Attending a film festival can feel like stepping out of reality and into some strange sealed bubble, like the shimmering phantom zone from Annihilation: For however long you’re there—spending whole days and nights in the sensory deprivation chamber of a darkened auditorium—the outside world fades away, its concerns a distant buzz in your ear. Yet that illusion of life in an alternate dimension quaked and crumbled last weekend at the True/False Film Festival, a casualty of the anxiety spreading as quickly as the virus inspiring it. Even if you stayed off social media, you couldn’t escape the looming specter of a global health crisis; it was there in overheard conversations, in the moderate but noticeable dip in attendance, and in the mild distress passing across faces in the wake of every random cough or sneeze. This was enough to make you wish the festival really was a sealed bubble, keeping out pathogens and worries alike.
Thing is, True/False is, in general, among the more… permeable of film festivals; the messy and inconvenient real world, along with everything that ails it, usually tends to creep in through the programming. Held every late February or early March in the pleasant college town of Columbia, Missouri, the fest shows almost nothing but documentaries. As a result, a long weekend can double as a crash course on current events (and current dread), even as a blessed majority of the movies fall way outside what you might pejoratively describe as “infotainment.” What’s consistently striking is the disparity between the often grim, exhausting reality reflected by the selections and the upbeat, laidback general vibe of True/False, where the venues are all a few steps away from each other, the lines outside of them rarely get out of control, and a festive mood hangs in the winter air, alongside the notes of live music performed before every screening. (It’s one reason critics rave about the experience. Another, let’s be honest, is that the fest puts us up in hotels.)
This being an election year, it’s not shocking that so many of the official selections had politics on the brain. Chief among them was Steve James’ monumental City So Real, which chronicles the long run-up to last year’s Chicago mayoral election against a sprawling backdrop of other developments (real estate and otherwise) and a huge ensemble of public figures, constituents, and local personalities. The rare instance of TV making the True/False cut, the miniseries screened both in one long block and in parts—a reflection, in a sense, of how it depicts Chicago, at once holistically and as what one interviewee describes as a “city of neighborhoods.”
James has always been a master at sifting through enormous amounts of footage, filmed over an extended time frame, to locate dramatic through-lines. Working here with an even larger canvas than those of his previous Chicago documentaries, Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, the director employs a gridded map as a structural blueprint, situating us always in one district or another to underscore larger points about gentrification, segregation, and conflicting priorities. One minute we’re in a South Side barbershop, the next a Lakeshore penthouse; as the Jason Van Dyke trial looms over the first hour, the impassioned rhetoric of community activists is juxtaposed against a fervent “police lives matter” defense. Never sacrificing complexity for the sake of easy parallels, James counts on us to work out how his tapestry of interviews and neighborhood-specific vignettes speaks to the core issues being raised by the candidates. City So Real is downright novelistic in that respect, even as it offers something like an inside look at how the political sausage gets made.
The series covers so much ground, social and geographic and narrative, that it seemed to operate almost like a map of the whole program here at True/False; every other movie was like a neighborhood within its grand mosaic. As if picking up from the hanging implication of City So Real’s final minutes, which undercut the celebratory swell of the election results with a sobering acknowledgment of the challenges soon to be faced by the winner, Mayor follows Musa Hadid, head of the government of Ramallah, de facto capital of Palestine. As one might suspect, his is a nigh impossible job, one that requires balancing the tedious duties of running a city (including various PR headaches) with the threat of violence posed by a hostile military presence. Despite flashes of everyday horror, director David Osit locates some dry humor, taking his cues from the faint exasperation of his subject: “You think I know how to do that?” Hadid asks one of his aids over the phone when they encourage him to live-stream his view from the hotel during a raid. Meanwhile, a “My Heart Will Go On” music cue recalls the tragicomic use of that hit in Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains—an homage to a spiritual influence on its tricky tone.
For a Muppet Babies version of the politics depicted in City So Real, attendees could turn to Boys State, which sold to Apple and A24 for a rather incredible $12 million at Sundance. The high bid is a testament to how shrewdly the film locates rooting interests and discernible arcs in the mock elections held by a group of teenagers during the eponymous Texas program, which the opening credits reveal has served as an introduction to the processes of democracy for a number of future Washington heavyweights. It’s almost too perfect, how this one-week “politics camp” comes to microcosmically mirror what’s heartening and disheartening about our system, with the race for faux-governor coming down to a deeply honest, principled, and genuinely inspirational candidate and one with a canny, cynical grasp of how the biases and passions of voters can be exploited. One might wonder if the movie’s clean narrative lines are as manipulative as any party platform, but it’s the kids themselves doing the heavy lifting; there’s no need to manufacture drama when you get a bunch of ambitious aspiring politicians who have grown up filming themselves together in one place.
