Directors

A Conversation with Filmmaker Robert Greene About ‘Actress’ and ‘Approaching the Elephant’

Robert Greene’s films have played at two previous editions of True/False. In 2010 he presented Kati With an I, an intimate look at the final days of an Alabama teenager’s childhood. In 2011 he returned with Fake It So Real, which follows a ragtag group of wrestlers pursuing their dreams in working-class North Carolina.

I recently got the chance to speak with Robert about two new films which will be unveiling at True/False 2014. His new film Actress is a unique collaboration with Brandy Burre, who played political operative Theresa D’Agostino on the unbelievably great television series The Wire. The film follows Brandy’s attempt to reenter the world of acting after starting a family in Beacon, New York. We also spoke about Approaching the Elephant, which Greene edited in collaboration with director Amanda Rose Wilder. This observational film follows two children and their school director during the first year of an anarchist “free school” where all classes are voluntary, and children and teachers have equal say.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you start with how you decided to make a film about Brandy?

RG: I know Brandy really well. She’s my next door neighbor; we take care of each other’s children. She’s also one of the most theatrical people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s a really flamboyant personality, with a deep, gritty sense of self as well.

I’ve been writing and thinking about the idea of performance in documentary for awhile. It’s there in Kati With an I and especially Fake It So Real, where the wrestlers are performers and you’re seeing them perform themselves. So I had this idea of filming a direct cinema portrait of an actress living her life, being a mother. What effects would that have for the camera?

I like to get involved when I can see a narrative forming, which in this case was Brandy trying to get back into acting. In the movie she tells the story about how she got out of acting, about being a woman in her late thirties who couldn’t get a part for her age. That was a really clear starting point; I don’t think I’d ever heard that story before.

So I knew we had a beginning and this formal idea about watching a performance in a documentary. We started filming, and nothing much was happening at first. Then she went through something, a transformation, that I don’t want to spoil. It became the real narrative of the movie. The filming suddenly jived with what was going on in her life outside of the filming, and they became one thing. It was uncomfortable and scary and not something that we ever expected. But we latched on to it and took it where it needed to go. There were weird twists and turns, and things I couldn’t have imagined being present for.

It’s a little bit of a cliche to say that I consider her more of a collaborator than a subject, but it’s really true. What we were giving each other was really direct and interesting. And because we were so close already, it became really intense.

IN MIRROR W CURLERS

T/F: The film raises the question of the performed vs. the actual. Could you explain how that tension played out through the process of making Actress?

RG: What Brandy says is she’s not acting like an actor, she is an actor. When you turn a camera on her, she’s been trained to be an actor. She just is a theatrical person, who naturally wants to express herself through her language and her body. So it’s not like she’s turning it on and turning it off. There are degrees of who she’s being.

We did everything that most documentaries do. I would ask her to say things again. I would say, “give me a second while I get into position”. Or I would say, “hey, when are these things happening? Let’s get together and film.” That’s very much what every other documentary does, but generally they try to hide those things and give the impression that cameras are going 24/7 and they just happen to be capturing magic. Part of the formal idea is to say, hey, all documentaries are movies.

This is a very narrow version of the truth in many ways, but it is the truth. There were things that I wasn’t there for. There were things that I would never have recorded even if I was there. There are things that I know about that I would never put in the movie. So this is the very specific story that I wanted to tell, and she was willing to go along with me. But in terms of what’s 100% real and what’s not, it’s all an expression of reality. I want the audience to see these layers of reality as their watching, and to be questioning the film as well, to think about what documentaries really are doing and how they are constructed.

I also think that it says something about being a mother, being a wife, being a lover, being a passionate person. These are all social performances. We play these roles in society because it’s how we get by. Ironically, when Brandy tries to break through that, you see her performing herself. To me this says a lot about what we are. I don’t really know how to unpack it all completely, but I think it’s there for viewers to sort through.

T/F: One fascinating thing about how Actress is structured the film is how it changes, how it begins as direct cinema but mixes in these conspicuously composed shots and sequences.

