Note: Gateway Packets are now sold out. But do not fear, we’ll have thousands of tickets on sale for these and other films at our box office beginning March 5.
The Gateway Packet is now on sale until 6 pm on Friday February 27 for T/F 2015. For $40, the Gateway grants you the ability to reserve three tickets online. For a select set of screenings at True/False 2015, which runs March 5-8. You can reserve tickets for three different screenings or multiple tickets for the same one; it’s up to you. Gateway is a great to introduce someone new to T/F. Pick up yours here.
This year’s Gateway screenings are as follows:
(T)ERROR, Thursday at 6:45pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, Thursday 9:30pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Drone, Thursday, 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
Cartel Land, Friday 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
I Am the People, Saturday 10:00am, Geology
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Saturday 9:30pm, Missouri Theatre
Finally, The Jinx a multipart HBO series, where filmmaker Andrew Jarecki presents a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives around millionaire Robert Durst, who happens to be the center of multiple murders and disappearances. The Sunday screening that is part five, so those watching along on HBO or HBOGo can join in. If you’ve caught up, check out the analysis of the latest episode on Vulture.
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?
Amanda Rose Wilder: 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.
Lucy in Approaching the Elephant
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.
The 2015 Neither/Nor series kicks-off on True/False Eve, Wednesday, March 4, with a free event at the Ragtag Cinema. At 6pm that evening, Ragtag will host a reception featuring all the guests of this year’s series. At 7pm, we will screen Bogdan Dziworski’s shorts program Arena of Life. After the screening, this year’s Neither/Nor curator, Ela Bittencourt, will moderate a Q&A with Dziworski.
image from Arena of Life
Famous for both his cinematography (see Through and Through) and still photography (check out his exhibit at Uprise Bakery), Bogdan Dziworski is one of Poland’s most imaginative visual artists. In this shorts program, we focus on the spectacular, unconventional profile films he directed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arena of Life (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1979, 20 min.) takes us behind the scenes of a circus, as performers tirelessly put on a show. Biathlon (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1978, 11 min) ogles professional skiers as they triumphantly shoot out into the sky and then crash to the ground. The masterpiece A Few Stories About a Man (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1983, 20 min) introduces us to Jerzy Orlowski, an agile, armless man, and shows us how he dives, draws, skis and, yes, urinates. In the melancholic, whimsical Szapito (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1984, 29 min), Dziworski revisits the circus and observes older performers as they struggle to nail their acts.
This event is free. Tickets will be available day of show at the Ragtag Cinema box office.
T/F 2015 kicks-off on Thursday, March 5 with the Jubilee, our annual masquerade extravaganza. There’ll be costumes, cocktails and buskers a-plenty throughout lobby and corridors of the august Missouri Theatre. Eventually, we’ll all find our seats and take in the opening night film. This year we are thrilled to present the fun and fascinating Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Academy Award-winner and T/F alum Morgan Neville of Twenty Feet From Stardom (T/F 2013).
image from Best of Enemies
This archival film utilizes crackling editing and sound design to take us back to the 1960s, when ABC paired the disdaining, incredulous conservative William F. Buckley with the jeremiad-spouting liberal Gore Vidal in a series of televised debates. Their spirited clashes embodied the culture wars of the 60s and haunted both men for the rest of their lives.
image from Best of Enemies
Filmmakers Neville and Gordon will both be on hand for what is sure to be a lively post-film Q and A. We hope to see you there! And don’t forget the rest of the T/F 2015 film slate will be announced at 6 PM tonight!
This year we’re celebrating Poland’s groundbreaking contributions to nonfiction cinema in the 2015 edition of Neither/Nor, our annual repertory sidebar focusing on “chimeric” work that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. This year’s program is a collaboration with film critic Ela Bittencourt, with the support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We will be spotlighting a generation of Polish filmmakers born during World War II. Living in the communist Polish People’s Republic, these filmmakers created formally and politically daring work that continues to influence cinema today. All Neither/Nor screenings are free to the public (access during the Fest is through the Q).
image from A Few Stories About a Man (Neither/Nor 2015)
Throughout True/False 2015 (March 5-8), we will be screening and discussing films from radical luminaries Marcel Lozinski, Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Bogdan Dziworski and Wojciech Wiszniewski, as well as works from younger directors Maciej Drygas and Andrzej Czarnecki. Confirmed guests include Królikiewicz, Dziworski, cinematographer Jacek Petrycki and editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz.
