True/False Film Festival 2010

Gerald Sim

February 25-28, 2010
Columbia, Missouri

When filmmakers stand up in front of their work at film festivals and begin to laud the event, you always doubt the sincerity of their affection. You wonder if you just heard a clamor for votes, an attempt to stay in the organizer’s good graces or simply a reach for cheap applause. However, when it happens at the True/False Film Festival, I find cynicism conspicuously absent. In many ways, this seven year-old non-competitive event for documentary films in Columbia, Missouri, combines all that is good about festivals with higher profiles (the films) with none of the bad (corporatization and the desperate stress surrounding deal-making). With no major airport within an hour of the city, out-of-towners are greeted on the drive by the Midwestern winter and agricultural expanse. What they find is a place whose people come out in force to support its young but thoroughly established film festival. The volunteers, whose presence and labor shape the experience indubitably, are not there to mingle with Robert Redford. In talking to some of the ushers, ticket-takers and crowd-herders, I suspect that more than a few are not really that much into films either. But they do love their community, and the spirit rubs off.

It is truly remarkable that in a college town without a major film program, more than 100 people will show up on a Saturday morning for a subtitled, non-narrative, dystopian documentary on China’s rapid urbanization (Disorder, Huang Weikai, CN, 2009). At the seven other venues screening simultaneously, the turnout is comparably enthusiastic. On the other hand, the University of Missouri’s renowned School of Journalism explains the population’s inherent interest in non-fiction work. That core audience responds more easily to mainstream reportage, but to the programmers’ credit, True/False maintains a discernible commitment to aesthetic diversity, an admirable effort to bring unconventional works to those outside their usual audience. I am reminded here of a moment during last year’s festival, when a middle-aged couple who are not likely to watch the kind of movies screened in museums or university classrooms, quizzed experimental Chicago filmmaker Deborah Stratman—presenting her meditation on Americanism, O’er the Land (US, 2009)—over how she makes a living with a film like that.

Films like that provide important stylistic variation from the rest of the slate. Take Disorder, a collage of amateur videography from the streets of Guangzhou, China. Its visual anecdotes captured at the bursting seams of an industrializing society include traffic accidents, extreme jaywalking, an abandoned baby, escaped pigs, an escaped crocodile, a wheelchair-bound man trying to navigate urban floodwaters, and another who fishes in them. Law enforcement is on the scene in many instances, trying to mend these ruptures of the social fabric, but with seemingly little success. When introducing the film, director Huang encouraged spectators to correlate and interpret Disorder’s narrative fragments within their individual subjectivities. Films at True/False typically lean away from such ambiguity; most provide clear and stable points of identification. For example, even Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (CA/CN/UK, 2009), a vérité epic of migrant laborers from rural farms who move far away to cities where they work in sweatshops, takes the experiences of one family as a microcosm of what China’s economic polices have wrought. Every year, 120 million of these workers travel home for the Chinese New Year. The filmmakers were on site when a power failure in 2008 stranded close to a million passengers at the Guangzhou station, and armed soldiers were mobilized to maintain order. In that encounter between state and citizen, empathy easily lies with the parents as they cross military barricades trying to find their lost daughter.

These two works, one a fragmented narrative and the other a family melodrama, follow a short film that screened last year, Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall (Sam Green and Carrie Lozano, US, 2009). Its filmmakers discover a behemoth almost twice the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, the South China Mall in the Guangzhou suburb of Dongguan. Originally conceived as a symbol of China’s entry into global capitalism, the mall became a white elephant when infrastructure projects that would have facilitated access to the mall did not materialize. These films form a de facto trilogy about what unfolds in the shadows of China’s economic emergence. The country’s role in reshaping the world is a current topic of obvious and natural fixation. But it is also interesting to note how the critique of Chinese capitalism zeroes in on its messiness and failures, caused namely by economic growth that outstrips the social structure’s capacity to accommodate them.

That impression of ineptitude is largely absent when documentaries address American corporate villainy, whose perpetrators are often indicted for their ruthless operational efficiency, part of highly sophisticated system of hegemony. One might be tempted to reach for Orientalism as a means to explain this difference, just as the perceived inhumanity of Japanese society was highlighted when that non-western economy presented an earlier threat in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the representational disparity is just as likely to be caused by stylistic conventions. As Chris Berry has noted, Chinese documentaries favor an observational style.1 It usually leads films to highlight the quotidian. In contrast, the current vogue of eco-advocacy in American documentaries for example, tends to practice the journalistic tradition typified by 60 Minutes (CBS, US, 1968– ), whose narratives invariably position sympathetic subjects against unflinching corporate adversaries. This year’s entrants in that category were GasLand (Josh Fox, US, 2010) and Colony (Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn, IE, 2009). GasLand’s exploration of natural gas exploration pits Fox against Halliburton, pioneers of “fracking”—the technique of harvesting natural gas by forcing chemical pollutants into the ground. The mythology of Halliburton’s former CEO Dick Cheney that the film evokes, is that of methodical success in achieving objectives.

Colony is the latest inquiry into Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon of disappearing honeybees. The film’s primary subjects are the Seppis, a fundamentalist Christian family of California beekeepers. The corporate antagonist is Bayer, whose pesticides are suspected to cause CCD. Although Colony attempts nuance in leaving Bayer’s culpability ambiguous, the audience’s reception was illustrative. After one screening, a questioner confronted Gunn about the film’s negligence in not addressing the role of agribusiness or the telecommunications industry. (Some have speculated that cellular phone towers interfere with honeybees’ internal navigation.) Riled by the Seppi family’s patriarchal religiosity, another audience member protested at length about the film’s sympathy for them. The questions are those of these films’ primary audience, or the demographic that patronizes the most common mass distribution outlets for documentary: public television, HBO and art-house theaters. Politically, it is thus important to think about whether the historical narratives already established within this segment of filmgoers can affect or limit documentary projects’ form and content.

In addition to China’s rise and the environment’s ruin, this year’s selections continue to reflect the unsurprisingly intense interest in subjects related to America’s military engagement in the Middle East. A subgenre is the ethnographic portrait, whose representatives included Stephen Marshall’s HolyWars (US, 2010). The film reflects on religious fundamentalism seen through a dual-narrative pairing of an American Evangelical and an Irish convert to radical Islam. The feminist in the audience at Colony would appreciate Kick in Iran (DE, 2010), Iranian-German director Fatima Geza Abdollahyan’s film about Iran’s taekwondo star Sarah Khoshjamal-Fekri. The work dovetails with the ethnographies of Iranian and Egyptian women by British documentarian Kim Longinotto, who was chosen last year for the True/False festival’s only honor, the True Vision Award for artists in mid-career. Marshall, incidentally, was honored in 2005.

This year’s award was presented to Laura Poitras, who screened the Academy Award-nominated My Country, My Country (US, 2006) about post-invasion Iraq as a preamble for The Oath (US, 2010), constituting two-thirds of her trilogy on America’s response to 9/11. Her new film is a studious portrait of Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard. It was Jandal who recruited for jihad Salim Hamdan—the same litigant in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court famously ruled that the Bush administration did not have authority to try Guantanamo detainees in military commissions without congressional approval. Poitras sets Jandal’s interviews against Hamdan’s case against the government, and by intercutting between the two plotlines, links America’s terrorism policies to individuals half a world away.

At moments in both The Oath and Colony, the filmmakers insert brief segments of 60 Minutes reports, on the war on terror and CCD respectively. The clips serve to anchor the films’ subjects within our mass-mediated historical imagination, and perhaps as a window and primer for the films’ explorations. They can also be interpreted as an implicit statement on the inadequacies of popular news reporting. The CBS program’s preeminent status in American investigative journalism magnifies the critique. After all, the mantra of its late showrunner Don Hewitt was “tell me a story”, which he essentially describes as Aristotelian narratives requiring central characters, pathos and causality. Compared to that standard, with all due respect to alternative media, what we might now realize is the crucial role that non-fiction cinema plays in lending depth and nuance to our view of the world. McDonnell, Gunn and Poitras are likely motivated by that necessity.

