This year’s True/False Film Fest will hopefully be remembered as Claire Simon’s coming out party. The master French director received a rare three-film retrospective at the Columbia, Missouri festival that collectively highlighted her endless curiosity for life’s spectrum of emotions and anxieties. Within the tight confines of a playground or classroom her inquisitive camera never stops searching for something new, all the while quietly dissecting hierarchies of power and judgment. Comparisons to the great Frederick Wiseman are natural, but Simon’s films always leave room for bits of humor that help transcend the coldness of institutional mechanisms.
During a post-screening Q&A for The Graduation, Simon’s latest documentary that examines the intense admittance process for France’s prestigious film school La Fémis, the director described each student’s struggle as “a really big fight to be in the castle.” Dreams of prestige and success validate their participation in such a rigorous and at times demoralizing experience. But what of the industry professionals who volunteer their time to act as judge, jury, and figurative executioner? Labeled “examiners,” their rationale for taking part in the process becomes increasingly sticky; lengthy arguments and passive aggressive attacks lobbed at the students (and sometimes each other) bring up concerns about motivation and intent.
The Graduation is about the impossible task of quantifying worth. Throughout the multi-stage admittance process, Simon follows both students and examiners as they grapple with the pitfalls of individual expression and groupthink. Conversations ebb and flow depending on the dominant voice taking control, often blurring the lines between perception and reality. Smoke breaks act as venting sessions that conjure up difficult questions: How should we critique our youth? What standards are betrayed when ego supersedes humility? When one student begins shaking uncontrollably during a final interview, the cutaway to his examiners reveals a shocked and uncomfortable audience. However, their responses to his presentation are surprisingly diverse. Even a few optimistic champions emerge despite the student’s uneven showing, proving that Simon’s long game is to locate the pressure points of emotion that inevitably impact and skew perspective.
Similarly raw circumstances and reactions define Simon’s 1998 mid-length documentary Récréations. The recess yard of a French pre-school becomes a volatile eco-system of shifting power dynamics, world building, and Shakespearean betrayals. Children frolic and banter back and forth, creating harrowing narratives as quickly as they destroy them. It’s a collaborative and organic experience that often devolves into one of two endings: violence or compassion. Never does Simon show any adult interference. It’s Lord of the Flies by way of Kindergarten Cop, except no heroic teacher will provide protection from the spritely evils that kids do.
Récréations purposefully denies the viewer any safety net, diving into the pure pandemonium of child’s play. Simon’s Mimi, released in 2003, imbues itself to a more lyrical framework, but is no less experimental. Sidestepping narrative boundaries usually associated with the portrait documentary, it remains open to any subject or digression that subject Mimi Chiola finds worthy of discussion. She makes walking and talking into an art form, fondly recounting past memories and stories while basking in the sun of the French Riviera. Along the way Mimi meets random passersby that help inspire further reflection; conversations with a fellow train enthusiast helps her access sublime details of her childhood long left dormant by time.
Mimi’s breezy journey eventually moves up into the mountains of Saorge where she has lived in a gorgeous hillside compound for nearly three decades. Simon follows, listening intently with the patience an old friend as her subject unspools long ruminations about her sexual experiences and long gone family members. Sometimes the camera quietly pans away from the interview to take in the vast horizons that hold details all their own. Mimi is quite the euphoric trip down memory lane, and of all of Claire Simon’s films at True/Falseit proves that a life fully lived is an exceptional life, and not the other way around.
While Simon’s retrospective registered as the defining moment of True/False 2017, a host of other diverse works from around the world proved that the term documentary is constantly being redefined. Travis Wilkerson’s singular film projection/live performance entitled Did You Know Who Fired the Gun? is a prime example of the medium’s malleability. Using projected archival images and video interspersed with text-driven Godardian montages, Wilkerson reflects back on his family’s troubled history with racism and violence through live readings.
In 1946, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather S.E. Branch murdered a black man named Bill Spann and ultimately went unpunished. This defining moment functions as a prologue for an American “white nightmare story” that exposes the social contradictions and racial injustices that have plagued black people for centuries. The artist thoroughly investigates the crime from personal and institutional angles, even traveling to the South with hopes of finding closure to this bloody chapter of his family history. Very few questions are answered, but some semblance of peace may have been found by Wilkerson’s final call to action.
Did You Know Who Fired the Gun? is a reckoning of conscience ultimately fueled by personal guilt and rage. No such self-reproach can be found in Ulrich Seidl’s purposefully unsettling Safari. The notorious Austrian director sets up shop at a big-game hunting lodge in Nambia where fanatical white tourists stalk zebra and giraffe and local Africans messily dismember their kill. Always the provocateur, Seidl revels in bearing witness to atrocity while also uncovering the fanatical absurdity of his subjects. Despite being consistently shocking, none of Safari feels all that daring. Still, one woman spent much of my screening crying hysterically, which means somewhere Seidl is undoubtedly grinning with glee.
A documentary constantly on the verge of becoming a disaster film, Brimstone & Glory presents the kind of visceral thrills I can get behind. The rural Mexican town of Tutepec puts on an annual fireworks festival to celebrate Dia de los Castillos. The event is far more than a town gathering, representing strong cultural and historical importance for the community at large. Massive towers are erected and rigged with explosives while rampaging neon bulls charge down the street lighting up the dark night sky. Director Viktor Jakovleski elides traditional structuring devices and tells his story through prismatic neon lights, slow motion explosions, colliding sparks, fireballs, and igniting gunpowder. It’s truly an elemental experience.
Finally, Anna Zamecka’s Communion and Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation make for curious companion pieces about the cycles of youth and old age. Communion centers on Ola, a Polish teenage girl who must continuously confront the realities of being an adult. Instead of playing with friends or going to movies she helps prepare her handicapped younger brother Nico for his communion while also caring for their alcoholic father. Ola’s frustrations fester quietly under the surface before exploding outward in fits of anger often aimed at her sibling. Watching someone this young get emotionally torn apart by relentless responsibility is tough. Even more unsettling, religious doctrine and state run agencies fail to assuage Ola’s pain. When you’re caught between and a rock and a hard family, sometimes achieving momentary calm is the only major victory.
Distant Constellation, which was shown at the festival as a work-in-progress, features interviews with elderly residents at a Turkish retirement home overlooking a massive construction site. While large cranes move cement pillars into place, the prickly interviewees reminisce about relatives and loved ones, crack jokes, and pass the time in quiet solitude. The outside world also seems stricken by the same physical and mental restrictions: Mizrahi draws endless parallels with the lives of those men working below. Age has nothing to do with being frozen in time. Like one of the residents says, “So is life.”