You've heard the hype. Is it too good to be false? Welcome to the
2014 TRUE / FALSE FILM FEST
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
A prefatory note or two: I was generously invited here, put up, and invited to be a panelist, by the University of Missouri's "Based on a True Story" conference, which is only somewhat affiliated with True/False. Nevertheless, it allows me to check out the festival for the first time, while retreating nightly to the comfort of a spacious Twin Peaks-like cabin packed with bizarre nautical paraphernalia. ("Ahoy, sexy!") I have heard a lot of critics enthuse -- froth, really -- about how wonderful T/F is, and from Day One I can see why. It is a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, almost painstakingly unpretentious in its design and organized for maximum breathing room and reflection. If you are accustomed to the pressure cooker of 5+ film-a-day, never-see-the-sun megafesting, this seems like, well, a vacation. But then, I like the pressure cooker, partly because I only get to do it once a year, if I'm lucky. Also, after only one day, I am already noticing an idiosyncrasy that makes me quite uncomfortable. Filmmakers arrive at the screenings with their documentary subjects in tow, which is really not conducive to a freewheeling discussion of a film's merits as a text. It tends to set the terms almost instantly for a content-driven focus, as well as a general lovefest atmosphere where even a relatively benign structural concern has to be couched in "you are so great, and everything you did is so awesome, and I am so glad you walk the same earth as me, however I was a bit confused when you . . ." Criticism is an act of love, people.
Anyway, let me show you what I mean.
Films Seen Prior to the Festival
Dusty Stacks of Mom (Jodie Mack) *
March 2013. See review here. I will say, however, that seeing and hearing Mack perform the piece live was a completely new experience, and it raised my (already high) estimation of Dusty Stacks considerably. The movement from sparse stop-motion animation within the open field of the factory setting, into the more screen-enveloping paper animations of the conclusion, was far more palpable in large-format projection, feeling like a foreclosure of spatial possibility (even as it became faster and more exciting as a visual event). And Mack is just a hell of a performer.
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, U.S. / Nepal) 
TIFF 2013. See review here.
Mountain in Shadow (Lois Patiño, Spain) [s] 
NaFF 2013. See review here.
My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007) 
December 2007. See review here.
In many respects, this is a relatively straightforward examination of the work of Kit Gruelle, an advocate for abused women in North Carolina. However, I found myself more impressed with Private Violence in retrospect, after seeing a number of other issue-oriented documentaries and noticing all the structural and narrative pitfalls that Hill and her collaborators so skillfully avoided. It is true that Private Violence is organized according to a very strong through-line -- the process by which one woman, Deanna, attempts to receive justice following a savage kidnapping and beating in which her insanely jealous husband very nearly killed her in front of their young daughter. We follow Kit's work with Deanna, who has been effectively cheated by the system on a technicality. (Since the kidnapping took her across state lines, no state agency chose to prosecute within their jurisdiction.) So they must work with a federal prosecutor to bring her husband to trial, all while Deanna copes with the anguish of having lost her daughter to the foster-care system, if only temporarily. Deanna's case, Kit's legal and emotional support, and the various obstacles they face, serve as the baseline against which the broader issues of domestic violence -- the antiquated, pro-aggressor laws, the anti-woman biases, and the very individual struggles to regain dignity. Many different cases are visited upon briefly, each with its own unique circumstances.
The women alone are the focus here, which is an appropriate political choice, particularly in a set of scenarios where the men involved exact their violence by diminishing their victims' sense of self. This does, however, complicate matters in a film about North Carolina, since as a Southerner I fear it is too easy for viewers to watch these subjects (both those present and absent) and ascribe to their situations some particular pathology regarding Southern masculinity, which is hardly the case. To their credit, Hill and Gruelle display clear diversity without needing to announce it as such. A woman who is convicted for killing her abuser, for example, is quite obviously railroaded by a racist justice system (she is African-American), while one woman who was killed by her estranged husband, who managed to isolate her in a suburban home behind iron gates and security codes, was clearly a victim of the middle-class assumption of privacy. Even as Gruelle describes her own history of abuse, Hill treats this first-person narrative less as a confessional and more like a part of a larger crisis within society, one that inculcates a paradoxical pride and inferiority within women, the belief that men can insinuate themselves into the darkest recesses of your psychology and then you should be deeply ashamed for having been so "weak." Private Violence is a small core sample of an all-too-common oppression.
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy) 
November 2013. See Cinema Scope review here.
I'm having less and less patience with Morris's fascination with power, which seems to be a semi-direct outgrowth of his own heightened stature as a filmmaker. (Say what you will about a clod like Michael Moore, but at least his success hasn't turned him into a sycophant.) There would have been an interesting approach to Rumsfeld had Morris really understood who (or what) he was dealing with. If you are even remotely openminded and don't watch the entire film seeing the Former Secretary with red horns poking out of his head, you'll realize he's an incredibly intelligent man who grasped quite early that neoliberal governance is about controlling language and perception, much more so than actual might. He's a perfect Nietzschean figure. (Meanwhile, Karl Rove was no "mastermind." He was always just the political equivalent of a hockey enforcer, and his election night breakdown on Fox News, while entertaining, shouldn't have surprised anyone.) The "snowflake" memos, or just the idea of a political middle-manager obsessed with his own paper trail (and historical legacy -- it's his weird version of the Nixon tapes) would have been a topic in itself, and The Unknown Known should have been a kind of looking-glass documentary version (or an "extraordinary" rendition) or Porumboiu's Police, Adjective. Instead, Morris aims his Interrotron down the middle, regarding Rumsfeld on the scale of likely opponents between Robert McNamara and Fred Leuchter. It's a miscalculation; Rumsfeld rules.
