True/False 2020

The Daily — Mar 5, 2020
Alexander Nanau’s Collective (2019)

The “transformative, rambunctious, ecstatic experience” of the True/False Film Festival “creates a cathartic journey that forces participants to do nothing less than to reimagine reality.” That’s quite a bombastic mission statement, but talk to just about anyone who’s attended and they’ll tell you that T/F lives up to its promise. There’s more, too: “Our goal is to forge a supportive, celebratory refuge for filmmakers and amplify the possibilities of creative nonfiction.” This year’s edition, the seventeenth, opens today in Columbia, Missouri, and runs through Sunday. Basil Tsiokos, who programs documentaries for Sundance and DOC NYC, has a quick and handy overview of this year’s world premieres.

Several of the three dozen or so features lined up for T/F 2020 will arrive straight from Sundance, and in the new issue of Film Comment, Eric Hynes writes about three of them. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) braces for the loss of her father by staging and restaging his death—with his enthusiastic cooperation. Lance Oppenheim’s debut feature, Some Kind of Heaven, focuses on four residents in a sprawling retirement community in Florida. And in Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent, a private investigator hires an eighty-three-year-old man to go undercover in a nursing home. “Dealing with subjects of an advanced age, some suffering from advanced illness, these are films that are haunted by potential finality,” writes Hynes. “But they’re also inversely oxygenated by a shared sense of appreciation for what’s been recorded and afforded by the camera, by the potential of film to not just attend to matters of life and death but also create from it.”

Last week, the International Federation of Film Critics gave its FIPRESCI prize for the best film in the Berlinale’s new Encounters competition to Catarina Vasconcelos’s The Metamorphosis of Birds, calling it “a piercingly beautiful evocation of the past in cinematic form, as delicate as the the wings of a sparrow and as fragile and as intricate as an assemblage by Joseph Cornell.” Wavering between fiction and nonfiction, Vasconcelos retraces the at times tragic history of her family and her country, Portugal, in what for Ed Frankl at the Film Stage is a “strange, difficult, beguiling film.”

In The Viewing Booth, which screened in the Berlinale’s Forum program, director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks Maia Levi, an Israeli-American student, to watch a series of videos documenting Israeli violence against Palestinians. He asks her to describe how she feels about what she’s seeing, and a few months later, he invites her to return to his studio to watch his footage of her reactions. As Ela Bittencourt points out in the Notebook, this is “a film that’s primarily about fleeting facial reactions, and the turn of words.”

Writing for Tablet, A. J. Goldman notes that Alexandrowicz “has conducted an experiment about the power of image-based propaganda in the digital age. But the film is equally valuable, and unique, as a portrait of what happens when a young American Jew’s unconditional love and support for Israel endures an extreme stress test. One doesn’t walk out of the film thinking Levi is delusional or in denial. Quite the contrary, she comes across as sensitive, intelligent, and nonfundamentalist. The film makes the audience—regardless of their politics—engage seriously with a young pro-Israel American Jew’s point of view.” The Viewing Booth will see its New York premiere on March 15 when it screens as part of First Look festival.

Last summer in Locarno, Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document (Single Channel) won the Moving Ahead award and a special mention went to Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another. “Over the past five years, Gary’s synthesis of experimental filmmaking tradition with what she has called a ‘radical black femme gaze’ has made her one of the most closely watched young documentarians in the art and film worlds alike,” writes Alex Greenberger at ARTnews, and her new forty-two-minute film is “a complex meditation on the legacy of colonialism and the denigration of black women’s bodies over the centuries.” In Harlem, Gary approaches black women on the street and asks, “Do you feel safe?” She then juxtaposes this footage with a performance of “Feelings” by Nina Simone in 1976. “Simone’s tonality, intonation, and raspiness play a central role in the pace of the film,” writes Rianna Jade Parker for frieze. A new three-channel extension of The Giverny Document is currently on view at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York through March 21.

Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another moves in tight on a team of specialists as they restore an ancient elephant tusk. “Rinland’s narrow depth of field and super-sensitive sound recording elevate to the hyper-real the snap and tug of blue latex gloves or the snipping away at a brick of sponge,” writes Laura Davis for Sight & Sound. “This work is slow, and mesmerizingly so, but you can’t look away for curiosity about the object that emerges.” Writing for Cinema Scope, Darren Hughes notes that “the film seems designed to ensnare viewers in the unspoken fetishistic pleasures of collecting, archiving, and displaying—the same pleasures that drive the economies of poaching and museum-building.”

Alexander Nanau’s Collective, one of the best-reviewed films to premiere in Venice and then screen in Toronto last fall, tracks the fallout of a tragic fire in a Bucharest nightclub that killed twenty-seven people in 2015. The death toll shot up to well over sixty in the following days and weeks as burn victims were sent to ill-equipped hospitals that had made shady deals with suppliers of diluted sterilizers and worse. Collective tracks the investigation conducted by a team of reporters before shifting its attention to a newly appointed health minister who gives Nanau remarkable access to a profoundly corrupt system. “Step by step, this story is as enthralling as it is astonishing,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook.

Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov has “watched countless scenes of Romanian bureaucracy in inaction” in films such as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below (2015), and Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2015). “I have enjoyed many of the Romanian New Wave titles in a bleakly comic way,” he writes, “but now it feels like I only abstractly understood what I was seeing: the nonfiction equivalent is incredibly galling and completely outrageous.”

Along with these features, many of them preceded by new short films, and three titles by the recipients of this year’s True Vision award, Bill and Turner Ross, T/F 2020 will also present work by Missouri filmmakers Lisa Steele, Mike Henderson, Christopher Harris, and Tom Palazzolo in its repertory program, Neither/Nor.

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