True/False: Two for One, or Two Halves Make a Whole?
By Coley Gray
By Coley Gray and Patricia Aufderheide
The 2021 True/False Film Festival split into two, one in-person and another virtual. Both featured the high-touch approach that this unique festival offers and neither was much like what True/Falsers remember from earlier fests.
True/False has evolved into a festival that doesn’t just feature documentaries, but puts the question of what makes a documentary center-stage. It’s not just a film festival, but a performative celebration of creativity. The college town of Columbia, Missouri sprouts pop-up art galleries everywhere, buskers open the film screenings, and dance troupes join the annual parade. Filmmakers don’t just show up for a Q&A but hang out with each other and guests at cafés. The professionals mingle with the dedicated documentary aficionados that apparently populate Columbia.
This year some elements dropped out. Gone was the companion conference, Based on a True Story, held at University of Missouri’s journalism school. Also gone was the parade, the jam-packed schedule and the professional networking.
But the often-offbeat curating, the filmmaker presence, and the spirit of improvisation were all there.
By Coley Gray
For in-person participants at this year’s True/False, it was very much, Bring Your Own Blanket, or Camp Chair. T/F’s creative adaptation to pandemic conditions was to transform a city park into an outdoor multiplex. Though the Ragtag Cinema’s two theaters did continue to operate at a reduced seating capacity, the center of gravity for T/F 2021 shifted from downtown streets to the city green space of Stephens Lake Park.
Festival organizers carved out four outdoor cinema venues in the park. Each venue was divided into socially distanced pod spaces outlined with spray paint and marked with stake flags. Giant blow-up screens that looked like bouncy castles (whose generators hummed in the background) stood at the front. For those with cars, a pop-up drive-in theater was also on offer. The festival theme was the “Nature of Uncertainty,” and nature certainly proved herself to be a factor. Saturday night’s outdoor screenings were canceled due to predicted high winds. Sunday night’s attendees were advised to bring their own tarps to protect against the soggy ground. Evening temperatures that dropped down into the high 40s gave pause to even the most ardent cinephiles.
Having to wait until the sun went down for screen times also necessarily limited the festival’s programming slate; altogether, the in-person T/F offered only 16 feature films and 23 short films. Guests wistfully referred to the crammed schedule, rushing from venue to venue from morning to night.
Festival organizers, volunteers and attendees exhibited a high degree of can-do spirit and commitment to making T/F 2021 a unique cultural experience. Akin to its genre-defying curatorial vision, T/F seemed to be re-inventing the form of the film festival in real time. As festival organizers noted several times when introducing film screenings, it was as if being stripped back to essentials allowed the founding spirit of innovation and improvisation to emerge afresh. “We’re pulling it off” was the rallying cry heard more than once.
And for filmmakers like director Emilia Mello, whose No Kings had its first in-person screening at the festival, it was especially meaningful. After 10 years of work on the film and “such a crazy year” of the pandemic, T/F 2021 provided both a way to connect with audiences and a much-needed “place for the documentary community to get together and hang out.”
Storms and Sentiment
In some cases, the outdoor setting added another layer of meaning to the films. Climate change’s effects on intensifying storms across the seas of Northern Europe and various man-made threats that endanger marine animals are the subject of From the Wild Sea. The film alternates between scenes of violent oceanic weather and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts on shore.
Director Robin Petré deftly avoids the sentimentality that often comes with films about animal rescue, eschewing the typical heavy-handed narration and musical cues. Rescuers just as often appear to be as hapless as heroic, and their interventions to be their own form of violence. That bracing sensibility and the fine cinematography of From the Wild Sea, which premiered at Berlinale this year, will well serve the film festival circuit’s appetite for climate change programming.
Just as noteworthy is the film’s portraiture of seals, swans and other marine creatures, only some of whom survive their traumas. The camera is most often set at their own eye level, observing them at close enough quarters to capture moments of boredom, fear, anger and disorientation. For these animals, the experience of rescue “must be like being in a spaceship,” Petré noted in a post-screening Q&A. Like this year’s breakthrough Gunda, From the Wild Sea does a remarkable job of challenging nature films’ conventions of point of view.
