Heart and Form in the Midwest: The Best of the 2017 True/False Film Festival

This year’s highlights include another new documentary about rats, films about preschoolers, and a Claire Simon retrospective.

Theo Anthony’s ‘Rat Film’

For the third year running I’ve decided to forgo attending Sundance in favor of visiting Columbia, Missouri’s little gem of a film festival, True/False. Celebratory in nature and community orientated in practice, True/False feels less like a mechanical beast forced into awkward motion by the industrial hands that be, more like a full-on neighborhood party with culturally diverse bands playing at every screening, plus extra-curricular events all around town like the filmmaker-fueled March March parade. Stated plainly, it’s just more fun.

Sporting just under 60 films this year (including shorts), many of which were culled from the Sundance program, as well as Locarno and IDFA, the festival continues to focus its curatorial prowess on “chimeric” cinema, as they put it — films that toe the line between fiction and nonfiction. Last year, hybrid gems like All These Sleepless Nights and Kate Plays Christine screened alongside winsome hits like Weiner and Life, Animated. The festival’s homegrown programming team make sure the locals have plenty of A-grade variety to sample, from wildly experimental fair to crowd-pleasing future Oscar nominees, while also celebrating the work of unrecognized international masters with its annual True Vision Award and mini-retrospective.

Claire Simon’s ‘Mimi’

This year, the True Vision Award, a mid-career achievement honor for one’s dedication to the advancement of nonfiction filmmaking, was bestowed upon the London-born French filmmaker Claire Simon. Much like last year’s recipient, Mehrdad Oskousei, was last year, Simon came as a completely new discovery to me, with her remarkable Ateliers Varan-trained Direct Cinema chops on full display in the trio of films presented. One was Mimi, a sublime stroll-around portrait of Simon’s friend Mimi Chiola as she meanders through the quiet streets of Nice and the awe inspiring mountain village of Saorge recounting fleeting, formative moments from her life. It remained one of the highlights of the weekend, and it was also the sole 35mm print projected at the festival.

Simon’s 1992 breakthrough, Récréations, and her latest, The Graduation, both focus their patient gaze upon students, ruthlessly cruel, infinitely imaginative, and always communally learning as preschoolers roaming the yard during recess in the former and anxious applicants of France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis, in the latter. Both also excel at excavating emotional resonance and unexpected humor from misjudged social interactions, misplaced trust, and the hope instilling milestones of shared educational experience. Récréations is itself a bit rough around the edges, matching its jittery handheld aesthetic and early ’90s video quality with the dirt covered kids as they spit, kick, and care for one another in the yard. Meanwhile, in gleaming HD, The Graduation gives incredible insight into the meticulous vetting process that one must endure to gain entry to La Fémis, which Simon herself never attended but now teaches at. The biggest lesson learned from this mini crash course in Simon’s work? We must seek out more of it.

Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster’s ‘Miss Kiet’s Children’

Another glowing student-centered highlight was Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster’s Miss Kiet’s Children, an IDFA premiere. Settling into the safe space of a Dutch elementary school classroom filled with immigrants and refugees from the Syrian civil war and beyond, the filmmakers shoot from child’s eye-level as their lanky, noble instructor guides them through daily lessons of language, arithmetic, athleticism, and most moving in its grandeur and simplicity, empathy. The film’s tranquil observational style sings while children give sidelong looks to one another as Miss Kiet’s gives repeated instructions on the task at hand, or as the immensely understanding instructor effortlessly explains why bullying on the playground is wrong while implementing positive reinforcement for what was done right in the same situation. Quiet and cute, but big hearted and bold in its serene handling of the immigrant experience, Miss Kiet’s Children may have been my personal favorite — plus, it could have simply been titled “Preschool” had Frederick Wiseman been behind the camera.

A pair of impressive unconventional feature debuts came by way of Locarno in Theo Anthony’s apocalyptic Rat Film and Yuri Ancarani’s beguiling The Challenge. Both, having received high critical praise right out of the gate, arrived on American soil for the first time suffering no loss of creative casualties on their way through customs. Anthony’s film, which debuted around the same time as Morgan Spurlock’s gleefully trashy, globetrotting exploitation romp Rats, stays local, sticking to the streets of the filmmaker’s hometown of Baltimore. Rat Film embraces an off-kilter essayistic form that digs through the city’s legislative history of systematic segregation (in its way reminding me of Robert Persons’ mournful General Orders № 9) and rat-infested back alleys of the city’s tenements, subversively suggesting along the way that the countless minorities left amongst the wreckage of unjust codification have been little more than rats in a failed experiment run by white bodies. Meticulously researched and eerily presented by an ethereal Siri-like voiceover, Rat Film’s crushing thesis lands with a serious crunch that reminds of the death and detritus that’s been institutionalized since the city’s inception.