We’re going to turn things over to T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann to explain how this year’s N/N program emerged from a passionate discussion surrounding an earlier T/F film:
On October 21, 2010, True/False’s screening committee huddled around a small television and watched At the Edge of Russia, a film directed by a then-unknown twenty-something Pole named Michal Marczak. Michal’s film observes a group of Russian soldiers stationed in a remote part of Siberia. Their mission is to protect the border from Arctic Ocean threats. Outside of the context of a documentary festival, many viewers would assume Michal’s Waiting for Godot-esque comedy to be a work of fiction. Every composition is perfect, every laugh feels carefully timed, and the film is built on a neatly constructed narrative. In reality, however, Michal considers his film a work of nonfiction cinema, and it screened almost exclusively at documentary events, including True/False.
After our committee first watched the film, we fiercely debated its documentary claims. That debate continues to this day. In November 2012, the formidable Sean Farnel — a Canadian programmer who included the film in the 2011 edition of his own festival — wrote an article for Indiewire in which he retroactively accused Michal of being “dishonest” for labeling his film a documentary.
image from At the Edge of Russia (T/F 2011)
The 2015 edition of Neither/Nor, which focuses on Polish documentary visionaries of the 1970s-1990s, can be traced back to this 2010 argument. As you will soon see, Michal’s film can be viewed as part of a rich Polish tradition. Before releasing At the Edge of Russia, Michal studied under documentary legend Marcel Lozinski at the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing. Marcel describes the world as a fish tank and suggests that it’s his job as director to shake that fish tank – i.e. provoke truth, often through staging – and document what happens. Marcel’s profound and mischievous work is explored in this series, as are the films of Dorota Wardeszkiewicz, the editor of At the Edge of Russia. At the beginning of her career, Dorota worked alongside the late Wojciech Wiszniewski, considered one of the fathers of Polish creative documentary. In the years since, she has collaborated with some of Poland’s most innovative documentary directors.
These artists — along with other crucial figures, such as Grzegorz Królikiewicz and Bogdan Dziworski — were born at the start of World War II and created many of their most groundbreaking works as citizens of the communist Polish People’s Republic (1944-1989). How and why did this staggeringly creative cinema emerge out of such a seemingly stifling system? Was it created in spite of that system or because of it? We’ve asked the astute and gifted film writer Ela Bittencourt to guide us through this astonishing, daunting and frequently overlooked period of film history. Her tremendous work speaks for itself.
The Fest will present six Neither/Nor programs throughout T/F 2015. The films include Through and Through (1973) Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s bold and startling debut, which examines a famous 1933 trial using psychodramatic techniques.
image from Through and Through (1973)
We’ll also be showing How to Live (1977) where Marcel Lozinski documents life at government-sponsored summer camp where couples learn to become the ideal communist family.
image from How to Live (1977)
In addition, we’ll show the short A Few Stories About a Man (1983) by Through and Through cinematographer Bogdan Dziworski, who directs a mysterious and mesmerizing portrait of a talented, armless man named Jerzy Orlowski.
image from A Few Stories About a Man (1983)
The full lineup will be announced on Wednesday, February 11.
In addition to film screenings, the festival will be publishing a monograph written by this year’s Neither/Nor curator Ela Bittencourt. Along with essays reflecting on the series’ films, the monograph features interviews with Królikiewicz, Lozinski, Dziworski, editor Agnieszka Bojanowska, Wardeszkiewicz and Drygas. Bittencourt is a freelance film and art critic whose writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze Magazine, Cineaste, Film Quarterly and Reverse Shot, among other publications.
Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Now in its third edition, the series seeks to start a conversation about historical examples of chimeric cinema. The 2013 edition, curated by film writer Eric Hynes, looked at New York City chimeras from the 1960s, while the 2014 edition, curated by film critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, investigated Iranian cinema of the 1990s. You can read the 2013 monograph here and the 2014 monograph here.
We’re delighted to announce filmmaker Adam Curtis as the recipient of our 2015 True Vision Award in honor of his dedication to and advancement in the field of nonfiction filmmaking. Curtis has a long-standing relationship with the Fest, starting with his appearance in 2005 with The Power of Nightmares and again in 2010 with It Felt Like a Kiss. He’ll be in-person again this year presenting his new film Bitter Lake as well as some other selections.
