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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Mar. 9, 2011 | 10:04 AM

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True/False 2011

After finishing my second go round at the recently concluded True/False Documentary Festival in Columbia, Missouri, one consistent theme emerged: filmmakers LOVE this festival.  Festival “co-conspirators” David Wilson and Paul Sturtz not only work hard to ensure that every film is presented by someone involved in its creation, but also throw a special “filmmakers fete’ each year to honor those who make the trip.  At the 2011 installment, nearly every filmmaker began their introductions by proclaiming how much they loved True/False.  Robert Greene, director of the affable regional pro wrestling doc Fake It So Real, took things one step further.  Not only did he claim that True/False was his favorite festival in the U.S., but added that Ragtag Cinema was also his favorite theatre. Greene was screening at the festival for the second year in a row, after 2010’s engaging Kati with an I

Greene wasn’t the only director at the fest who was happy to be playing a return engagement.  James Marsh, the Oscar winning director of Man On Wire, which screened at True/False early in its festival run, was back this year with his new film Project Nim.  Marsh also was the 2011 recipient of the festival’s True Vision award, which is one of only two prizes given out at this noncompetitive festival.  Upon accepting the award on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, Marsh could scarcely contain his enthusiasm.  Forget about the Oscar for Man on Wire.  Marsh holds True/False in such high esteem that he called the award “the best thing I’ve ever gotten.”

While the town of Columbia always puts its best foot forward for the festival, the real draw of True/False is the films themselves.  As the name would indicate, the festival programmers search far and wide for works that push the boundaries of what we think of as non-fiction film.  There were activist documentaries like Blood In the Mobile,  which borrows heavily from Michael Moore’s muck racking attempts to combat corporate injustice, archival works like The Black Power Mix Tape: 1967-1975, which adds contemporary reflections to interviews conducted decades ago, and avant garde constructions like The Arbor, which employs actors to lip sync to the audio of interviews the filmmaker conducted.  If that sounds like too much truth for you, consider The Troll Hunter, which apes the hand held mockumentary style of The Blair Witch Project and adds a liberal dose of CGI trolls.  I was unable to catch Hoop Dreams co-director Steve James’ new film,
The Interrupters, but heard it was excellent. 

Columbia’s not easy to get to from LA, but considering that three of the Oscar nominated feature length documentaries this year also screened last year at True/False, it’s a great place for documentary fans to get ahead of the curve. Here’s ten solid docs to look forward to in 2011:

The Woman with Five Elephants

Dir. by Vadim Jendreyko

Fighting an uphill battle with the inherently uncinematic subject of literary translation, this film nonetheless succeeds due to the remarkable life story of its central figure, Svetlana Geier.  The Five Elephants in the title refer to Dostoyevsky’s five most famous novels, all of which Geier has translated into German.  With a tale as dramatic as any the great Russian writer created, Jendreyko smartly gets out of the way of his subject as she explains how a Ukrainian Jew could be employed by the Nazis and somehow become a preominent figure in the literary world.

Dir. by Cindy Meehl

To say that the subject of Cindy Meehl’s remarkable debut feature was the inspiration for the novel and the film The Horse Whisperer is to barely scratch the surface of the wonders on display here.  Anyone who says there are no more cowboy heroes has never met Buck Brannaman, who has gone from a childhood career doing rope tricks on the rodeo circuit to traveling around the country nine months out of the year staging horse clinics. Overcoming a childhood filled with vicious abuse at the hands of his father, Buck refuses to repeat the cycle of violence, instead providing a model for sensible, humane treatment of animals.  Winner off this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance,  The film will be released theatrically through IFC Films in June.

The Arbor
Dir. by Clio Bernard

If Mike Leigh were a documentarian, it’s not hard to imagine him making films like The Arbor.  An intriguing blend of archive and artifice, Clio Bernard’s film tells the increasingly bleak tale of UK playwright Andrea Dunbar and her children.  The film is divided into three components: Talking head sequences of actors lip synching to audio of interviews that Bernard conducted with the story’s real life participants; A series of re-enactments of pivotal scenes from Dunbar’s plays staged in the midst of the project where she grew up, and actual BBC footage of Dunbar herself in the midst of her success.  The effect is jarring at first, but quickly becomes riveting, as Dunbar’s complicated legacy of talent spiked with liberal doses of casual racism and substance abuse takes hold.

Project Nim James Marsh

Those familiar with Marsh’s Man On Wire will recognize the virtuosity on display here.  Taking the 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human as its source, Nim is the true 70’s story of a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother and raised as a human child on the upper west side of New York.  The whole scheme was hatched by a Columbia University science professor who wanted to see if it were possible for chimps to learn sign language. This being the 70’s, the professor’s freewheeling attitude and penchant for hiring then firing attractive young female assistants seems to be par for the course.  Eventually the study runs its course, and the rest of Marsh’s film is devoted to Nim’s troubled journey in captivity.  HBO has secured the US television rights to the project.

