The delicate dance between filmmaker and subject took center stage in the “Lies My Subject Told Me Panel” at T/F 2014. Filmmakers Robert Greene (Actress), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout) chatted about deceit and deception, what they decided to leave out and poetic vs. factual truth in documentary art. Here are a few excerpts featuring each of the three directors:
David Serva Jones is one of the only Americans to ever become a world-class flamenco guitarist. He is also a heartbreaker who has left numerous women and children in his wake. One of these children is writer/director Rachel Leah Jones, who set out over the course of a decade to get to know her estranged father and collect stories from the people who he left behind. This includes her own mother, a Brooklyn girl who became a flamenco dancer and began a family with David in Berkeley in the early 70s. Gypsy Davy (T/F 2012) combines these investigations with haunting archival footage and elegant and biting narration. The result is a compelling examination of one man’s hard-to-pin-down legacy.
This film is now available on Hulu (embedded below) for viewers in the U.S. You can also watch it on a wide variety of digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and Sundance Now and buy a DVD/CD combo pack including a soundtrack of David’s incredible music.
A few months back, I got the chance to speak with Jones about her film via Skype while she waited for a train in Tel Aviv.
T/F: How did you get interested in telling a personal story in a film? Is this something you always thought you’d do?
RLJ: Well, I set out to tell this story without “taking it personally”, without talking about myself. Then finally, towards the very end, I had to capitulate and accept the fact that I was the reason there was a story. Everyone else was just living their lives and I was the one who wanted to stop and examine things.
Gypsy Davy was the first film that I started shooting and the third that I actually finished. It was good that it was already my third movie, because that way it was less painful to finish.
T/F: So when did you actually start filming?
RLJ: So it’s quite literal in the film, the very first shot in the movie is pretty much the very first shot I took. This is when I get called to his side after the accident where he broke his pelvis and shattered his wrist. That doesn’t mean I edited chronologically, but when I asked myself “What is the story I want to tell?” and “Where does it begin and end?” it made a lot of sense to say “Okay, where did it really begin?”
So, I just started filming. It took a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to do and muster up the courage to go and meet everybody. I had a life to live, jobs to work, other movies to make, kids to have; there was a whole decade of life that happened at the same time. And although this wasn’t how I intended to make the film, in the end I think there is some satisfaction, both for myself and hopefully for the viewer, in seeing us change over time.
T/F: So how does that process interact with the narration? It’s written in the second person as a letter to your father. Was that planned from the beginning?
RLJ: No, I had hoped that there wouldn’t have to be narration. Eventually, it became clear to me that that was out of the question. At the end of the decade, at the end of the day, I understood that the only person who went through any kind of change was me.
It starts with the big drama of his broken wrist. Will he ever play guitar again? And then more drama: he adopts his fifth kid, he gets married for the fourth time. All of this stuff happens to him and yet nothing happens to him. The man doesn’t change over the course of that decade. These twists and turns are all sort of par for the course; it’s what he’s been doing for 50 years.
So then, it was me who transformed in this period. I had to go figure out where I was at 40 where I may not have been at 30. I had to create that character and write a voiceover for her. And that was kind of the worst, not because I don’t like to write. I can write voiceovers for other people really well, but writing your own voice is tricky. How much of it was going to be true? Who was that girl going to be?
For the longest time I couldn’t figure if I should do it in the second person addressing him or in the third person addressing the audience. I kept changing it this way and that way. Like, “I was born in Berkeley California”, I don’t need to tell him that, he was there. But, “When I was ten years old, I started telling people he was dead”, that’s not as intense or interesting as “I started telling people you were dead”.
So, I did what probably a lot of documentary filmmakers secretly do when they’re finishing their personal movies. I went back to my therapist. I came with my laptop and these two voiceovers and said, “I’m sure one of them is truer than the other”. She just looked at me and said “why do you have to choose?”
Finally, I broke it down on paper, and realized every time I spoke in the third person I had put archive and every time I spoke in the second person my father was on screen. So it had already been resolved structurally, I just didn’t see it. And save for one or two adjustments, it was already written and written in both voices. When I ask people if the narration was in the second or third person they can’t remember. My therapist was right, why do you have to choose?
