well as the passion of their fans. SHAKEDOWN’s impeccable packaging, with stylish credits delineating club and dancer encounters in chapter titles and a richly narcotic soundtrack by Tom DeWitt (former drummer of tribal-psych band Gang Gang Dance) is a reminder that Weintraub is now known for running the hip haute streetwear brand Hood by Air. This slick wrapping combines with the strange sense of time evoked in the picture, with its 2004 club footage and 2014 interviews, to hit a tone of nostalgia for something seemingly so close yet so far away, perhaps a kind of utopic space for performance and desire. Suffice to say, this is not your average documentary. We should be happy indeed for such a welcome revelation of a vivacious sexualized and racialized side of work and play that is too often, even now, relegated to a social underground.
The Task
Artist Leigh Ledare also documents lines of work and play, as well as the tension of groups, in the otherwise extremely different film, The Task. The most forceful feature at True/False, it was also the most difficult, documenting as it does the emotionally and psychologically combative and intense group discussions and arguments in a conference devoted to the Tavistock Method. A strand of psychology developed in the late 1940s, its emphasis is not on the individual but rather on the qualities and functioning of groups and their dynamics. Filmed during three large group sessions of a conference organized by Ledare, The Task with no context plunges us into observing a seated group of disparate individuals, young and old, men and women, and of various races who discuss what seems to be the very nature of the gathering. Debate starts almost immediately and angrily, questioning motivations and prejudices as some group members immediately jump in while others hang back and watch, variously bored, enraged, tearful or nonplussed. The subject is free-floating and the two hours of discussion that Ledare has edited together is at once thrillingly conceptual and suffocatingly generalized, with little concrete terms or specific situations being discussed. Alluded to in the film’s title itself, we eventually learn the guiding idea of the conference is the task to explore “the here and now”—yet this hardly clarifies anything, and the film resolutely puts us as observers into a constant frenzy of trying to determine what’s going on, who’s who and what the purpose of this gathering is.
Gesturing towards the kind of paranoid fictions of Jacques Rivette, through passing remarks we hear about unseen events outside these particular group sessions (what kind? what happens there?), that people in the room can be divided into “participants,” “observers,” and “consultants,” and some mixture of them are also doctors, setting up a mysterious sense of fluid identities and secret roles, as well as prompting us to continually be anxious over not just what is being studied but who is doing the studying. Ledare shoots this all with multiple cameras surrounding a bare white-and-black walled room—a documentation everyone agreed to but quickly becomes a point of argument—and the look of the film is akin to the lengthy meeting room scenes of Frederick Wiseman’s films, only in this case we can never quite suss out what the subject of anything is, other than the acute force of personality combat that can occur in a group of people. Such sessions normally would be closed off to the media, but this conference was organized by Ledare for such documentation for an installation at the Chicago Art Institute, so this psycho-game using real emotions and opinions is further rendered into a grey zone of stage-play and performance by his participation and intervention. As the days pass and positions in the room change and new people speak up or are silent, the debates and varying power dynamic shifts remain often agonizingly abstruse—probably because everyone is following rules of discussion and play that we are not privy to. Nevertheless, pointedly, we still see enacted before us all the fraught tensions that plague our society, the racism and misogyny, the single-mindedness, the egotism, the lack of communication and empathy, the grievances, the willful myopia. We see it all. (We also see compassion, openness, patience and curiosity, too, but hardly in equal amount.) The effect is of being trapped in a nightmare; the festival catalog mentions purgatory, but while The Task seems to hold all of society suspended in a white box of inconclusive limbo and forever-debate, it is impossible not to see this place as hellish. It was the most frustrating film to watch at True/False, but it is also clearly one of the year’s most powerful films, provocative in the best of ways.
A far more grounded approach towards capturing the present moment could be found in Gu Tao’s excellent Taming the Horse. A portrait of the director’s friend Dong, a once free-spirited rock ‘n roller from Inner Mongolia now living in Kunming in southern China as he turns 30, the documentary is a patient and compassionate portrait of millennial frustration and malaise in a country straddling values of tradition, 20th century communism, and 21st century global capitalism. There is nothing spectacular or unusual about his friend Dong, but it is, rather, Gu's subtle perseverance and attention which draws out the small details that help characterize a man whose wild youth and sense of personal hope is now graying into directionless and disheartened adulthood. Telling us of his sinking into an isolated life in a basement after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, Dong swears he’ll return to his far-north hometown to visit his family, which prompts an ambiguous series of journeys up and down China that find his mother encouraging him to do whatever he wants as long as he can earn a living, and a father who, other than extolling the cut-throat nature of the public market at which he works, seems not to much care about anything at all. It’s picture that wanders, but that’s okay—Dong seems to be wandering himself, both literally but also in an existential sense, fidgeting between desire and despair and forever in need of money. Taming the Horse is unassuming and its power grows over time as we linger with Dong in his own frustrated, lingering life. He, like many members of his generation, longs for something to jump-start youth’s promise into life’s happiness.
Testament
For its fifth year True/False is hosting Neither/Nor, a guest-curated sidebar that in 2018 was devoted to critic and programmer Ashley Clark’s selection of films by the London-based Black Audio Film Collective. I dipped my toe into the program on my final day at the festival with John Akomfrah’s Testament (1988) and immediately realized I had made a mistake: I should have plunged over my head immediately into this eye-opening and essential retrospective. Starting as a college group staging film screenings in east London and evolving into a seven-member collective making boldly constructed, deeply questioning, and politically engaged films from the 1980s through the 1990s spurred by the discord of the Thatcher years and enabled by new financial support and distribution models, particularly of Channel 4, an alternative to the BBC that was groundbreakingly adventurous in its programming, Testament was the BAFC’s second film and first fictional feature.
Except, it is only nominally fictional, with its premise of a English journalist from Ghana (Tania Rogers) returning to her home country of the first time in years in order to film a story about Werner Herzog’s production there of Cobra Verde. She walks pensively through what was once her home, and like Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy she becomes the locus for a complex interplay of the real meaning of what has occurred in the landscape and the psychological and spiritual reflection of her character passing through that land. She looks up old friends who, unlike her, stayed in Ghana after the 1966 coup which ended the socialist government that followed the country’s independence from Britain, and is faced with the guilt but also the inquisitiveness of an exile. What does it feel like to leave? To stay? What happened to the post-independence ideals and, equally importantly, to the misery, oppression and silence that followed? The thoughtful tracking shots and precise framing of spaces call to mind everyone ranging from Antonioni and Tarkovsky to John Ford, but the the soundtrack, flush with ambient synths, simmering orchestrations, and local songs of lament and longing, as well as the brilliantly and variously interpolated archival footage from across Ghana’s post-independence history, is unique to the collective. The result is an elegantly mournful story where this specific woman becomes something more grand, a conduit not only for a personal history of exile and political dismay, but a national and perhaps even continental one. It is ambitious, that much is certain, exploring fact through fiction—but such risk-taking form and revelatory results are exactly the kind of cinema that can be found at True/False.

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