Thursday, February 27
T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann introduced AtE by describing it as seeming like a lost artifact from the eighties, and I could see exactly what he means. It isn't just the crisp, unobtrusively luminous black-and-white videography, which speaks not only to the film's own aesthetic properties but also to a new technological moment (digital really can emulate the classic 16mm of Direct Cinema now). The subject matter itself feels somehow anachronistic, which turns out to be a provocatively double-edged sword. Elephant (no connection to Gus van Sant implied whatsoever) observes the first year of the new Terry McArdle Free School -- "free" not in the sense of no-tuition (as far as I can tell), but as a pedagogical model. Based on the Summerhill School model and Constructivist / play-based educational philosophy, the school has no set classes, all lessons emerge directly from student interests, and all rules are derived from collective vote. In this sense, Free Education is even less structured (at least on its surface) than Montessori or Waldorf. The head teacher / founder of the school, Alex (no last name given until the end credits) is the main character in the film, and we observe his process in orchestrating the school as a daily work in process, at the same time as Wilder provides us with a longitudinal portrait of the developing (or deteriorating) relationships between the students, often left to their own devices to negotiate their own social development.
In a very real respect, the free school and the direct cinema are made for each other, since apparent chaos gives way to emerging underlying structure. Whether those structures are "organic," or whether they have been shaped in advance by dominant assumptions within which the "free" experiments are actually taking place, is the primary philosophical question that Elephant broaches, although neither film nor school seems prepared to fully acknowledge this problematic. In terms of Wilder's film, it is soon dominated by a troubled boy, Jiovanni, who bullies other students, refuses to participate in discussion and voting procedures, and yet exerts a kind of bad-boy charismatic pull over other members of the community. In time, the film and the school are dominated by an alpha-male power struggle between Jiovanni and Alex. The teacher has a very (non-adult) breakdown in meeting, and threatens to quit the school immediately is the other students don't vote for Jiovanni's expulsion. So Wilder ends up leaning on a particular kind of narrative arc. But Alex, meanwhile, cannot seem to recognize that the "freedom" his school is inculcating exists within, and is fully saturated with, gender inequity that is seldom if ever articulated. The most obvious example of this is Lucy, the young blonde girl who is constantly bullied by Jiovanni and his toadies, but feels she must hang with it in order to have a place in the social structure of the school. She oscillates between wanting to "play rough" and wanting Jiovanni to leave her alone, going so far as to write on the pavement in all caps: STOP MEANS STOP. But even in subtle ways, girls are marginalized in Alex's school. We keep seeing an older girl who is crying in the meetings, trying to keep order and negotiate peace between the warring factions. She assumes the "mothering" role, almost instinctively. So this raises a vital question, which Elephant might have broached more critically. Without direct intervention against the larger society's dominant scripts, are any of us ever really free to be you and me?
A complex piece of cinematic portraiture that continually unfolds like a Chinese box, Actress, the fourth documentary feature from Robert Greene (Kati with a I, Fake It So Real) plunges into complexity rather than sanding it down. In other words, Actress is a documentary that concentrates above all on exploring the dangerous emotional territory characteristic of great cinema, fiction or nonfiction. The film focuses on Greene's neighbor, Brandy Burre, a character actress perhaps best known for her role as political advisor Theresa D'Agostino on "The Wire."As she makes clear in the opening scenes of Actress, she decided to take an extended hiatus from the profession following the birth of her daughter; she, her two children and her partner establish a suburban life in the Upstate town of Beacon, NY, where her primary "role" becomes that of motherhood. But it is too simple to say that Burre "gave up acting," or conversely to claim that she "swapped one role for another." As Burre and Greene make clear throughout Actress, using rehearsed interviews, highly artificial tableaux, slow motion techniques, and Burre's own highly articulated sense of melodrama, there is no off-switch to the performative aspects of everyday life. This is an idea that has been explored in a variety of ways, from the somewhat benignly descriptive (Erving Goffman) to the highly political (Judith Butler). While this is certainly true for each and every one of us, those who gravitate toward acting as a profession are perhaps more aware of this self-presentation as a sculpted activity, which is not "fake" (what would that mean?) but perhaps more carefully controlled. (Burre says something along the lines of, "I'm not a dramatic person because I'm an actress; I'm an actress because I'm a dramatic person.")