T/F: Could you talk some about how you structured the film? You use a non-linear structure to create mystery quite effectively.
RLJ: I don’t think I was looking to be mysterious at all. There are two obvious ways you could go. You could go from the present and roll it back from 100 to 0 or you could go forward from 0 to 100. But I asked myself, where does my story begin? It begins with my mom and me and we’re smack in the middle. So it begins with woman number three. And then what happened? Woman number four. And then what happened? Woman number five. But wait, where did it really all begin? Woman number one. But listen, there’s also woman number two . . .
That logic presented itself almost immediately. And save for a little bit of tweaking around woman number two, I never had to rearrange it. Something that seems really thought out was completely intuitive and just sort of took care of itself.
T/F: Watching the film, I found my attitudes towards David’s art very interesting. The virtuoso of his guitar playing is undeniable, but I also regarded it with a Darwinian cynicism, that it’s fundamentally a seduction technology or something. And that ambivalence comes through in the narration as well. So I wanted to ask you, do you enjoy David’s music?
RLJ: Today, totally. When I was younger, flamenco altogether, David’s or not David’s, I had a hard time with. I don’t know that I ever hated it, but I had a hard time with it. I had a hard time with it for white middle class reasons: the funky aesthetics; the throaty, growling vocals.
But it totally grew on me, and I totally learned to appreciate it, because, having heard it all my life, I also knew it deep down inside. I don’t play music, I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t do music or dance. I’m the brainy, mouthy one, those are my tools. But if I hear flamenco, I anticipate what’s coming. Now I can really enjoy flamenco, including his. Also, I can actually recognize his playing, which I couldn’t do when I was younger.
Bottom line is, he’s a really, really good musician. He’s not a flashy player. He doesn’t really care for the notion of solo guitar. For him guitar is all about accompaniment. Flamenco is basically about rhythm and song, or cante in Spanish, and the other stuff: guitar, dance, are additions. He understands himself in that supporting role, first as an accompanist, the person that brings out the best in the singer. Also, he really understands negative space. He understands the lack of sound as the place where the last sound you made reverberates. It’s a gentle and intelligent understanding of what music is about.
So I appreciate him as a musician. What I don’t appreciate is everybody’s romance of the artist as somebody who can’t do family and can’t do commitment. I don’t buy the notion that there’s an either/or. I’m not a brilliant filmmaker, but I’m assuming I’m not a bad filmmaker. I still have a kid, I still change diapers, I was still pregnant and nursing in the editing room. Very few women and way too many men get away with this notion that it’s either/or.
The music is fantastic and wonderful and it’s a perfect vehicle for him to express himself emotionally. All of that I buy, just not the either/or thing.
T/F: Last thing I wanted to ask about is the archival of your childhood that you use in the film. What is it that makes it so evocative? I’m always at a loss for why super 8 footage has such a cinematic quality.
RLJ: There’s a mixture of footage there, some is 16mm that my mom and her friends shot with an experimental filmmaker named Damon Rarey who was pretty active in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. He shot the garage sale footage where the two women go chasing after the guy who, because they’re so busy fighting over him, manages to rip off all of their stuff. They go running after him, and finally realize when he’s out of reach that all they have is each other.
I’d never even seen that footage until quite late in the editing. There was a point where I was like “How should this movie end?” and I had this vague recollection that I had asked my mom this very question, but I didn’t remember her answer. So I went back to some interview with her that I had thrown out a long time ago and found her answer, where she mentioned the garage sale film. I didn’t think much of it at the time of the interview, but now that I was editing I was like “I need that footage!” Someone located the one remaining copy on a farm in Northern California and telecined it for me. When I saw it I was like, it’s the story! It’s the movie of the movie! I had already written the voiceover about being born in the middle of a garage sale, so it was too perfect.