RG: Yeah, one thing I was interested in doing is exploring the relationship between direct cinema and melodrama. Melodrama is this over-the-top expression of an idea. It’s inherently ironic. If you see the great Douglas Sirk films, there’s an ironic element to the drama and a distancing effect that actually elevates the emotion. You’re sort of pushed past the direct emotion and you get to this other formal level of over-the-top-ness. That was the idea, to get at the theatricality of performing yourself, the theatricality of everyday life and how we can make melodramas in our heads.

RED DRESS CLOSE

T/F: Let me ask you about Approaching the Elephant. How did you get involved in this project?

RG: Amanda has been making the film for a really long time. She’s a great filmmaker, she has a great eye for what she wants to capture. She spent a year in the life of this free school, and really captured the story through gestures and bodies and faces, the building blocks of cinema. But she got to a place where she wasn’t quite sure where to go next. The movie got into IFP labs twice over the years that she worked on it, which is a testament as to how good the material is. She just needed some help getting over the hump. I came on and I think was able to focus the film.

T/F: So how much material were you working with to cut down into the film as it exists now?

RG: She’s the only person who could know all of her footage, it would have taken me six months to really learn it all. She had a two and half hour cut before I came on. So we started by cutting it down from that. As we were shaping the film, she’d mention other cut scenes she’d like to get in there, material I didn’t even know about. She’d rely on me to figure out how to get these other scenes in. We would put them in, then take them back out. It was a lot moving pieces to get them in place.

T/F: Is it an intuitive process cutting a film down, or do you have clear ideas of themes you want to pick out?

RG: You need a director who you trust and who trusts you, that’s one thing. I think for me too, I’ve just done it so much, I’ve edited like 14 features. So, I think it just comes from sitting in dark rooms too much and watching too many films, you know rhythmically what it takes to tell a story. And I have a fondness for stories that develop organically. Instead of “we have to get this moment, and then now this other thing”, I just trust my instincts, and it becomes, “we need this feeling here” and “it’s great that that happens but it needs to feel differently”.

ATE-LUCY

T/F: What went into the decision to make the film black and white?

RG: We decided on black and white because we loved how “out of time” it made the film feel. It really is that simple. I feel like it elevates the story and makes everything cohere in a really nice, timeless way. As Amanda said, it’s easier to cut together when it’s black and white, because everything just makes more sense. It was a very intuitive decision. I believe we will have a color version as well at some point.

T/F: Could you introduce how you see the narrative elements in Approaching the Elephant a little?

RG: I think you spend the beginning of the film learning the rules of the place, which is cool, because the kids are learning the rules too. One of my favorite ways of narrative unfolding in a documentary is when you as a viewer feel like you’re on the same journey as the filmmaker. That’s how I hope Actress feels too. So, you’re thrown in the chaos and the mix, starting to pick up faces and meeting people. Then, suddenly, this narrative of the three main characters really grabs hold. It has one of the most dramatic last acts I can remember in a documentary, where on a totally small level you see these character’s faces and this story unfolding.

For me Approaching the Elephant is a movie about idealism meeting reality head on. That clash unfolds slowly at first. I think it’s the kind of movie that picks up momentum as you watch and gets you to a place you really didn’t expect to go.

ATE-JIO

Posted February 25, 2014

The Great Wall Honors the Career of Filmmaker Les Blank

The Great Wall is True/False’s outdoor movie screen: the massive, Shakespeare’s-facing wall of the Picturehouse Theater (aka the Missouri United Methodist Church). Join us for this free walk-up cinema on Friday and Saturday nights of the Fest from 7 – 11 pm.

This year, we will be celebrating the life and work of the renegade filmmaker Les Blank who passed away in April of 2013.

For more than 50 years Les Blank’s films preserved American subcultures that otherwise might have been forgotten. With a signature idiosyncratic style all his own, Blank captures the essence of a moment and brings it to life. Instead of the fly-on-the-wall method of his contemporaries (Wiseman & Pennebaker) Blank immersed himself in the communities of the people he turned his lens upon. It’s no surprise that Les Blank was only the second white man Lightnin’ Hopkins trusted.

