Documentary film fest True/False 2016 featured memorable characters galore

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Documentary film fest True/False 2016 featured memorable characters galore

Sexting politician, foul-mouthed farmer, death-row monologuist…

Toward the end of the documentary Weiner, fiery former New York congressman Anthony Weiner is talking casually to the camera, while his long-suffering wife and erstwhile Hillary Clinton advisor Huma Abedin hovers in the back of the frame, occasionally glancing up at the film crew as though they were party guests who’d stayed too long. Weiner follows its subject’s 2013 mayoral campaign from start to finish, capturing his early success in the polls and the inevitable cratering after an old sexting scandal resurfaces. Throughout, co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have remarkable access to the politician, filming him at home, in the office, and out on the street. They catch uncomfortable interactions between husband and wife, and face-to-face confrontations between candidate and constituency. But when the filmmakers are still around after Weiner’s loss, Abedin looks understandably confused. Even Kriegman waits for a break in the conversation and then asks Weiner, “Why are you letting us film this?”

That’s a question that came up again and again this past weekend at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri—and it’s one that the fest’s programmers encourage. True/False is primarily a showcase for documentaries, but as the name implies, the guiding idea is to look for films that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. The festival favors the arty and elliptical, manifested in work that compiles scenes of everyday life into character studies that have a literary quality. Weiner went over well at Sundance earlier this year, where it fit in nicely alongside that fest’s more straightforward, ripped-from-the-headlines docs. But it took on a different meaning at True/False, surrounded by dozens of other movies with a similar intimacy—achieved thanks to some incredible access.

In the beautiful Between Sisters, for example, director Manu Gerosa films his own mother over a period of several months, as she tries to coax an infirm older sister into spilling some old family secrets before it’s too late. Moritz Seibert and Estephan Wagner’s Those Who Jump assembles video footage shot by Abou Bakar Sidibé, a refugee trying to figure out a way to cross the border fence between the Moroccan mountains and a Spanish colonial city. Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw simultaneously follows the effort an amateur singer puts into her YouTube videos and what happens when an an Israeli remix artist transforms one of her clips into a viral sensation. Each one of these films can be unsettlingly obtrusive at times, though it’s hard to judge them too harshly for that, in our modern world where hours upon hours of internet video-diaries show people self-betraying their right to privacy.

I’ve been coming to True/False for three years now—driving up from my home in central Arkansas, through the Ozarks, through Branson, past the guns and ammo outlet stores of southern Missouri, and to a college town where this year the Bernie Sanders T-shirts and bumper stickers seemed to outnumber any other presidential candidate by dozens. Though True/False’s movies are meant to provoke, the event itself goes out of its way to make its guests comfortable. The screenings start later than at other festivals. The parties are more open to everybody. And the small slate of 40 or so movies play enough times over the course of four days that attendees can catch almost any one of them that they really want to see. The elaborately decorated theaters, the musicians who play before every screening, the pre-film spoken-word performances (a new addition this year), and the “secret screenings” of selected films all add to the experience of True/False as a world unto itself, tucked away inside someplace otherwise very different.

The programmers try to balance movies that appeal more to the cineaste crowd with movies that their grandmothers might enjoy. But generally speaking, there’s a “type” to what True/False shows. These docs embrace contradiction, both in form and content. They reveal the strings being pulled just outside the frame. Very few feature unambiguous heroes or villains, or are either wholly journalism or wholly artificial. Even Weiner keeps cutting to unusual angles to reveal the machinery of politics, always chugging away. And even a True/False entry as mainstream as the Discovery Channel documentary Sherpa sets out to right the longstanding wrong of mountain-climbing films, by shifting its focus to the Mount Everest-area natives who do all the work to prepare the trail for rich, adventurous tourists—and have begun to resent it. Nothing’s ever cut-and-dried at True/False.

That can be both refreshing and frustrating—often at the same time. I’m really glad I watched two Canadian documentaries at True/False this year: Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John (about a gregarious miscreant who left behind two families when he died, each with a son named Michael and a daughter named Shannon) and The Prison In Twelve Landscapes (a collection of short vignettes about the ripple effects of mass incarceration in the United States). But both suffer from shapelessness, which is a common trait of many artier docs. They could be 10 minutes long, an hour long, or four or five hours long, and they’d be pretty much fine regardless. By not trying to force a story or even a point, the movies seem so loose that nearly anything could fit into them—including scenes that are half-baked and/or self-indulgent.

Along the same lines, the narrow scope of some documentaries can’t help but raise questions about what’s missing from them. Again, I liked both of these two films (a lot, actually), but the winding personal narratives of cult writer Laura “JT LeRoy” Albert in Author and of convicted criminal Nick Yarris in The Fear Of 13 are one-sided by design. That doesn’t keep them from being utterly absorbing, well-told stories; but it does dampen their resonance somewhat, given that these monologues are applicable largely only to the people delivering them.

More often than not, though, the smallness of most True/False films work in their favor. Antonio Tibaldi and Àlex Lora’s haunting Thy Father’s Chair is a good case-in-point. The documentary begins with a cleaning crew showing up at the cluttered, filthy Brooklyn apartment of two aging orthodox Jewish brothers, and it ends seven days later when the job’s done. Along the way, Thy Father’s Chair becomes an fly-on-the-wall study of shame, grief, compulsion, faith, and good intentions. (Plus it has a natural start- and end-point, which is nice.) Similarly, the aforementioned Between Sisters holds back on the big questions it wants answered until late in its running time, as though Gerosa would really rather audiences focus on the sisterly affection between his co-leads, rather than any regrets over the things that have gone unsaid between them for two long.

“Access” is an undervalued tool in any filmmaker’s kit. Even B-movies benefit from whatever resources producers can acquire on the cheap—be it an airplane, an old warehouse, or even a name actor who owes someone a favor. It’s probably fair to say that roughly half or more of the films at this year’s True/False wouldn’t have existed without some one-of-a-kind personal connection like Gerosa’s with his mother, or Kriegman with Anthony Weiner (who used to be his boss).

I don’t know how director Tony Stone came to make my favorite film at this year’s True/False, Peter And The Farm. (I tend to avoid post-screening Q&As at T/F, because I like the movies to stand on their own.) But however he developed his rapport with grizzled, vulgar, drunken, depressed Vermont farmer Peter Dunning, it pays off in a consistently lively and surprising film. As Stone and his small crew track the seasonal cycles of a slowly decaying farm—and the disappointment of a man who feels consumed by his hand-built rural paradise—they keep finding more and more layers to peel back.

Peter And The Farm is a powerfully sad movie. But it’s very funny, too. And poetic, and stomach-turning (at least for those who can’t abide large animal veterinary visits and explicit sheep-slaughter), and legitimately informative about farming. To some extent, some of the criticism I leveled at Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John—that it’s too sloppy with structure—could apply just as well to Peter At The Farm. But the longer Stone spends with Dunning, the more of the ex-hippie’s personal story gets told, the more the repetition of chores begins to look more soul-crushing, and the more Peter starts trying to control the interviews and the interviewers. He puts the crew to work, demands reshoots, and just generally refuses to be passive or predictable.

There was no real reason for Dunning to let Stone keep coming back with his cameras, outside of perhaps his own loneliness. But if he hadn’t, the world would be short one near-masterpiece. And True/False 2016 would be missing its defining film.