Directors

Sight & Sound’s Greatest Documentaries Survey: the Individual Ballots

Since 1952, the British film magazine Sight & Sound has published a much-discussed once-a-decade survey of the greatest films of all time.  This summer they limited the scope of their inquiry for the first time, asking critics, programmers and filmmakers to choose masterworks solely from the world of nonfiction. The results were announced a couple weeks ago in two Top 50 lists of The Greatest Documentaries of All Time, one for critics and one for filmmakers. Both lists crowned Dziga Vertov’s dazzling impression of city life in the early Soviet Union, Man with a Movie Camera, as the greatest documentary ever made.

This new canon, whatever its shortcomings, provides an excellent starting point for an education in nonfiction cinema. But focusing exclusively on the “Greatest Docs” lists misses most of the fun of this sort of exercise. The individual ballots, unranked lists of ten films submitted by each participate, allow you to consider which works resonate most profoundly with each individual, trace important influence and reference points for filmmakers and perhaps discover an overlooked masterpiece from another part of the globe.

Just a few days ago Sight & Sound shared all of the individual ballots on a nifty new interactive page, which offers multiple pathways to explore the poll and its films.

True/False programmers David Wilson and Chris Boeckmann were among those honored with invitations to participate. We reproduced Chris and David’s picks below, along with images from the works of nonfiction they consider the “greatest”. They only selected one film in common, the tragically under seen Disorder. Huang Weikai’s nightmarish epic of urban life in modern China screened at True/False in 2010.

Beneath Chris and David’s lists, we shared selections from many of the filmmakers surveyed whose work has screened at our festival. The ballots include comments offered by the participant, either about their lists as a whole or each individual film or both.

 

Chris Boeckmann, T/F Programmer

Film culture marginalises nonfiction cinema. I suspect one reason is that we feel more comfortable analysing and evaluating screenplays, sets and performances (work we attribute to conscientious artists) than unscripted developments, natural settings and fellow human beings. In the past year, I’ve noticed some signs, including this poll, that nonfiction cinema’s cachet is on the rise. I’m not sure why, but I hope I’m correct.

I spend most of my viewing time watching ‘documentary’ (I suppose I should note that several of the directors on my list don’t use this term, e.g. Allan King’s ‘actuality dramas’, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s ‘life cinema’). That’s not because of its educational value (I also read newspapers), but because I find it thrilling to watch gifted cinematographers and editors embrace spontaneity and wrestle with nature. I mean ‘nature’ in a very broad sense: plants, animals, buildings, weather, disease, time, other humans, ourselves.

Apologies to the many major filmmakers I’ve knowingly and unknowingly left off this rough list. If I revisited this prompt in the morning, the only film I’m certain would remain is Seventeen.

 

Seventeen (1984) Joel DeMott, Jeff Kreines

Seventeen

 

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Belovy

 

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

gimme-shelter

 

Farrebique (1946) Georges Rouquier

farrebique-ou-les-quatre-saisons_279736_37664

 

A Moment of Innocence (1995, T/F 2014) Mohsen Makhmalbaf

a moment

 

The Quince Tree Sun (1992) Víctor Erice

quince

 

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

a married couple

 

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

Disorder_1

 

Diary 1973-83 (1988) David Perlov

diary

 

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

fe08a08acbdd9d9fe07ad8b713db0dfe

 

David Wilson, T/F Programmer and Co-Conspirator

My list is in no particular order. Nor does it include many wonderful films. But I think it connects the dots of my personal film history, dwelling more on films that were made during my lifetime but acknowledging the great works that inspired those who inspired me. And if there are holes, well, it would be a shame to think that my education in nonfiction filmmaking was in any way complete.

I will almost always favour a film that moves me over one that doesn’t, but I strive to still appreciate and embrace the intellectual rigour of some of these films. Likewise, I remain a complete sucker for a beautiful image and a well-told story. I want a film that will scoop me up in its arms and carry me out along its path. The great ones never drop you.

 

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

manwith2

My appreciation may be more intellectual than visceral, but here is the taproot of everything that was to come.

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

Disorder_21

 

An explosive mindfuck of a film. Modern China reflected in a puddle of oil and viscera.

 

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

man-on-wire

Of all these titles, this is one I will watch over and over again – smiling and crying each time.

 

Leviathan (2012, T/F 2013) Lucien Taylor, Véréna Paravel

leviathan

Nothing less than a revolution in nonfiction cinema. Also the most ‘metal’ film on this list.

 

The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnès Varda

gleaners4

 

Vernon, Florida (1981) Errol Morris

vernon

Others will no doubt pick The Thin Blue Line. But there’s a good argument to be made that, formally, this film has influenced more young directors in the last 30 years than any of his other films.

 

Gaea Girls (2002, T/F 2009) Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams

gaeagirls

Somewhere between Barthes and Von Trier lies this doc about women’s professional wrestling, made by the most empathetic doc director alive.

 

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

Harlan_County_USA1976c01

Not as funny as Roger & Me, but far more immediate in its class-based anger. And with better songs.

 

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

grey-gardens-7

Staked the claim for ‘non-political’ docs and their importance in the world.

 

Night Mail (1936, T/F 2007) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

nightmail

The creative treatment of actuality.