Though flecked with mordant humor, From the Wild Sea is a somber film that doesn’t provide pre-digested interpretations. For myself, sitting on the wet grass of Stephens Lake Park, I found in the film ample evidence that humans are on a vicious cycle of heedless destruction of the natural world that then necessitates extraordinary exertions to try to repair it.
True Vision Winner
In other instances, some of the films were transporting enough that particulars of the venue fell away. In Delphine’s Prayers, we find ourselves in a cluttered room somewhere in Belgium sitting face to face with the charismatic, mercurial Delphine. During the 90-minute running time, director Rosine Mbakam’s camera never leaves the room and rarely even switches angles. But we travel through time and geography following the often disarming and occasionally exasperating Delphine’s telling of her life story of love, loss and dislocation.
Raised in Cameroon and now an immigrant in Europe married to a much-older Belgian man, Delphine is the survivor of multiple traumas, both the victim and heroine in her own narrative of personal injuries and systemic oppressions. Delphine is a complicated character and Mbakam doesn’t shy away from showing every shading, from deeply damaged to delightedly self-dramatizing. The particulars of Delphine’s story can only be her own. Yet she also represents the universal wounds of patriarchy, colonialism and sexual exploitation on the psyche.
Delphine’s Prayers is the third documentary feature of Mbakam, who is the recipient of T/F’s 2021 True Vision Award. Mbakam, also brought up in Cameroon and currently living in Belgium, is a prodigious talent. Her autobiographical debut, The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2018, also screened at this year’s festival), was followed by Chez Jolie Coiffure (T/F 2019), another in-depth portrait of an African immigrant woman and hair salon owner. Agency and suffering in different measure mark each of the three films’ female protagonists.
Mbakam’s body of work explores her preoccupation with themes of identity, memory, and how global systems of colonialism, racism and sexism play out in individual lives. Her films insistently center the experiences of characters typically subjected to an exoticizing, ethnographic lens. Her unadorned style throws into relief the co-creation process between character and filmmaker in shaping this refreshing kind of representation on screen.
If you aren’t lucky enough to see any of Mbakam’s films at a festival or your local arthouse, her three documentary features are currently available on academic streaming platform Docuseek, and Chez Jolie Coiffure can still be found on PBS POV’s 33rd season slate of films on demand.
By Patricia Aufderheide
Virtual participants in Teleported True/False started out their experience with a group unboxing of tchotchkes ranging from film-appropriate snacks, to products from the seemingly endless crafty food-and-drink establishments in Columbia, to festival swag. Participants also shared their own decorations honoring the event, with the team from Doc Society hands-down carrying the day.
The schedule was streamlined down to seven feature films, along with four sessions of short docs. Live Q&As were held after evening screenings, which left East Coasters and many internationals catching the recording the next day. A few social events occurred online, but never at a time this reviewer could make it.
“For Teleported, we first wanted to find films that had received little or no play—effectively premieres,” explains Interim Artistic Director David Wilson. “This is rare for True/False, but in this case, because we knew that we'd be featuring so few films, we wanted them all to feel fresh and special for our viewers. Often, online fests feel cluttered and overwhelming. There is too much ‘content.’”
The films were universally what you might call slow cinema. Typically cinema vérité, they plunged viewers into experiences in ways that you might find either exhilarating or frustrating, depending on your temperament. You could expect, in future, to find them in a museum, a festival, a university, but perhaps not in a commercial theater or on a major streaming service.
“Our current curatorial interests focus on films that highlight the collaboration between filmmaker and subject, films that eschew neat and tidy narrative conventions, and, always, films that are beautiful, that utilize the full power and scope of cinema,” says Wilson. “We think they collectively chart a path into the future of nonfiction filmmaking.”