Joining The Oath among the festival’s most anticipated and well-received films was Restrepo (US, 2010), fresh from its win at Sundance. The graphic and immersive film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger chronicles an American platoon’s year in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, infamous as one of the military’s most dangerous postings. Many will be familiar with the visceral handheld video footage as an un-narrated feature-length expansion of nightly news packages transmitted from the frontline by embedded journalists, which the filmmakers were. With the almost contemporaneous Oscar recognition given to The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, US, 2008), we are forced to think about the two films’ assiduous avoidance of political debates in favor of narrative emphases on the lives and psychologies of men, cinematically executed in a way that Michael Mann would appreciate. Hetherington and Junger explain this creative choice on the film’s website, pointing out that soldiers rarely participate in political discussions. According to conventional wisdom also applied elsewhere to say, Evan Wright and David Simon’s Generation Kill (HBO, US, 2008) and the ongoing historical project of Tom Hanks, Restrepo and The Hurt Locker’s blindness to left and right is their greatest strength.

David Sterritt has taken that critical chorus to task, arguing that the filmmakers and reviewers are guilty of socially irresponsible oversight.2 But what he fails to notice are the very politics of apoliticism. A surreal moment arrived after at least one screening of Restrepo, when three soldiers from Second Platoon were loudly feted on stage at the festival’s largest venue. The point is not to deny that these men are brave and owed a debt for living through the unthinkable on our behalf. Rather, consider the power of a film that moves a predominantly liberal college-set crowd to heroize the agents of a war most of them oppose, if not despise. Ideology hides behind individuals. It is the reason why funding the wars is always framed by the unquestioned need to support the troops, or why union-busting is commonly rearticulated as the “right to work”.

In conclusion, it looks as if the genre of “obsessive sociopaths or kids in cultish competitions” (whose heyday included Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, US, 2002) Word Wars (Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo, US, 2004), Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, US, 2006), Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, US, 2006), The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, US, 2007), and Doubletime (Stephanie Johnes, US, 2007)) has faded, save perhaps for Marshall Curry’s Racing Dreams (US, 2009), about three tweeners with stockcar and NASCAR ambitions participating in competitive go-karting. As predictable as the film cycle became, I am forced to admit that I miss it; watching Jamie Jay Johnson’s film last year about the Eurovision Song Contest, Sounds Like Teen Spirit (UK, 2008) on a folding chair in a packed converted concert venue, was a sublime experience. That ambivalence is a metaphor for my attitude towards a festival like True/False. Film studies academics who tend to put a premium on stylistic innovation and challenging texts, might dismiss the True/False program for yielding to Sundance as arbiters of quality. Those standards are most easily reached with narratives that are merely compelling. Occasionally, a work like Leon Gast’s entry at the festival, Smash His Camera (US, 2010) can manage to do both. The film about paparazzo Ron Galella can be seen as a generic portrait of the quirky character, but it is also a profoundly self-reflexive text that frequently evokes ideas from the film theory canon. But most of the films were straightforwardly realist, which might not satiate those who crave more aesthetically and politically radical work. Yet in the era of Netflix and YouTube, it is incredibly gratifying to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd, in the cold, lining up for film.

Gerald Sim (Ph.D. Iowa) is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University. He specializes in American cinema, national cinema, sound and critical theory. His current manuscript is an historical materialist evaluation of film studies’ engagement with race. His writing appears in Asian Cinema, Screening the Past and Film Quarterly.

Notes

1. Berry, Chris. (2010) “When is a film festival not a festival?: The 6th China Independent Film Festival.” Senses of Cinema.

2. Sterritt, David. (2010) “Screening the Politics Out of the Iraq War.” Counterpunch.