Over the course of a 20-plus year career at the BBC, Curtis has refined and perfected a unique cinematic approach to history’s savage ironies. His perennial concern is power, specifically the ability to warp systems of thought intended for understanding the world into tools utilized for controlling it, with unpredictable results. His incisive, frequently audacious films, commonly narrated by Curtis himself, combine original interviews with an unmatched command of archival material. Curtis repurposes existing bits of audio and video from the massive BBC archives into pointed direct citations, whimsical metaphors and abstract cinematic onslaughts. The result is a dreamlike atmosphere where everything we think we know feels suddenly uncertain.
Curtis first gained widespread acclaim for 1992’s Pandora’s Box: A Fable from the Age of Science, a six-part series examining the consequences of the failed technocratic management of society, comparing Soviet communism, cold war systems analysis and industrial agriculture’s introduction of the insecticide DDT.
His second major film was 1995’s The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past, which studies the exploitation of the history of the Second World War by multiple generations of British politicians.
In 2002 Curtis created the unforgettable Century of the Self, a four-part examination of psychoanalysis and its under-recognized role in the emergence of a public relations industry, which in turn came to dominate 20th century life.
image from Century of the Self
In The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (T/F 2005), Curtis traces parallel histories of neo-conservatism and radical Islamism, beginning from the fascinating biographies of the movements’ founders, Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb.
image from The Power of Nightmares
Curtis’ most radical experiment, It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010), was originally conceived as an installation piece in collaboration with theatre company Punchdrunk. This work drops Curtis’ trademark narration for simple, declarative onscreen text and confronts the viewer with images of America’s cultural and political dominion, presented as the fragments of a fading dream set to infectious pop music.
image from It Felt Like a Kiss
2011 saw the release of Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part film exploring the political implications of misguided techno-utopianism, Ayn Rand’s dedicated circle of followers and a cynical, biological understanding of human motivation.
image from All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
In 2013 he collaborated with the band Massive Attack on a mixed media project Everything is Going According to Plan. Also well worth visiting is Curtis’ blog “The Medium and the Message” which like his films draws clips from the BBC archives to reexamine the way we view the world.
Curtis’ new film, Bitter Lake, takes its title from a fateful meeting in February 1945 between president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on the “bitter lake” of the Suez Canal. Curtis argues a deal struck during their meeting set the course for much of the rest of the 20th century, particularly in the nation of Afghanistan.
Image from Bitter Lake
The True Vision Award is the only award given out at the Fest, this year with the support of Restoration Eye Care. Curtis is the twelfth recipient of the True Vision Award. Each year, the award has been designed and cast in bronze by mid-Missouri sculptor Larry Young. Past winners include Laura Poitras, James Marsh, Victor Kossakovsky and Amir Bar-Lev.
We are proud to announce Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence as this year’s recipient of the True Life Fund.
The True Life Fund offers support to a film’s subjects in appreciation of their choice to share their stories with audiences. The Look of Silence‘s subject, Adi Rukun, bravely challenged Indonesia’s collective silence by speaking out about the atrocities committed against his family during the Indonesian genocide that took place during 1965 and 1966. His steady, calm confronting of men responsible for the death of his brother stands as an exemplary display of bravery. This act of courage has forced his family to relocate in order to avoid backlash. Funds raised through the True Life Fund will assist Adi and his family in their relocation process.
Adi Rukun in The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence is the companion film to The Act of Killing (T/F 2013) which will also screen at this year’s Fest in its extended director’s cut. Together, the two films complete an incredible eleven-year project exploring the Indonesian genocide and the horrifying shadow it continues to cast over that nation’s culture and politics. Unlike other mass killings, the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist purges remain part of the power structure with their crimes officially excused or even celebrated, making Oppenheimer’s present tense investigation indispensable. These two films bring energetic innovation and flawless craft to this stunningly under-reported story.
Image from The Look of Silence
Director Joshua Oppenheimer will be in-person at all screenings. We’re also working to bring Adi to Columbia, but, due to the film’s highly charged content, his international travel is being curtailed and he may not be able to leave Indonesia.
We’d like to thank The Crossing, a local Columbia church, for their continued partnership. The Crossing will be sponsoring the True Life Fund for the eighth time this year. The Fund itself is comprised of thousands of small, individual gifts, matched through a grant from the Bertha Foundation. We hope to raise more than $20,000 for Adi and his family.
The Look of Silence is the ninth True Life Fund film. Last year, Cynthia Hill’s Private Violence received the True Life Fund. The fund was split between domestic violence survivor Deanna Walters and advocate Kit Gruelle.