A lot of the other footage is Super 8 that my grandfather shot when he’d come out to visit from New York. The thing about all of the archive in the film is that Gypsy Davy is also a portrait of a generation. It’s a generation of bohemian baby boomers. It’s a self-aware yet unselfconscious generation; these people felt they had the right to reinvent themselves culturally, to change their names, even to assume new ethnic identities, to some extent. You can see it in the footage and photographs, it’s the bold and the beautiful. It’s not my generation, which gets all uptight and confused with identity politics. We’re much more self-conscious about the way we image ourselves. Whereas our parents were of that modernist era that took itself for granted and had a ball playing make believe. We, their children, on the other hand, are the products of post-modernism’s deconstructions, reconstructions and, let’s admit it, malcontents.
Check out the complete series of True/False 2014 videos, created by Chelsea Myers and Paul Mossine of Tiny Attic Productions. There’s one documenting each day of the festival.
The first captures the excitement of opening night and our gala the Jubilee, featuring thoughts from filmmaker Joe Callander (Life After Death), music from Bruiser Queen and gravity-defying performances by Les Trois Coups.
Friday’s video explores the March March parade and the @CTION! Party, with music from Jerusalem and the Starbaskets.
Saturday’s entry collects thoughts from filmmakers Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and Andrew Droz Palermo (Rich Hill) while utilizing music from Paul Rucker and Lone Piñon.
The final video focuses on the many invisible hands that build the fantastical world of the Fest. We go on a short tour of Neon Treehouse and Taylor Ross constructions, with music provided by Prahlad, MNDR and James Cathcart’s SPACE IS THE PLACE.
The True/False 2014 Fest Digest provides a day by day recap of this year’s Fest. Written in the midst of the excitement, each digest entry recalls a handful of the previous day’s events with commentary, pictures and videos. Look back at the Magic/Realism:
Saturday is the busiest day of True/False, with so much to see and to do, and even to feel. It’s an idea that was discussed by director Joe Callander after the screening of the tonally complex Life After Death at The Globe. Contrast makes the funny parts hilarious, and the sad parts even sadder. At True/False, sometimes it seems like we’re feeling everything all at once.
The inadequacy of any summary is inevitable, but we’ll try our best in this post to give a small taste of the T/F Saturday.
In a cinema, the sense of wonder can come on in a flash, often when you least expect it, when a detail that was previously mundane suddenly becomes profound. True/False also aims to create this effect all weekend long, locating it in a re-imagined utopian Columbia. Wonder is the essence of the art of stage magic, as you can see in the third installment of Jarred Alterman’s Magic/Realism intro films. David Klachko provides the explanation and Steve Ferris the demonstration.
The day kicked-off bright and early with the True Life Run, a surprise filled walk/run through the streets of Columbia, made possible by the support of the Columbia Orthopedic Group, and benefiting our True Life Fund. Runners had to take on challenges on course including ultimate hopscotch, Newspaper Labyrinth, Foam Noodle Freeze Tag, Catch the Rabbit (seen below) and the Mayor’s Council obstacle course. The winners were were Ian Chillag and Sara Spoede, but congratulations are due to everyone who participated.
Over at the Odd Fellows Lodge, Omar Mullick of These Birds Walk oversaw Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) in the Beyond Pretty Pictures panel. The conversation explored the evolving technology of nonfiction filmmaking, and its promise and peril for doc makers.
The Missouri Theatre, The Unknown Known examined the career of Donald Rumsfeld through a series of interviews and readings by Rumsfeld of his “snowflakes”, the thousands and thousands of memos issued by Rummy as Secretary of Defense. After the film, editor Steven Hathaway talked about building the film out of 35 hours of interviews, before director Errol Morris appeared on screen via Skype. Morris noted with a laugh “I’m a talking head!” and reflected on the element of performance in everything Rumsfeld does.
Gabriel Viles gathered a crowd at our box office for the Art Ramble, a free guided tour of our many wonderous art installations. Viles reflected on the transitory nature of all True/False’s art, which only adds to its poignancy. The tour covered Leland Drexler-Russell’s glowing nest-egg-polyps “TransPlant”, Duncan Bindbeutel’s “Camera Obscure” on The Picturehouse Lawn and Yulia Pinkusevich’s imagined two-dimensional city scape “Stilted” in Alley A (seen below).