One of the things that makes the Greene / Burre collaboration so revelatory is the fact that Actress never settles into a familiar groove. It is portraiture, but we don't know who Burre "is" because, in some very genuine way, neither does Brandy. We hear her discuss her craft, long before we know anything about her professional past or her actual capabilities. So Greene sets us up for the possibility that she's deluded. Then, when Burre goes to New York to hang with old friends and sing a torch song, we see that she is rusty. Can she not sing as well as she thinks she can? Is Greene so enamored of his subject that we're seeing something he cannot see, in a Charles Foster Kane / Susan Alexander scenario? Then, we witness Burre and her mom going through old "Wire" DVDs, and see what she is capable of, or at least was. Our perspective changes through the very end, when an audition at ABC has highly ambiguous results. From the perspective of documenting Burre as a performer, Greene draws upon sources as varied ad Grey Gardens, The Act of Killing, and the meticulously appointed domestic horrorscapes of Gregory Crewdson, Todd Haynes, and Jeff Wall. The result is a perpetually shifting attitude not only towards Burre's talents but her behavior as a mother and partner as well. Her confessions -- being relieved when she has a break from her kids, or eventually not caring whether she has time with her partner Tim, a restaurateur -- are often staged for maximum abrasiveness. Actress dares us not to find Brandy narcissistic and self-involved, and this direct challenge to judge is heightened, quite consciously, by Burre's performance. As we learn more about her life, what she has given (and given up) for her family and for the love of her children, we fully understand the fragmented plane upon which Greene has built this Cubist portrait. To say that you can never really know your neighbor is a bland truism. But Actress provides a different kind of perspective. Our lives are collections of intersecting roles, often demanding that we deliver overlapping dialogue, assume incompatible positions, and conjure emotions that pull our Method in utterly opposing directions.
Friday, February 28
It's always preferable to witness failed ambition than mediocrity aimed at and achieved. That having been said, Concerning Violence is a film whose reach is bigger than its grasp in almost every conceivable way. Olsson is to be admired for setting out to make such a defiantly unfashionable film, one that not only takes up a radical revolutionary message in an age of "post-ideological" accommodation, but does so with an aesthetic stridency rarely seen since the heyday of "Third Cinema" in the 1970s. The basis of Concerning Violence is Frantz Fanon's final book, The Wretched of the Earth, in which the anti-colonial theorist makes his most direct plea for the necessity of armed resistance to Western colonial power and its alleged monopoly on the legitimate exercise of force in places like Algeria, Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Guinea-Bissau. Direct quotations from Fanon's text are not only read throughout the film (by "Ms. Lauren Hill"), but as they are read, they appear across the screen in huge sans-sarif block script, dominating the field of vision. This technique gives primacy to Fanon's ideas so as to adamantly refuse to allow them to become mere voiceover or fade into the backdrop, something that concepts can often do in the cinema when compared with the immediacy of images and sounds. Olsson's formal device harks back to the radical modernism of Godard, Fernando Solanas, or Alexander Kluge. However, here it is utterly smothering. It becomes all but impossible to see the visual material that Olsson has assembled for the film, which is a shame because so much of it is extremely rich. In the flurry of text, voice, and concept, too much of Concerning Violence's actual image track becomes reduced to "jungle" or "file footage," when in fact a great deal of it represents unseen glimpses of revolutionary activity from the anti-colonial era. In an odd dialectical twist, Olsson tends to get out of the way (i.e., stop with the onscreen text and Hill voiceover) only when presenting wildly reactionary material, such as the news report from "Rhodesia" in which whites describe their plans for a final stand against the "Affies." Highly suggestive, important documentation, but by giving it pride of place, Olsson sends a paradoxical message: when Whitey talks, you better listen.
The Trouble With Issue-Docs, Part 1: Let the record show, there is absolutely no question that E-Team is profiling some of the worthiest work going on anywhere in the world (in this case, the efforts of Human Rights Watch field workers, conducting interviews and collecting evidence on the ground during ongoing conflicts and atrocities). The subject matter is not the problem, even if I myself find the film a bit one-sided in that Kauffman and Chevigny might have taken the time to broaden the frame of their inquiry a bit. By focusing on Syria (Assad's attacks on civilians), Libya (the aftermath of Gaddafi's reign) and HRW's historic victory over Milosevic at the Hague, E-Team will highlight the group's toughest and most admirable work, while in no way ruffling the feathers of any Western viewers. (In other words, Allied war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan are conspicuously off the table.) Furthermore, the filmmakers seem to have far less faith in the organization they are examining than its members do. The Russian-Norwegian couple who snuck into Syria to amass evidence against the Assad regime are shown reporting back to the main HRW headquarters in New York, asking that the group recommend a no-fly zone to try to prevent Syrian air strikes against civilian villages. The NGO's administration argues that such a move is premature, which disappoints the investigators, but this sort of thing must happen quite a lot. Kauffman and Chevigny very deliberately stage this decision as a showdown between intrepid, passionate individuals and the bureaucracy that only looks after its own interests, an interpretation that is simplistic in the extreme. But then, E-Team continually sacrifices nuance, or even basic decency, in order to heighten conventional drama. It's not just the patent pornography of the slow zoom into the face of a weeping Syrian mother as she describes the death of her two sons in a bombing raid. It's the way that the romantically involved investigator couple's domestic life becomes Kauffman and Chevigny's narrative refrain, as though in the end, they are just two concerned parents making the world safer for the baby who will be born in the very last scene. What does this tell us? Clearly, E-Team is made by and for people who do not really believe in altruism.