Neither/Nor is an open-ended project exploring and discovering the history of “chimeric” cinema, our term for films which defy categorization as either nonfiction or fiction. For the past two years we’ve collaborated with a visiting film critic who selects and introduces a series of screenings covering a particular important time and place in cinematic history. This undertaking is made possible by generous support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In addition to presenting the films, visiting critics create an original monograph featuring essays or interviews exploring the works they selected. Now, we’ve made both the 2013 and 2014 monographs available to read online in a digital pdf version you can find linked below.
In the 2013 Monograph, New York City, 1967-1968, critic Eric Hynes approaches the creative and political ferment surrounding William Greaves’ meta-film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, the Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker collaboration 1 P.M., Peter Whitehead’s The Fall and Jim McBride’s prescient David Holzman’s Diary. The monograph features a short essay and interview for each film.
In the 2014 Monograph, Iran, 1990-1998, Godfrey Cheshire weaves a consideration of major works into a larger essay exploring Iran’s unique and complex relationship with the cinema. The films studied are Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Mohsen Makhmalbah’s A Moment of Innocence, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror and Samira Makhmalbah’s The Apple.
Neither/Nor returns as part of the 2015 festival where we’ll explore revolutionary, formally groundbreaking work from a former communist state.
Documenting something as nebulous as a revolution is a difficult challenge for a filmmaker. In Cairo Drive (T/F 2014) Sherief Elkatsha takes an unusual and startlingly effective approach. Riding shotgun and talking traffic with motorists on Cairo’s congested streets, he captures a fascinating mosaic of the frustrations and ambitions of a city on the edge. The film spans the critical period of 2009-2011, providing a window into the fall of Mobarak and the beginning of Egypt’s uncertain future.
Cairo Drive makes its New York premiere tomorrow as part of DOC NYC. A few months back I got to speak with director Sherief Elkatsha about his insightful and frequently hilarious film.
T/F: Could you start by telling me about how the project began?
SE: Sure. I started making this film in 2009. I was in between Cairo and New York, and every time I came back to Cairo things were getting a little tenser. A good litmus test for where the city was at was the driving. I thought I was going to witness a boiling point of sorts. I had no idea of course that in 2011 what did happen would happen. But I just thought that the easiest way to address all sorts of different issues was through the driving, because that’s sort of everyone’s story. Knowing that I wanted to get into deeper issues, it was very non-threatening and non-political to say “let’s just talk about the traffic.”
In 2011 I was already deep into editing two years of footage, and I thought I was done filming. And then of course the news happened and the goal was to be on the first plane to Cairo to continue filming.
T/F: It’s really cool how traffic let’s you talk about fundamental issues of social cooperation and tension, but in a very concrete, down-to-Earth, unpretentious way.
SE: It was really difficult to film in Cairo. People are generally a little bit paranoid. And they always assume that what you’re filming is to make them look bad outside of Egypt. But when I came to them with the subject of driving, because they felt it was something they all had an opinion about, that they were all experts.
What I liked most is that it sort of crossed through all class structure. In Egypt a lot of people are very poor and there are a few affluent people, but in traffic everyone is sort of the same. Whether you’re riding a donkey cart or in a Mercedes sedan, we’re all stuck at the same traffic light. You can’t really live in a bubble in Cairo.
T/F: I love the section early on where the guy sort of introduces the traffic horns as a proto-language.
SE: If I knew then what I know now … people seem to love that bit, and of course it’s hilarious. He went on and on, I should have put more of it into the film.
The language of horns is certainly something that exists. I was unaware to what extent and how specific you could be with your horn. That it wasn’t just “piss off” but instead actively criticizing how someone is driving, just with your horn. And the same is true for lights, but I couldn’t get into that in an hour-and-a-half film. There is all sorts of language with flicking high beams and low beams and what this means and that means.
T/F: So I’ve been asking people this question which is kind of broad, and leaving it open to interpretation. What’s true/false about your film?
SE: Well, certainly my film walks the line between being vérité and non vérité. Let’s be honest, anytime you have a camera around there’s going to be an element of falseness to it. People react to being filmed, and this is sort of a natural thing. And then of course we edit the hell out of movies, so that’s an element of falseness.
And I’d like to think what’s true/false about it is also that most of the films at True/False have a level of integrity that isn’t mainstream. I’d like to think that my film fits into that.
T/F: The magic with this sort of movie is how all of the parts fit together to build a whole. When did you know you had enough to make a film? I mean, you said you thought you had enough before the revolution in 2011?