More disturbing, but also even more conventionally assembled, was Feels Good Man, about how cartoonist Matt Furie lost control of his now infamous creation, Pepe The Frog. The film works rather swimmingly as a primer on the war for the character’s soul, usefully charting how he was initially adopted as a mascot of social dysfunction on 4chan, before alt-right trolls transformed him into a bona fide hate icon. Feels Good Man is such a deeply depressing depiction of internet culture that its Hail Mary stab at a more uplifting upshot comes across as painfully naïve—even more so, perhaps, than Furie’s attempts to reclaim Pepe. No such silver lining of optimism gets identified in Collective, which makes some of the shadier political maneuvering in City So Real look downright utopian. Beginning with the aftermath of a fire at a Bucharest nightclub that left dozens dead, the film accompanies a group of muckraking reporters as they uncover irrefutable evidence of gross pharmaceutical misconduct—and then, from there, face the hostility of government forces closing rank around the perpetrators. Collective eventually achieves a triumph of access that goes far beyond playing tag-along with intrepid investigative journalists, resulting in a harrowing behind-the-scenes vision of a corrupt political response to a national health crisis. No unnerving parallels there.
Movies seem to talk to each other at every festival; one natural byproduct of seeing a bunch of different films consecutively is that the brain can’t help but create connections between them. Yet True/False is so carefully, deliberately programmed that the overlap feels less accidental: You get a real sense of larger stories being told through the web of shared interests and concerns reflected on screen. Incarceration was one of them this year. With Sunless Shadows, director Mehrdad Oskouei returns to the subject of imprisoned women in Iran; while his great Starless Dreams zeroed in on teenagers within the system, this companion piece switches focus to women locked up for murdering their abusive husbands and fathers. Honestly, it does play as something of a retread of the earlier movie, but the increased insight into the mindset of captive women—some freely admitting that life on the inside often beats the alternative—was well worth expanding the project, certain repetitions aside.
By coincidence (or not?), this writer caught Sunless Shadows the same day as Time, which offers a mirror perspective of sorts: the life of a family coping with a long prison sentence from the other side of the bars. Back in the mid-’90s, Sibil “Fox” Rich planned a bank robbery with her husband, Rob. Twenty years later, he’s still serving his sentence, she’s become an activist for prison reform, and their children have grown into men. Director Garrett Bradley alternates his own gorgeous black-and-white contemporary footage with video diaries shot by Rich; the result puts the timeframes in conversation, often underlining the stark contrast between them. A lot of documentaries on this subject might privilege the activist drive of the story, making a procedural out of the family’s struggles against the courts, but Time is more interested in the emotional texture of the lives it’s exploring. It also doesn’t attempt authorial invisibility, daring to wear its artistry on its sleeve rather than “objectively” privileging the subject matter. That makes it quintessentially True/False: a documentary interested in truth that can’t simply be revealed through the rote presentation of facts.
Same goes, even more blatantly, for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, another Sundance favorite making the trek from Park City to Columbia. The film was mildly controversial at the earlier festival, thanks to the artifice of its creation: Though supposedly filmed at a Las Vegas dive bar on the final night before it closed its doors for good, it was actually shot in New Orleans, with a bunch of locals (including one former actor) cast as the regulars mourning the loss of their favorite watering hole. Whether it should have been competing against less… arranged portraits of reality was the sticking point at Sundance. But the film’s slippery methodology makes it right at home at True/False, which also programmed a couple of earlier films, 45365 and Tchoupitoulas, by directors and True Vision Award recipients Bill and Turner Ross. That search for a truth truer than the kind a running camera can capture alone is the real drive of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, whose collision of personalities—coaxed out by the social lubricant of alcohol and hours in front of the camera—is as authentic as the circumstances of the production aren’t. Which it to say, the fake bar becomes a real one as the “patrons” slide into their roles, the essence of a shared space for drinking buddies forged through their funny and volatile interactions.
