The True/False film festival is my favorite time of year. Forget Christmas or New Year’s — for three immersive, frantic days, I hop from theater to theater stuffing my eyeballs with as many documentaries as possible. That’s my idea of a holiday.
Hopefully the festival’s reputation means you’ve heard of it, but for the sake of background: True/False is the child of creators Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, and takes place not in prestigious Toronto or California, but in humble-ish Columbia, Missouri (where yours truly attended college at Stephens’ Film Department). Its yearly offerings, screened not for awards or press, but out of the proprietors’ love of cinema and their desire to share it with the community, are always challenging. Thematically, psychologically, technically. I rarely feel more inspired to create or as fulfilled as a viewer than I do after a True/False weekend, not to mention the quasi-spiritual experience of sharing those feelings with thousands of attendees. You don’t need to be a member of the industry; you just need to feel electrified by film. True/False is as much about the love as it is about the artform.
The fest has always provided women filmmakers a space to flourish alongside their male counterparts, but 2016 felt special. Maybe it was because I’d missed the last two years thanks to illness (GREAT TIMING, FLU!!), and I was more closely attuned to the presence of women-driven projects than I’d been before. Male filmmakers and subjects still make up a decent majority of True/False’s schedule, but I’m reeling from not just the diversity of female talent on display this year, but the amount. Of the ten films I could squeeze in seven were either directed by or about women, and some were both. I even missed some. Their stories were seen, their voices unabashedly heard, and nobody (to my knowledge) questioned it.
I’m always inspired by good filmmaking, but thank you to everyone involved with True/False for not only giving women filmmakers a platform, but normalizing the truth that we exist.
Sonita: Dir. Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
The anthem of teenager Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan immigrant living in Iran. Sonita dreams of being a successful rapper; she idolizes Rihanna and Michael Jackson, but it’s illegal for women to sing publicly in Iran. She searches for a recording company that will take a chance on her when she’s not cleaning bathrooms at a student refugee center. Straining against the traditional sexism controlling her and her friends, Sonita’s music advocates women’s education and freedom of choice. When her Afghan family try to sell her as a child bride against her will (to them, her body is worth $9,000), Sonita resists the only way society allows: through her words. The girl is both poet and activist with an indefatigable courage, and the film’s a stunning rallying cry to end the atrocities of child marriage. I spent almost all of it in tears.
Cameraperson: Dir. Kirsten Johnson
In her 25 years as a documentary cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson has been to Afghanistan, Darfur, Liberia, Uganda, and Bosnia, working behind the camera on such astonishing documentaries as Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 911, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Derrida, The Invisible War, and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Now she’s turned the camera back onto herself, weaving together non-linear fragments of her footage into a deeply personal exploration of art and artist. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and Johnson’s an inspiration to women filmmakers everywhere.
Between Sisters: Dir. Manu Gerosa
This pensive, profoundly emotional story of family loyalty follows Italian sisters Ornella and Teresa. Teresa, the elder by twenty years, is near the end of her life, and younger Ornella takes care of her: cuts her hair, prepares her medications, endures her angry rants and weary judgments. Faced with the inescapable fact of Teresa’s mortality, Ornella decides to finally seek out the truth about a childhood secret before Teresa takes the memory to her grave. An examination of life, death, loneliness, the weight of secrets, and the fragile, yet unbreakable, bonds of family love. Of course they’ve always taken care of each other — they’re sisters.
Nosotras Ellas: Dir. Julia Pesce
Over the course of a year, a multi-generational family of Brazilian women live, grow, and die together in their quiet community. The elders guide the younger through the life-altering experience of pregnancy, and in turn the younger carry forward the legacies they’ve learned of femininity. These women leave their marks upon the world, sometimes obvious, sometimes remnants. The camera captures their bodies as normal, extraordinary, sacred; things of both beauty and strength, like their whip-sharp minds and their powerful, roughened hands. Under Julia Pesce’s tender eye, womanhood is a gift, and these women are us. We are them. Together, we’re all a wonder.
Kate Plays Christine: Dir. Robert Greene
In 1974, Sarasota anchor Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on air during a live news broadcast. In 2016, director Robert Green and actress Kate Lyn Sheil seek out the mysteries of who and why: who Christine Chubbuck was beneath the sensation, and what drove her to commit such a tragic act. What drives anyone to suicide? Can it be prevented? What moral responsibility do storytellers have not to glorify, sexualize, or exploit the trauma of a lonely, depressed, angry woman? (All the responsibility.) Are we exhibitionists addicted to violence, and is society complicit in Chubbuck’s decision to put a gun to her head as her statement against our collective bloodlust? A tricky tightrope walk of meta and identity, Greene’s psychological case study of performance is wild, brilliant, aggressive, frustrating, and as brutally scarring as a bullet.
Presenting Princess Shaw: Dir. Ido Haar
Thanks to the accessibility of the modern internet, stars are made every minute. All it takes is talent, a YouTube account, and millions of views. Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery has the first two in spades and none of the latter. She works at an elderly care facility in New Orleans, but music is her drive, her passion, her avenue to express herself and heal from her heartbreaking past. She uploads cell phone videos of her acapella compositions, pouring out her heart to the internet, and in our age of connectivity, no one listens; not even the crowds at open-mic nights, who leave before she starts to sing. Enter Kutiman, an online composer based in India who remixes the work of other YouTube artists. Intensely moving but delicate to its core, this is an actual Cinderella story that happened to the best and most deserving of people.
The Illinois Parables: Dir. Deborah Stratman
In a series of eleven vignettes focused on different cities in different time periods, The Illinois Parables tells the history of the state of Illinois. It’s a history mostly steeped in violence, with racism, intolerance, technological progress, atomic war, and death, whether by human prejudice or nature’s unpredictability, tied into a single whole. Deborah Stratman, known for her experimental style, shucks off your typical historical documentary tropes and combines on-the-ground cinematography, sound design, and scant voiceover to present her morality tale about American identity. The sound design is especially staggering: the film’s dream-like, meandering quality lulls us into a sense of peace, only to be mercilessly shattered by violent orchestral chords. Much like how violence shatters lives, communities, and countries, yes? If parables want us to learn from our mistakes, we have a lot to learn from Illinois.
Some I didn’t get to see: Another Country, Molly Reynolds; Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John, Chelsea McMullan; Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; The Pearl, Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca; Sherpa, Jennifer Peedom.