The 2014 True/False Film Fest has come and gone, like a strange and wonderful whirlwind. Every film festival wants to be a physical incarnation of the love of cinema, but a lot of them wind up taken over by the business end of things. This four-day Columbia, Missouri, party for docs and doc-lovers is the real deal. The programming is creative and eccentric and so are the audiences and volunteers, among the most refreshingly enthusiastic people I have ever encountered in a movie theater. It really is a unique and shining spot on the American movie calendar.
But enough about True/False on the whole. I saw a whole bunch of really interesting, unexpected films over the course of my long weekend in Columbia. Many of them took the name of the festival to heart, blurring the line between narrative and documentary. All of them contributed to the growing notion that nonfiction cinema is an equal form of artistic expression to more traditionally art-house fiction filmmaking. Here are my eight favorites:
Big Men, directed by Rachel Boynton
Part of the struggle to define the documentary form as an artistic one has been its relationship with the field of journalism. Can a fact-finding expose also be a work of art? Well, Rachel Boynton’s film is pretty compelling proof that there is no real line between these two aspects of nonfiction filmmaking. It begins in 2005 as a chronicle of the West African ambitions of a small, privately held American oil company called Kosmos Energy. With incredible access, Boynton weaves a complex tapestry of politics and finance that builds out from the discovery of oil in Ghanaian waters into the internal turmoil of the 2008 global financial crisis. Alongside all of this is Nigeria, a neighboring example of the treacherous “resource curse” that can wreck any nation that mismanages the sudden discovery of so much oil. It feels like the sort of nonfiction novel that would win a Pulitzer, a triumph of sharp economic analysis.
Yet at the same time, Boynton is interested in the psychology of her subjects. Texas oilmen, Ghanaian politicians, Nigerian officials and guerrillas alike all want to become “big men.” This film is about what that means and if there really is a universal desire for wealth and power that governs all of our domestic and international affairs. In this way it shares a sensibility with the Hollywood classic that Boynton quotes at the start, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There are moments of raw ambition and unexpected honesty in Big Men that evoke much more than even the best reportage.
Demonstration, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky and 32 students
Demonstration is unique for a number of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is its unconventional directing credit. Viktor Kossakovsky was teaching a class in Barcelona in the spring of 2012. Rather than simply lecture his students, he decided that they should go out and make a film. Fortuitously, the next day would feature one of the largest and most dramatic demonstrations in the city’s history. The 32 students went out to shoot, and then in the coming days Kossakovsky led them through the process of editing and completing the documentary.
It is also much more than a simple 70 minutes of assembled protest footage. It has a hero of sorts, an aging Spaniard who has devoted his life to the constant proclamation of liberty in the streets of Barcelona. Kossakovsky sees him as a Don Quixote figure, and the music of Ludwig Minkus’s ballet about the knight errant serves as the soundtrack. This classical ballet is perfect for the film, its short movements seamlessly paired with assembled vignettes of the demonstration’s main themes. Photographers, riot police, paddy wagons, anarchists, bankers and even helicopters appear in musical succession. The result is a bright-eyed and brutally ironic portrait of a revolutionary moment with a very ambiguous result.
Sacro GRA, directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Rome is one of the world’s most iconic cities. In the cinema it is known for its glitz, which includes both its secular style and its ecclesiastical pomp. Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Lion-winning documentary flips that on its head, focusing instead upon the least glamorous of urban institutions, the highway. Finding Roman citizens on and around the GRA (Grande Raccordo Anulare), he patches together a quiet and confident cross-section of Italian society’s fringes. (My review)
The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, directed by Jessica Oreck
There is an enigma at the core of The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, and it cannot be easily solved. The dark mysteries of Eastern Europe and its tumultuous 20th century persist today, in its aloof rural and urban landscapes and in fairy tales that retain a brutal relevance. The disappearances of recent history and the absences of the present are fodder for bold and ethereal filmmaking, here conjured by Jessica Oreck in her third feature. It is haunting because its distant air of dread is not actually so foreign and gets at concepts more immanent in human society than we might hope. (My review)
A Magical Slate of Short Films
The theme of this year’s True/False was Magic Realism, a clever choice for a documentary festival. Its influence was felt most dramatically in the short films, many of which blew straight past the usual border between fiction and nonfiction and created new relationships between reality and the supernatural.
There’s Emergency Calls, a Finnish film that matches the audio of real 911 calls with NASA footage and a pair of calm extraterrestrials in the role of emergency dispatchers. Lois Patiño’s Mountain in Shadow steals the color away from footage of skiers flying up and down snow slopes, offering gorgeous images and an uncommon perspective on humanity from above. The Green Serpent hunts for the magical powers of vodka, to both hilarious and desolate effect.
And finally, one of the festival’s best films of any length is Miraculous Tales. It’s a spiritually minded tour through the magical landscape of Northern Ireland, full of ancient cures for any ailment and a multitude of approaches to faith. The principal guide through both history and present is Mickey McGuigan, a staunch old believer in the tallest of tales and certainly one of the most memorably documentary characters of the year.