Two of my favorites were No Kings, from Brazilian-American filmmaker Emilia Mello, and Songs that Flood the River, from Colombian filmmaker German Arango. They both featured a much-misunderstood kind of community: A place in the world that lets you live simply in relative peace with the natural world, but with access to essential modern amenities. Documentarians often portray this kind of place nostalgically or elegiacally. Both of these films, by contrast, introduce us to vibrant people who really like where they live, and who work to make it a good place for themselves and others, too. In an era of climate change, these people should be treasured, as a critical resource. That’s because where people like that are, you have less deforestation and degradation; they really are stewards. I loved meeting these people.
That said, they are extraordinarily different films, with different aims.
No Kings drops us in the middle of a small fishing community on the Atlantic coast halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There, the people fish for themselves and for the market. They make their own dugout canoes, and harvest bananas from the Atlantic rainforest—now a tiny remnant of once-glorious stands. They also visit the doctor, have cellphones and don’t mind a line of cocaine on a dark night on the water. They choose to live simply, with benefits.
The star of the film is 11-year-old Lucimara, a bossy little girl with talents that include crab fishing with a stick, childcare and cooking. Two other families are also featured in this community portrait. When, at the end, Lucimara ends up in town to go to school, it’s a shock to realize how close everyone is to a way of life they have chosen largely to turn their backs on.
Mello’s unsentimental and closely observed portrayal is the product, as she explained in the Q&A, of a long collaboration with the people in the village. She felt a deep kinship not only because of her Brazilian parents, but because she herself was raised in a semi-rural area of West Virginia. This collaboration and shared understanding is evident throughout, in the intimacy of many moments, but also in people’s conversations with the camera, with Lucimara’s demand that Mello put her camera down to help her out, in their clear inclusion of her in their daily rounds. No Kings has a future in many places, and it makes you hope that the people in the film will hold on to their little spot in the world.
My colleague Coley Gray interviewed Mello in person. Mello told her, “So much of what I was thinking about was the emotional freedom afforded by subsistence economy. You don’t exist in this vast emotional network of having to perform certain identities so that you can get a job and not be considered a crazy person.” And that was true particularly for the women: “They are able to express themselves in ways I don’t feel are condoned in urban environments—fishing and building and swearing and saying whatever is on their mind, hanging out, and fighting. What if women were allowed to be as strong as they are and they didn’t always have to perform weakness and being childlike?”
Songs that Flood the River takes us to a small, semi-rural community in Colombia, predictably littered with satellite dishes. There, almost two decades before, a terrible massacre took place during the half-century-long civil war. Oneida, a songwriter and singer from this small town, is a teller and keeper of stories. A survivor of both the massacre and a childhood snakebite that resulted in the loss of a leg, she has built a life in her African-Colombian forest community. She is a leader in a Christian choral group that sings funerary songs with echoes of African tradition. Oneida writes songs about real life—the loss of her leg, her mother’s dementia, and also the massacre. After almost 20 years, the many dead from that massacre are being exhumed, identified and reburied with Christian rites. We see little of that process, but the film comes to a climax with the reburial ceremony, conducted with creative singing from Oneida’s choral group. Thus, the story keeps a focus on the village community, its creative leaders, and the long struggle for justice.
The film was simultaneously launched at Hot Docs and True/False, and will now begin its festival journey. In the Q&A, the filmmakers recounted the challenges of making this film under the Colombian government’s current tight censorship, and without much access to historical footage as a result.
My favorite short was the Argentine filmmaker Pablo Weber’s Homage to Philip H. Gosse’s Work. Watching it is like a late-night talk with an obsessive, nerdy friend, who you’re sure is no longer making sense, until you suddenly think he does and he’s brilliant. Weber links together software design, physics, nature, religion, suicide bombers, Chris Marker, H. P. Lovecraft and of course the Victorian scientist Philip Gosse, a friend of Darwin. It’s a network of connections made with light. I may not have understood it, but I won’t forget the ride.
The video bumpers produced by the festival were little two-minute creative gifts, on the COVID-appropriate theme of uncertainty. I was delighted to see that Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar made one, about Reichert’s will to experience every bit of life she can under a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It was the perfect audiovisual bite to go with the festival’s theme of uncertainty.
Coley Gray is a graduate student in nonprofit arts management at American University, where her studies focus on the intersection of documentary film and social impact.
Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at American University in Washington, DC.