The Trouble With Issue-Docs, Part 2: I should state from the outset that I have no real questions regarding director Rachel Boynton's political orientation. Her previous film, Our Brand is Crisis, detailed the questionable tactics of American advisors in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, in particular the role of the James Carville neoliberal / Clintonian team in bringing "shock doctrine" Friedmanite Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to power. And in fact, Boynton begins Big Men with a Milton Friedman quotation about the subjective nature of greed, giving the sense that the new film is something of an extension of the globalist critiques of the earlier film. Perhaps this was the intention, but this is not what comes across in the actual body of Big Men, a somewhat straightforward observational chronicle of a small, private-equity based exploration firm, Kosmos Energy, discovering a vast oil reserve off the coast of Ghana. With an admirably methodical pace, Big Men painstakingly establishes all of the players on this complicated field of activity. We spend a great deal of time with the men of Kosmos, particularly brash Texas oilman / rancher Jim Musselman, the firm's founder, and his right-hand man, co-founder Brian Maxted. Boynton also introduces us to their point-man in Ghana, George Owusu, founder of EO Energy, a small local firm set up to facilitate Kosmos' entry into the Ghanian political structure. All the while, Big Men takes great care to compare the burgeoning petroleum trade in Ghana to that in neighboring Nigeria, which has brought great wealth to a select few in that nation (including the biggest international oil companies -- something the film doesn't really spend much time on), while leaving most Nigerians in a state of poverty, violence, and compensatory religion (a blend of evangelical Christianity and local supernatural beliefs).
There is, of course, resistance to the Nigerian model. Big Men gains entry to the ranks of anti-oil industry terrorists ("the Deadly Underdogs") who sabotage pipelines, destroy wells, and find other ways to complicate the removal of their nation's most precious resource. By contrast, we also see independent "pirates" who siphon highly unstable unprocessed gas off the pipelines before it's refined, selling it to cash-strapped drivers along Lagos' "Refinery Drive." In its basic contents, Big Men has the makings of an exemplary documentary, in that it examines a global problem by attending to its local origins, paying attention to the various parties who are affected by (and attempt in turn to affect) the daily events that circumscribe their lives. However, Boynton's tone, and the way she assembles the material, accomplishes something very different. It is not simply the way that she patently ironizes the Underdogs, who are young punks besotted with the idea of being bad-asses, requiring anonymity but desperately playing to her camera. (They are shown eventually accept a government amnesty, trading their guns for jobs, even though they don't trust it and it's doubtful that all rebels simply gave up.) Big Men consistently emphasizes the problems of government corruption, in particular the way that ministers within the nationalized petroleum industries of Nigeria and, eventually, Ghana, will pad their pockets instead of passing profits onto the citizens. In other words, African socialism is a sham. This may well be true, but Big Men frequently depicts these bureaucrats as welshing on contracts, dragging out negotiations, and trumpting up corruption charges against the honest capitalists of Kosmos (Musselman in particular). The Texas oilment, for their part, are generally represented with neutrality, but are oftenshown in a quite positive light (hard-working, straight-shooting), and at worst as redneck fish out of water when meeting Ghanian royalty. Thing is, Big Men implicitly argues that only Western investment, and the removal of impediments to it, can bring prosperty to Africa. Is this Boynton's position? If so, she should make it more explicit, and she should more systematically consider the many arguments to the contrary.
It's difficult not to seem (or be) disingenuous, and contrary to the thinking of some, most critics I know try their hardest to operate within a zone of good faith, even if we sometimes can't tell our proverbial asses from our elbows. But it can be frustrating when we seem to lambaste some docs for adopting an all-too-reverent, hands-off approach to their subject matter on the one hand (see above), and then appear to be bashing a very impressively constructed nonfiction morality play like Jesse Moss's The Overnighters, mostly for playing fast and loose with that fleeting and uncertain entity, "the truth." At best, it can feel as if I, for one, am playing both ends against the middle, or at worst, that I have a set of impossible expectations for nonfiction cinema, ones that almost anything outside of a highly self-reflexive Markeresque essay film will most likely fail to meet. I've thought a lot about this since seeing The Overnighters, partly because my reactions to the film diverged substantially from those of many of my respected peers. But also, if I am being honest, I was very much taken with Moss's profile of Rev. Jay Reinke and his beleaguered North Dakota church, at least while I was watching it. It was only upon further reflection that I started to doubt the full extent of my admiration, finding I had more questions about Moss's narrative method and the withholding of certain kinds of information.
[SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.] It is not just that the late-film revelation that Reinke has been leading a double life shifts The Overnighters onto another set of issues. It retroactively recodes everything we have seen up to that point, which is quite deliberate in terms of the film's construction. It's not just that Reinke's effeminate demeanor seems suddenly "explicable" within conventional gender tropes. This in itself represents a kind of capitulation to stereotype which The Overnighters presents with the self-effacing shoulder shrug of "well, this happened." Audiences have their "gaydar" confirmed, and Reinke's outsider status in Williston, ND ("I've never felt like I belonged here") moves from general intellectual and emotional discomfort to concrete, suspect-class identification (of sorts). But it also reframes Reinke's work with the overnighters, the homeless or near-homeless workers or transient laborers seeking work in the oil fields of Williston. The film depicts this space -- the rooms of the church, the church parking lot, and eventually Reinke's own home -- as an all-male flophouse space, like an amorphous YMCA where nobody is judged or turned away. Moss takes care to emphasize the cases of certain men who are separated from their families. However, in passing we learn that there is a small space in the church where women (including some male workers' wives) are bunked up, something The Overnighters chooses to ignore. Granted, this is primarily because Moss is interested in dramatizing the Williston community's xenophobia, which is focused on traveling men of uncertain provenance. (And, it must be said, there are some irritating ways in which The Overnighters stacks the deck against the Willistonians. Some genuine concerns about safety, such as a woman telling Reinke that she's worried for her teenage daughter after a spike in sexual assaults, are treated with much the same disregard as the smug city councilors' petty property ordinances.) But once we learn of Reinke's secret, there's a bothersome tendency to second-guess his motives, which seems to be built into the structure and organization of Moss's portrait. Why does Reinke's interaction with the registered sex offender become so petulant, so based in what we might call overidentification? Why does Reinke's relationship with the bitter New Yorker, to whom he professes his (Christian) love, turn so sour so quickly? The Overnighters invites us to champion selfless charity, only to reinscribe it within motives which are possibly more complicated, maybe sexual, but very likely not. But by being so coy, Moss and Reinke collude in a story which makes any such conjecture an imputation of bad faith on the part of the viewer, even as these aspects are quite deliberately built into the text.
Moreover, Reinke's family, who have worked so steadfastly to support the man and his Overnighters program, are sidelined (and apparently ambushed, if the film footage is to be believed) for the purposes of Moss's grand narrative. How much did Reinke's wife know? How did Moss get footage of Reinke's enemy walking to the newspaper, or being told off by his former right-hand man in the pick-up, telling him "you have no integrity"? Are reenactments involved? And if so, how much of Williston's rejection of the influx of workers was trumped up in order to generate a David and Goliath story, of one man against a set of easily damnable (lower-class) rednecks, driven to self-hatred by the very community he wanted to save? What's true? Maybe this is a hopelessly naive question, but I find myself wondering just who got thrown under the bus so this real-life melodrama could achieve its climactic twist.
The Green Prince is a challenging documentary, one that seems to occupy a kind of formal middleground between The Gatekeepers and The Arbor, while staking out thematic material that has interesting resonances with recent fictional films, Omar and Bethlehem in particular. Schirman details the true story of an Arab prisoner, Mosab Hassan Youssef, the eldest son of a major Hamas leader in Ramallah. He has been raised to be a warrior for jihad, and to take over the "family business," but something happens while he's in prison in Israel. Watching the Hamas contingent maim, torture and kill any inmate they so much as suspect of collaborating with or informing for Israel, Mosab is horrified by the cruelty and anti-Islamic behavior of the members of the political group he was in line to lead. So, when he is tapped by the Shin Bet to work as an informer, he ambivalently agrees. His handler, Gonen, believes he has scored the ultimate prize, having "turned" such a high-level Islamist. But in the course of their covert working relationship, both men's beliefs are tested. I wish I had been able to pay closer attention to this film; I was impressed with what I saw, in particular the ease with which Schirman articulated the artificial interview segments (with actors playing Mosab and Gonen) and the more conventional, on-location documentary footage. I got the sense that The Green Prince may prove a struggle for some audiences, since it is a bit stiff and plodding for general moviegoers, but not experimental enough to truly wow the New Documentary crowd. Nevertheless, it ratchets up the tension like a spy film, which will certainly win over some potential fans.
Saturday, March 1
A sharp miniature that employs acute cinematic formalism in order to broach complex social and political issues, Hacked Circuit may be Stratman's best film to date. In a single nighttime Steadicam shot, we slowly ease around the side of a building on a nondescript L.A. corner. We eventually hear noises coming from the building -- speech, loud crashes, and a general clatter. As we round the corner and enter the open doorway, Stratman shows us that we are exploring a sound studio where foley artists are at work. That is, we first hear what seems to be a realistic, coherent envelope of noises, only to discover that they are being produced by one man in order to accompany the actions that exist in another diegetic realm (on a screen behind him). Suitably enough, the foley artist and engineer are doing sound work for Coppola's The Conversation, the classic film about sonic surveillance and paranoia. As Gene Hackman tears up his apartment floor looking for bugs or other high-tech sonic spy devices, the man in the studio crunches planks of wood to create the plausible sound for the film. Stratman allows us to watch the foley work for a while, and then the unbroken tracking shot wends its way back into the studio's back room, filled with all sorts of random junk which we are now asked to examine differently -- for what kind of sound it could make, if used "improperly." As the camera exits the studio through the back door and goes back onto the L.A. street, sounds become diegetic ("normal") again, but we have no reason to trust the film Stratman is showing us, at least in terms of the faithful marriage of sound and image. How do we know that this apparent synchronicity isn't a technical fiction? In the end credits, we hear Hackman again, this time from Enemy of the State, frantically explaining that our mobile phones have allowed entities like the NSA to track our every move through satellite surveillance. Hacked Circuit then ends with a dedication to the great film editor and sound engineer Walter Murch and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In so doing, Stratman not-so-subtly changes the terms of what we've seen and heard, from a rather rote lesson in film theory to an ethical question. We know that the world of cinema is an illusion. However, once we are forced to recognize that the ordinary world of sound and image -- how things appear versus what we can and cannot hear, and who and what can hear us -- is also an illusion, what are we compelled to do? Harry Caul, Hackman's character in The Conversation, is a private investigator who specializes in sonic surveillance. It's only when he hears more than he is supposed to, and when he fears his technologies are being used against him in turn, that his technocratic sense of justice, as a prerogative he and others are authorized to execute, is disrupted. As Stratman points out, again with a didactic directness, Snowden is a Caul figure, someone who functioned within the state apparatus and, as it were, found the bug under the floorboard. Are we content to simply throw a rug over the giant hole in our foundation?