 

Ballots from some of the T/F Filmmakers Surveyed:

 

Clio Barnard, director of The Arbor (T/F 2012)

These are all films that have a significant meaning for me – films that were pivotal personally in wrestling with what documentary film is and what it can do. They are listed in no particular order…

Chronicle of a Summer (1961) Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin

Paris Is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston

Dreams of a Life (2011) Carol Morley

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

Housing Problems (1935) Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey

Louyre This Our Still Life (2011) Andrew Kötting

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Tina Goes Shopping (1999) Penny Woolcock

The Battle of Orgreave (2002) Mike Figgis

The Last Bolshevik (1993) Chris Marker

 

Daniel Dencik, director of Expedition to the End of the World (T/F 2013)

What strikes me when putting together a list like this is not so much how dependent a film is upon a great director, but how crucial the main character is. For me the secret of a well-crafted documentary lies very much in the use and perspective of the first-person singular. When a documentary film really succeeds it is when the spectator is led into the captivating mind of a truly intriguing persona: as a spectator you get an idea of what it means to be that person, unfiltered and with a chilling honesty. Documentary are so great because they make you understand how another person’s mind works, what are that person’s dreams, struggles, demons, fears, idiosyncrasies. No other art form can step into the mind of another person in quite that way. So instead of comparing documentary filmmaking to fiction, one should perhaps rather compare the discipline to that of brain surgery or heart transplantation.

Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog

The strange and unforgettable presence of Timothy Treadwell makes this film a terrifying fable about the longing of man to find his place in nature, and the impossibility that lies in the nature of this ambition.

Into the Abyss A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011) Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog transforms the cruel reality of two death-row inmates into a staggering lesson in compassion and empathy.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Dieter Dengler is one of those characters that has gone from total obscurity into the mythology of modern filmmaking, all because of Werner Herzog’s film.

Armadillo (2010, T/F 2011) Janus Metz

Armadillo is a gripping tale of the boyish will to live life to the fullest – in this case the inexplicable drive to sacrifice your life in a far-away war – cleverly told in a powerful and rough cinematic language by Janus Metz.

A Springday in Hell (1977) Jørgen Leth

This gritty film about the Paris-Roubaix race captured the inner feeling of the greatest of all sports, bicycle racing. Blood, mud, tears, sweat and glory all come together in this masterpiece of heartbreaking beauty.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

With tremendously sexy footage from the 1974 heavyweight fight between Ali and Foreman, this sports doc is the one film to show the aliens when they arrive and ask what we humans are all about.

Metallica Some Kind of Monster (2004, T/F 2004) Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

An honest and at times painfully embarrassing look into the everyday life and struggles of arguably one of the greatest bands on Earth.

Senna (2010) Asif Kapadia

Whether you’re a petrolhead or not you become totally captivated by the Jesus-like presence of Ayrton Senna, and the film draws a precise portrait of the mind of a true legend.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) Sophie Huber

Dark and pessimistic, Harry Dean Stanton enters into your consciousness through this tender film and makes you fall helplessly in love with him.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012, T/F 2012) Malik Bendjelloul

A remarkable film about how one of the greatest talents of folk songwriting, Sixto Rodriguez, could disappear into obscurity before he even broke through – and then be rediscovered through the very making of this charming film.

 

Robert Greene, director of Kati with an I (T/F 2010), Fake it So Real (T/F 2011) and Actress (T/F 2014)

Edvard Munch (1976) Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins’ expressive biopic about the great Norwegian artist features real interviews, an elusive, mesmerizing structure and has the soul of great nonfiction.

The Store (1983) Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is one of our greatest artists and his entire filmography is a singular, essential dissection of the very structure and concept of the American institution. The Store just happens to be his funniest, most revelatory film, and my favourite for the moment.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

A completely perfect film, which observes the truths and illusions of the sporting human frame.

The Century of Self (2003) Adam Curtis

An essay film about identity and the creation of commodified individualism that’s as expressive and mysterious as it is illuminating.

News from Home (1976) Chantal Akerman

Less a documentary than a structuralist performance piece, masterful as an earthy, austere symphony of New York City, quietly devastating as a mediation on loneliness and alienation.

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Kossakovsky’s observational camera finds truth, mystery, sadness, desperation and uproarious life in rural Russia.

As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) Jonas Mekas

Impossibly personal while profoundly universal, the great Jonas Mekas gives a glorious, emotional, living cinema romp through his own life and our collective consciousness.

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

A devastating, present-tense political portrait of a society on the brink, still relevant as an invaluable historical document as it is an immersive, eternal cinematic experience.

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

Essential direct cinema genius Allan King creates an intimate, hilarious, troubling portrait of a failing marriage that simultaneously heralded the new documentary intimacy, foregrounded the role of performance in nonfiction and laid down the template for reality TV.

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

 

Viktor Kossakovsky, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2012, director of Belovy, Vivan Las Antipodas! (T/F 2012) and Demonstration (T/F 2014)

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

This is a list I made for screening at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in 2012, here in order of importance to me.

They’re films that challenged me both when I first saw them and again when I revisited them. Instead of trying to tell you something, they try to show you something.

If you were to add up all the new elements these films have added to the language of cinema, you would have the perfect documentary alphabet.

