Most documentary film festival audiences go to the cinema in search of veracity. But only at the True/False Film Festival are they encouraged to sing about that desire. On the second to last night of this year’s 10th anniversary festivities, a theatre full of college students and international non-fiction filmmakers serenaded the stage with several chorus of “Gimme Truth” – a catchy ditty that is apparently this hardy little festival’s unofficial theme song.
The raucousness of the atmosphere surely derives in part from the fact that True/False is held annually at the end of February in Columbia, Missouri a sleepy, sloping town of nestled halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Columbia is home to the University of Missouri, whose 30,000 students make up about one third of the local population, and just as Austin, Texas has a reputation for being a liberal oasis in the middle of a red state, Columbia feels a little like hipster heaven: it’s all dive bars and smoothie shacks as far as the eye can see. The locals are, generally speaking, almost comically fit, healthy and productive. As one colleague put it while standing in line with several dozen twenty-something’s for a mid-afternoon screening, the locals all look like hippies who could probably pull apart a carburetor.
But a documentary film needs more than high spirits and a chill vibe to build an audience and a reputation: it needs good documentary films. Based on my four-day visit, the curating at True/False transcends its function as a “regional festival,” a whistle stop for decorated docs that have already started their tour around the circuit. If True/False simply provided Missourians an opportunity to catch the likes of Leviathan and The Act of Killing (probably the two best non-fiction features of 2012), or Sarah Polley’s much-feted Stories We Tell, then its programmers would be doing their jobs. And yet of the 35 plus feature films showing in Columbia, many were premieres, including several of the “Secret Screenings” that journalists were encouraged to attend with the caveat that they could not at any point in the future disclose that they’d seen the movies in question at True/False.
At a time when film festivals of all kinds jockey for “premiere status,” sometimes rejecting decent movies on the grounds that they’ve showed elsewhere True/False’s willingness to clandestinely share these sneak-peek goodies a winning sense of generosity and confidence. (The “Secret Screening” gimmick has more to do with not hurting the films’ chances with other festivals than anything else). Obviously, True/False’s programmers believe that there are enough other worthy discoveries on their docket to risk that sort of media blackout. On that note, the best new documentary at True/False was Sleepless Nights, a wrenching, narratively and thematically dense dual portrait of two people struggling to reconcile their experiences during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s.
Director Eliane Raheb doggedly (though self-effacingly) interjected herself into the lives of her two main subjects: Assaad Shaftari, a former high-ranking intelligence officer in a Lebanese Christian militia who has gone on the record about his role in kidnapping and murdering untold numbers of Nationalists, and Maryam Saiidi, a divorced woman in her mid-fifties who has spent the last three decades agonizing over the whereabouts and ultimate fate of her fifteen year old son, who disappeared in the midst of the conflict.
It’s very strongly implied early on in Sleepless Nights that Assaad has some idea about what happened to Maryam’s boy, and Raheb plays off this tension in a way that’s both daring and compassionate. By giving both of her subjects roughly equal screen time, the director defuses any sort of simple hero-villain dynamic and instead lets us see her subjects as two sides of the same coin: both are haunted by ghosts of their country’s past. In an utterly remarkable sequence about midway through the film, Raheb arranges a meeting between the pair in a museum showcasing an exhibit of photographs of missing Lebanese youths-–the sort of symbolically loaded backdrop that a narrative filmmaker might dismiss as too ostentatious. In the context of this patient and meticulously paced movie, however, it’s a devastating visual, although it’s topped in this regard by the final shot, which is at once startlingly abrupt and yet retrospectively inevitable.
Sleepless Nights is a bold documentary that asks difficult questions about the process of truth and reconciliation in a country still divided among religious and political lines, but it’s also an example of a filmmaker trying to think and work in images. At a special panel hosted by filmmaker Robert Greene, four young American film critics—-Vadim Rizov, Miriam Bale, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Eric Hynes (who was in town with a terrific sidebar program entitled “Neither/Nor” about hybrid documentaries made in New York in the 1960s)—-debated the question of aesthetics in non-fiction filmmaking. The general consensus was that too many documentaries get a pass from reviewers on the strength of their content rather than their form, and that a new critical language is required for movies that emphasize visual sensation over journalistic reportage. Exhibit A: Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk, a vivid account of a Karachi orphanage that forgoes facts and figures about Pakistan’s socioeconomic situation, instead offering up one astonishingly lyrical passage after another.
The most memorable sequence may the first, which trails a young boy running down a beach towards the sea, which he plunges into without a moment’s hesitation: his reckless abandon is mirrored by the filmmakers, who plunked themselves down into the seething physical and emotional maelstrom of a makeshift home for runaway boys and captured the chaos of so many lonely, unwanted children bumping up against each other in a small space. At times, the raw, violent nature of what’s happening onscreen recalls Allan King’s Warrendale, but the handheld digital cameras permit an even greater proximity and intimacy with the subjects. As a contemporary example of the practice of “direct cinema,” These Birds Walk is extremely impressive.
Like any festival, all of True/False’s films weren’t all hits. Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, about the rocky but loving relationship between an expatriate, octogenarian Japanese conceptual artist and his long-suffering wife, is too intent on being adorable (and will likely travel far and wide because of it), while Georgian director Tinatin Gurchiani’s The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is a beautifully shot yet oddly shapeless meditation on the former Soviet Republic’s present-day malaise. The filmmaker has clearly seen the Iranian master Moshen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema, but it’s a superficial homage: the conceit of having her subjects “audition” for the film before picking up their stories never quite comes together. But even these were hardly out-and-out misfires, and the fact is that the screenings for some of the more unconventional titles on offer—like British filmmaker Peter Whitehead’s kaleidoscopic experimental 1969 feature The Fall, which suggests a New York City gloss on Godard–were just as packed as the potential crowd-pleasers. As True/False enters its second decade, it seems less a question of where they go next than whether or not more and more filmmakers and critics will start to make the pilgrimage to Missouri in February. It says here that it’s a pretty good bet.
Editor’s note: The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, Cutie and the Boxer and These Birds Walk had their Canadian premieres at Hot Docs after screening at True/False.