His most well-known film Burden of Dreams is a fantastical look at Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make his masterpiece Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon. Herzog once said of Blank “He has his own little universe that he creates with Burden of Dreams. If Burden of Dreams was only the making of Fitzcarraldo it would have been lousy. He was beyond my comprehension. I only knew the man was a very, very good filmmaker.” Blank had a particular knack in establishing a strong sense of place: everything in the frame relates back to the environment in which it occurs.

Burden of Dreams

Blank’s films serve as an important anthropological preservation while pushing the cinematic form of documentary forward. True/False has decided to feature four of his earlier works which would go on to establish him as a force. Dry Wood (1973, 37 min.) and Hot Pepper (1973, 54 min.) capture the daily life of French-speaking blacks in southwestern Louisiana’s Cajun country. A Well Spent Life (1972, 44 min.) and The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970, 31 min.) are two great ethno-musicological films lit by Blank’s fascination in the cultures, history and music of the now well-known blues musicians Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

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At 7:10 on Friday, Jim Bogan, a writer, filmmaker and professor who is also an old friend of Blank’s, will kick-off The Great Wall by leading a toast in honor of Blank’s life and work.

Posted February 21, 2014

The Gateway Packet is Now On Sale

The Gateway Packet for True/False 2014 is now on sale. For $35, Gateway lets you reserve three tickets to the select T/F 2014 screenings listed below. These screenings all take place during the festival, which runs from Thursday February 27th to Sunday March 2. You can get tickets for different screenings or three for the same screening. It’s up to you.

The first Gateway option is a film we’re sure will be a crowd-pleaser. Playing Thursday night at 7 at the Missouri Theatre, Jodorowsky’s Dune explores the attempt by cult-film director Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt the classic sci-fi novel Dune, a colossally ambitious project that would have altered the history of cinema. Despite its failure, this project stands as an inspiring example of uncompromising artistic ambition. Director Frank Pavich and editor Alex Ricciardi will be on hand afterwards to tell the story behind this behind the scenes story.

Second is Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart on Friday evening at 7pm at Jesse Auditorium. This films revisits a story that captivated America in the early 90s, how a 22-year-old woman in small-town New Hampshire may have engineered the murder of her husband at the hands of her teenage student. The public’s interest in this scandal created an extraordinary media circus that ushered in the era of reality TV.

Director Jeremiah Zagar will be at Jesse to answer questions after the film. In the video below he explains his approach to the material.

Your next option is E-Team Saturday morning at 9:30 at Jesse. This film documents the heroic work of Human Right Watch’s Emergency-Team, which investigates crimes against humanity in some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots. Rob Nelson at Variety noted “The valiant and vital work of four globetrotting human rights activists is expertly illuminated in E-Team, a dynamic and immersive piece of you-are-there verite.”

Co-director Ross Kauffman will be on-hand Saturday morning to talk about this amazing production.

eteam

Next up it’s Tim’s Vermeer  at 12:15 Saturday afternoon at Jesse. Created by the magicians Penn and Teller, the film is about inventor Tim Jenison, whose insatiable curiosity led him to test a mind-blowing hypothesis about Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his photo-realistic masterworks. Tim himself will be in attendance, who you can meet briefly in the film’s trailer below.

Saturday at 6 at the historic Missouri Theatre it’s Ukraine is Not a Brothel.  This film is a close study of Femen, the Ukranian feminist advocates known for topless protests and elaborate street theater. The story behind these controversial tactics is both complex and provocative. Director Kitty Green and Femen member Inna Shevchenko will be there for what is sure to be a lively Q and A. Check out the film’s very “Not Safe For Work” trailer below.

Saturday night at 9 Jesse you’ll have another chance to see Jodorowsky’s Dune.