Even if we forget for a moment that intellectual pursuit (to say nothing of academic pursuit) is currently held in something less than the highest esteem in the eyes of the general population, Garcia's The Joycean Society would be a highly valuable short-subject documentary. Not only is it surprisingly entertaining. It manages to convey something of the spirit of James Joyce's literary challenge, the seldom acknowledged flipside to the oft-cited impenetrability of Finnegans Wake (if not modernism more generally). That is the idea of play. If meanings are uncertain and unfixed, then the search for meanings, however tentative and elusive, can be regarded as a kind of endless game with the text, an active engagement that in some cases lasts a lifetime. This film is a portrait of a collective endeavor, a core group of readers and scholars who are so fascinated with Finnegans Wake that they read it together, line by line and page by page, every week to see what they can figure out about it. People come, people go, but the process, the parsing and the semiosis, never stops. (At the time of the film's making, the group was on its third cycle through the book.) Some of the suggested interpretations are "grounded," having to do with historical aspects of Joyce's literary, political, or religious milieu. Others are completely off-the-wall, the sorts of things one throws out during brainstorming and most likely doesn't pursue. (Did Joyce call a woman Maggie in reference to Maggi brand soup mix? Who the hell knows.) But The Joycean Society (the group and the film) is not about locating definitive answers. It's about taking pleasure in Joyce's maddening, inexhaustible text. "This is really a terrible book," one longtime member opines at one point, as if it suddenly dawned on him that after spending years of his life poring over Finnegans Wake, he might have been putting his time to better use. It's a joke, of course, but Garcia's film does come at a time when we see scholarship, especially the pursuit of humanistic knowledge for its own sake, under attack from all sides. We are currently living in a technocratic "results society," in which ideas are valued mostly for the amount of capital they can generate. As budgets are slashed and tenure comes under attack and various institutions worldwide, Garcia's film pays homage to the joy of literature as an end in itself. But at the same time, The Joycean Society also depicts a rather bleak, ironic future. The intensive study of Finnegans Wake is precisely what a university education was for, once upon a time. This is no longer the case, and in the film we watch this work performed as an amateur service, by freelance intellects (older and retired professors, along with grad students coming by on their own time). It may be the case that one day soon, all humanistic study will be relegated to the sidelines, a weekend hobby like any other.
One of only two fiction features to be included in True/False (the other being Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which has a fairly distinctive claim to a documentary element), Stand Clear is not a film that, to my mind, makes a particularly strong case for itself as a hybrid work. To be fair, there's no guarantee that Fleischman himself chose to position his film in this manner. But he did accept the invitation to screen at T/F, and for all I know took the unusual step of submitting the film to the nonfiction festival. In any case, Stand Clear is a film that engages with the circumscribed parameters of a particular locale, in this case Queens, NY, and pays a good deal of specific attention to its unique urban landscape. However, in using this grounded, street-level approach for the baseline, against which to riff out a funky little bit of unassuming neo-realism, there's nothing that Fleischman adds or subtracts to the contemporary vernacular that we wouldn't see in, say, early Ramin Bahrani, the So Yong Kim / Bradley Rust Gray films, or even much less accomplished fare like Raising Victor Vargas and Gimme the Loot. None of these films even claims documentary authenticity for itself; at most, their makers might well cite certain nonfiction films and filmmakers as influential. But the placement of Stand Clear, which I mostly enjoyed on its own merits, in this rather stringent context, seems like special pleading. On its face, Fleischman's film is a kind of present-day take on the classic Little Fugitive, wherein a young boy goes AWOL and experiences the city as a lone adventurer. Here, there is the added dimension that the boy in question, 13-year-old Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) is a high-functioning autistic child. While it is indeed the case that the shoot (and Fleischman's home) were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and this natural disaster was enfolded into the conclusion of Stand Clear, one has to wonder whether each and every exigency faced by a film crew merits that film's elevation to quasi-documentary. Thinking about this issue from a theoretical point of view, every piece of exposed film or video is a documentary of sorts, but if True/False is interested in maintaining some concept of the genre and the field, as space of contestation but not of utter meaninglessness, the term "documentary" ought not to be handed out so cavalierly.
