The True/False Film Fest kicks off this week in Columbia, Missouri, and I couldn’t be more excited. Entering its 11th year, the festival brings the best of international nonfiction cinema together in a single weekend of screenings, panel discussions and concerts. Past films have included Stories We Tell, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Arbor and nonfiction-adjacent hits like V/H/S and Trollhunter. And while it can seem like missing the point to tie a documentary festival to the Oscar race, it’s worth noting that three of this year’s Best Documentary Feature nominees have True/False on their festival resumes.
This time around there are 43 feature films, three shorts programs and 20 additional shorts that will be shown along with feature selections. Here are the five films at the top of my list:
Sacro GRA was the first documentary in history to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival back in September, which is reason alone to take notice. It looks stunning, a loosely assembled portrait of Rome’s enormous orbital motorway, the Grande Raccordo Anulare. Director Gianfranco Rosi is already a formidable talent, as well. Robert Greene canonized one of his earlier works, Below Sea Level, in a column last year. There’s also Rosi’s last film, 2010’s El Sicario, Room 164. It’s an unadorned shot to the face, a shockingly direct and chillingly honest interview with a former assassin in the employ of a Mexican drug cartel.
The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
Jessica Oreck has an interesting filmography, one that has so far been somewhat more unified than it seems on the surface. To put it briefly, she has a knack for picking up on the details, the little things. Taken literally, this concern with the minute drives Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, her investigation of Japan’s obsession with insects. Yet it also comes up in her last feature, Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys. What could have been a sweeping, Sensory Ethnography Lab-style portrait of the lives of reindeer is instead a film primarily concerned with the way these animals factor into the lives of the people around them. And of course there is her fantastic series of short films, animated etymologies gathered under the heading “Mysteries of Vernacular.”
All of that said, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga sounds like a major departure for Oreck, a new step into the realm of the magical and the enigmatic. The strength of her earlier work, in particular the spiritual suggestions of Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and the clever images of “Mysteries of Vernacular,” only make this leap into Russian mythology all the more exciting.
I love a good city symphony. Much of the films that have already been made about the Arab Spring have focused on place, notably including Oscar nominees Karama Has No Walls and The Square. Sherief Elkatsha’s Cairo Drive also looks to define a city, yet with an approach that is not constructed around any particular political chain of events (though I assume that the Egyptian Revolution will play a significant role). Moreover, traffic in particular has become an issue for a number of recent documentaries, including urban design films like The Human Scale. Now more than ever the problems of transportation in the world’s major cities are seen as crucial issues, and it appears that Elkatsha is using Cairo Drive to approach these questions in a new way.
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel
One of the most surreal moments from last year’s fight over gay marriage in France was the confrontation (watch the video) between Femen (a group of topless female Ukrainian feminist activists) and Hommen (a group of topless male anti-gay French activists). And while I’m still waiting on the documentary profile of the latter group and their homoerotic neo-Fascist antics, I’m thrilled to see director Kitty Green’s new film on the former.
Victor Kossakovsky’s enormously ambitious ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! was one of the most interesting cinematic experiences of last year, nonfiction or otherwise. Its breadth, combining and manipulating images taken from opposite ends of the earth in surprising and inspired ways, is hard to follow. Rather than work in the same milieu, Kossakovsky is following it up with an equally ambitious project in an entirely different vein. Demonstration is a “film ballet” of the massive protests that occurred in Barcelona in the spring of 2012, filmed by 32 of the director’s students. One wonders if Kossakovsky is simply only interested in projects that seem impossible on paper.