At 9:30 Sunday morning back at the Missouri Theatre we have Big Men. This film gives an insider’s look at the political machinations in the oil-rich west coast of Africa. Over the course of seven years, director Rachel Boynton gained access to both boardroom executives and mask-wearing saboteurs, creating a work of sprawling ambition and scope. You’ll be able to ask her about it in person after the film.

bigmen

At 12:15 at the Missouri Theatre we’ll be giving our True Vision Award to director Amir Bar-Lev, before a screening of his new film Happy Valley, which explores the culture surrounding Penn State football and its reaction to the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal. Matt Sandusky spoke about his father’s crimes for the first time as part of this film.

happyvalley

Or over at Jesse at 12:30, it’s our True Life Fund film Private Violence. This film powerfully takes on the hidden epidemic of domestic violence, debunking many harmful myths that surround this frequently taboo subject. We’re raising money for subjects Kit Gruelle and Deanna Walters, who along with director Cynthia Hill will be on hand to discuss this important topic.

The last film available in the Gateway Packet, playing at 3:15 Sunday at Jesse, is The Unknown Known, the new work from master documentarian Errol Morris, who’ll be Skyping with us after the screening. In it, Morris trains his formidable interview skills on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The resulting exchange is a fascinating examination of the power of language.

The Gateway Packet is available for a limited time only, so make sure to pick one up soon. Or better yet, tell a friend about it today!

Posted February 18, 2014

True/False Film Fest 2014: Magic/Realism

The histories of magic and cinema are both steeped in questions of authenticity and fantasy, and the transformation of the commonplace into the fantastic. With this year’s theme “Magic/Realism” we aim to highlight the affinities between prestidigitation and filmmaking, arts which utilize artifice on the way to discovering a new reality.

A small sample of what we have in store can be found in our 2014 commercial, itself a teaser for the short films you’ll be seeing before each of this year’s screenings. It was created by Jarred Alterman, director of Convento and co-director of Dear Valued Guests (T/F 2013). In it, magician Gary Oxenhandler proposes the idea misdirection, an important skill for magicians and filmmakers alike.

You may also have caught a glimpse of Steve Ferris, who you’ll be seeing much more of during the Fest.

“Magic/Realism” also inspired our 2014 poster, created by artist Akiko Stehrenberger under the direction of veteran T/F collaborator Erik Buckham. The poster quotes “The Marvelous Orange Tree” illusion invented by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic. You can view more of Akiko’s work at Hittsville beginning February 23rd.

final poster

The magic is almost here and we’re ready to share the complete True/False 2014 program. The artistic talent converging in our town for four crazy days is truly humbling. Check out the schedule and explore the complete lineup of features, shorts, musicians, artists and concerts. You can also browse through trailers for this year’s films and music videos from T/F 2014 performers.

We’ve also announced the 2014 True Vision Award Honoree, Amir Bar-Lev, who’ll be presenting his new film Happy Valley. And we’ve selected Kit Gruelle and Deanna Walters of Private Violence for the True Life Fund, our annual fundraiser for the subjects of a documentary. This film courageously and intelligently takes on the hidden epidemic of domestic violence.

Finally, we’ve announced the films in our second annual Neither/Nor series, an ongoing project to map the history of “chimeric” cinema thanks to the generous support of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year’s program examines the self-reflexive Iranian cinema of the 1990s and will be presented by critic Godfrey Cheshire.

Let the transformation begin!

 

Posted February 11, 2014

Announcing the Pay the Artists! Program

We’re excited to announce our new Pay the Artists! initiative.

Pay the Artists! is part of a larger effort to create a sustainable ecosystem for nonfiction filmmakers, whose work rarely gets a wide theatrical run. Festivals, more and more, act as a de facto substitute for movie houses. Crowdfunding and foundation grants are often not enough to bring a film into the world.

The True/False PTA program exists as a partial remedy to this problem. In 2014, True/False will begin offering $450 to each feature filmmaker (or filmmaking team) attending the fest in addition to all travel, lodging and food expenses. We hope to grow this fund each year and, eventually, to be able to offer stipends of $1,000 per filmmaker.

This program is a tangible way to invest in filmmakers making great films over the long haul. With it, we aim to seed a movement of supportive institutions who invest in nonfiction filmmaking futures. We hope that, for more new filmmakers, nonfiction is not merely a launching pad to commercial or fiction work but a viable career path.