Sure to be one of the most innovative documentaries of the year, Baba Yaga is a multifaceted examination of the specters of tradition and superstition that have reasserted themselves in Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era. In this regard, Oreck's film shares some thematic preoccupations with Béla Tarr's masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies, although her approach to the subject could hardly be more different. Whereas Tarr understood Communism as a kind of cistern lid that, once removed, unleashed all manner of ethnic hatreds and primal fears, for Oreck the present is a kind of era of accelerated realignment. Older folkways are competing with rapacious capitalism and popular culture as intersecting explanatory modes in a time of transition and uncertainty, and rather than seeing these belief systems as vague forces, Oreck demonstrates how they serve to manage precise material situations. Baba Yaga is a nonlinear film, organized according to certain motifs which are braided throughout and which recur like a fugue. One of the primary thematic strands is the forest, and various meanings attached to it. In folkloric terms, the woods are always the hiding place of evil spirits. Trees themselves can become the lodging point for nymphs or dangerous spirits. However, danger in the forest has a more immediate meaning in the form of unfettered logging. We see the beginning of clear-cutting in Poland and, as we learned soon after the film debuted, the Yanukovych government was happy to defy the wishes of its citizens and sell its natural resources out to the Russians.
How do older ideas of nature as something to fear, something that a civilization must construct itself against, play into the hands of a new economy which is fundamentally about an all-consuming destruction of nature?Baba Yaga never offers documentary "answers," but moves around this problem in true essay style, by showing us that this particular corner of the world -- in some ways deeply specific, in other ways a metonym for us all -- is caught in the material grasp of philosophies and ideologies the seeds of which were sown centuries ago. As her primary refrain, and the film's boldest formal parry, Oreck illustrates the fairy tale of Baba Yaga, the witch in the woods, using elegantly crude animations. After a young girl and boy stumble upon her lair, she sets them onto a variety of impossible tasks, with the proviso that if they fail, she will eat them. They complete the tasks, with the help of the creatures of the forest, and Baba Yaga is furious at being outsmarted. Oreck's use of this most fundamental of Eastern European folktales is ambiguous in this context. It is, after all, another competing system for understanding the conflict between civilization and nature, with the witch as a trickster who occupies a liminal space between the two. She was once, no doubt, indicative of a fear of matriarchal knowledges, midwifery, and other womanly powers that were seen as being entirely too close to the natural world. But now, perhaps the threat comes from those chainsaws in the woods, or the privatization of oil reserves and coal mines, the sudden disappearance of the earth and its magic transformation into a product you can't afford.
Sunday, March 2
In addition to being a timely film about global immigration, Bakhtiari's Stop-Over (a.k.a. L'escale) has the benefit of an excellent "And Then There Were None" structure which is actually completely organic to the story being told. "Kaveh," who becomes a character of sorts from behind his camcorder, gains entrée into a dorm-like flat for undocumented Iranian immigrants in Athens. One of them is his cousin Mohseh who we learn from the start of the film is already dead. It is he who helps usher Kaveh into this clandestine space nominally overseen by Amir. (The apartment is in his name.) The only ground rule is that no one can be asked about their lives prior to their arrival at Amir's place, so their relationships start from a kind of fraternal ground-zero. The first third of the film is largely about their friendships and tensions, negotiating their stressful lives in a tiny space, contemplating their escapes out of Greece and into the country of their final destination with their fake IDs. But the complication here, as we discover, is that the depression of their stateless lives, and the fear of arrest and deportation, provokes a kind of unhealthy inertia within Amir's place. What was intended to be a way station is becoming a stalling-out point. And so, one by one, each of the men prepares to take his shot and getting out of Greece with their forged passports.Each time, the men (and one woman) who stay behind anticipate the call that their comrade has made it into the next country (where, of course, a new set of problems no doubt awaits them). This one-by-one structure is disrupted by a major digression which proves to be Stop-Over's emotional fulcrum. One of the men, affectionately nicknamed Bruce Lee because of his fondness for kung fu movies, does not want to sneak out of the country. Instead, he wants the right to travel with dignity, and goes to the Iranian embassy in Athens to request legal papers. When he is denied, he chains himself to the embassy gates and embarks on a hunger strike that very nearly kills him. The men of Amir's apartment, who have every reason to be concerned for their own visibility, come to his aid in full view of the media and the embassy workers, providing a powerful portrait of honor and solidarity. In this regard, their almost automatic activism on behalf of one of their own serves as its own best argument for immigration reform. Is there a nation on earth that would not be enriched by the presence of these men among its citizenry?
More than any other single film, I think I addressed Rich Hill in a fairly comprehensive way in my joint festival wrap-up with Adam Nayman and Kiva Reardon for Cinema Scope. I suppose I could say a few more words, by way of offering some specific details. This was one of the films I saw at this year's T/F (Private Violence and E-Team were others) where I really felt a pang of discomfort while watching the subjects in tandem with the film styles chosen by the documentarians. In all of these cases, the makers seem committed to a fairly traditional approach to documentary, which assumes that images and sounds are fairly transparent conduits for knowledge about the subject at hand. In the case of Rich Hill, the three boys and their families are in dire economic straits and seem to be headed nowhere fast. One kid refuses to take his medication and his mother, herself quite clearly a depressive, has given up trying to intervene. Another kid lives in total squalor, with garbage piled so high in the house that a hoarder would doubtless recoil in horror. Tragos and Palermo offer us a glimpse into the lives of their subjects, which has its own value, especially since the problem of the permanent poverty class is one that America is structurally disinclined to acknowledge, much less gaze upon in a sustained manner. But it's difficult to know just what Rich Hill wants from us. Do we feel pity and disgust? Then we fall into the trap of liberal anthropology. Do we admire the fleeting moments of beauty amidst the decay and dissolution? Then we're aestheticizing the poor. Do we just sit and watch Rich Hill and admire its honesty? Then the film is making a fetish out of its subjects, its makers limned by the penumbra of their subjects' authentic pain. In the end, Rich Hill is a kind of monument to its own hopelessness, the idea that everyone should have a voice and that, once heard, we can return to the punishment of daily life with renewed purpose, having been validated by postmodern image-politics. Usually this occurs in a reality TV context, but here it takes the form or a bold return to unreconstructed ethnographic display. The Bazinian revival has come full circle, and may have run its course.
