In the age of Trump, nonfiction cinema seems even more focused on the ambiguity of truth than usual.
Given its very name, there’s no surprise in the fact that the True/False Film Festival — while programming a wide spectrum of nonfiction films — has always had a special interest in stories that walk the line between fact and fiction. This year’s event was no exception.
But what was notable at this year’s festival was how many films addressed not just ambiguity between fact and fiction, but outright lies, their consequences or lack thereof. As we are now seeing some of the first documentaries grown in the age of Trump, this certainly was to be expected.
Our New President, from Pussy Riot director Maxim Pozdorovkin, takes on the problems of truth and the 45th American president directly. The found-footage film is constructed entirely from Russian broadcasts about the 2016 election and its aftermath. In his introduction of the documentary at the festival, Pozdorovkin said he set out to make a film where not one true statement was spoken. He surely came very close.
The 77-minute film documents the way lies — truly ridiculous lies — originate in prime time on state controlled Russia-1, are repeated around the globe via propaganda machine RT, and gleefully regurgitated by everyday Russians on YouTube. The absurdity of it all drew laughs at first, but that faded as the cumulative effect became more and more disorienting. There is a brief segment of hidden-camera footage from a rogue journalist, pulling back the curtain to reveal a social media troll farm, but that’s about all Pozdorovkin gives us in the way of hope that truth will save the day.
Charlie Lyne’s 18-minute essay film Personal Truth likewise looks at a type of propaganda: the bizarre “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that led a North Carolina man to open fire in a D.C. restaurant where he believed Hillary Clinton and others were operating a child sex ring.
The film is stylistically very similar to Lyne’s Fish Story, which played at the festival last year. Narrated by the filmmaker himself, with a charming, free-association voiceover that revels in breaking the fourth wall, the short ultimately lands in a pretty dark place. The people who believe these conspiracy theories continue to believe them… even when presented with facts that absolutely show them to be false.
That is a deeply unsettling idea to the world of documentary film. So often, docs operate on the assumption that IF ONLY other people could see the truth, as presented in this film, they would understand. Psychologist Paul Bloom, who presented a brief spoken word piece as one of the festival’s “Provocateurs,” addressed this notion as well. Bloom argued showing oppressors the humanity in the oppressed will not automatically trigger empathy. Humans can be fully aware of the humanity of others and choose to dehumanize them just the same.
Shirkers also deals with a brazen liar and manipulator, though one outside Washington. The feature tells the story of three teenage girls who shot a low-budget indie in their native Singapore in the ’90s, only to have the film disappear with their strange instructor and mentor. That man, Georges Cardona, becomes the central fascination of the film.
Director Sandi Tan ultimately finds she was not the only victim of Cardona’s odd spell. Other students and even Cardona’s own wife were misled and manipulated over the years. Sometimes Cardona’s fabrications seemed designed to build him up as a more significant figure in the film world that he was. Other times, his motives remain unclear.
The film is in many ways a mystery, but while it ultimately uncovers many details of what happened to the film and to Cardona, the question of why he did what he did proves largely impossible to answer.
Three Identical Strangers was a standout film, also structured much as a mystery. In 1980 Long Island, three 19-year-old men stumbled upon each other and learned they were triplets, separated at birth. They become close friends and media darlings but ultimately discovered some shocking truths about where they come from and why they were separated.
The film is constructed from on-camera interviews, archival footage, and some quite elaborate re-creation footage. But it’s Director Tim Wardle’s underlying narrative structure that really makes the film so exceptional. Seemingly insignificant details early in the film become major clues later on, almost like we find in a Hollywood screenplay.
American Animals, on the other hand, is quite literally the product of a Hollywood screenplay. Writer/director Bart Layton scripted the film based on letters his four subjects wrote from prison, after they failed in their attempt to steal several priceless books from a university library. Layton cuts interview segments with the actual men throughout the film, as they offer commentary and sometimes even challenge each other’s version of events, which in turn motivates changes in the narrative as it is being constructed.
This is exactly the kind of playfulness with nonfiction storytelling that True/False excels at highlighting. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to categorize American Animals as a narrative or documentary film, I’d have to call it a narrative. But it’s based on true events. We hear the story through the voices of the subjects. How far removed is its Hollywood narrative structure from the recreations of a film like Three Identical Strangers?
In the context of a great festival like True/False, the films offered raise even more questions in conversation with each other than they do on their own.