We see ourselves as a petri dish for trying out ideas, including how to best serve filmmakers. The PTA is an experiment, but also a crucial corrective to the lack of resources for independent filmmakers. While the amounts may seem token at first, we see the PTA as a growing, important commitment to do more care and feeding of the filmmakers we believe in. And if we are not all engaged in making independent filmmaking a sustainable enterprise, we will lose the very voices we exist to champion.

Funds for the PTA program are provided through generous three-year financial commitments from patrons who care deeply about the future of nonfiction filmmaking.

The founding members of the PTA are:

Holly Roberson & John Goldstein
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J.A. & H.G Woodruff Jr. Charitable Trust
Pete Kingma & Thom Lambert
Jonathan Murray

Posted February 4, 2014

‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ is Coming to the Jubilee

On opening night, February 27th, the historic Missouri Theatre plays host to The Jubilee, our masquerade gala marking the beginning of a new True/False. This event is sponsored by our friends at LaBrunerie Financial and features six of Columbia’s best bartenders. After mingling with fellow fest-goers and partaking in plentiful libations, we’ll watch the festival’s first screening in this august setting. This year we feel we found a film perfect for the evening’s exuberant atmosphere.

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In 1975, cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to adapt the classic sci-fi novel Dune, along with a team of collaborators including Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Pink Floyd. Jodorowsky’s Dune uses phenomenal storyboards and concept sketches to tell the story of this unique project, which, despite its ultimate failure, serves as an inspiring example of uncompromising artistic ambition.

In the film’s trailer you can hear from Jodorowsky himself about the incredible goals that he set for himself in making Dune.

Frank Pavich, the director of Jodorowky’s Dune, will be on hand at both the Jubilee and other T/F screenings to share stories and answer your questions. We hope to see you there!

jodorwsky-dune

 

 

Posted February 3, 2014

The 2014 True Vision Award Goes to Amir Bar-Lev

We’re thrilled to announce that Amir Bar-Lev will receive this year’s True Vision Award in honor of his dedication to and advancement in the field of nonfiction filmmaking. This award, the only one at True/False, is given with the support of Timothy D. McGarity, MD. Bar-Lev is the eleventh recipient of the True Vision Award, which will be designed and cast in bronze by mid-Missouri sculptor Larry Young.

Amir

Bar-Lev is an American filmmaker, writer and producer, who has crafted countless innovative and award-winning documentaries. In Fighter, his 2000 directorial debut, he follows two Czech Holocaust survivors, Jan Weiner and Arnost Lustig, as they travel across Europe retracing Jan’s escape from the Nazis. Bar-Lev’s approach vividly captures the men’s unforgettable personalities and relationship.

fighter

In 2007′s My Kid Could Paint That, Bar-Lev explores the pressing questions raised by the art world’s embrace of a four-year-old abstract painter and her work. Offering no easy answers, Bar-Lev doesn’t shy away from probing his own relationship with his subjects and the process of documentary storytelling itself.

mykidcouldpaintthat

2010′s The Tillman Story takes on the death of Pat Tillman, the American football player who left a multi-million dollar contract to serve in the Army Rangers. The Tillman family’s quest to unearth the truth surrounding his death illuminates the way in which the military and media construct narratives, and the power of those narratives in shaping how we see the world.

the tillman story

This year True/False will show Bar-Lev’s new film Happy Valley. It tracks the destruction of the bucolic image of Penn State University and its surrounding community following the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. Shot in the wake of this revelation, it takes an unflinching look at the collective guilt and identity loss experienced in a football-first culture.  Happy Valley highlights Bar-Lev’s rare gift of finding the emotional depth within a widely reported story.

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Previous winners of the True Vision Award include Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel (2013), Victor Kossakovsky (2012), James Marsh (2011) and Laura Poitras (2010).

 

 

Posted January 30, 2014

‘Paraíso’ and a Chat with Director Nadav Kurtz

Brothers Sergio and Jaime Polanco and their cousin Cruz Guzman are immigrants from Mexico who work cleaning windows on Chicago’s tallest buildings. In Paraíso (T/F 2012) director Nadaz Kurtz pairs stunning images of the Polancos’ dangerous and fascinating work with their reflections on life’s meaning and what lies beyond. The result is a compelling look at something extraordinary hidden in plain sight.

