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True/False 2014: A Sundance selection is the highlight of Friday

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The first thing you should know about the True/False Film Festival is that I am a fully paid-for guest of the fest, invited to Columbia, Missouri, with the expectation that I would write a piece about the experience. Most if not all of the journalists here are also invitees, which is one reason why the 11-year-old nonfiction-film confab has been able to flourish and be talked about in an environment where film festivals, especially new ones, tend to cannibalize each other for attention and press-attracting premieres.

Clearly, covering True/False (or any event) under these conditions is a lapse that calls my objectivity into question, should color your perceptions of anything I write in these dispatches, speaks to larger changes in the publishing industry, and would have made the 17-year-old Medill Cherub me want to smack my older self upside the head with a Smith Corona Word Processor. So, a disclaimer: Apply some healthy skepticism to anything you read from me today, tomorrow, or Monday.


All the same—and I say this with whatever sincerity I can still claim—True/False really is one of the great American film festivals, coming close to the platonic ideal of what that term should imply: filmmakers, community residents, students, and artists gathering at theaters and parties, watching a relatively small set of movies and collectively engaging with them. Part of the chumminess may be due to T/F’s concentration (it takes place over one long weekend). Part of it may have to do with the fact that the programming is built around a single idea: trying to assess the boundaries of what constitutes “reality” on film.

Founded as a documentary fest, True/False has expanded to encompass narrative films that flirt with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Last year’s selections included experimental works (Leviathan) and straight-up historical fiction (Computer Chess and No). This year’s closes with Richard Linklater’s decade-plus-in-the-making Boyhood, a narrative feature that nevertheless serves as a documentary record of its actors’ aging process.


Along the way, festivalgoers can experience everything from tone poems to talking heads—but rarely of the expected or dry variety. One of the kickoff screenings was of Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune (Grade: B+), a wildly entertaining account of El Topo director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel. The forward-thinking adaptation (circa 1975) qualifies as one of the most insanely ambitious cinematic projects ever conceived; the collaboration would have included contributions from Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, the artist Moebius (a.k.a. Jean Giraud), Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dalí. Jodorowsky and his colleagues recount their extraordinarily through preproduction process and their doomed attempts to secure Hollywood funding. It’s clear that the creative foment lived on in other movies, even if it’s heartbreaking not to see this one.

Jodorowsky’s Dune opens in a few weeks, but many of the titles at True/False are harder to see. A case in point is Sacro GRA (Grade: B-), a surprise Golden Lion winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival that nevertheless didn’t receive its American premiere until yesterday, eight months after observers were baffled by its coronation. Will the resuscitation begin here? Not with me. Gianfranco Rosi’s film is named for the road that forms a ring around Rome, a street along which the movie finds its subjects. They include a restaurateur, an aristocrat, prostitutes, and EMTs. (The ambulance-driving scenes at least vary the visuals and the rhythm a bit.) Not so much a Pedro Costa–style community portrait as a lyrical meditation on class in Italy, the movie is absorbing but slight—the sort of low-key, observational documentary that’s becoming a bit of a cliché. It leaves the impression that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Venice jury was an easy-to-please bunch.

A far better community portrait could found in Anna Sandilands’ and Ewan McNicol’s Uncertain, which screened here as a work-in-progress. (It seems unfair to issue a grade, particularly since the directors asked for feedback from the audience, but I’ll award it a rising B+.) It’s named for a tiny, isolated town in Texas; to find it, a sheriff says, there are only two options: “You either got to know where you’re going or be lost.” Because of its location near the Louisiana border, he says, it attracts people looking to skirt nearby state laws. Uncertain looks at several subjects: a former drug addict on a quixotic quest to hunt an unusually clever hog; a naturalist dealing with a blight on the local river, a development that acquires heavy symbolic freight; a widower who, like most of the film’s subjects, has a troubling secret in his past; and a younger man who moves to Austin to get on with “gettin’ the fuck out of Uncertain.” The town’s name may state the movie’s subject too bluntly, but Uncertain is unusual for painting its subjects in a constant, fragile state of flux, as they grapple with past sins and attempt to reinvent themselves. This type of character juxtaposition is familiar from Gates Of Heaven, but there’s a surprising potency in the way the movie deals with the subject of reinvention.

The American character also comes under interrogation in Jesse Moss’ Sundance sensation The Overnighters (Grade: A-), which examines the modern equivalent of a gold rush in North Dakota, where the hydrofracking boom has attracted job-seekers in droves. This influx is seen through the eyes of Pastor Jay Reinke, who insists on housing the homeless men (and a few women) who have made the journey but still can’t find employment; many of them have checkered pasts. But much has changed since the Wild West, and the community and its ordinances test the boundaries of Reinke’s mercy. The preacher admits to being bad at saying no to anyone who asks for help, even as neighbors grow suspicious, his family life suffers, and those he’s taken in turn against him. Just when it seems The Overnighters is turning into a rote portrait of wounded nobility, the movie takes several unexpected turns. The film goes in directions its makers could never have anticipated, providing the sort of closing note that would make a novelist jealous.


Less illuminating is Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley (Grade: C+), which aims to provide a fresh look at the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, about Pat Tillman’s death, dealt with well-reported events but still had an immediacy, emotional impact, and level of detail not readily apparent from newscasts. Happy Valley does its best to craft a counterintuitive (if still not terribly original) take, painting State College, Pennsylvania, as a naïve community blinded by the power of father figure Joe Paterno and collectively punished for the failures of individuals. More sympathetic to Paterno and his family than one might expect, the movie mainly serves as a superficial recap of events well-covered and commented on, with plenty of footage of college students saying and doing insensitive things. At once overfamiliar and not nearly thorough enough, the film mostly calls attention to how much it leaves unsaid.