Ten Minutes Older (1978) Herz Frank

Man of Aran (1934) Robert Flaherty

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Spiritual Voices (1996) Aleksandr Sokurov

Workingman’s Death (2005) Michael Glawogger

Seasons (1975) Artavasd Peleschjan

Position among the Stars (2010) Leonard Retel Helmrich

Look at his Face (1966) Pavel Kogan

Our Mother is a Hero (1979) Nikolai Obukhovich

A Tram Runs through the City (1973) Ludmila Stanukinas

 

Kevin MacDonald, director of Touching the Void (T/F 2004) and Life in a Day (T/F 2011)

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

I love the fact that the editor, Charlotte Zwerin, gets a directing credit on this. So often in documentaries the editor is at least as important to the finished film as the director. I think this is the best film ever made about performance – but it also manages to say so much about the hippy dream turning sour and the power of the image.

Nespatrene (1997) Miroslav Janek

The Unseen is generally unseen but is a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it at the inaugural It’s All True doc festival in Brazil. It tells the story of blind children who become obsessed with taking photographs.

Now (1965) Santiago Álvarez

The most potent campaigning film ever made. Only five minutes long it is raw, technically innovative and angry. The Lena Horne song that it is based around is forever stuck in my head.

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister

Humphrey Jennings was a genius at yanking together unexpected images – the John Donne of cinema. This film is pure poetry and makes patriotism seem not just acceptable but admirable.

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

I love its intelligence, its coolness and its humour. It influenced every film I have ever made.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

The most exciting and uplifting non-fiction experience I have had in a cinema

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) Hubert Sauper

An imaginative, fiendishly gothic tale about the the survival of the fittest and the Nile Perch.

Roger & Me (1989) Michael Moore

Michael Moore brought entertainment back into documentary films – and made it the strange bedfellow of anger.

Hotel Terminus (Klaus Barbie, His Life and Times) (1988) Marcel Ophüls

Ophüls is a genius and I could just have easily chosen Sorrow and The Pity for this list.

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Because it did something new.

 

James Marsh, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2011, director of Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Wisconsin Death Trip, The Burger and the King and Project Nim (T/F 2011).

Each of these films seems to me to enlarge on the possibilities of the medium and each of the filmmakers (with the exception of Ari Folman) has a whole body of work that I revere and admire. The other characteristic they all share is a commitment to the poetry and power of the visual image, both discovered and created. They are all truly cinematic films in every respect.

If there is one filmmaker on this list who stands above the others as a documentarian, for me, it would be Frederick Wiseman. As soon as a Wiseman film starts you know you are with the perfect guide – his editing rhythms are poised and hypnotic, and his attention to detail and to the primacy of the potent, revelatory image is constant and surprising. Above all, it his generosity and respect towards his characters that distinguishes his work. Interestingly, for a filmmaker who has no use for the adornments of score or created imagery, he describes his works as ‘reality fictions’. I can’t think of a better description of the documentary medium or indeed a better alibi for us all.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Le Sang des bêtes (1948) Georges Franju

The War Game (1985) Peter Watkins, Peter Watkins

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Hospital (1970) Frederick Wiseman

Fata Morgana (1971) Werner Herzog

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

My Winnipeg (2007) Guy Maddin

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

 

Michal Marczak, director of At the Edge of Russia (T/F 2011)

The Five Obstructions (2003) Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Jørgen Leth

Close-up (1989, T/F 2014) Abbas Kiarostami

Moi, un Noir (1959) Jean Rouch

Sympathy for the Devil (1968) Jean-Luc Godard

Jak Zyc (1977) Marcel Lozinski

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Ya tebya lyublyu (2011) Pavel Kostomarov, Alexander Rastorguev

Faits Divers (1983) Raymond Depardon

 

Jesse Moss, director of Speedo (T/F 2004) and The Overnighters (T/F 2014)

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Woodstock 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) Michael Wadleigh

Dont Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker

Crumb (1994) Terry Zwigoff

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

The Cause (1990) Ken Burns

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing (T/F 2013)

My list of 10 arbitrarily excludes these films:

Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1967)

Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile (1975)

Jon Bang Carlsen’s Hotel of the Stars (1981)

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976)

Imamura Shohei’s History of Postwar Japan Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) and A Man Vanishes (1967)

Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Rithy Panh’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003)

The Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)

Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Ira Wohl’s Best Boy (1979)

Ulrich Seidl’s Losses to Be Expected (1992)

Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997)

Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Bread Day (1998)

Dusan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968)

Whenever we film anybody, they stage themselves, acting out fantasies – half-remembered, second-hand, third-rate – that they wished they fulfilled. The films I’ve chosen teach us that the ‘state of nature’ for nonfiction film is to reveal, prism-like, how fiction always constitutes our ‘facts’. These filmmakers deploy their camera not to record, but to provoke, and in the process have the courage to immerse themselves in the manic, delirious and tragic play of fantasies that make us what we are – inevitably and assuredly staggering out of the darkness into blinding truths.