Later in the afternoon at Jesse Auditorium, the screening of the True Life Fund film Private Violence, was one of the most powerful events of the whole weekend. Before the lights went down, pastor Dave Cover of The Crossing explained his church’s sponsorship of the TLF, and the issue of domestic violence that the film addresses. Afterwards, T/F co-founder David Wilson was joined on stage by director Cynthia Hill and subjects Kit Gruelle and Deanna Walters, the recipients of this year’s Fund. The Q and A was interrupted by frequent bursts of applause from the crowd. Kit noted, ”We just don’t have this crime worked out yet. This is the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, but we still aren’t addressing this crime in ways which I think we should, which is seeing it as the petri dish, the root crime, for almost all the other criminal behavior that we end up reacting to.”
Back at the Missouri Theatre, Ukraine is Not a Brothel depicted the complex and oftentimes paradoxical world of radical activism. It examined the case of the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, famous for staging topless demonstrations to protest the treatment of women. Following the showing, director Kitty Green and Femen leader Inna Shevchenko spoke with the crowd. Talking about the group’s controversial use of nudity, Shevchenko argued “this peaceful but provocative action is at some level more effective than stones or guns”.
Inna Shevchenko went from the Ukraine screening to The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note. There she served alongside Actress star Brandy Burre and Particle Fever physicist David Kaplan as judges in our signature game show, Gimme Truth! hosted by the always witty Johnny St. John. The three judges evaluated the veracity of 11 2-minute films, taking breaks laughter and drinks in-between.
Finally, late at Mojo’s it was time for Saturday’s installment of Mojo’s-a-Go-Go. SpaceIsThePlace, Née, and MNDR created an emotive trance for the synth-pop dance party.
Check out even more of day three and hear a few thoughts from T/F 2014 filmmakers Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and Andrew Droz Palermo (Rich Hill) alongside music from Paul Rucker and Lone Piñon in video three from Chelsea and Paul at Tiny Attic Productions.
Saturday rolled into Sunday, the weather here in CoMo took a turn for the worse. But we aren’t letting that slow us down one bit. Only one day of T/F 2014 remains. Lets make some magic!
Friday is when True/False expanded into its full bandwidth. The Picturehouse, The Forrest Theater and Jesse Auditorium all came to life, showing their first films of the year, while the Odd Fellows Lodge hosted the first of our panel discussions. Our expansionist tendencies were manifested by our most conspicuous event, the triumphant parade through downtown Columbia known as the March March.
The scope of our ambition outstrips any blog post, but below we’ll recap a few of the day’s memorable events.
Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative art form, requiring trust and intuitive coordination between the creative forces behind and in front of the camera. And True/False itself is nothing more than a harmony emerging from the coordinated actions of hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers, staffers, guests, artists, sponsors and more. So it was fitting that Jarred Alterman’s second Magic/Realism segment takes up the subject of collaboration, introducing the nuances of Aaro and Sophie Froese’s magical teamwork.
Friday began with the first ever T.G.I.T/F, a free event for all Missouri high school and college students. At the Missouri Theatre a raucous and impromptu welcoming committee cheered the arrival of each additional group of students. In the lobby, artist Taylor Ross and members of Chimney Choir performed in coordination with Jupiter and Fyn, Ross’s incredible musical fox.
Everyone then took their seats for the screening of Particle Fever, a fascinating look at the most intricate science experiment in human history. Before the film, director director Mark Levinson gave a few opening comments explaining that the assembled group of students was truly his target audience. Afterwards, particle physicist David Kaplan joined Levinson on stage for the Q and A. “Science is not linear,” he explained “It’s not ‘This discovery is made, and then this one and this one, and there’s a set of instructions. It’s totally… you can run into dead ends. 6 months, or 6 years, or a whole generation until you actually figure out what the hell is going on. The purpose of the film was to experience the uncertainty that most of doing research is, and then the overwhelming joy when you understand something.”
