By Ben Godar
The pre-show bumpers at this year’s True/False Film Festival profiled a watchmaker, an astrophysicist and others, all of them dancing around the idea of time. And many of the more than 40 films that screened at the festival also resonated with some facet of time.
Sam Green’s The Measure of All Things (a title that itself can be read as an allusion to time) continues the director’s exploration of the “live documentary.” With a pastiche of images and video projected behind him and accompanied by a three-piece live band, Green tells the story of The Guiness Book of World Records and many of the oddballs profiled in its pages.
It’s a rich experience, with plenty of humor along the surface, but Green mines deeper to ask complicated questions. The various records each mark a moment in time, and eventually the records and even the people who hold them disappear. In some of its more poignant moments, Green profiles the ever-changing “oldest person in the world” and the former tallest man in the world, who Green quips is now just “a very tall man.” There is a memorable entry in the book for a park ranger struck by lightning seven times that cryptically states that he died by his own hand because he was unlucky in love. Green tries to put flesh on the bones of that story but finds the details of the man’s life are largely lost to time.
Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is stunning for its intimacy, taking us back in time and putting us in the room with the brilliant and troubled artist. There’s material you expect in a rock doc — backstage scenes at concerts and bits between takes during the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video shoot. Then there are the volumes of home camcorder footage, particularly of Cobain and Courtney Love as they descend further into heroin addiction and are eventually joined there by daughter Frances Bean.
The film gets even more intimate with private recordings and sound montages made by Cobain himself. These are moments in Cobain’s own words never heard before. Morgen makes extensive use of animation to visualize these recordings and to bring the paintings and drawings from Cobain’s extensive journals to life. There are brief talking head moments with key people like Love, bandmate Krist Novoselic and Cobain’s parents, which help provide context, but for the majority of the film the viewer walks with Cobain.
In a touching Q&A at the most appropriate of venues, the Columbia rock club The Blue Note, fellow filmmaker Esther Robinson (A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory) put it to Morgen that his was a film that could only be made by a fellow father. Morgen said he wanted to make the film for Frances Bean, who has no memory of her father, and recounted watching her and Love see the film for the first time.
While more straight-forward in its style, Jerry Rothwell’s How to Change the World creates a similar time-capsule experience as it tells the story of Greenpeace. One of the group’s core principles from its earliest days was simply to “bear witness” to horrific events, but the cameras they brought also captured the founders themselves. For wide stretches of the film, we are out on a boat with these idealistic, daring and idiosyncratic characters as they struggle to first take action then build a movement and eventually wrangle a global organization.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, takes place in the now, but its characters are still very much locked in the horror of the 1965 killings and military coup in Indonesia. Flipping the focus to the victim’s side of the atrocities, optometrist Adi Rukun confronts some of the perpetrators in hopes of breaking his family out of the feedback loop they have been trapped in for 50 years. The festival’s True Life Fund, which seeks to aid documentary subjects, is this year dedicated to Rukun and his family, now in hiding.
While time plays a key role in many of the films at True/False, it is perhaps confronted most directly in the speculative documentary The Visit. Danish director Michael Madsen dramatizes the first human contact with an alien craft that has landed on earth. He does this through a combination of interviews with scientists, philosophers and public relations experts and footage of the human response that is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes abstract. In examining how humanity would respond to extraterrestrial life, the film becomes a deeply philosophical reflection on who we are.
It’s always interesting when subject matter recurs in a film festival, and both The Visit and The Measure of All Things consider the gold records in the Voyager Space Craft, the first man-made items to leave the universe. As one scientist notes in The Visit, the picture of humanity portrayed in those records did not include the darker sides of our nature, such as our propensity to war. A big question the experts in the film wrestle with is whether mankind would approach an alien intelligence with kindness and inquiry, or whether the fear of losing control would spark hostility.
As always, True/False featured a rich variety of documentaries for the 2015 festival, and searching for a through line is always a bit like looking at a Rorschach Test. Time is ever-present, always lurking in the background, but in many of the films at this year’s festival, it comes more to the fore.