Paraíso has received awards at Silverdocs, Tribeca, The Chicago International Film Festival, Cine Las Americas and The Seattle International Film Festival. Now this celebrated short film is available to watch online as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series.

I recently got a chance to talk with Nadav Kurtz via phone about his film and its inspiration.
-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you tell me about the original inspiration for Paraiso?

NK: I was working as an editor in Chicago. One day I saw this guy pop up by my window, clean it and then disappear. That was the first time I thought about “Who are these guys?” and “What kind of a person does this job?”

T/F: How did you first meet the Polanco brothers?

NK: When I started working on the film, I went to different buildings all over Chicago and talked to people who did this work. When I met the Polanco brothers, I was just waiting at the bottom of these ropes where they were working, and they just came down and chatted. I was struck right away by how open they were. They were very friendly and basically invited me to their house that evening for a birthday party for one of their nieces. There was clearly something special about them.

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

NK: To me the juxtaposition of the two words is about the influence that we have as filmmakers on the situations and people we make films about. Once we are in a situation we influence it. This is against the old-school idea that you could be in a situation and not influence it, that this would somehow be a “true” documentary.

I was interested in how making this doc would be illuminating for myself as well as for them. So I was very open with them about my own thoughts about their work. I asked them questions about topics that they didn’t bring up. Other people have come and done stories on them, from the Chicago Tribune and other news sources. And usually most people ask them things like “How much do you guys make?” and “Are you scared of the job?”, these pretty standard journalistic questions. I was interested in their spiritual beliefs and their relationship to the afterlife, their thoughts about the danger of their job and death. Those were things that I was curious about.

In the process of doing these interviews I think they started thinking about these things in a different way than when we first started. The falseness is that the process itself changed the reality, and even changed how their families viewed their work. Before their wives didn’t really know much about their work and didn’t really think about it. Their home lives and work lives were very separate.

T/F: This focus on the afterlife, is that something that occurred to you right away when you started making this film?

NK: Yeah, it’s something that I was personally interested in, especially around the time I was making the film. It was something that I was thinking about a lot. And then, of course, when you’re up filming on these high rises, it’s a different reality up there. You’re standing there and there’s no guard rail. You have the feeling . . . if a gust of wind came and knocked me over all the things that I think about, all the different problems and joys, can be instantaneously erased.

T/F: Can you tell me how you went about shooting the film, how you got all the amazing shots in the film?

NK: There’s a couple of really wonderful cinematographers Drew Wehde and Chris Markos. Those two did a lot of the filming with me.

Going in I had a plan of doing some of it off the cuff and some of it planned, in terms of lens choices and things like that. But the main thing was a lot of waiting. We got really lucky. I think there was one morning where we got a lot of the shots, particularly the part where they are talking about the afterlife and light is shining into the lens, bouncing off of the building. That was the fifth morning we tried to shoot there. They kept cancelling the work because the wind is too strong. So we kept coming back and eventually we got really lucky. They just happened to be on that side of the building when the angle of the sun was hitting the building in a particular way.

I’ve heard other doc people talk about this, there’s a phenomenon where you keep coming back over and over and over, and then in one hour you wind up getting 90% of what you’re going to use. There’s some weird synergy that happens. You have to put in that time and keep coming back or keep filming, then there are these weird moments where everything just kind of lines up.

T/F: It’s interesting, this sort of crazy dangerous work these guys are doing is sort of hidden in plain sight, we see this amazing work these guys are doing and don’t really even pay any attention to it . . .

NK: Yeah, it’s funny now I always get texts from friends with pictures of window washers working. It seems like once you tell people about the project or once they’ve seen it, they start to notice these people more.

Paraíso_WideExt01

Explore more streaming films from T/F past on our new video page.

