One of the best parts about True/False is the near-guarantee of being transported to another world. I say “near-guarantee,” because there are always films that are willing and able to take you to places about which you’d never think or dream. However, there’s never a 100% surety you (as an attendee) will pick and choose the right films to accomplish this otherworldly cinematic mission.
Of course, True/False 2018 is no different. And while it doesn’t take a particularly sharp eye to pick out an adventurous slate of films, it’s a thought I was aware of going into Day 1 of the this year’s fest. I had voiced concerns to several fellow attendees about the desire to see something challenging and outside my comfort zone. While those thoughts weren’t exactly assuaged going into the first evening of films, I can’t say I left the theaters without brand new worlds in which my mind could roam.
One of the best ways (I find) to start True/False is to pick a shorts selection. The festivals curators often do a wonderful job of offering a slate of 4 to 5 collections of short films that would be otherwise impossible to dig up and see outside the confines of Columbia, Mo. in early March. They often group together as a theme or loose collective, the latter of which applied well to the collection I chose, titled Shorts: Red Wine 73 for the drink of choice in the post-film Q&A session. It’s a collection of short films designed to transport American audiences to foreign lands filled with familiar and unfamiliar circumstances.
As the first screening of the first night, our audience was treated to a special surprise: the world premiere of Mini Miss (Grade: C+) a short highlighting the Brazilian child pageant scene. While it did feel like a privilege to be the first public screening of the film, there wasn’t anything truly transportive about the film. In a way, director Rachel Daisy Ellis cripples her own short by presenting the child contestants as so endearing and willing to participate. Of course, we ask ourselves the question, “Why start this young?”, but that isn’t particularly new ground to tread, even on a different continent.
Alejandro Alonso’s Duelo (Grade: B) was an entirely different scenario, throwing us deep into the jungles of Cuba where a deeply spiritualist mother prays feverishly over her oppressed (mentally unstable? possessed?) son. The harsh editing and tight shots leave the film with an unappealing glossy feel, but there is something truly unsettling about the face of the teenage boy as his mother chants and sweats through her ritualistic prayers. There’s also a sense of compassion one feels for the mother as her Santerian-esque fervor wills the film to a place where we can’t help but feel for these people and their isolated circumstances.
The highlight of the program is Camille Restrepo’s La Bouche (Grade: A-). It’s an overwhelming sensual experience, an essay-like structure pointedly struck with the banging of drums and the haunting of melancholy voices constantly bombarding an unsuspecting audience. All the while, the film’s central character sits quietly as the chorus sings to him a song of woe, that of his murdered daughter and the vengeance and rage bubbling inside him. It’s a kaleidoscopic fever dream that socks you with a thrilling climax, one I’d be misguided to give away for fear of spoiling Restrepo’s unique vision.
The program concluded with Palenque (Grade: B+), a simple exploration in one of the Western Hemisphere’s first free colonies, still standing from the 1600’s. The stink of colonization is heavy, but you’d never know it from the townspeople. There’s nothing truly magnificent about the film’s presentation, but the motif of a single statue, brought up 3 different times from 3 different angles, reminds us of the endurance this village holds: a surprising powerhouse among the rising and falling empires of the world.
I capped day one of my festival with Bart Layton’s American Animals (Grade: B+) . In my preview, I noted I’d be slightly disappointed if this didn’t end up one of my festival favorites. And I have to say… it’s going to take some time to gestate. Layton’s fiction hybrid is perfect for this non-fiction festival, a twisty, carefully structured tale of four disaffected college students looking to leave a mark on their world, small as it may be in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s a difficult film to place; at times, it feels like Layton is dipping his hands into two or three different films, unsure of which he truly wants to pursue. Oddly enough, these scattered tones and pieces end up coming together in a remarkable way.
When the credits rolled, I wanted to know more about this story, while simultaneously not wishing to know more about its four characters. In a strange way, that is the crux of the film for me: after spending 80 minutes in four different countries, American Animals feels like a quintessential American film, one where privileged white men can essentially get away with crimes of boredom. Layton appropriately structures his film without sympathy for the main characters, though you do recognize the stage of life with which they grapple. The film asks questions of us in our American stasis, notably why we do the things we do – even the most mundane tasks. Certainly, American Animals is a heightened form of drama, but given that it really happened, we’re left looking at a garbled, completed puzzle, asking ourselves how it can look so grotesque while feeling so familiar and relatable. I have a feeling it’ll slide up and down my list of festival favorites as the weekend goes, but it’s certainly one of the more thought-provoking offerings I’ve witnessed in 5+ years of festival going.
And so having covered both the world and America in one night, I’m convinced of one thing: True/False 2018 has a program that won’t be afraid to take me places I’m uncomfortable, be they at home or abroad. They’re journeys I’ll gladly take every time.