After the film, T.G.I.T/F migrated to Orr Street Studios, where students created artistic pieces for the March March parade later that afternoon. Several games of hacky sack were accompanied by music from Les Trois Coups, Chimney Choir, Choff, and Paul Rucker.
Over at the The Picturehouse, our cinema inside the United Methodist Church, True/False began with Miraculous Tales, director Daniel Vernon’s film examining both an Irish miracle worker and an evangelical preacher. After the film Vernon expressed gratitude for the opportunity to screen this work in the church, because he sees it as grappling with questions of faith and doubt.
Early in the afternoon at the Missouri Theatre, a packed house was on hand for Rich Hill, which introduces us to three young teenage boys from a small Missouri community located 70 miles south of Kansas City. Afterwards, filmmaking cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo (a former Columbia resident and a good friend of True/False) took the stage for a Q and A. MUTV captured the short clip below, where they explained how they went about building a relationship with their subjects.
At the Oddfellows Lodge, the “Lies My Subject Told Me” panel hosted by Hot Docs director Charlotte Cook brought together filmmakers Robert Greene (Actress), Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout) and Jesse Moss (The Overnighters). Below you can see a small taste of the panel, where Robert Greene explains his take on the idea of True/False.
At 3 pm at The Globe, our 2012 True Vision Award honoree Victor Kossakovsky returned to T/F with Demonstration, a film he created with 32 students from a Master of Creative Documentary course at the Pompeu Fabra University. He decided on a whim to send his students into the streets to film the massive protests in Spain. One of those students, Ainara Vera Esparza, was also present. In the Q and A Kossakovsky talked about viewing the protests as an elaborate dance, which led to the film’s incredible sound design. He argued that by replacing much of the real sound with a ballet, it forces the audience to see what is really happening.
Meanwhile, over on 9th Street, La Operacion Jarocha from Veracruz, Mexico performed the passionate music. Combining indigenous, Spanish and African influences, they see their music as an accompaniment for all of life’s occurences, both tragic and triumphant.
Then it was time for one of our signature events, the March March parade, a spirited, outward display of the inner psyche of festival goers. Two larger than life busts of T/F co-founders Paul and David advanced near the front, while Teletubbies brought up the rear with the percussion section. In-between, students who participated in T.G.I.T/F adorned masks and head gear they crafted just a few hours before.
At 7, The Great Wall came to life on the massive wall of the Picturehouse. Across the street at Shakespeare’s, Jim Bogan led a toast for his recently deceased friend Les Blank, who’s films are appearing on the Wall this year.
Meanwhile, the first film played at our largest venue, Jesse Auditorium. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart a look back at the early 90s sensationalized trial of a New Hampshire woman convicted of being an accomplice to her husband’s murder. During the Q and A director Jeremiah Zagar explained the trial’s significance in light of today’s media saturated criminal justice system. “This is a precedent. And nobody knew it was a precedent when it was happening.”
At True/Folk Showcase at the Blue Fugue, Rae Fitzgerald, Dubb Nubb and Syna So Pro (seen below) filled the room with enchanting harmonies.
While over at Cafe Berlin, the second Toast/False showcase included a fiery performance from Yva Las Vegass. Our friends at the music blog Folk to Folk captured a song from her set.
Back at Odd Fellows Lodge, comedian Dave Hill hosted Campfire Stories, our intimate gathering where filmmakers share stories about the scenes that got away. In the clip below from our friends at Columbia Access Television, Miraculous Tales director Daniel Vernon tells a story about a crazy night in the arctic.
The night came to a close it with dancing and revelry our the @CTION Party! at Tonic nightclub. MNDR & DJ Gold E Mouf provided the music.
For one more look back at a celebratory T/F Friday, check out this short video from the team at Tiny Attic Productions. You’ll get to see more of the March March and @CTION!, scored with music from Jerusalem and the Starbaskets.
Onward to Saturday!
