The True/False Film Festival held its ninth incarnation earlier this month in the bucolic college town of Columbia Missouri, and Paste was there to take it all in. Here were our eight favorite films we saw there:
As festival co-founder David Wilson explained before the screening of V/H/S, True/False sees their mission as showing selections “that advance the conversation about documentary film.” Although V/H/S is a narrative film, it’s a refreshing take on the found-footage craze currently sweeping the horror genre. There’s a framing device where a group of guys break into a house and find an old man dead amongst a large pile of VHS tapes. Each one reveals a new story in the anthology. As you might expect, some of the chapters are weaker than others, but the strong ones – notably Joe Swanberg’s “The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (a ghost story told through, of all things, a series of Skype video calls) and David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” (a boys’-night-out-gone-oh-so-very-wrong tale) – make the wild ride more than worthwhile.
Filmed over 11 days in January and February, 2011, 1/2 Revolution chronicles the first days of the Egyptian revolution and military coup that unseated dictator Hosni Mubarak. A group of emigres, living in Cairo by choice, face great personal risk as they try to film the events on the street as Egyptian protesters face off with secret police, the Egyptian army, and Cairo’s police force. As the revolution lands on their doorstep, the filmmakers must weigh the risks to themselves and their families against the benefit of international attention to their cause. 1/2 Revolution is gritty, unpolished, heart-wrenching, and riveting. This is revolution in real-time. Every day people attend to the nuts and bolts of life—bathing the baby, cooking a meal, searching for an open grocery—while actively participating in a revolutionary uprising. 1/2 Revolution is violent and bloody, and there is plenty of unfocused footage as the camera operators are swept up in crowds or run away from secret police. One striking subtext worth looking for: in the opening days of the uprising, we see hundreds of cameras and cell phones recording the protests in center-city Cairo. Within a couple of days, police begin targeting protesters with cameras, driving them away with tear-gas grenades. By 1/2 Revolution’s end, being suspected of carrying a camera becomes a life-threatening decision. In the modern age, the immediate dissemination of information is as formidable a weapon as a soldier’s gun. — Joan Radell
Alison Klayman’s loving portrait of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei may strike some as hagiographic, but how can it not be? This is a man who would be a major artist no matter what his national origin. Yet both his art and his story are made infinitely more fascinating by the incredible courage and steadfastness he shows in openly defying and mocking one of the most evil regimes on Earth. He’s smarter than them, he’s more talented than them, and he’s more charismatic and popular than them. Of course, they have the guns. That the fight seems evenly matched may be the greatest tribute of all.
Rachel Leah Jones’ documentary on her father, celebrated flamenco guitarist David Serva, purports to explore the answers to the questions, “How does a white boy with Alabama roots become a flamenco guitarist in Andalusian boots, and what happens behind the scenes along the way?” Those are certainly interesting questions, but they aren’t the central ones in Gypsy Davy. The real questions—addressed to a father who abandoned the filmmaker and her mother when she was only a year old—are much more emotionally raw and honest: “Why did you leave me? How could you leave me? How can I ever forgive you for it?” Jones sets out to find the answers to these questions like a scientist cataloguing stories instead of flora and fauna. She interviews her father, her mother, the woman for whom her father left her mother. The woman after that. The siblings created along the way. In the process, Jones tells a story that’s as unique as the “white boy with Alabama roots finds flamenco” tag line suggests, yet also one that feels all too familiar to anyone ever abandoned by a parent. Throughout Gypsy Davy, Jones does an admirable job of being honest about her long-harbored pain and the bitterness it’s produced without letting either overwhelm herself or the audience. Even more impressive, Jones doesn’t let her emotional stake shake her command of the documentarian’s art, deftly weaving the fifty-plus years of her father’s loves, losses and leavings into a compelling tale filled with narrative twists, turns and surprises. Not every question is answered—one gets the sense Jones’ father couldn’t answer some of them if he tried—but for the viewer, as with the director, the journey trying to find them counts for something. —Michael Burgin
I’m not allowed to reveal too much about this film yet, but I can say that it features an unprecedently intimate behind-the-scenes look at two athletes at the highest level of competition in their field. It’s one of my favorite kinds of documentary—it starts out looking like it’s going to be one kind of film, then abruptly changes into a very different one halfway through. This one explores profound questions of competition, collaboration, loyalty, sacrifice, and self-sabotage. We’ll update with the title and more specific information as soon as we’re cleared to do so.
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music docs that it was parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. As Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez, the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early Seventies, then disappeared, it appears he’s on a familiar road. But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve – the road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa (when a record store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it – he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prision. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive?
By contrast, it’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their thirteen year old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre. Truly thrilling.
Reading the description of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s remarkable film – two friends who are world-class fishermen, half a country apart, take a trip to British Columbia to fly fish and reconnect – you’ll think that you’re in for a slow, meditative, deeply felt journey with lots of beautiful scenery. And it is meditative and deeply felt and beautiful, but it’s anything but slow. Having two fascinating, outspoken, and often at-odds subjects helps, as does the deft and slightly mischievous touch of editor Alex Jablonski. But most of all, Hudson and Hughen seem determined not to settle for a tone poem, to tell a real story here. And it’s mesmerizing. The best documentary of the year so far.