Titicut Follies (1967) Frederick Wiseman

Close-up (1989) Abbas Kiarostami

Shoah (1985) Claude Lanzmann

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) Werner Herzog

W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism (1971) Dusan Makavejev

Animal Love (1996) Ulrich Seidl

Gates of Heaven (1978) Errol Morris

The Apple (1997) Samira Makhmalbaf

The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) Fernando Solanas

The Perfumed Nightmare (1976) Kidlat Tahimik

 

Jessica Oreck, director of The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014)

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

Tokyo-Ga (1985) Wim Wenders

Vive le Tour (1962) Jacques Ertaud, Louis Malle

The House Is Black (1962) Forough Farokhzad

Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) Harun Farocki

Love Life of the Octopus (1965) Jean Painlevé, Geneviève Hamon

The Voice of the Water (1966) Bert Haanstra

Herman Slobbe – Blind Kind II (1966) Johan van der Keuken

Microcosmos (1996) Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Anders Ostergaard, director of Burma VJ (T/F 2008)

The Fog of War Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003, T/F 2004) Errol Morris

Night Mail (1936) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

Être et Avoir (2002) Nicolas Philibert

Startup.Com (2001) Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus

Last Train Home (2009, T/F 2010) Lixin Fan

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (1983) Godfrey Reggio

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Olympia (1938) Leni Riefenstahl

Posted August 18, 2014

‘Boyhood’ Now Playing at Ragtag Cinema

The Closing Night film at True/False 2014 was a work of fiction, but a fiction built around a fascinating collaboration with reality. Filmed over 12 years from 2003-2013, Boyhood depicts a young boy coming of age in 21st century Texas. As we follow Mason through the years, along with his big sister, single mother and unreliable father, we watch the actors grow along with their characters and experience the passage of time through numerous cultural markers. The result is singular and profoundly empathetic.

Now this historically acclaimed film has returned to Columbia and is playing at our other half Ragtag Cinema.

boyhood

Director Richard Linklater was recently asked about showing this film at T/F by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve.

The Dissolve: Boyhood screened at the True/False Film Festival, and it seems like the perfect embodiment of that festival’s mission to blur the line between documentary and fiction. How were you looking to balance the demands of narrative with the real developments over time? 

Richard Linklater: You know, I wasn’t so sure we should even show [at True/False], because truly there’s nothing about the movie that’s a documentary, yet it feels real. It was meant to feel like a document of time, and it was a collaboration very much with the real world, and what was going on at any given time. It does blur the line in the mind. Someone said if you didn’t see Patricia and Ethan and didn’t know them from other movies, you might almost swear it was real. Some guy in New York the other night, he seemed like a normal guy, but after the movie, as I was leaving, he said, “How did you pick this family?” [Laughs.] I’m like, “They’re actors.” He thought I’d done something like that TV show, An American Family, picked a family and followed them all of these years. I’m like, “Are you crazy?” Anyway [Boyhood] does get blurry, and I wanted it to work that way in the viewer’s head.

This blurriness was examined further by Michael Koresky in his excellent review at Reverse Shot, which notes how Boyhood avoids traditional milestones, thereby playing to the viewer’s own memories of childhood. Star (and T/F 2014 guest) Ellar Coltrane talked with Vulture about growing up in the midst of the film and working each year with Linklater on the film’s scripts, a process which caused him to grow closer and closer to the character he was playing. And James Hughes at Grantland hung-out with Linklater to talk about the film’s roots in his own Texas childhood, and how the filmmaking process was “a dance with an unknown future”. These reflections all speak to the paradox suggested by Manohla Dargis in her NY Times review, who said of Boyhood ”its pleasures are obvious yet mysterious.”

 

 

 

Posted August 13, 2014

Sight & Sound Announces Its Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The British film magazine Sight & Sound has announced its first-ever list of the greatest documentaries of all time. The top 50 films includes T/F selections The Fog of War (T/F 2004), Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Waltz with Bashir (T/F 2009), The Act of Killing and Leviathan (T/F 2013).  Also included are the Iranian films The House is Black and Close-Up which played T/F as part of our 2014 Neither/Nor series.

This list is generated by a survey of film critics, programmers and academics. A separate list ranks the choices of documentary filmmakers. We’ll have much more to say about this survey when we can dig through all of the individual ballots, to be published on August 14.

the-fog-of-war-20031

The Fog of War, Errol Morris, T/F 2004

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Neither/Nor 2014

 

Posted August 1, 2014

Announcing the Boone Dawdle Film: ‘An Honest Liar’

We are excited to announce our 2014 Boone Dawdle Film, An Honest Liar.

honest-liar-still-1

James “The Amazing” Randi rose to fame first as a magician and then as a debunker of fraudulent psychics. His rivalry with Uri Gellar flourished in front of Johnny Carson’s cameras, igniting a national discussion. This expertly crafted film goes beyond typical historical fact-collecting, though, rejecting adulation to present a clear-eyed take on Randi’s professional and personal life and uncovering a story unknown until now. It’s funny, exciting, and, ultimately, even a bit of a love story. The perfect film, then, for a hot summer’s night and the perfect capstone to T/F 2014.


Co-director Justin Weinstein in person to answer your questions. Tickets for the Boone Dawdle are on sale now.

Posted July 26, 2014

‘Beyond Pretty Pictures’ Panel

Technology continues to revolutionize documentary filmmaking. Increasingly light-sensitive cameras liberate filmmakers to capture nighttime scenes; miniature, waterproof cameras are cheap; skeleton crews allow subjects to feel more comfortable revealing themselves. In this year’s “Beyond Pretty Pictures” panel, these ongoing innovations serve as the jumping off point for a wide ranging conversation on the art of nonfiction. Moderator Omar Mullick (These Birds Walk) quizzed Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) on how they harness technology to tell better stories.

Check out this short clip, an exchange on how doc subjects see themselves on film and how they react to these reactions.

If this excerpt peaked your interest, you can watch the whole thing on our video page or download the conversation as an audio mp3. Our panels were filmed by our friends at Columbia Access Television.

Posted July 10, 2014

Going to the Dark Side with Animator Jodie Mack of ‘Dusty Stacks of Mom’

We’re perpetually in search of interesting new approaches to the documentary form. That’s why we we were thrilled that both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to the most unique experience at True/False 2014, Dusty Stacks of Mom. In it, experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack utilizes stop-motion animation to explore her mom’s old poster shop and the familiar images that people choose to hang on their walls. This odd and hilarious journey is structured around a reimagining of Pink Floyd’s iconic album Dark Side of the Moon with new lyrics sung by Mack herself.

Dusty Stacks returns to Columbia this Wednesday, July 2, as the centerpiece of Light Your Light Shine, a program of Mack’s animation structured like an experimental film rock concert, complete with opening acts and a blowout 3D finale. Let Your Light Shine is the final installment in Ragtag Cinema’s 2014 Homebrewed Series, their fourth annual survey of American microbudget filmmaking.

For a quick preview of Mack’s work, check out her irresistible take on a classic pop song, Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World.

I got the chance to talk with Jodie a couple months back about her mom’s poster factory and constructing a film around a classic album. We chatted via Skype while she worked on a collage in Paris.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Jodie! I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to your mom’s poster shop and all of the stuff there.

JM: I actually worked there in high school doing data entry and rolling posters. Another one of my chores was taking inventory, counting all of the individual posters once a year. So I did actually feel pretty familiar with the material. And its been interesting returning there as an adult, having this material in mind, where the images they used to sell end up and how popular some of them still are.

T/F: Do you consider the movie a documentary?

JM: I think it’s definitely a type of documentary. Documentary was definitely a genre I was hoping to speak to when making it. I’m generally a more abstract, experimental filmmaker, but in all cases it’s the material that guides the way I want something to go.

I thought about lots of documentary strategies for conveying information and how animation functions as part of that in documentary. There’s certainly a lot of animation in documentaries these days, but there is also graphics and charts, titles or what not, things like that. The big question when starting out was how to convey information . . .

I like musicals and I’ve made a musical before, so it seems like in some ways, yeah, it’s just the voiceover narration being delivered in song. Totally normal, totally conventional (laughs). Do you think it’s a documentary?

T/F: Yeah, definitely. One of the things I was really thinking about it while watching is how ubiquitous these images become and how they take on new meanings as they spread out into the world. I thought that was something that you documented.

JM: Yeah, I hope so, it’s tricky because I’ve sort of taken on the lowest forms of imagery. I think that some people might find it hard to engage with. I don’t know how it comes of, if I’m celebrating it, or critiquing it or just paying attention, just noticing.

T/F: So when you chose Dark Side of the Moon you locked yourself into making a film around the actual album, and keeping the time signatures of all of the songs?

JM: Yeah, that’s right. There is some mild divergence, like “Money” is a little bit shorter.

But yeah, as an experimental filmmaker, I like to make films with rules. It just seemed like an interesting way to guide the content and mood (going back to the question how to convey information).

A lot of things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to take on the album. There would be no mom’s head on a prism, the crazy vocal solo or the moment where she’s a rock star.

It’s such a weird album because it’s so many people’s point of entry into counterculture. Older folks know every note.

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

T/F: What was the hardest part about shaping the film around the album?

JM: Yeah, well, there was definitely a discrepancy between the pacing of the album and how you want things in cinema. In music, and especially Pink Floyd, your impulse is to jam and linger. Sometimes in film you want to cut to the chase.

It would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have all of these musicians doing different instrumentation tracks. It was still tough. Dark Side of the Moon is a very complex album and being able to shape it with other people was important because I wanted it to feel different than the album.

T/F: Why did you decide to work with different musicians for each song? Why not work with the same musicians through the whole project?

JM: Well, a couple of reasons. In general I knew from other projects that that sort of commitment is a lot for one entity to handle. But also I thought that it would be interesting to make it an exquisite corpse, especially it being DSotM, something that’s been covered so many times. I thought it would be interesting to force this upon it and see where it went.

I tried to stay honest to what people did. And then there were some surprises. Someone had to drop out and so I did the kazoo solo.

T/F: (laughs) Yeah, I liked the kazoo solo.

JM: Yeah, animation is always really time consuming, and I sort of forget how complicated it is to do sound.

T/F: Could you describe the process of the animation some for an animation noob?

JM: Yeah, sure. All of it is 16mm stop-motion, so it’s on a film camera with reel to reel. So I take a picture and move and then take a picture and then move it, 24 frames per second.

It’s all stop-motion animation, no digital effects or anything like that.

T/F: Finally, what was the total time making this film? How long did this project take?

JM: Three years. Not of continuous work. It’s really kind of hard to say, from the first session to when I premiered it, it was three years. I shot for few days and then I didn’t even touch it again until the summer of 2012 and then I finished it in the spring of 2013. So it could be three years, it could be nine months. I felt it percolating a lot. Hard to say.

Posted July 1, 2014

Up to Speed: A Chat with Director/ Cinematographer Nick Bentgen of ‘Northern Light’

This week, Northern Light (T/F 2013) receives its theatrical premiere at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. It screens at 7:30PM nightly through June 22. Filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff will be in person at Thursday and Friday’s screenings. For tickets, visit this page ( http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/669737).
-Chris Boeckmann

From a snowmobile driver’s perspective, a race consists of careful maneuvers and breakneck turns. For the detached viewer, it amounts to, literally and figuratively, going in circles. Five hundred of them, in the case of the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, the race at the center of Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light.

In his directorial debut, Bentgen observes the households of Walt and Isaac, strong-willed, hardworking racers who reside in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Walt is a dedicated father and seasoned rider whose racing career seems to be at a standstill. Isaac is a young and ambitious rising star, married without children. As resolute in its vision as its characters are to their sport, Northern Light is an immaculately photographed and intricately structured study of their world.

One of its fundamental interests is competition, which looms heavy over the community. Sport, which the film observes not only in snowmobiles but also in bodybuilding and auto racing, is an alluring, inescapable presence that’s frequently at odds with an even bigger competition, capitalism. Bentgen’s camera registers the physical and emotional tolls of both.

But as much as it is an essay about the American struggle to balance checkbooks and athletics, Northern Light is also an incisive character study, wedding empathy and scrutiny to bewildering effect. This is a film where characters perform tender acts of altruism one moment and engage in casually bigoted dinner table conversation the next. Bentgen trusts us to navigate — revel in, really — all this messiness.

Too often nonfiction films take characterization and plot tips from the tidy world of fiction. A meticulously constructed film of ellipses and characters who inspire wildly conflicted emotions, Northern Light seems to find its storytelling inspiration from some completely new world: the real one.

A year ago, I interviewed director/cinematographer Nick Bentgen via Skype a week before his film celebrated its New York premiere at BAMCinemafest.

T/F: I’m wondering if Northern Light is very different from the film you set out to make.

NB: I was staying in this cabin that my dad and his siblings all shared — it’s actually my grandpa’s cabin, he passed away a long time ago — and I knew I wanted to tell a story set in this place I spent a lot of time in as a kid. I had only a few DVDs with me. Nashville was one and also Two-Lane Blacktop. When I first found the I-500, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just likeNashville and Two-Lane Blacktop!” Of course it’s not. It’s nothing like that, but still, I kept coming back to those masterpieces while I was making this movie. Gradually it became its own thing.

T/F: The reason I ask is — perhaps this is something that’s entirely accomplished in the editing, but it feels like there are so many moments where you have a clear idea of the film you’re making, of its themes. For example, during the race scene when you manage to capture Emily and James, two characters who don’t really seem to know each other, in the same frame as one tells a crewmember that God’s going to bring their team to victory and the other complains to his buddy about body aches.

NB: Well, yes. By the second or third week, I realized the film was about this community, that this place was the story, regardless of who we eventually ended up focusing on. So like Nashville or any movie that’s a large community portrait, I felt it was fair game to let anyone pass in and out of the story. So sometimes people you haven’t met will just appear, you’ll get a little bit of their story and then they’re not in the movie anymore.

During the race, we were very lucky that multiple people we had been filming with were in the same place. It was irresistible to put them in the same frame. Also, we only had one camera, so microphone placement was very important. We had to decide who the story was about on that shooting day. That shot where James and Emily are in the same frame is this beautiful moment. They’re on completely different wavelengths and yet they’re in the same community.

T/F: So on that day you chose to put the mic on Emily.

NB: Right. With a verite doc, I feel like how you make it is so tied up with why you’re making it because you have such limited means. We knew it was a big day for Isaac, and with Walt’s team, they didn’t have a radio system we could use. There were logistical reasons why we chose to put the mic on Emily, but it was the best choice. She became so excited, and the story totally funneled through her in this great way.

T/F: Going into the I-500, it doesn’t feel like Walt has much chance of winning the race.

NB: Walt has a philosophy of life that I really appreciate and respect. That’s why I spent so much time filming with him. The bigger things he focuses on — spending time with his family and working hard — make him a really captivating subject. And flawed, like all of us. Early on, I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to win?” And of course he wants to win. And he’s done well in races, but I don’t think that’s why he does it. He doesn’t do it to win. Isaac has a much different philosophy. He’s out there to win. I think that contrast is why they’re interesting as subjects.

T/F: If Walt doesn’t race to win, what’s the draw?

NB: Speed. There’s this scene we cut where he says “Once racing is in your blood, it never goes away.” He grew up doing it. Lots of the guys who are into snowmobiling got into it at a very young age.

T/F: Structurally, I find it interesting that you frontload a lot of really challenging moments, particularly instances of sexism and homophobia.

NB: Our one strategy in editing — or dilemma, I guess — was being true to the environment Lisa and I were in when we filmed. Maybe it was just by happenstance, or maybe it was conscious, but the final movie is structured a lot like our experience there. At first, we didn’t know these people, and with any stranger, you take a lot on assumption. In any community, there’s xenophobia or some other issue that prevents you from identifying. As you’re watching the film, I want you to go through that process of estrangement and then become closer with these people and feel like a part of the community.

T/F: One of the reasons your film stands out from a lot of other observational documentaries is the photography. You consistently use a tripod. I’m wondering if your camerawork changed very much over the course of production.

NB: It’s funny, I really feel like the first month or two is the best photographed stuff. That’s partly because the camera was a barrier, this wall I put up. Emily, Walt, Isaac — I connected with all of them at different times during the shoot. If you watched the 300 hours of dailies, it becomes clear that I start caring less and less about what the image looks like as I become more interested in what’s going on. But we did have a rigorous rule set. The first rule was to use a tripod whenever possible, and the second was to not screw with the camera if at all possible. There are a lot of times where the camera feels like a fly on the wall, and that’s because it is: it was just left there.

northernlight_promo1

T/F: Was documentary new to you?

NB: The film’s editor Yoonha [David Park] and I have grown up together in the film industry. We went to school together, and we worked for a music website called Pitchfork where we had 15 minutes, maybe an hour, with our subjects. That was a good early experience.

Most of the jobs I could get as a filmmaker were often doc-style. I wasn’t usually given a lot of toys or money, so you tend to fall into this documentary style regardless of what you’re filming. After a while of shooting documentary, I realized it was the best way to tell stories because you can’t control everything. And then you have to make decisions very fast. It’s also the best way to learn to be a DP.

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about photographing the I-500. Your technique feels pretty unconventional. You don’t get a whole lot of coverage of the race itself. You don’t mount cameras on the snowmobiles or stick cameras all around the track.

NB: It’s funny, I feel like the race scenes are more conventional than I ever expected them to be. There are also more of them than I figured. There are three in the movie. Initially, I set out with this really crazy artistic tactic. I said I was going to film the race in case I needed it, but my plan was to film from the checkered flag of one year to the green flag of the next year, never showing a race. But I figured out that it was completely not true to the experience of people in this community. I really needed the viewer to care a little bit about those races because all the people I’m filming care a lot. If you don’t care at all, you don’t understand where all these people are coming from. So it became a big part of the film’s narrative.

At some point, I saw Senna and said, “Well, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never make anything that thrilling.” There are also logistical reasons why it’s shot the way it’s shot. We had one camera, so there was no way to keep track of all the racers . You’d need eight cameras on the track. It would have become a big production. Instead, I decided to embrace the tools we had. When I later saw the footage, I thought it felt like a removed version of a race, which matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie. The camera is never telling you how to feel, and you have to find other ways in.

northernlight

T/F: I sort of want to ask you about the way you use nature throughout the film, but it seems like a silly thing for you to discuss.

NB: I haven’t done that many interviews. After you’re done with a film, it’s easy to put everything in a this-is-the-reason-why box. But my favorite filmmakers, Altman especially, say there’s not really an explanation for everything. The whole time we were making the film, we wanted to get across the experience we had. It was more a tone we were going after. And nature is just an all-encompassing thing that dictates life. I feel like explanations are easy enough to do, but it limits what the movie is or what a story can be. I don’t really have explanations for everything.

T/F: That seems like a good place to stop. (laughs)

Posted June 19, 2014

Second Take: ‘Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False’ by Sarah Goodman

Sarah Goodman, director of When We Were Boys (T/F 2010), just released the new short film Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False. In it a woman from the past journeys through the Missourian landscape to the present day and finds herself swept up in a spectacle that she can’t quite understand. This film is part of our new “Second Take” series of short films created at the Fest by T/F alumni. Check it out below.

Posted June 13, 2014

Remembering Malik Bendjelloul

We’re still reeling from the punch to the gut we received a few weeks ago, the news of the sudden death of our friend, the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul. We met Malik in 2012 when he came to T/F with his first and sadly only feature, Searching for Sugar Man, the story of the rediscovery of lost singer-songwriter who inspired a generation half a world away. Both the film and its energetic and endearing director connected profoundly with Fest goers, especially at a packed closing night screening at the august Missouri Theatre.

Malik also participated as a judge in our signature game show, Gimme Truth!, happily filling in at the last moment after a cancellation. He immediately struck up a friendship with GT coordinator and all around T/F get-shit-done specialist Jaime Goncalves. Jamie recently noted “Malik treated an intern 12 years his junior as an equal. What could better show a man’s values?”

You can watch Malik’s performance on Gimme Truth! below.

To our surprise, Malik returned to T/F and the Missouri Theatre stage in 2013, just a week after winning the Best Documentary Oscar for Sugar Man. He also met with area high school students as part of the True/False Academy.

Malik with David at T/F 2013. photo by Rebecca Allen

In the weeks since his death, memories of Malik have begun coming in around the web. Michael Dunaway at Paste Magazine wrote Malik a Thank You Note, recalling their meeting at T/F 2012. And at The Talkhouse, directors and fellow T/F alum Ondi Timoner, Peter Nicks and Alison Klayman shared their impressions.

Finally, the Swedish television program KOBRA produced an entire episode in memoriam. It contains samples of Malik’s work and interviews on his approach and philosophy. You can watch the episode here.