The Black Power Mix Tape: 1967-1975
Dir. by Goran Olsson

Another great example of a filmmaker knowing when to stay out of the way of his subject, The Black Power Mix Tape is an example of archive filmmaking at its finest.  This treasure trove of 16 mm interview footage from the period was recently discovered in the basement of a Swedish television studio, and it features both color and black and white interview footage of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Louis Farrakhan, and many other important figures of the era.  Contemporary perspectives are added by voiceovers from current pop culture luminaries like Talib Kweli, Questlove, and Erykah Badu. Olsson didn’t mention any specific release details at the Q & A after the screening, but the film is well worth seeking out.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Dir. By Andrew Rossi

Print Media is Dead!  Long Live Print Media!  Taking the much ballyhooed “death of the mainstream media” as it’s rallying cry, Rossi’s glossy doc largely proves that the Old Grey Lady is alive and well.  While a venerable institution like the Times has had to make some difficult adjustments,  an increasing web presence mixed with good old fashioned stubborn reporting would seem to indicate that the paper will be around in some form for many years to come.  Special props are due to Times media reporter David Carr for lashing out at Times detractors like an erudite junkyard dog.  At the very least, Carr’s epic takedown of the young turks at Vice magazine is worth the price of admission.

Blood In The Mobile
Dir. By Frank Piasecki Poulsen

Although this film represents the only example I saw at True/False this year of what I would call the “Michael Moore model”, wherein an activist filmmaker attempts to affect change by confronting corporate CEO’s with the evils perpetrated by their companies, Poulsen displays a set of cajones that Moore himself would have to envy. Upon hearing that his Nokia phone may have been assembled with blood minerals from the war torn Congo, Poulsen decides to go and investigate himself.  Stubbornly working his way through one of the most dangerous countries in the world, he discovers that the reality is much worse than he could have imagined.  Poulsen’s attempts to change the minds of Nokia executives meet with somewhat predictable results, but the images of his nightmare odyssey through the Congo aren’t easy to shake.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Dir. By Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion

Few things are more satisfying in film than a great title with the content to back it up.  The Redemption of General Butt Naked succeeds on both counts.  If a film with that title and the description ” a brutal Liberian warlord gives up his murderous ways to become a Christian preacher” doesn’t pique your curiosity, then maybe True/False isn’t for you.  Not only have Strauss and Anastasion found themselves a subject for the ages in Joshua “General Butt Naked” Blahyi, but they skillfully demonstrate that an evangelist and a general must possess many of the same charismatic qualities. The experience of watching Blahyi, who officially confessed to being in some way responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people, confronting the survivors of his victims is both visceral and heartbreaking.  The film reminded me of a Liberian version of that Robert Duvall movie The Apostle, but with an exponentially higher body count, and a corresponding schedule of atonement that will keep Blahyi busy for the rest of this life and into the next. Oh, and “General Butt Naked” means exactly what you think it means.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
Dir. by Matthew Bate

Proving that their youthful hijinks did indeed become an international phenomenon, Australian Matthew Bate brings us the story of two Wisconsities who moved to San Francisco in their twenties and got famous by recording their drunken belligerent neighbors.  In those halcyon pre-internet days of the 90’s, listening to a bootleg tape of Peter’s signature takedown,“Shut Up, Little Man”, was cutting edge entertainment at its finest.  Bate’s documentary examines the cult phenomenon, and ultimately displays that their dystopian magic was often imitated but never surpassed.  There are a lot of questions raised here about copyright, and whether or not Pete and Ray should’ve gotten a piece of the action.  The points are mostly moot, as all the principals have been dead for some years, but one thing remains clear.  If you’ve never been exposed to any of this material, you owe it to both yourself and Peter and Raymond to check it out. It’s priceless.

The Troll Hunter
Dir. by Andre Ovredal

A film that sounds much more ominous when referred to by its original Norwegian title,Trolljegeren, this is by far the most puzzling selection of this year’s festival.  I suppose enough time has passed for someone to try to invoke a new wave of Blair Witch nostalgia, and a case could certainly be made for the mockumentary as a viable variant of the doc genre.  The problem is that the True/False fest, which occasionally gives off a whiff of wacky mischief in the way it presents itself,  is mostly very earnest about programming work which works to advance the genre of non-fiction film.  The overarching ethos seems to be that most films are in some way both true and false.  The Troll Hunter is all false.  It makes an embarrasingly half -assed attempt to present itself as true, and then proceeds to unfold something completely ridiculous.  All that being said, there’s some fun to be had here, and the CGI trolls on display are impressive.  The director wasn’t able to appear with the movie to shed light on any of this, but I would say that the film is more enjoyable if you think of it as living outside the documentary world.  Unless you believe in trolls, in which case, Ovredal’s film will give you a lot to talk about.

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