It seems like every year I’m sitting in one of the two biggest venues in Columbia looking to a friend and lamenting the end of the True/False Film Festival. During no other weekend does this city shine so bright and love so fiercely. The heartland of America takes on a new vitality each year during the festival. And as each successive year fades into memory, I’m left with more sadness – and more fondness – for this venture than the year before.
On the final day of True/False 2017 I took in 4 more films bringing my weekend total to 15. As with each day, I’m left wondering which theme I should be considering. My fiancée wondered aloud earlier that the festivals’ themes – Out of the Ether, Off the Trail, etc. – all seem to say the same thing. And maybe they do. But ‘Out of the Ether’ seemed particularly fitting on Day 4, as I took in movies from the perspectives of people I run into in my daily life, perspectives I too often neglect.
Sunday started off with a doc from the legendary Steve James of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Grade: B) is an uproariously entertaining film, one that could have only been made by the steady hand of a veteran like James. It explores the life of one Chinese-American family – the family behind Abacus Federal Savings Bank – as they take the fall for 2008’s mortgage crisis. If you enjoyed 2015’s The Big Short, consider this a worthy companion piece. To this date, Abacus is the only bank indicted for their ‘role’ during the crisis. Apart from being an economics film, James delves into the influence the Sung family has on Chinatown and subtly comments on the unfortunate reality of scapegoating immigrants in America.
Speaking of companion pieces, I was intrigued to take in The Force (Grade: B) one day after Whose Streets? It’s another film that tackles the topic of police relations between communities of color, only this time, the narrative is flipped to the men in blue. The Force focuses on the Oakland Police Department between the years of 2014 and 2016, in which a decade of reform seems to go down the drain. It’s a sympathetic film that never takes a firm stance, but it is troubling to see the realities of where American policing has gone when it has gone to its bitter end.
It had been a heavy morning, so I was relieved to find this year’s True Life Fund film – an award specific to True/False – was wholly uplifting and utterly beautiful. Quest (Grade: A-) plays just as much like a symphony as it does a film. Its movements and waves echo frequent themes throughout, while each vignette never feels wasted. It’s a film etched with aging lines, but it’s still incredibly nimble and delicate, never affected by the cynicism of its time. Think Moonlight meets Boyhood.
Finally, the night and weekend concluded with a film that, somewhat surprisingly, was not new to True/False. I Am Not Your Negro (Grade: A-) has been in the public conscious for a decent amount of time, enough for it to have been nominated at the recent Academy Awards. But I still felt it was the correct choice for this year’s closing film. Framed by the words of James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, the film reads and watches like the earliest drafts of a searing, damning work. It’s raw and messy while still maintaining an uplifting and hopeful spirit. The warts-and-all approach works to tremendous effect. While it’s often hard to take in exactly what Baldwin – and the film – is trying to say, I Am Not Your Negro commands attention and recognition. I think it’s important to note it’s never done with a hostile tone. Yes, sometimes the words and images are difficult – it shouldn’t be any other way. But Baldwin’s words carry a profound sense of dignity and perseverance. Despite its overt grief, I Am Not Your Negro exudes hope, simply because it must. Otherwise, it would be too bleak to handle.