Magic and Realism: Reflections From the 2014 True/False Film Fest

By Ben Godar

happy valley 1

Coming early in the year and focused on documentaries, the True/False Film Fest provides a glimpse of what’s coming in nonfiction cinema and sometimes a hint of ideas stirring the collective unconscious. Two years ago, The Queen of Versailles led a flood of films reflecting the economic collapse. There was even a year when the festival played two different films about Mexican circus families.

The films on this year’s program were often interested in storytelling itself, in the mechanics of how their subjects craft their own narratives. In that regard, they feel like a natural progression of the conversations from recent work like Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing.

Amir Bar Lev’s Happy Valley, focused on the Penn State community in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and Jeremiah Zagar’s Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, both focus on sensational tabloid court cases. Both are also more fixated on how these stories were told than the crimes themselves.

Happy Valley begins with the swarm of news vans and cameras around the courthouse. We watch the first images of Captivated through a television. That sets a template for both films, where the subjects wrestle with how others see their story more than with an objective truth. A painter in Happy Valley struggles with how to portray Joe Paterno in his mural, constantly painting over what he had before. When Paterno is fired, the rioting students tip over a news van and focus their rage on how “the media” is telling the story. Every person associated with the Pamela Smart case is mindful of how they look as the case plays out, down to the judge who wonders if Clint Eastwood might play him in the film. Zagar shows us one of the detectives who arrested Smart asking for a second take to deliver his hard-boiled quip from the moment of the arrest, then also shows us the detective delivering the same line on a half-dozen shows over the years.

No film at the festival was more focused on controlling a narrative than the Nick Cave profile 20,000 Days on Earth. Cave reflects on how he has crafted a world, from his music and writing to his very persona, as a form of transformation, an attempt to change himself from what he perceived himself to be as a child. But the film itself is also a construction, scripted by Cave and co-directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. We see Cave in the studio and on stage, but also riding in the car with people from his past who appear and disappear like ghosts. The whole film is framed as one mythical day, the 20,000th of Cave’s life.

Forsyth told the crowd before one screening that as they were making the film he “didn’t think we were making a documentary.” Some certainly wouldn’t define it as such. But the narrative flourishes only serve to enhance the seemingly genuine portrayal of Cave. In one memorable scene, he visits a supposed archive of his life, where a staff of historians sort through his photographs and writings. It may not be real (it isn’t), but it feels like being inside Cave as he reflects on his past.

stand clear of the closing doors

The theme of this year’s festival was “Magic/Realism,” and 20,000 Days on Earth was just one of the films that set aside conventional ideas of documentary realism in pursuit of something more magic.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors tells a scripted story of an undocumented, autistic boy wandering the New York subways. Filmed in real locations even as Hurricane Sandy approached and devastated the neighborhood, it has the potential to become the type of narrative film that lives on more for its documentary value, in the way Killer of Sheep survives as a snapshot of Watts in the 1970s.

Probably no film at the festival is more interesting to examine under the lens of documentary storytelling than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Scripted and filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the film is not a documentary. And yet the weight of time — actual time — lends resonance to small moments that might play flat in a typical drama. There is a scene late in the film where a small character from much earlier reappears in a surprising place. In a traditional narrative, this wouldn’t be much of a surprise. But when he walked back onscreen, there was an audible gasp and tears from the audience, because in the real-time world of Boyhood, it truly felt like the magic of bumping into someone from your past.

Documentaries derive a certain power from the underlying reality onscreen. When a film like Boyhood can incorporate the reality of time, it projects a similar power. So often, it seems documentaries are borrowing techniques from narrative filmmaking. It’s interesting to see the exchange go the other way.

At least in the films on the True/False program, there seems to be a continuing willingness by filmmakers to mix-and-match elements from fiction and nonfiction in their storytelling. That will probably raise eyebrows of documentary purists, but it also creates some unique and vital cinema.