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True/False Film Festival 2015

A range of documentary styles and subjects found at this year's festival focusing on non-fiction filmmaking.
Ben Sachs
To begin with a disclosure: I was granted free admission to this year’s True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, and the festival paid for my travel and lodging as well. I still hope that I’m able to provide insight into the films I saw there.
Bitter Lake
Since attending the True/False Film Festival last month, I’ve been chewing on some ideas that Adam Curtis, the gifted essay filmmaker behind The Century of the Self and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, shared in a lecture-cum-multimedia presentation that he called “Unstoryfiable.” Over the course of an hour, Curtis identified what he considered the major philosophical problems of our time, the unifying theme being a general failure of imagination in western culture. We’ve become a civilization obsessed with data, he argued; in our determination to predict the immediate future based on patterns of past behavior, we’re losing the ability to create “big picture” narratives about how our society reached its present state and how we might want it to evolve.
At one point, Curtis half-jokingly identified himself as part of the problem, since he’s built his career on reassembling old footage from the BBC archives. Of course, Curtis doesn’t simply summarize past events in his films, but searches for new connections between disparate phenomena. (Curtis’s novelistic devices, no less than his sweeping generalizations and excessive use of the first-person plural, register as conscious attempts to reintroduce big picture thinking into popular discourse.) His latest essay film Bitter Lake, which played a few times at True/False, is one of the most eye-opening film I’ve seen about America’s failed intervention in Afghanistan, since it illuminates surrounding historical events that directly caused it: the aftermath of the Cold War; the rise of neoliberal economics and the triumph of the banks over westerns governments; the decline of manufacturing industries in the United States and England. The main “character” of Bitter Lake turns out to be the global capitalism practiced by western multinationals, which Curtis depicts as an idea no less potent or destructive as Soviet communism.
Curtis said at “Unstoryfiable” that he considers all his documentaries to be about the nature of power, which would explain why the human subjects in his films always seem dwarfed by ideas. (In this regard, Curtis would seem an heir to Eisenstein, Marker, and Godard, yet he insisted at a couple Q&As I attended that his influences are journalistic rather than cinematic.) Addressing the challenge of making films about our age of late capitalism, he identified one source of the story-making problem that plagues our culture on the whole: that the most powerful institutions in this age are often boring. Curtis concluded his presentation with footage he shot of a large compound in Washington state where untold amounts of precious data is being stored. The buildings were nondescript, no people could be seen, yet the information that passes through the compound impacts major decisions in finance, geopolitics, and espionage. It would require a tremendous feat of imagination to connect such power loci (like rooms full of hard drives or the characterless skyscrapers that house corporate headquarters, both recurring images in Curtis’s oeuvre) to the changes they effect; one reason why Curtis’s work is essential is that offers so many imaginative ways of reading history.
The Rules of the Game
The boringness of power was the subject of another memorable new film I saw at True/False, a French verite documentary called The Rules of the Game. The game in question is finding steady employment in the EU, and most of the subjects under consideration are playing at a serious handicap. It takes place over several months at a job resource center in northern France, following the interactions between job counselors and several 20-ish unemployed blue-collar types. With one exception, the career seekers we meet are unambitious and socially graceless; job searching seems much harder for them than any job they’re hoping to get. The language of selling oneself—necessary even to gain employment at a factory cafeteria, we learn—doesn’t come easily to the subjects, who become increasingly (and understandably) infuriated as the movie proceeds. The over-complicated rituals of applying for work seemingly exists to distract the unemployed from questioning the economic system that keeps them desperate for work. When one subject finally wins a job at a bicycle factory, he finds he’s been hired for only three months—and that the other new hires at the factory have gotten even shorter contracts.
Like the Renoir film from which it takes its title, Rules is essentially a comedy of manners. Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard observe the situational ironies with bemusement rather than outrage, often finding humor in the subjects’ stubborn refusal to improve their interviewing skills. The elegant piano music and pithy intertitles that appear between the film’s chapters encourage a sense of wry detachment, even as the probing, Wiseman-esque closeups convey an inherent sensitivity. The film’s story editor, Catherine Bizern, introduced the screening of Rules I attended, and she said that Bories and Chagnard hoped that young unemployed people might watch the movie and learn from the subjects’ mistakes. In a sense, the film makes a nice complement to Curtis’s. It’s hard to reflect on matters of superstructure if you’re too busy searching for work, and it’s encouraging to remember that some of the politically powerless have a bit of control over their situation.
Il Segreto, a verite documentary by first-time filmmaker Roberto Carro (who credits himself as Cyop&Kaf, the name with which he signs his graffiti art), offered a similar reminder. Shot in the director’s home town of Naples, it follows a group of subjects younger and more disadvantaged than the ones in Rules of the Game, but the tone is surprisingly optimistic. Carro’s preadolescent subjects are determined to claim as many old pine trees as they can in the month after Christmas in order to can create a giant bonfire in a vacant lot. The filmmaking reflects their single-minded focus; Carro keeps his camera at eye-level with the young protagonists and divulges nothing about them that doesn’t directly relate to their mission. After the screening I attended Carro explained that the post-Christmas bonfire is a longstanding tradition in Naples; and while there’s an official fire every year, these kids acted on their own. Their determination is rousing to behold (they’re so organized that they delegate responsibilities among themselves), and the climactic bonfire feels cathartic. Of the 14 movies I saw at the festival, this is the only one that makes me smile when I remember it.