Posted June 10, 2014

Suspending Disbelief with Daniel Vernon of ‘Miraculous Tales’

In Miraculous Tales we meet Mickey McGuigan, a charming 73-year-old farmer turned writer. Mickey takes us on a tour of his homeland, rural Northern Ireland, explaining magical cures for both livestock and people that remain an integral part of the culture. Along the way we meet numerous practitioners of the miraculous arts, including John Purcell, a charismatic evangelical preacher and faith healer.

Miraculous Tales played at True/False 2014 and will be screening beginning today at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada. I recently got the chance to chat online with director Daniel Vernon about his strange and wonderful film.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: For starters, could you tell me about how this project began? Someone told me it was originally a movie about farming?

DV: I was commissioned to make a film about farming in Northern Ireland for the BBC. It was a pretty wide brief so I know I had to find something or someone to focus on.

My first concern, as always, was casting. Find that character who leaps off the screen, someone the audience, and myself, will want to go on an adventure with. To make it even more challenging . . . make sure that person is a farmer so it fits the brief! This wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It never is. For over three months we scoured the Northern Irish border trying to find the ‘one’.

One day I was drinking tea with yet another farmer I’d met and was about to say my goodbyes. Then the phone rang. The farmer listened down the line with a serious frown and shouted for his wife. She shot out of the house like lightening and ran down the lane out of sight. “What’s going on?” I asked. “She’s off to stop a bleed” he said.

The call had come from a local farmer whose cow was bleeding to death. He was looking for someone with a “cure” to stop the bleeding. It was the first I’d heard of these cures and this set my imagination reeling. Just what is this strange belief system? Does it work? How many more people out there have these seemingly magic powers?

Our research eventually led to my main character Mickey McGuigan. We’d heard through the farmer’s grapevine that he was a man who had been documenting cures and miracles for years. As luck had it Mickey was not only a fantastic character but also a farmer (albeit a retired one), so despite the shift of focus for film the BBC were still onboard.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DV: It didn’t take long for me to realize that Mickey would really help to knit these small stories together. After all he was a born storyteller, or to use the Irish Gaelic word, a Seanchaí.

Myths and folktales are still very much alive in Ireland. Mickey’s accounts of everyday life are a healthy balance of reality and pure imagination. I wanted to present this world of ‘miracles’ in the same way Mickey interprets them, with a willing suspension of disbelief.

Miraculous_Tales_1

Mickey McGuigan in Miraculous Tales

T/F: Yeah, it’s interesting to talk about the suspension of disbelief in a documentary. I was really drawn into Mickey’s stories by the sense of place that you create. Could you talk about your approach to capturing the feel of rural Ireland? It’s such a beautiful place, it seems like there could be a danger in making the film too pretty, too postcardesque . . . .

DV: Northern Ireland can look very picturesque but most of the pretty locations in the film were once scenes of great tragedy. I wanted to give the audience an impression of the location’s darker side.

The bucolic scenery in the film is usually contrasted with one of Mickey’s horror stories about people meeting a grisly end in that very spot. Sometimes a clue is given in a song as to what lurks beneath the surface.

The only place that seems to have been spared from tragedy is Mickey’s forest; it’s his sanctuary from the modern world. To give this location an otherworldly, Eden-like atmosphere, we used a very dense soundscape of the world’s rarest bird calls.

T/F: Yeah, I really love the sound design, how you weave together different elements, including a large dose of classic country music. How did you go about creating the soundtrack?

DV: The idea of using classic American country music came from the place itself. Country music is massive in Ireland. Tune into any radio station and chances are someone like Billy Ray Cyrus will be singing about their achy breaky heart.

I did a lot of driving on this shoot and heard a lot of country music. We tried a lot of these songs out in the edit. The mood just fitted, and the lyrics added another layer of story.

Aside from the music we spent a lot of time on sound design. Virtually all of the original sound was replaced. I wanted to transport the viewer to a world they thought they knew but felt completely alien. We may have got carried away with forest wildlife effects though . . . when I saw the film recently it sounded like Mickey had walked into in a cosmic menagerie.

T/F: While the miraculous cures are sometimes bizarre or outlandish, and sometimes (in my opinion) quite funny, you make sure to show what motivates them, the real pain and loss that are an inevitable part of our lives. How did you think about striking this balance? Did you ever find yourself cutting out something that was funny because you thought it would be cruel to include or encourage the audience to laugh at someone?

DV: I was aware from the start that an audience unfamiliar with this world would at first see it as downright bizarre. After all how many times do you see a man spitting in a cow’s face? However, I wanted to go beyond the strange spectacle and get to know the people, understand them and ultimately respect them.

I did come across some cures and situations that were just too bizarre to include though. It would have tipped the balance into sheer comedy. One such omission was a man who cured piles with a nutmeg!

T/F: Finally, I wanted to ask about your decision to feature evangelical faith-healer John Purcell so prominently. What made decide on him as a character? He forms a really interesting contrast with Mickey.

DV: I knew I wanted a preacher from organised religion to be a character in the film. I was interested in how pagan healing practices had been absorbed and incorporated into a wider belief system.

I was actually filming with another preacher I’d met, then one day he took me to the opening of a new church. After an hour or so of monosyllabic bible readings I was losing the will to live. Then John Purcell took to the stage. He was like a turbo charged Billy Graham and it blew my socks off. John had that fire in his belly I’d been looking for.

Miraculous_Tales_5

John Purcell in Miraculous Tales

Posted April 25, 2014
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