SE: Let me take it back. I never thought I had enough; I still don’t think I have enough. The nature of the film is such that I felt like I was making a wildlife documentary. You’re always missing something and there’s always something that could be filmed better. That’s the problem with a documentary. You think, you have an idea, and you go out and shoot it, but then you think, I could reshoot that.
So I put a constraint on myself and said it was going to be two years of shooting, or it was going to be one more year. Each year sort of got longer.
When I started the editing process I told people I wanted a film as populated as the city, and everyone told me “you shouldn’t do that. This is not the way to make a movie.” And I just didn’t want to focus on any one story. And so I would say, editing was really important in my film. In order to keep the story moving and to keep us maybe not caring too much about any one character and instead caring about this sort of carnival ride that they’re all on. That was the goal.
I could still keep filming. There’s stuff that’s happening now with respect to the traffic, it’s endless. But once we had our second election I said “Okay, we’re done. I have over 200 hours of footage. I’ll have to pick and choose from that.”
T/F: That’s interesting. The story is about the place, and the bits of story we get from the people have to serve that. So there’s this danger of someone stealing the show?
SE: Yeah, it’s true. Also, any character I did show I wanted to stand for something bigger. So even though certain characters were great — and having done a few festivals I see which characters stick with people — it’s not just about that individual story. I wanted it to be bigger stories that deal with bigger issues, whether it’s women’s rights, or men getting married in Cairo, which is a huge issue for us.
As we come into the revolution, I wanted a few more voices that exemplified the kind of person that went out into the street to become an activist.
T/F: Do you have an example in mind for some person that really stands for something?
SE: For example, some people have asked “why did you have the ambulance drivers?” There’s this whole scene in between calls where all these ambulance drivers are sort of sitting around shooting the shit, which was again very vérité. I was just sitting there with my camera, probably cleaning it, and they started talking about how this one kid wanted to get married. This to me is huge because I know 50% of the population is under the age of 35 and a huge issue is getting married, being able to afford marriage. Because you have to have an apartment, because you have to have a dowry, etc. So suddenly this scene is unfolding where this issue of so many of the youth in Cairo is coming up, and it just so happens because it’s ambulance drivers shooting the shit. He wanted to get married and the woman turned him down because he was a driver and she wanted him to have a better job. He has an apartment and a job, but he can’t get married.
A year later we find out he does get married. This is after the revolution has happened. And I’m sort of shocked, “You got married and had twins in just over a year?” And he said “Yeah, look what happened to the country. It happened overnight.” It was sort of a small moment but it was indicative of life going on despite the historic events.
T/F: Was it difficult in editing to reconcile the structure of the film with the flow of political developments in Egypt?
SE: Yeah, anything is always a challenge because you lose perspective very quickly as to what is interesting. At the end I had a 72 minute cut, and I crowd funded to hire an editor I had worked with before named Pierre Haberer. He came for Paris and lived in my apartment here. In those final 6 weeks he gave me the objectivity I was lacking to keep the story moving. Also, giving the right details and not the wrong details that are going to confuse an audience.
Also, a lot of the material is very funny, but at the same time the subject that I am dealing with is not all shits and giggles. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo certainly knows people that have lost their lives on the road. So I wanted to give it the gravity that I thought it deserves. Some people just thought I should make the whole thing a comedy, but at some point it stops being funny and just becomes “What the fuck?” There is a turning point, and I think it worked out well putting it just before the revolution happens.
I do have a character in 2010 basically predicting the revolution. You know, “something bad is going to happen, could be in the next 3 to 5 years.” And I sort of push him “What are you talking about?” And he says “If Mobarak passes away tomorrow, this country’s going to go into a lot of trouble until someone strong tries to fix it.”
T/F: Yeah, that was very striking.
SE: Yeah, and again we didn’t want to put dates and we didn’t want everything to be explained, we just wanted it to be this is what it is.
T/F: Do you have any personal experiences driving in Cairo that informed the movie?
SE: Well, I learned to drive in Cairo and it’s kind of the only place where I really do drive. When I come here in the US I have a hard time with street signs and reading and exits. But in Cairo I feel really at home, where it’s kind of like the character in my film says “If you see space, occupy it.” It’s more interactive in a way.
I think there’s something about Cairo where you never assume anything, you never assume a green light. So you are always on edge expecting that someone will jump out from a car in front of your car. I think that makes us better drivers in the actual urban setting, where you are ready for anything. Anything could happen, and it usually does.