Life is montage.
I make such a statement not because I’m attempting to be deep or profound but because this is a realization I come to at the end of a film festival during which I’ve seen 17 feature films in three and a half days. One can easily find themes, patterns and connections during events like the True/False Film Fest, whether intentionally or not. But documentary fests like this are evidently even stronger with collectivity due to a common interest for nonfiction cinema to be current and relevant with regard to world issues and narratives.
Throughout the weekend I was treated to consistent dealings with surveillance, social media (especially Twitter and YouTube), political prisoners, art as activism (and activism as art), celebrity, false identity, reflexivity, distinctions between (as well as the blurring of) seeing and being seen, and contemporary concerns in and with China. Astonishingly, I got to see three films primarily focused on love stories, which are typically rare in nonfiction. I’d tell you what they all were, but one of them was a secret screening (the other two, The Argentinean Lesson and Only the Young, are detailed below).
This is the only real fault I personally have with T/F’s program of confidential titles, that when it comes to covering the fest it’s difficult to fully write about the experience without being able to write about all I’ve experienced. In watching so many films in succession, a running narrative adds up within my head just as general life flows together for us rather than seeming like a series of wholly distinct and isolated actions and events.
Just as we must piece together meaning from the combination of images in an exposition-free film like Abendland (“There is narration in the montage,” director Nikolaus Geyrhalter says of his latest work), we can not help but construct a view of, say, modern China based on things we gather, great and small, from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Vanishing Spring Light, The Ambassador, ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, The Island President and a panel titled “Firewalls and Firestorms: New Media in China and Beyond,” not to mention a certain secret screening, which you could possibly determine the name of by looking at the list of people participating in that panel and doing a little detective work.
It helps that China is such an important and such a broad topic these days. It maybe doesn’t help that film festival immersion entails a terrible lack of sleep, and so also occasionally cloudy perception and inability to focus. Early, hazy mornings for me include a secret film that my brain has somewhat muddled with aspects of Ai Weiwei and Me at the Zoo. And the highly anticipated new Borat-ish feature from Red Chapel director Mads Brugger, The Ambassador, which is an over-narrated, convoluted prank-as-satire adventure in which the filmmaker controversially investigates and perhaps exploits central Africa while posing as a diplomat.
I had trouble finding the humor and the point and wasn’t concerned enough to be as provoked as I’m sure is intended. But I was admittedly very tired and prone to spotty attention. At least I’m not one of the numerous fest-goers who kept (understandably) confusing its title with The Imposter?
I was fully focused on another anticipated carry over from Sundance that I can adequately judge as over-hyped and overrated. Of course, Searching for Sugar Man received a long standing ovation from the huge, packed crowd inside University of Missouri’s Jesse Auditorium (seating capacity: 1732), so what do I know? Actually, I know that the film is an over-produced “mystery” about a little-known ‘70s rocker named Rodriguez who was much, much bigger in South Africa than in his own country. He may have even contributed to the end of Apartheid.
Unfortunately, debut director Malik Bendjelloul doesn’t concern himself sufficiently with that curious and significant part of the story (and other necessary points), possibly due to his seemingly unskilled interview abilities, so the narrative, as it is so dependent on vague and redundant talking heads, is disappointingly shallow and trivial. It’s clearly thanks to producers like Simon Chinn and John Battsek (Project Nim) that the storytelling is engaging, albeit manipulatively. I did honestly enjoy the film and its fascinating tale quite a bit, but I was expecting so much more from it.
Two titles out of Sundance compensated, fortunately, by exceeding my expectations. Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles is an outrageous, despicable, guiltily hilarious and appropriately superficial good time. This doc follows an extremely rich family as they attempt to build the largest home in America, but then the economy collapses and turns their lifestyle upside down like a heroin addict dropped into a world without poppies. The drug withdrawal analogy is fitting, since patriarch David Siegel likens bankers to pushers and admits that making millions is addictive. I completely despised everyone in this spoiled clan, right down to the innocent children. It’s not all their fault, but I preemptively hate who they’ll become anyway.
