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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The sense of place is a fundamental aspect of cinema. In great films it is a part of every scene, a background presence that informs everything we see and hear.
Our panel “Place is the Space” investigates how filmmakers go about communicated this essential feeling. The panelists’ films take place in fascinating array of places, a small midwestern town struggling to hold on, a massive underground science experiment and a crowded city undergoing a major political upheaval. Moderator Beadie Finzi talks with Tracy Droz Tragos of Rich Hill, Mark Levinson of Particle Fever and Sherief Elkatsha of Cairo Drive.
Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.
Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.
T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?
ARW: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.
T/F: Where’s that at?
ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.
We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.
I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.
T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?
ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.
From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.
I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.
T/F: So, what’s True/False about your film?
ARW: Oh man, good question . . .
Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.
I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.
So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.
T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.
ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”
As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.
T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .
ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.
So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.
What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.
But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.
T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?
ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.
Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”
ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.
T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?
ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.
How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.
T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?
ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.
T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.
ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.
Joshua Izenberg’s short Slomo (T/F 2013) introduces us to a former doctor who in middle-age decided to dedicate himself to full-time rollerblading along the San Diego beach boardwalk. This eccentric and eloquent “Slomo” explains himself, raising pressing questions about what we really want in life and the meaning of freedom and happiness.
This film is now available to watch online as part of the NY-Times Op-Docs Series.
Izenberg discussed his interest in this subject in his opinion piece accompanying the film:
I’ve long been fascinated by people who make seismic changes late in life. It goes against the mainstream narrative: Grow up, pick a career, stick it out, retire. I was also curious about Slomo’s concept of “the zone,” a realm of pure subjectivity and connectedness that he achieves through his skating. The only thing Slomo loves more than being in the zone is talking about the zone, so it wasn’t hard to persuade him to take part in a documentary film.
Be sure to check out his full article here.
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: