The Here and Now of True/False Film Fest
It takes a good deal of aesthetic refinement and theoretical interest in cinema as an art form to care about the documentary/fiction hybrids screening at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri. They simply cannot be fully appreciated otherwise. But then again, maybe not. One event at True/False is structured like a game show, and it still engages with the audiovisual discernment that the rest of the festival is trying to develop. Gimme Truth!, hosted by Brian Babylon, screened a series of short films so that three judges — and the audience — could guess whether they are authentic or fabricated pieces of media. The judges are filmmakers themselves — Sierra Pettengill (Graven Image ), Chase Whiteside (América ), and Sandi Tan (Shirkers ) — who are expected to know the how’s and why’s of film narration. The rule: each judge could ask the (ostensible) filmmaker one question to find out whether the audiovisual fragment was coming from an actual film or not. Some questions related to backstory (if this is an actual documentary, how well does the author know the subjects?) and others to media form. For example, a short film about one girl’s mysterious twin sister never shows the two siblings touching each other but rather in their separate halves of the frame to make it seemingly easier to digitally insert the same actress twice.
True/False unfolded like a version of the same guessing game, though with higher stakes: it implied active spectatorship and constant questioning of documentary/fiction conventions. The images on screen both revealed and concealed the subject, since every edit of every film abandons temporal continuity in favor of a discursive one. For instance, Miles Lagoze’s Combat Obscura (2018) can be taken at face value. It shows U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan either hanging out or in action, either risking their lives in real time or in a probably unjustifiable hunt for members of the Taliban among perplexed civilians. However, aside from what these recordings show, the viewing experience is amplified by knowing that what goes on is real and, more importantly, close to home for the filmmaker. He was sent by the U.S. government to shoot heroic footage, but he recorded his colleagues far longer than he needed to. The compilation of his outtakes is anything but recruitment propaganda. Some scenes in the film are reminiscent of Samuel Fuller’s satirical depictions of war, except Lagoze’s weren’t staged. The vantage point resembles Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), only with less emotional detachment and without the comforting device of following an unperceptive fictional character who produces these images. In Combat Obscura, one cannot look away.
Further insights from the trenches are on display in Beata Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet (2017), a Ukrainian war film that has captivated the True/False team with its aesthetic — a long uninterrupted take, a digression from a tense encounter to a very long and mundane interval of a couple arguing over the phone. The overheard argument is all the more alienating for Bubenec films only from one partner’s perspective (we watch the man venting his anger on the phone). And yet Flight of the Bullet seems to have had a different response farther east and closer to home. According to several sources (all of them Russian and thus their objectivity dubious regarding Ukrainian matters), a screening at Moscow’s ArtDocFest was interrupted by a group of pro-Kremlin radicals that judged the film as “inciting ethnic hatred.” It must be said that the film is quite opaque, with the camera taking a fly-on-the-wall stance (as much as possible when recording an ongoing armed conflict) and merely capturing the dynamic of a Ukrainian volunteer soldiers’ group. The main strategic event is that the soldiers capture a civilian and interrogate him, suspecting him to be a pro-Russian separatist. He seems cooperative and they let him go. This would be an open and shut case, except that the filmed record of the event — including all of the information that the man discloses — is recorded for ulterior viewing. The personal information that he shares is obstructed on the soundtrack, creating almost a rhythmic pattern. (To anyone who doesn’t speak Ukrainian, the distortion becomes the only recognizable sound in the film). And yet his nonconsensual appearance in the film still remains. When he asks about the presence of the cameraperson, the soldiers lie to him, which helps prevent the recording from interfering with the reality being documented (keeping it an objective rather than participatory type of filmmaking) but is demonstrably immoral toward the unwitting subject.
What is implicit in Flight of a Bullet is more than explicit in Leigh Ledare’s The Task (2017). The film features nothing but subtle group dynamics. In a three-day workshop where seeming strangers interact with each other with no definable common purpose, the touchiness or painfully repressed resentment of everyday social relations — depending on how you look at it — has time to surface. Participants sit in concentric circles and interact with each other, making assumptions based on age, gender, race, appearance/style, (coincidentally, in perfect alignment to how spectators view them) and every inflection in every phrase uttered about anybody in the room. The presence of cameras, the privileged role of consultants, and even the fact that one is sitting on a particular chair at the center of the room — all are endowed with undeniable meaning. While progressive spectators are expected to sympathize with the way in which participants express their feelings (when finally freed from the hierarchical constraints that govern most of our lives), the endlessness of this over-interpretative process can be exasperating. When the director silently walks a few meters from the edge of the room to occupy an empty seat in the center, this triggers an emotional explosion in the room that can hardly appear as anything but exaggerated. Whether the opposing viewpoints lead to consent or to escalating tensions, one has to ask: What does all this talk really solve? Which of the assumptions and associations are legitimate and which of them aren’t? If this is a small-scale representation of our society’s effort to produce a better and more equal world, it is a pretty bleak one.
The viewing pleasures at True/False are wide-ranging, with every film trying to be the best in its niche of cinema — and doing a remarkable job at it. In the four days that I spent at its 15th edition (and the first I attended), I was looking for similarities among these films, trying to find associations and connecting them in the web of my memory. Several titles would make interesting pairings for a double bill: for instance, Khalik Allah’s Black Mother (2018) and Sophie Fiennes’ Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017). Both refer to Jamaica as a spiritual homeland where there’s no real going back. For Allah, his mother’s family is Jamaican, but he can only look at the country with the distance and appreciation of someone living further west. In the Q&A, he mentioned that he was wary when using his own voice on the soundtrack as it didn’t blend in with the Jamaican voices that completed the film’s mosaic. For Grace Jones, her Jamaican identity was always part of her persona — if only in the sense that she wouldn’t fully assimilate in Paris or the U.S., that she would rather come across as exotic than well-behaved according to social norms. As for the films themselves, exoticism doesn’t exactly characterize the two. Like many other programs at True/False, if something seems totally unapproachable and unconnected to the rest of the world, we’re probably not looking at it patiently enough to reveal its depth.
While Bloodlight and Bami has a wider appeal simply because Grace Jones is a star, the documentary blends in with the True/False selection due to Jones’ commitment to authenticity. Maintaining a sexualized image — not to be confused with availability — in her mature years, she walks proudly onstage with long, naked legs and a manly coat. She performs according to her own creative urges and not for the willingness to please. There is one unsettling scene in the documentary that runs for quite some time and that Fiennes doesn’t comment on: Jones is at the center of a Parisian stage (wearing black sequins and more covered than usual), surrounded by younger dancers in pink lingerie. In the intermission, she confronts the agent about it, complaining that the dance number makes her look like the matron in a brothel. She grumbles, “We are artists, we know what things mean.” The brilliant way in which the scene is edited — the spectacle that could only produce one effect, followed by Jones spelling it out — succinctly brings the point home. There is calculation behind every communicative gesture, and the best that one can do is to acknowledge it. True/False is all about the discernment of these communicative devices. Besides its importance as a document, an image has affective value, iconic value, and even disconcerting value. There is no such thing as raw reality. We cannot read any image without having been trained, and maybe untrained, to perceive it.
The 2018 True/False Film Fest (Columbia, Missouri) took place on March 1–4.