This weekend was the fifth annual True/False festival of nonfiction films (aka documentaries) and it was an overwhelming success. I was part of a 1200-member audience at Jesse Auditorium on Sunday night that gave festival organizers David Wilson and Paul Sturtz a standing ovation, which they richly deserve for their many years of hard work at creating this amazing event. This year’s festival was much bigger than in the past, but they still kept ticket prices affordable ($55 for the basic festival pass, which got me into over a dozen films). I always thought film festivals were exclusive affairs held in really ritzy places like Cannes, and affordable only to celebrities, that is, until True/False started up in my hometown of the past several years, Columbia, MO. This is one of the things I appreciate about what Paul and David have done – they’ve made it accessible to everyone, and have still kept it intellectually challenging, politically relevant, and artistically intriguing. That, and they’re such modest guys, they would be the first to point out that they’ve had tons of support and involvement from other folks who’ve helped maintain that vision.
I saw so many films, yet missed so many others that people raved about. I will try to share some of my impressions, though I realize this can in no way be a comprehensive overview even of my own limited participation.
The Greening of Southie (dir. Ian Cheney, 82 min.) was the one “architecture” film at the festival so naturally I had to see it. It was about the building of the Macallen Boston building, the first “green” building to be built in South Boston, and a real groundbreaker; a postscript to the film announced that the mayor of Boston has since mandated that all new buildings in Boston must be “green.” (What does that mean, exactly? It seems like a fairly vague mandate.) The filmmakers followed the construction from start to finish, allowing us to see all the stages of a construction site. If that doesn’t sound exciting to you, you don’t know what you’re missing! It was pretty funny to hear everyone, from construction workers to yuppie condo owners, explaining the double-flush toilet in the most euphemistic terms they could muster. (“It has two buttons, the yellow button and the brown button.”) The filmmakers, who were at the screening, admitted that the process got interesting for them (as it does for the audience) when things started to go wrong. An expensive floor material, bamboo, imported from mainland China (environmentally friendly because it’s a rapidly renewable resource) was installed using low-VOC glue (glue that doesn’t give off a lot of toxic chemicals), and a month or so later ALL the floors in the building started buckling and had to be ripped out! Many of these “green” products have been on the market for less than 10 years, so their advantages and disadvantages are not fully known, not to mention that a lot of construction workers have no experience with them. The film touched on the class tensions that are resulting from this luxury condo development ($500,000 to $2 million per unit) being inserted into a very working-class part of the city, and the effects on the local economy. Small mom-and-pop businesses that had been there for decades were being pushed out. The filmmakers really could have explored that issue a bit more, but that’s not the film they were making, and so I don’t fault them for it too much. Another documentary film I saw recently (though it was not at True/False) did a marvelous job at examining the effects of development on an older, poorer neighborhood, and that film was called Greetings from Asbury Park (dir. Christina Eliopoulos, 2007, 93 min.). This was shown at the annual meeting of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History in October 2007, and I was hoping it would come to True/False because I’d love for people to see it. (Asbury Park is really more about eminent domain abuse, but its strength lies in the personal stories it tells.) This is sort of the flip side of The Greening of Southie, though not exactly.
Although The Greening of Southie was the only feature-length film specifically devoted to the architectural profession and its activities, the festival’s grand closing film, Man on Wire, told a story that was inextricably linked to the history of one of the 20th century’s architectural marvels, the World Trade Center. French guerrilla high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked on a wire he and his friends and accomplices had managed to string between the two towers, and he crossed that wire no fewer than 8 times. This feat – his third such stunt – occurred shortly after the twin towers were completed, and in fact it seemed that some of the top floors were still under construction. It was a beautiful, funny, and upbeat note on which to end the festival, despite the haunting knowledge of the WTC’s imminent demise which no one watching the film could ignore. Attendees of last year's True/False festival will remember the documentary film about 9/11 called Falling Man; Petit's potential for disaster reminded us all of images of such images from 2001. The director stated afterwards that it was part of his project to remind us all of the buildings’ more elegiac history, and for that reason the film is profound. This man’s achievement – walking on a high wire across the world’s tallest buildings – had a sublimity about it that is incomparable. It took my breath away to see the photos of him grinning as he achieved a dream that he had formed from the very first moment he learned of the plans for the building. Even the cop who arrested him, who is memorable for such astute comments as “his associates started speaking to him in French, being that he was from France,” recognized how sublime that moment was; “you knew you was never gonna see this again.”
A short film entitled 200,000 Phantoms (dir. Jean-Gabriel Periot, 10 min.) showed the “history of 20th-century Hiroshima as told through 600 photographs of the iconic Gembaku Dome between 1914-2006.” [The Genbaku Dome -- aka the Hiroshima Peace Memorial -- is a World Heritage Site.] The film was so beautiful and poetic, and the archival work of collecting all those photos (mostly postcards) alone is mind-boggling. Then the images were put in chronological order and superimposed on each other in sequence, sometimes traveling around the building to create a sense of a moving camera and of the building in 3 dimensions. This building was one of the few left standing after the A-bomb – standing in a skeletal state, that is — and the city of Hiroshima neither destroyed that skeletal structure, yet never rebuilt the walls to make it a functional building again. Instead this architectural phantom stands as a perpetual memorial to what was destroyed and a perpetual reminder of the senseless destruction and loss, and the stupid brutality (or is it brutal stupidity?), of war.
