This year marks my fourth straight year attending the True/False film festival, and my third year providing coverage of it for an outlet (you can read my 2015 coverage here). My first year I went on a somewhat convenient whim (my in laws live in Columbia, Missouri, the college town that plays host to the festival), but it has since become an especially treasured ritual for me, a touchstone of my year in film, every year.
I’m a bit of a homer for the festival at this point, so I will hold back from gushing endlessly over its many merits. In brief: it combines the cinematic cornucopia and charged energy of a world class film festival with an ethos of smallness and hospitality. Every venue at the festival is within walking distance of every other, the crowds are cheery, and the enthusiasm palpable. People come because they love film – in particular nonfiction film – but newcomers are just as welcome as old hands. My head is already swimming with excitement at the prospect of catching up with festival friends I’ve made over the past few years, getting into the painful pleasure of the long festival day, and most of all experiencing some of the best, most original documentaries being made today.
Festival going can be a strange experience, a mix of anticipation and reflection that produces strange alchemical results. There are fewer big names in the documentary world, of course, so must-see lists going in to a festival like True/False tend to vary more widely than at bigger festivals like Cannes and Sundance. Two years ago I went in knowing that my top priority was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, and my expectations were not just met, but exceeded: it was easily the standout of the festival for me, and indeed my favorite film of that year. Last year I had no standout film, instead going in with a number of films that intrigued me. That’s where I stand this year: no absolute can’t miss film, but a strong bench of diverse films that should provide a varied and enjoyable festival. I plan to see thirteen films at this year’s festival, and I will cover a majority of them here through reviews. Here are the five I’m most excited to catch, in alphabetical order.
At Reel Spirituality, we’re always on the lookout for films that engage religion in a serious, probing way, avoiding the easy answers and clichés that often dominate cultural conversation around belief. Communion appears to be just such a film. It follows a Polish teenager as she helps her younger brother prepare for his first communion, a milestone in the life of Catholics. Many of the best religious films take a narrow focus, using a small circumstance as a microcosm of bigger issues, and Communion appears to be aiming for just this sort of modest but thought provoking fare.
If I had to go with a single age group of people that make the best documentary subjects, I think I would choose senior citizens. They tend to be less guarded, more willing to explore the thorniness of the past, and frequently hilarious in their musings. So I have high hopes for Distant Constellation, a film that follows residents of a nursing home in Turkey. By all appearances this is a patient film in which the subjects get to unravel their stories at their own pace, a style that runs the risk of creating dead space, but often yields rich results that more hurried formats might miss.
In recent years there has been a trend toward documentaries that I might describe as extreme fly on the wall films, where cameras capture diverse interactions with no structure forcing a narrative out of them (a driving force in this trend has been the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which has produced films like Leviathan and Manakamana). The Thai film Railway Sleepers looks to be along these lines: it follows passengers on all of the major train lines in Thailand. Though it simulates a two day, two night journey, its footage was shot over the course of eight years, so no one individual or group will dominate the screen. Instead, patterns will (hopefully) emerge in fascinating patterns as director Sompot Chidgasornpongse captures a wide range of lives with his camera.
A different, though equally odd, take on society is on display in the ambitious looking Rat Film, from director Theo Anthony. Many dissections of class and race in America have been filmed, of course, and many even focus, as this film does, on Baltimore as a flashpoint of tensions, but few have taken such an on the ground approach to the subject. Quite literally: Anthony maps the space of Baltimore from the point of view of the titular creatures, whose presence in certain sectors of the city (and absence in others) marks out the dividedness of life in America. This should be an experimental, provocative meditation on the intersection of human and non-human life.
Russian documentary The Road Movie appears to be in a vein similar to Railway Sleepers, but with a more dystopic twist. Using footage taken exclusively from YouTube, the film utilizes dashboard footage of Russian cabs as they traverse the country, encountering strange passengers and dangerous situations (the cabs rely on dashboard footage to file insurance claims). Director Dmitrii Kalashnikov appears to have a point behind the chaos, one about the often nightmarish conditions of contemporary Russia. I usually see at least one darkly funny film at True/False, and this Kafkaesque experiment is a strong contender for this year’s candidate.
The wonderful thing about a preview like this is that it’s bound to fall short. Every year at True/False is full of surprises, and usually a film comes out of (relative) obscurity to blow me away with its craft. I’m sure that will happen again this year, and I am glad to bring you along for the ride as I discover what wonderful twists await at this year’s True/False Film Festival.
You'll be able to follow Asher's coverage of the festival in our Reviews section. - Editor