For better or worse, the most personal vision I caught at True/False was a three-and-a-half-hour over-share, delivered in the rough form of an essay-film tribute to a kindred spirit. In his feature debut, Field Niggas, filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah trained his lens on a particularly bustling corner of Harlem. One of his subjects was Frenchie, a sixtysomething homeless Haitian immigrant with schizophrenia. In his new epic, which was conceived, shot, and assembled in just a few months, Allah seems to be putting his documentary subject at center frame. Yet IWOW: I Walk On Water is as much (if not more of) a self-portrait, drifting constantly away from Frenchie for long stretches of navel-gazing, albeit without the gaze; while Allah appears only a couple times on camera, we hear his voice throughout—calling himself Christ while tripping on shrooms; riding around shooting the shit with members of the Wu-Tang Clan; arguing with his Italian girlfriend, who becomes a kind of secondary muse, a ghost gusting in and out of view. Charitably, one could call this Allah’s Walden, delivering a diary of his life like the one avant-garde legend Jonas Mekas offered in 1969. More often, it plays like a very long butt-dial, laid over a random montage blur of Harlem B-roll.
The style, to be fair, remains intoxicating: As in his last movie, Black Mother, Allah seduces you into searching for connections between his often staggeringly beautiful imagery and the nonsynchronous conversation he weds to it. And there are notes of profundity sprinkled throughout, including a passage about Harlem and gentrification (another City So Real echo) that could be its own movie. But the lyricism often seems at war with Allah’s punishing exhibitionism and self-indulgence. There is, too, the open question of exploitation. There’s no real reason to doubt the filmmaker’s affection for Frenchie—his repeated insistence that he considers him his “best friend.” But does that clear up the issue of consent, and whether or not Frenchie is even entirely cognizant of how his image is being used in these films? Maybe IWOW, which makes no attempt to conceal the complicated friend/subject nature of the relationship (when Allah gives him money, is it out of generosity or as a form of payment?), is intentionally self-implicating. It’s certainly self-satisfying, at least during portions where we’re made to eavesdrop on the director getting a blowjob.
Some of the same questions pop up during Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which director Kirsten Johnson confronts her aging dad’s inevitable death by staging various fantasy versions of it—a whimsically morbid coping mechanism for father and daughter alike. As in IWOW, one does occasionally wonder to what extent Dick, who may be entering the early stages of dementia, understands the full scope of the project. (There’s a scene where he seems to lapse into genuine distress during a simulated attack, prompting Johnson to pull the plug on that day’s shoot.) But the man is such a warm, generous presence that it gusts new meaning backwards into Johnson’s Cameraperson, helping us understand where the filmmaker got some of the curiosity and compassion that peaked through that earlier film’s collage of excised documentary footage.
The festival stumbled, in its last few hours, on an unexpected final note of self-expression: the world premiere of the new Hannibal Buress stand-up special, Miami Nights. If this seems like an unusual closing-night selection for the fest, even given the appearance of a Nathan For You episode in last year’s program, that’s partially because it wasn’t originally slated to be one—it got added to the lineup last minute, following the cancellation of South By Southwest, where Buress intended to premiere it. I’m told the teeming line that formed outside Ragtag Cinema on Sunday night was a first for True/False. If documentaries don’t draw enormous crowds in a college town, even one that hosts an annual nonfiction fest, a big name in comedy can. (Plus, the screening was free.)
Filmed often from below the performer, without a single crowd-shot cutaway (though there are some stylistic flourishes, including green-screen gags and vocal manipulation), Miami Nights finds Buress in a reflective but still score-settling mood over a very funny hour-plus set. An early confession that he’s quit drinking is played mostly for joke fodder, but it also provides some unspoken context to the special’s climactic anecdote—a long recounting of his arrest for disorderly conduct. As usual, some of the strongest material is vindictive, Buress airing out his grievances with strangers, including the cop who arrested him and a fan who went to bed with him and then posted about it on the internet. The whole thing was a weirdly, refreshingly breezy way to end True/False, and maybe especially this True/False, heavy with anxieties expressed both on screen and off. But even Hannibal couldn’t protect us from intrusions of uncomfortable reality; a bit about dying from a disease snapped us all back to it, in the last few hours before the topic would become inescapably woven into the fabric of our here and now.