[Another architecture-themed short, called Under Construction (dir. Zhenchen Liu, 10 min.) played at the festival, but I missed it. My husband saw it and said it was intense. That reminds me of another documentary I missed at last year’s True/False festival on China called Manufactured Landscapes.]
I really enjoy short films and so I went out of my way to see several line-ups of short films. Some of the highlights included:
La Corona (dir. Amanda Micheli & Isabel Vega, 40 min.), about a beauty pageant in a Bogota, Columbia, women’s prison; quite captivating, it was nominated for an Academy Award. You really get to know these 6 women who are competing for a crown that carries with it no real remuneration, just bragging rights, and the opportunity to think about something other than their miserable lives for a while. However, at the end of the film the winner got released on parole, and it was entirely unclear if this had anything to do with the attention she got (in local newspapers) for winning. There was a bit of racism expressed after the queen was chosen, the only black contestant; some of the sore losers claimed it was because the judges were all black (which they weren't, not all of them) and expressed some negative feelings towards black people. Fortunately that kind of ugliness was not the dominant note of the film.
I Met the Walrus (dir. Josh Raskin, 8 min.), wonderful animation in the spirit of Yellow Submarine, illustrating a 1970s-era audiotape of an interview John Lennon gave to a 14-year-old boy. This delightful short is a must-see! (Note: BK just informed me that I Met the Walrus was nominated for an Academy Award in the "Best Animated Short Film" category.)
The Man Who Ate Badgers (dir. Daniel Vernon, 38 min.) had some moments where I had to cover my eyes – gathering roadkill for dinner – but overall I enjoyed its quirky characters. Roadkill man had a wife who stayed in hiding whenever the camera was in the house because she didn’t want to appear on film, but I think that made the director all the more curious about her. He asked Roadkill man lots of questions, like “does your wife eat badgers too?” (answer: “no, she’s a vegetarian” – which got a huge laugh from the audience).
One program of shorts called “Working Title” gathered together 5 films on that theme, though it occurred to me as I was watching it that the majority of films at the festival were about work. Man on Wire – I guess tightrope walking was his “work,” though he didn’t seem to be getting paid for it. Salim Baba (dir. Timothy Steinberg, 14 min.), which played as part of the “Oscar Shorts” program, followed the owner of a 100-year-old hand-cranked movie projector who takes his equipment through the slums of Kolkota showing discarded fragments from Bollywood films. His mastery of the equipment reminded me of the amazing ingenuity I’ve seen in places like India and Mexico where things that we in the industrialized world would through in the trash heap are preserved and used and maintained. Speaking of the Indian subcontinent, Flying on One Engine (dir. Joshua Weinberg) told about the work of one Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet, a plastic surgeon who performs operations free of charge for children in India with severe facial deformities. For a humanitarian the guy was a total egotist. The Tailor (dir. Oscar Perez, 29 min.) showed an outrageous Pakistani tailor with his Indian assistant(s) working in a closet-sized shop in Barcelona and fighting with his customers. Somehow I think he’s too passive-aggressive to be in that line of work. The film is funny, but what’s even more funny is listening to my friend BP describe it. And my favorite of the “Working Title” shorts was Shika Shika (dir. Stephen Hyde, 10 min.), which “follows one family that for three generations has scaled the Peruvian Andes to ‘harvest’ ice for shika shika, a colorful shaved ice treat they sell in the market.” I guess it was kind of a fluffy film, but it was pretty, and colorful, and fun, with enjoyable Peruvian folk music. Visually it reminded me of the many short films made by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, who were masters of the form. I will post a separate blog entry about the Eameses soon, I promise!
(Caution: spoiler ahead!)
Freeheld (dir. Cynthia Wade, 40 min.), which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film, was an uplifting story, though sad at the same time as we watched Laurel Hester, a retired police detective, dying of cancer and fighting for the right to leave her police pension to her lesbian domestic partner. The State of New Jersey had passed a law allowing counties to award domestic partners of gay employees the same rights as married, heterosexual partners. However, this particular county had not opted to extend rights to gay couples, hence this legal fight. As I was watching footage of citizens, many of them police officers, going before the Freeholders Board (which is what they call their county government officials), I kept waiting to hear from the people who supported the Freeholders in their ridiculous refusal to give Laurel's pension to her partner, Stacie. Guess what -- there were NO members of the public (citizens or tax-payers or whatever you want to call it) who supported the Freeholders in their decision! This board of 5 middle aged white men seemed completely unconcerned with the viewpoint of the people whom they supposedly represented. (New Jersey is a democracy, isn't it?) In the end, it was the governor of New Jersey who intervened and called the Freeholders personally, asking them to reconsider their positions. Even the Freeholders gave Hester a standing ovation when she won her fight -- all except for the one guy, evidently the main opponent, who did not show up for that meeting! A postscript to the film announced that after the Laurel Hester case, the New Jersey legislature passed a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
I have said nothing yet about the spectacular film Gonzo (dir. Alex Gibney, 2007, 118 min.), nor about many of the other films that gave me lots to think about. Those will be the subject of my next blog entry, coming soon.
Check out these links for more on the 2008 True/False Film Festival:
Eugene Hernandez in IndieWire.com; Joe Meyer in the Columbia Daily Tribune