Dispatching to Artforum last year, Nicolas Rapold wrote that the True/False Film Fest, “a darling of critics and filmmakers, is holding the line on prizing the craft of nonfiction moviemaking in its many forms. This four-day community-beloved event at Columbia, Missouri, has gone from being dubbed ‘a small but significant corrective step’ to the doc exhibition landscape in these pages eleven years ago to ‘the preeminent nonfiction festival’ today, per Variety.”
This year’s twentieth edition, opening today and running through the weekend, will offer thirty-three features and twenty-five shorts, including eight world premieres and nineteen first features. The Columbia Daily Tribune’s Aarik Danielsen previews fifteen titles that “promise immersive, intimate experiences” and talks with Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine,Procession) about his new nine-minute short, Tension Envelopes—“or tension envelopes, depending on how you read it,” says Greene referring to a giant sign he first saw in New York years ago. Greene’s thirteen-year-old son has created much of the new film’s sound design.
Fresh from Berlin
Tension Envelopes will screen before Forms of Forgetting, one of a few titles arriving in Columbia just a little over a week after premiering in Berlin. The latest feature from Burak Çevik, who codirected last year’s A Woman Escapes with Sofia Bohdanowicz and Blake Williams, Forms of Forgetting alternates between immediately engaging and intriguingly elusive passages. The centerpiece is an offscreen conversation between a man and a woman watching an on-screen video of themselves talking about their relationship some years back. As they watch and listen in, they try to piece together what it was that brought them together as a couple and what led them to break up fourteen years ago.
Over scenes of the construction of a new building for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the male voice mentions with a hint of amusement that Çevik plans to screen Forms of Forgetting there once—and then not again in Turkey for another fourteen years. Far more enigmatic and beautifully framed sequences take us to a fishing hole cut in a frozen lake, the seemingly wise eye of an elephant, and a play of light over a television monitor propped up on a bed. As the inevitability of forgetfulness and loss is conveyed in a panoply of forms, someone mentions that stones never forget.
But they do evolve. This is one of the startling observations Deborah Stratman puts forward and then explores in Last Things, a supremely entertaining essay film—and in all seriousness, it really ought to be shown in high school science classes—that imagines a post-human future by delving into the prehistoric past. As Stratman tells Jordan Cronk in the Notebook, the “first sparks” that led to the project were Le Xipéhuz (1888) and La mort de la terre (1910), two novels by the Belgian Boex brothers, who wrote under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny. Stratman also draws on texts by Clarice Lispector, Donna Haraway, Roger Caillois, mineralogist Robert Hazen, geologist Marcia Bjørnerud, and many others, all read by filmmaker Valerie Massadian.
“The elemental beauty and symmetry of Stratman’s images is absorbing throughout, almost hypnotic,” writes Caitlin Quinlan at Reverse Shot. “Rendering these forms cinematic and interweaving the geological with the poetic helps to recalibrate how one might think of our primordial foundations.” Introducing his interview with Stratman, Joshua Minsoo Kim notes that Last Things subtly draws attention to “the pretension and myopia of human superiority over the natural world.”
Nature’s ever-readiness to reclaim its right to a final say is driven home in Claire Simon’s Our Body, a 168-minute arc stretching from adolescence to death. At a gynecological clinic in Paris, patients consult with empathetic doctors and undergo treatment or surgery, eliciting a visceral identification across an eye-opening range of cases: abortion, transition, endometriosis, birth, cancer.
Simon possibly never intended to narrate an introduction and a coda, but she almost certainly didn’t plan on becoming a subject in her own film. Her camera team is on hand when her doctor delivers a cancer diagnosis, and Simon is the only patient in Our Body seen more than once when, at the end, she cycles away from the clinic, recovered and triumphant. All the doctors are presented in a sympathetic light, so a brief sequence shot at a protest just outside the clinic where women are accusing some members of the staff of assault comes as a jolting and uncontextualized surprise.
“Although several gut-wrenching operations are shown, this is not a harrowing, anti-humanist barrage of surgical imagery like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s De humani corporis fabrica (2022),” writes Erika Balsom for Film Comment, and at Filmmaker,Giovanni Marchini Camia agrees, suggesting that Our Body “could be considered their antithesis.” Balsom notes that she spoke to a friend after one screening who “put it well: Simon doesn’t film anyone in a way in which she herself would not want to be filmed.”
Sundance Award Winners
The True/False 2023 lineup includes four films that won awards at Sundance back in January. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize, is “a restlessly creative treatment of the life and art of the legendary Black American poet and activist,” writes Matthew Eng at Reverse Shot. “Going to Mars is not a hagiographic valediction but a vital education that enlists its subject as an active participant, albeit one who declines on-camera to answer questions that require repeating herself.”
The Stroll takes its title from a stretch of the Meatpacking District in New York that served as a haven for sex workers from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, when gentrification drove them out. Kristen Lovell worked along the Stroll from 1997 to 2005, and she and codirector Zackary Drucker won a Special Jury Award for Clarity of Vision for the film that, as Dan Schindel writes at Hyperallergic, offers “a way for trans New Yorkers in general and trans sex workers specifically to stake a claim on their own history.”
Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s Bad Press, the winner of a Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression, “follows a handful of passionate Native American journalists who find themselves propelled into a fight with local authorities when they demand that freedom of the press be written into tribal law,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “What ensues is a long battle that has all the trappings of a small-town political thriller: corrupt officials, refuted elections, reporters fighting for their rights at the risk of their own livelihoods.”
Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn’s Going Varsity in Mariachi focuses on the singers and musicians of Mariachi Oro, a high school band from South Texas preparing to compete in the state championship. At TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar notes that the film has been put together “from dynamically edited footage from practice sessions, fundraising events to pay for their trips and charro outfits, as well as their official presentation”—and Daniela I. Quiroz won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award.
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