Field Niggas
Il Segreto wasn’t the only visceral film I saw at True/False about the politically powerless. Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas, Morgan Knibbe’s Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, and Joshua and Ben Safdie’s fiction feature Heaven Knows What are less concerned with offering political explanations of their subjects than with conveying what life on the margins feels like. Heaven and Burning make expressive use of camera movement to consider, respectively, destitute heroin addicts in New York and illegal African immigrants in European port cities. In the Safdies’ film, the camera often plunges us into its subjects’ world in the unwieldy manner of early verite docs, evoking the characters’ lack of control over their own lives. Knibbe, on the other hand, uses roving Steadicam shots to take viewers over and around indigent communities, resulting in an filmic experience reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. The eerie smoothness of the Steadicam has the effect of defamiliarizing the images of poverty; adding to the feeling of displacement, Knibbe never identifies any of the subjects or even which city we’re in at any given time. During the Q&A I attended for Burning, one audience member asked (and not without reason) why the 25-year-old Dutch filmmaker didn’t offer any context for his portrait of the immigrant experience. Knibbe responded that he felt an honest presentation of that experience would have to be disorienting. This exchange speaks to a very old debate about the social responsibility of artists in handling sensitive subject matter. On one viewing, I’m not sure if Knibbe’s film adds anything new to the debate, but its artfulness is undeniable.
Field Niggas is comparably beautiful and provocative. Allah’s hourlong mood piece presents a variety of impoverished people, many of them high on synthetic marijuana (aka “K2”), hanging out on a Harlem street corner at night. The film aims to approximate a drugged-out experience, unfolding in slow motion and with the soundtrack out of sync with the images. As in Burning, the point is to obscure the viewer’s understanding of context in hopes that he divines some sort of abstract beauty in the images. (When, near the film’s end, Allah includes a reference to the murder of Eric Garner, I felt like I was crashing back to earth.) The inclination to abstract thinking in both films suggests a certain kinship with Curtis’s work—the common lesson being that directors would seem to have a greater facility in making films about ideas (particularly relating to systems of power and powerlessness) when they eschew central characters.
In his experimental use of sound, Allah showed affinities with another artist I discovered at the festival, Bogdan Dziworski, one of the maverick Polish filmmakers celebrated in a sidebar retrospective programmed by Ela Bittencourt. The four Dziworski shorts I saw—made between the late 1970s and mid-1980s—were as surprising to hear as they were to watch, which says a lot considering the subjects included an elderly circus troupe and an armless thief. Each one was without dialogue or ambient noise; the audio tracks consisted of just a few, post-sync sounds, typically banal, percussive effects like footsteps. Though the films were documentaries, they seemed to take place in fictional spaces, reminding us that realism in documentary cinema is always a conscious choice and not simply a given. Such is the theme of the festival’s annual Neither/Nor sidebar, which spotlights past filmmakers who have blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction. Bittencourt showed how this practice held distinct political implications for Polish filmmakers under communism. Much of Poland’s great postwar cinema rests upon a complex relationship between realism and abstraction. The nation’s filmmakers (like many poets, dramatists, and visual artists before them) routinely employed allegory and symbolism to comment on political realities they were forbidden from addressing directly. Conversely, the innovation of auteurs like Kieslowski and Krzysztof Zanussi was to bring a pronounced metaphysical component to social realism. The most quintessentially Polish feature in Bittencourt’s retrospective, Marcel Lozinski’s How to Live (1977), might be said to split the difference between those two trends. Like Zanussi’s Camouflage, which was made around the same time, the film takes place at state-run summer retreat—in this case, a camp where families receive lessons in proper communist living. And like the Dziworski shorts, the film effectively makes communist reality look like fiction.
Lozinski decided to subvert the social experiment of the camp by having two sets of friends enroll as agents provocateurs. One couple would eagerly conform to protocol; the others would be “passive dissenters.” When the camp leaders declare a contest for which family can best represent the communist ideal—the winners to be determined by moles who spy on all the campers—several families end up antagonizing the dissenting couple in their rush to please the authorities. The joke of How to Live is that everyone we see is playing a role, whether they realize it or not, and Lozinski’s cool, observational approach makes for a rather dry comedy.
The Case of Pekosinski
Even more impressive was Grzegorz Krolikewicz’s The Case of Pekosinski (1993), the film I admired most at True/False this year. The title refers to a onetime chess master who’d been held up by state authorities as a symbol of cultural achievement, only to be spat out by the system when it no longer needed him. After communism fell, Bronek Pekosinski was a shell of his former self, living in a hovel of an apartment in the final stages of alcoholism. Krolikewicz convinced this gnomish man—a slow-moving hunchback with his face stuck in a permanent grin—to play himself in a film about his life. The director effectively recaptures the past, as do the superb professional actors who round out the cast, yet Pekosinski is incapable of playing along. It’s at once funny and upsetting to watch him stare dazedly at his own memories. The communist era seems literally like a bad dream, the hero like a puppet with his strings cut.
In light of Curtis’s assessment of the present, I couldn’t help but notice how clearly defined was the nature of power behind the Iron Curtain. Polish filmmakers under communism may have been limited in how they could critique their political situation, but it was never difficult to disentangle their analyses from their art. By contrast, the most artful new films I saw at True/False this year tended to be vague in their sense of political context. The one exception was Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)error, about a former Black Panther-turned-FBI informant and the white Muslim convert he’s assigned to entrap in a terror plot. Like Pekosinski, it’s a nightmarish comedy about a puppet at the hands of the state, whose massive surveillance campaigns and knotty, oversized bureaucracies come to resemble those of Soviet satellite nations. There are many more documentaries to be made about the similarities between those power structures and the ones currently in place in the western world, and I look forward to seeing them in the coming years.


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