After a difficult day two at the 2018 True/False Film Festival, there was a sense of lost time I was battling. Having only seen a handful of films in two days, I wondered if that time could be made up in the ensuing two days, busy days though they would be. There was a conflicting desire to bear down and see as many movies as I could while still enjoying the fest for all the reasons I came to love it in the first place. Luckily, the programming of day three made it so I didn’t have to sacrifice either.
Director RaMell Ross’s dreamy Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Grade: A-) was the perfect way to start my day after the frustrations of day two. Guided by a series of ambiguous prompts, Hale County lilts and lulls the audience along into a soft lullaby state. It loosely follows the stories of two young men working to make their lives better for themselves and the people they love – one by working dutifully at the local fish factory, one by using basketball as a career outlet.
On this website recently, guest writer Kyle J. Howard wrote about Black Panther and the way black stories are mostly portrayed in the context of negativity. Ross explores this concept as well, only doing it with heavy doses of influence from Moonlight and even a little bit of Lynchian dissonance. But even when things seem hard for our (many) protagonists – and things are hard – there is always an abundance of joy to be found in each other. It’s a gentle, visionary film that well earned its special prize at Sundance this year.
Following Hale County was Laura Bari’s Primas (Grade: B), this year’s True Life Fund film here at True/False. The fund is dedicated to financially aiding the subjects of its film, helping them through personal costs where a documentary seeks as the medium to tell their story. It’s a well-chosen film; Primas tells the stories of two Argentinian women looking to reckon with horrific acts of sexual violence that took place in their very young lives.
One of the most important distinctions about the film is that the two young women aren’t to be viewed as victims. Instead, they’re portrayed as anything but: artists, lovers, adventurers, activists, etc. While there is impressionist reflection of evil, Bari does service to her subjects by never facing their attackers, stripping them of all power capitol in the films 100 minute runtime. That capital is instead afforded to Rocio and Aldana, whose charm would be more than enough to woo us even before their inspirational doggedness to see the world made a better place. Primas makes bold choices based on the girl’s artistic vision, particularly in the final 30 minutes. And while that time can seem difficult to parse, it’s important to see the ways these young women find strength and power. It seems an appropriate film to celebrate, especially on the same weekend of the #MeToo and #TimesUp Oscars.
Following was another Sundance winner, director Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment (Grade: B), a slick expose feature on the NYPD 12’s fight against racist quota policing. “Courageous,” is a term too often afforded to filmmaking, I think. And while the filmmaker certainly risked some sort of police retaliation in the making of this film, the real courage is displayed by its subjects. While suing their supervisors for forcing them to make illegal policing decisions, many of them see their lives begin to disintegrate in the face of NYPD retaliation.
From the get-go, it’s a fairly traditional documentary. But where Maing could have been sidetracked by less important subtext – explaining quota policing in other cities would be one – he wisely keeps his camera on the NYPD 12. Their secret meetings, hidden recordings, and public cries for justice ring true, sparking a righteous fury that burns past the credits. In the way of activist filmmaking, Crime + Punishment, may not transcend its formula, but it remains vital.
(Remember in my preview where I talked about running from one movie to another? This was that part of the day.)
A quick jaunt across downtown Columbia, brought me to my most anticipated film of the fest – Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (Grade: A). As you can tell, it didn’t disappoint. While it does take a few minutes to adjust to Tan’s authorial feel, Shirkers kicks into high gear almost immediately, sprawling us out over decades before walking us through the story of her Singaporean roots and how she came to make the country’s “first” independent film – also titled Shirkers. With production led by Tan, two of her like-minded friends and a mysterious teacher, Shirkers comes to be known as a work of genius before it even wraps. Throughout the documentary we see bits and pieces of it playing; it feels like prime Wes Anderson twee fare, only years before Anderson stepped onto the indie scene and much more assured than some of his earlier efforts.
Still, Shirkers is never complete. Why? Because that mysterious teacher absconds with the film just after wrapping, leaving Tan and her friends with a whole in their lives and cracks in their friendships. As years pass, they each go their separate ways, only to be reunited when the film canisters are found two decades later. Shirkers is a film about filmmaking, that much cannot be denied. However, it’s also a love letter to youth, friendship, and rebellion. It’s a fem-punk masterwork, skilfully guided by the hand that wrote the original screenplay and saw it revived into its current non-fiction form. Where scattered pieces don’t feel like they’ll come together, Tan doesn’t try to make them fit, forcing us to bask in the messy glory of her decades developed vision. There’s a resonance to her redemptive search that leads to surprising self-evaluation and constant reflection on why we love the things we love and how we carry them with us as we grow old.
Finally, those of us who stayed late were treated to Stephen Loveridge’s Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. (Grade: B+), an often by-the-numbers music doc focusing on the life and vision of one of the world’s most outspoken hip-hop artists. It feels weird to think M.I.A. is at the point where documentaries are being made about her; we typically think of institutional bands and groups of people who have been around for decades. But in a way, M.I.A. is an institution of her own, breaking onto an American music scene as a woman of color singing songs about refugees and immigrants mocking the very stereotypes people would put on her. As a young artists and documentary filmmaker hopeful, M.I.A. turned over hundreds of hours of self-taped footage to Loveridge, essentially saying, “do what you want with this.” The film definitely has that feel as it often drags through the first hour.
However, the last 45 minutes feel like a revelation. There’s nothing particularly new about the latter half of the film, other than it uniquely reflects the political “controversies” in which M.I.A. got caught up. But there’s a very distinct turn where a new life is breathed into the narrative, almost echoing the point where the artist became the activist and took on a new life of her own. No subject is left out here: the accusations of terrorist sympathies, the Super Bowl middle finger, the seeming hypocrisy of the cushy activist. But where many films would ask us to have sympathy, M.I.A. rejects it, instead forcing us to grapple with the subjects of her anger. It’s coupled with a subtle humility in handing very personal parts of her life, stored in those hours of footage. Maybe humility is not the first impression many would have of M.I.A. But unlike many music docs, the subtextual statement of, “You don’t know the real (blank),” plays out well here.