There’s nothing quite like the beginning of new True/False. Even for those of us who spend a large part of the year directing efforts towards these four days, opening night still feels like a revelation. The sense of collective curiosity around the streets of Columbia is truly singular, and even the strongest memory pales alongside the present. In this digest we’ll highlight just a fraction of the events that made opening night magical.
Each day at T/F you’ll be getting a different take on our 2014 theme, Magic/Realism. Director Jarred Alterman’s micro-films each introduce an important idea from the world of stage magic. In the first, Gary Oxenhandler explains the mechanics of misdirection, a tactic critical to magicians and filmmakers alike.
With the opening of this year’s Fest, our smallest (and by some accounts best) venue, the little theater at Ragtag Cinema, has been renamed the Willy Wilson Theater. This is in honor of a recently departed friend, whose years of support made both Ragtag and True/False possible. Artist Jesse Starbuck recently painted the cinder block wall with one of Willy’s favorite quotes, “Nothing is impossible. Impossible just takes a wee bit longer.”
At 5 pm, the first film played in the Willy Wilson Theater. This was Approaching the Elephant, a stunning black and white observation of an anarchist “free school” for young children, where all classes are voluntary and students and teachers have equal authority.
The film inspired a spirited Q and A, led by T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann and featuring director Amanda Rose Wilder and subject Alex Khost. The conversation ran for a solid half an hour, and could have easily kept right on going. Amanda expressed gratitude that she got to see a narrative unfold right before her eyes, while noting that children are both “complex” and “scary”. Of the kids in the film, Alex remarked “Each day every one of these children has to go to school and say ‘What am I going to do today?’ Most of us that doesn’t happen until we’re 18, 21 years old.”
Meanwhile, in the august setting of the historic Missouri Theatre, True/False began in style with our opening night Jubilee, a celebratory masquerade. Weaving your way through the crowd, buskers and bartenders seemed to be lurking around every corner. Joyous music rang out over the hum of excited conversation.
The Jubilee led into an appropriately jubilant film. Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story of how cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky assembled a dream team of “spiritual warriors”, dedicated to carrying out his radical adaptation of the classic science-fiction novel Dune. As T/F co-director Paul Sturtz noted in his pre-film introduction, this film is particularly resonant for True/False, which also involves a remarkable group of people coming together to attempt to a seemingly impossible task.
After the film director Frank Pavish and editor Alex Ricciardi discussed the process of working with Jodorowsky, who they found both charismatic and terrifying. They also recalled how Jodorowsky was moved to tears when he saw Jodorowsky’s Dune for the first time at Cannes.
Back over at Ragtag, the big theater hosted the first screening of Robert Greene’s new film Actress. A unique collaboration, this film follows The Wire actress Brandy Burre’s return to acting after getting out of the profession to start a family. In a post-screening Q and A, Greene and Burre talked about the film’s use of music to create an impression of “theatricality”.
Out in the lobby and over at the T/F box office, the gorgeous new poster for Actress went on display. It was designed by T/F graphic artist Theresa Berens and painted by artist Laura Baran.
At Cafe Berlin, the first of our “Toast/False” showcases featured intricate soundscapes from Eric Rich, Ruth Acuff, Nevada Greene and the amazing Paul Rucker, seen below in the video captured by our friends at Folk to Folk.
Later on at the Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, it was time for a journey inside the psyche of singer-songwriter Nick Cave with the chimeric 20,000 Days on Earth. When the lights came up, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard discussed how they utilized psychoanalytic sessions to find a new way of asking questions. They also recalled how they stole Cave’s song books and found inspiration in his unwritten lyrics.
Finally, long after the sun went down, opening night ended at Mojo’s with garage rock, blues and everything in-between from Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, Coward, and Jerusalem and the Starbaskets.
For one more look back at the magical atmosphere of opening night, check out this video from Chelsea Myers and Paul Mossine of Tiny Attic Productions, featuring thoughts from filmmaker Joe Callander (Life After Death), music from Bruiser Queen and gravity-defying performances by Les Trois Coups.
So much True/False still lies ahead of us. See you at the movies!
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!