While Rat Film delves into a city’s repressed inner circles, The Challenge follows the mind-boggling excesses of Arab aristocracy with the same biting exactitude we’ve come to expect from Ancarani. As we’ve seen in shorts like Platform Moon and Il Capo, where work environments are decontextualized in favor of experimenting with mood and late-played revelation, here Ancarani reframes the Arab world as an alien landscape of luxury where bands of men ride golden choppers through the desert, keep cheetahs as pets, and train falcons for competition. As a complete foreigner who only contacted these men after discovering their tendency to show off on Instagram, Ancarani is granted incredible access, revealing a lifestyle mirrored by Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini’s over-the-top orchestral score and wholly unimaginable in its absurdity without the proof provided within. And in a moment of technical brilliance too good to completely spoil here, The Challenge is revealed to be for animal biology to adapt to human opulence.

Viktor Jakovleski’s Brimstone & Glory

Of the handful of docs to have their world premieres at True/False, I most enjoyed Viktor Jakovleski’s audio visual stunner Brimstone & Glory, which takes us into the explosive chaos at the heart of Tultepec, Mexico’s annual fireworks festival for San Juan de Dios. With little narrative and a culturally specific in-the-thick-of-it aesthetic, the film sometimes feels like the immersive work of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. But with Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s bombastic score that lines the film and seems to propel the action as countless fireworks explode in the center of crowded streets and locals (and the film crew) dance among the spark, there is no denying that this is a wholly original, immensely pleasurable experience that has no qualms about its lack of intellectualizing. This is filmmaking for fun, and the result is indeed just that.

Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2 by Florent Vassault is intentionally much less fun, as it deals with the emotional and ethical aftermath of putting a man to death for his own acts of murder. The film sees the titular Lindy Lou hitting the road and reaching out to her fellow jurors many years after the trial in an effort to see if their decision has haunted them, as it has her, in its wake. Though repetitious in its structure of visiting individual jurors one at a time, what’s most fascinating about Vassault’s humble little film is its interest not in the exhumed mystery of murderous guilt, like most modern true crime docs, but of the moral quandaries that one might occasionally face when actively serving out one’s democratic duties as an American. It sees Lou front, center, and in a state of unusual catharsis — that incredible moment where one belief slips from one side of the great divide over onto the other.

I was less impressed with Jeff Unay’s The Cage Fighter, a film that follows a 40-year-old father and husband, who seems unable to let go of his ego for the sake of his family, as he trains and fights on the sly until he can hide it no longer. The film was originally announced under the guise of Secret Screening Krypton, one of just three of True/False’s fabled secret screenings this year, until its real title was mysteriously revealed and subsequently billed as a co-presentation by the San Francisco International Film Festival. Beautifully lensed and warmly characterized, it’s essentially a nonfiction take on The Wrestler, in which we’re tasked with debating when exactly should one break from inherited shortcomings to fulfill one’s own potential, with little surprise along the way.

Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie

Two shorts that reached their own full potential this past weekend were programmed as a pair. Having taken part in the 2015 Entrevues Belfort shorts competition, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Ana Maria Gomes’s Antonio, Dashing Antonio has finally arrived stateside. Fifty years ago, the director’s uncle left Portugal for Brazil at the age of 19 and never looked back, despite pleas from his family. Within, Gomes, as if knowingly prodding a hornet’s nest with a stick, gently interrogates her prickly grandmother and other relatives as to the whereabouts of her uncle. The resulting conversations send crosscurrents of startling humor and calloused heartbreak that tragically stem from the long severed remains of family ties. With sharp-edged editing that suggests a sort of psychic travel across time and space and a surprise ending that’s as bittersweet as it gets, Antonio, Dashing Antonio made for a brilliant opener of a superb double bill alongside Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie. A Kartemquin-supported project, Checkoway’s film introduces us to Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison of Annandale, Virginia, the world’s oldest interracial newlyweds. At ages 96 and 95, their late-life love affair seems the stuff of fairytales — we witness them going out dancing and attending their weekly church service — but it isn’t long before we learn that Edith’s mental state has left her under the legal care of those who have more interest in her property than her wishes. Much like Antonio, Edith+Eddie examines the psychic repercussions of familial estrangement to devastating effect.

As with the best of True/False’s offerings this year, it is the mix of incredible access and a willingness to embrace a story’s shrewdly synthesized structure, running the gamut from unbelievable fantasy to unbearable nightmare, that yields an extraordinarily memorable work of nonfiction that stands among the festival’s best. For a festival of its modest size, True/False maintains an incomprehensible level of quality across the board while continuously cultivating a sense of homegrown community, both locally and among the filmmakers in town for the weekend. So, it is with much gratitude that I depart, having been a part of something truly special once again.