Posted January 16, 2014

‘Aaron Burr, Part 2′ and a Chat with Director Dana O’Keefe

Aaron Burr was a major figure in the American revolution and early republic. But the legacy of our third vice president was ruined forever on July 11, 1804 when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In Aaron Burr, Part 2 (T/F 2012) Burr himself returns to finally clear the air about that fateful day and the events leading up to it. Check out the short below, as well as my chat with the filmmaker Dana O’Keefe, the man also responsible for Vladimir Putin in Deep Concentration (T/F 2013).

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first become interested in making a film about Aaron Burr?

DO: I was initially fascinated by the idea that political figures resolved their differences through this highly ritualized form of combat. And then when it became clear that there were discrepancies in the accounts of the duel, that presented an opportunity to explore the idea that there isn’t really a stable version of history. That it depends on your perspective.

If there was a moment of clarity in conceiving the project, it was when we went to the actual site where the duel took place and realized that it was a parking lot. History, especially in New York, is all around us. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. Using the actual locations where these things happened and embracing the fact that they looked modern forces the spectator to think about the relationship between past and present.

One thing I soon realized is that I knew absolutely nothing about what really happened during the revolutionary war. In this short period a time a relatively small group of people made a series of decisions which in turn determined what would happen over the next two hundred years.

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

DO: I think the entire premise is “is there empirical, objective historical truth?” Aaron Burr was arguably as important a political figure as Alexander Hamilton. But he wrote himself out of history by killing another man, who in turn was enshrined as a national treasure.

To me it’s the epitome of how I interpret True/False, playing with these questions of documentary versus narrative. We tried to use a narrative filmmaking grammar to approach a documentary subject.

T/F: Could you tell me a little more about this narrative grammar?

DO: I think the idea was to figure out a way to present historical subject matter in a way that was both dynamic and relevant to a younger audience. The style is very music driven and utilizes highly composed shots, things that you don’t usually see in documentary. It’s very easy in shooting this sort of material to backslide into something that looks stagey or artificial.

T/F: Yeah, it almost feels like a film trailer in some ways . . .

DO:  Yeah, that’s funny, I guess it is somehow, it’s sort of like shorthand. I’ve never really worked extensively with dialogue in films, so a lot of what I do involves music and silent film storytelling techniques, occasionally title cards and things like that. So I try to convey as much as I can visually.

T/F: I thought Burr as a character was quite interesting. You made him arrogant and somewhat unlikeable, even though this is his chance to tell his story. How did you think about Burr as a character and a narrator?

DO: Gore Vidal wrote a historical novel called Burr which quickly eclipsed all of the other source material. The film is heavily indebted to that work in terms of presenting the jaundiced perspective of this guy who sort of wrote himself out of history and therefore has a very critical attitude about the cherished mythology of the period. That book really helped clarify how to portray his psychology.

T/F: Burr’s voice in the film has a weird, sort of otherworldly quality to it.

DO: Here’s a one way of thinking about it. We’re presented with this one version of history which we rarely question, right? And then Burr’s point of view about this incident is completely different, and he presents this version which contradicts the received wisdom. And he does so in a way that at first seems very objective and detached, almost robotic. But I think as the film builds you realize that his point of view is also delusional. Elements of megalomania sort of creep into this impartial narration. Hopefully, it highlights the impossibility of any stable interpretation of a historical event.

 

Posted December 5, 2013

‘Revolving Doors’ Panel

The T/F 2013 “Revolving Doors” panel brought together two filmmakers with work traversing the fuzzy boundary between fiction and documentary. Sarah Gavron spent a year in a remote Greenland community creating her doc Village at the End of the World (T/F 2013) and is currently developing Suffragette, a fictional film staring Carey Mulligan as an early feminist foot solider. Joshua Marston is responsible for the grounded, reality-infused films Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood. In conversation with moderator Eugene Hernandez, the pair tried to discover just what the two branches of cinema have to say to one another. How do fictional films capture the documentary “sense of discovery”? How does a documentary “honestly” utilize fictional elements? Do “based on a true story” movies cheat?

Our T/F 2013 panels were recorded by our partners at Columbia Access Television. If you’d like to take “Revolving Doors” with you as a podcast, you can download an mp3 here.

Posted November 12, 2013
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