Obviously there are traces of reality television in the subject matter, everything from the Real Housewives franchise to shows about hoarding, hawking and housing. But Greenfield manages a compact story of the American dream and subsequent awakening that doesn’t seem either sensational nor necessitating a full series pickup. At one point Siegel says this film could go on and on -- and such is life, sure -- but the film is perfectly structured and sufficient as it is. I found it occasionally exaggerated, exploitative and contemptuous, and the fact that I didn’t mind due to my own disdain is likely caused by the very thing I accept. Still, I’m sure there’s a great degree of truth to how smug, defensive and clueless the Siegels are depicted.
The very opposite of angering, unless you focus on the appalling obstacles, David France’s AIDS treatment chronicle, How to Survive a Plague, can be added to the welcome crop of recent documentaries that gives me great hope for mankind and the power of protest (as a strong cynic, I’m not easily swayed to such optimism). Like the fellow Sundance film A Fierce Green Fire, this is positive historicism, encouragement to the millions of people looking for democratic change in America and around the world. Whether or not you know someone living today thanks to AIDS research and drugs, you owe it to your own life and freedom to support a message like this.
There isn’t really any message, positive or not, in the brilliantly spectacular ¡Vivan las Antipodas! But it’s one of my favorites of the festival and definitely the first I’d urge people to see in a theater. Directed by Victor Kossakovsky, who won this year’s True Vision Award at T/F, it’s a film in the tradition of Koyaanisqatsi and last year’s underrated Life in a Day, as well as any epically cinematic nature docs (IMAX, Planet Earth, Disney, etc.). However, there’s an interesting conceit and special effect added in: half the locations chosen for its absolutely stunning landscape photography are antipodes (or diametric opposites) of the other half, and each setting in a set (such as rural Argentina) is juxtaposed and played with against the other (Argentina’s is Shanghai) in wonderfully mind blowing ways. It will literally have you seeing things in a new way. (See my review at Doc Channel Blog for more details and praise.)
Also featuring some beautiful cinematography shot in the “Land of Silver,” Wojciech Staron’s The Argentinian Lesson is one of the adorable stories of young love that I can write about. Actually I don’t have a lot to say other than it’s remarkably well shot, featuring the kind of coverage of scenes you don’t usually get with nonfiction (unless there’s some stagy artifice involved), and the preteen kids in focus are such magnetic characters that you totally forget you’re watching a documentary rather than a drama with perfect, prodigious (yet not precocious) child actors. I wasn’t as engulfed in the story as I could have been (perhaps festival fatigue is to blame again), though there are some really amazing and memorable moments here and there.
Everything about Only the Young is amazing, from the fact that it’s the most genuinely honest and heartfelt teen movie since John Hughes (and Say Anything) -- and not because it’s real, either -- to its much-appreciated ability to make me forget everything else I’d seen throughout the festival, at least for the barely feature-length 73 minutes, while charming me with a classic love triangle involving the most endearing evangelical skate punks you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. It has some external context, namely of the economic variety, though it’s mostly a timeless coming of age story that admirably doesn’t harp on any of the religious, sub-cultural, sexual, temporal or regional aspects of the characters’ lives.
First-time directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet also get major props for delivering such a seemingly verite work in spite of the fact it features a large percentage of direct interview material. It’s a film that feels at once fresh and new and comfortably conventional at the same time, and it’s no surprise that this premiere debut was the talk of True/False for being an out-of-nowhere discovery. I don’t really understand why it’s not playing SXSW next, but it’s a must see at whatever will be the doc’s next stop. Be prepared to fall in love with this one.
And speaking of falling in love, let me close this second and final dispatch by thanking True/False for being my new favorite film fest and for a weekend filled with great films, events and people, all offering up new knowledge, perception, stories, memories, laughs and unforgettable segments added to the montage that is my life.
Also check out my first True/False 2012 Dispatch.