An impressive miniature by a newcomer I expect we'll here more from before too long. In articulating a sketch of Las Vegas, one of the most over-filmed, over-theorized cities in the world, Konopa chose to provide a three-way portrait of individuals who exist, to varying degrees, on the periphery of the glamour and chintz we associate with the city. A sheriff's deputy is charged with conducting evictions, a grim and joyless task that he executes with as much compassion as possible. A young Latino singer tries to make it as a lounge act, but thus far is only playing to nursing homes. And a young homeless man, living in a large drainage culvert off the city's main aqueduct, is deeply distressed because his beloved cat has gone missing. Konopa's montage deftly negotiates around these three men's daily activities, allowing parallels to emerge organically but never forcing any ironies or dramatic relationships. Rather, Vegas's "system," if you will, is the invisible ring of desert around the Strip, the broader municipality of weeds and stucco that enables "Las Vegas" to exist. Konopa's use of still camera and medium long shots also provide a general sense of resignation. (Ulrich Seidl seems like a clear influence.) Each of these men is taking some kind of risk (living on the street, betting on a dream, enforcing the law in high-stress circumstances), but it's nothing like the gambling rush happening over and over, just in the distance. Their lives are mundane, but that's how it is when you're playing the long game.
Quite a departure for Diop, who continues to evolve into one of the most interesting and unpredictable young directors in France. When I tried watching A Thousand Suns last year during my pre-TIFF cramming session, I couldn't give it the full attention it deserved. Like other challenging films, this one looks from the outset as if it's going to be one type of thing and then gradually becomes something else entirely. On its face, Diop's film is a Kiarostami / Makhmalbafesque documentary about Magaye Niang, the elderly Senegalese actor who starred in Djibril Diop Mambety's landmark 1973 film Touki-Bouki. Niang, a non-professional performer at the time, is being honored on the occasion of Touki-Bouki's 40th anniversary, and we follow him as he attends a special screening with the producer and local dignitaries. What we find is that Niang is a cantankerous, disagreeable man who is ambivalent, to say the least, about his place in cinema history. Taking the role with Mambety was the defining act of his life in various ways, but it also left him with a strange discomfort about his place in local life. He is a local cowherd, and a private man. But he is also sort of a celebrity, in a manner that affords him recognition without compensation, an admiration for who he was rather than who he has become. In time, Niang splits from the screening and decides to pursue his old co-star who moved to Alaska, and at this point Diop's film takes on the character of an inner reverie. As Niang traverses snowy hills and cinematic landscapes in pursuit of the life he might have had, A Thousand Suns abandons the offhanded observationalism of the first half in favor of careful framing and rigorous control of space. In a sense, Niang has gone back into a newer form of Mambety's cinema, reimagined for the 21st century. It is a lovely and unconventional angle of approach for Diop to adopt in paying homage to her late uncle's filmmaking. And as her longest film to date, it indicates that she is more than ready to tackle that first feature, should she so desire.
Begun well before the Arab Spring and continuing just past that landmark moment, Cairo Drive is an insightful and shrewdly droll film-essay about urban traffic as both metaphor and flat material fact. There are just way too many cars in Cairo, and the streets are still not build to accommodate the swollen population or the center / periphery growth of the last 20 to 30 years. So it's a city of endless gridlock and congestion, with everyone stuck at a medium to high level of constant frustration. We learn about cabbies and their horn-honking language. We follow a woman trying to get to a particular location on the outskirts of town and getting thwarted again and again by roadwork and bad directions. We see a hapless young woman fail her driver's test, but get her license thanks to a well-placed bribe. We watch schoolchildren put on a musical play about traffic rules. ("This [red light] is not a delay, it is order!") And in one of Elkatsha's most pointed segments, we travel the streets of Cairo with total freedom on the day of Pres. Obama's visit, since police and military officials have closed down virtually every road. ("Let Obama see what it's really like, with six million drivers fighting each other!" a bemused cab driver remarks.) After the revolution, we find average citizens taking it upon themselves to direct traffic, since the military and police are apparently off doing other things. (In time, of course, we learn a bit about what they were up to.) Elkatsha keeps the mood light, and as a viewer living in a metropolis similarly beset by traffic, Cairo Drive is an easy film to relate to. The experience of watching the film is one of recognition of identification and difference, observing the cultural and political specificities while at the same time smiling at what are, in fact, universal truths regarding everyday life in the modern world. But of course, Cairo Drive makes it clear, without pushing the point, that the image of thousands of people stuck in the roundabout near Tahrir Square, incapable of moving or getting on with their lives, is a physical manifestation of life under the Mubarak regime. Going forward, Egyptians will clearly require more than just a roadmap for democracy. They'll have to find a way to lay down some completely new asphalt, and head off in unexpected directions.