It’s Time: True/False 2015 is coming March 5-8!
See a short teaser for this year’s prefilm intros, directed by Jarred Alterman.
And check out the T/F 2015 poster, designed by artist Erik Buckham with an illustration by Akiko Stehrenberger.
We’ve announced the complete lineup of T/F 2015 Films, as well as our Art and Music programs.
The 2015 True Vision Award Winner is filmmaker Adam Curtis.
The 2015 True Life Fund Film is The Look of Silence.
And our retrospective sidebar Neither/Nor will investigate Polish chimeras from the 70s, 80s and 90s with critic Ela Bittencourt.
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.
Jessica Oreck’s sublime, incisive cinema observes the tangled relationship between man and the rest of nature. Her latest work, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014), transports us to contemporary Eastern Europe, where, among other ideas, we reflect on our perceptions of the forest. Oreck nimbly weaves breathtaking, Super 16mm images of everyday life with hand-drawn animation depicting the famous Slavic fable of Baba Yaga, a forest-dwelling witch. Vanquishing is an extraordinary, alluring essay film from a distinct and gifted filmmaker. This is Oreck’s third nonfiction feature, following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (a 2009 film that considers Japan’s fascination with beetles) and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (a 2013 film that observes Finnish reindeer herders). Both are available on DVD.
Vanquishing screens at MoMA through Tuesday, 10/21. Showtimes and tickets are available here. In the coming months, the film will continue to travel across the world. Visit its website for dates. I interviewed Oreck via Skype before its theatrical premiere.
T/F: You’ve documented nature in many different types of films, from more essayistic works like Vanquishing and Beetle Queen to purer observational films like Aatsinki to more straightforward short profiles of creatures. I’m wondering if you think there are any sorts of mistakes nature documentaries tend to make, any traps they can fall into.
Oreck: David Attenborough is a hero. I don’t think nature films get much better than that. But I do know that I’m not really interested in making nature films like that. I’ve said this before, you know, that it’s almost this very top-down view of nature. And I’m really so — this sounds so corny, but I believe very fully in animism. And that humans are by far not even close to the most advanced creatures on the planet. And we don’t deserve all the credit that we give ourselves. So that sometimes pisses me off.
I also get really angry about the sensationalist filmmaking that surrounds nature. Especially the sort of stuff that I love the most, like reptiles and herps and arthropods. Those animals — to filmmakers, they’re just like the scourge of the Earth. I could get really worked up about this, about how we make out these animals as if they are out to get us. As if they’re some viciously inclined creatures attacking humans out of pure spite. And arthropods? Everyone has this huge fear of bugs, spiders and scorpions, but most of them are totally harmless to humans. I mean, most insects and most arthropods have no direct bearing on human life whatsoever. But the ones that we focus on? It’s sensationalist media. It’s the same way that news picks up on these weird anomalies and treats them as if they’re the norm.
T/F: Vanquishing explores our strange, sometimes backwards relationship with nature. I’m going to go ahead and work under the assumption that its narrator’s ideas are identical to your own. Have you always had this perspective? Do you know where it comes from?
Oreck: That’s a tough question to answer. I do feel like I’ve had that perspective for a really long time. Since I was really little, I thought most animals were smarter than we would ever be, and that trees had spirits, and that everything else was alive and just living in a totally different time scale that we couldn’t understand. That we were just bumbling about and wrecking shit. But I don’t think I could pinpoint where that came from. It’s weird, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian home, that certainly wasn’t what my parents were teaching me. But it’s a long-held belief.
Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
T/F: Before you shot this movie, I assume you had some sort of idea of its shape and its ideas. Did visiting Eastern Europe drastically change your original plan?
Oreck: When I started the project, it was very specifically about the cultural phenomenon of mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be a little more like Beetle Queen in that it was looking at this one little kernel of the culture. But right before I left, I had dinner with [the writer] Andrei Codrescu, who put me in touch with a bunch of his contemporaries in Romania. So the first few weeks we were in Romania, we ended up meeting with these poets. Wandering through the woods with them, mushroom collecting, cooking, eating, drinking — just discussing life and all sorts of facets of living in Eastern Europe. And I was inspired by these discussions. Specifically the way they talked about mushrooms as this sort of return to man’s more primordial state, this gesture of primordial man. On top of the fact that, for them, the reign of Ceau?escu was about going into the forest to express your opinions and be free. So it was these original conversations that shaped the rest of the film.
T/F: Was that your only trip to the region?
Oreck: So that was 2009. We shot in Romania and Hungary in 2009 for two months. And then I came back to New York and did lots and lots of research and started writing. Then we went back to Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 2010. By that time, the focus of the film had really shifted.
T/F: Vanquishing was shot on super-16mm film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. How challenging was it to process the film?
Oreck: There was definitely a long period of waiting. The film was spread out all over the world. We had film developed overnight in Ukraine that we had to pick up at 4am right before our flight. We had to traffic film out of Russia into Finland because the Russians wouldn’t let us not x-ray it on the way back. We had to hire a driver to take it across the Finnish border. And then the film we had developed in Poland was lost in the mail. When it arrived at the lab in New York, it was like it had been drowned in the Great Flood. But somehow the film was intact and completely unharmed. I have no idea how because the boxes look like they survived a tsunami. It was all very stressful.
T/F: What was it like watching the film for first time? Was it a surprising experience?
Oreck: Watching Sean’s footage is always sort of the same for me. I trust him pretty implicitly with the camera, so a lot of times, I just let him do his thing. And obviously we don’t use tripods very often, so it’s not like I’m looking through the eyepiece and being like, “Yeah, this looks like a good shot.” Most of the time he’s just shooting, and I’m just recording sound and sort of pulling him in one direction or another. But I can’t see what he sees most of the time. And it never looks the way I imagine because his brain works in a different way. It’s always fun to see that footage the first time.
T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about the ending shot in the film. Did you always want to end with a shot of kids?
Oreck: This is such a shitty thing to say, but I don’t really like kids. [Laughs] So I tend to avoid them in my editing. And Sean loves shooting kids, so there’s lots of beautiful footage of children, but I almost always avoided it. I remember when we shot that very last shot with the four kids. Sean and I were alone. Everyone else had moved on. And we were laughing so hard at how hard the kids were laughing at us. And it was just such a sweet moment. I remember that moment very clearly. But I don’t think I ever planned for it to be the end because I didn’t think I wanted any kids in the movie.
But for me, that’s the only way it could have ended. Because that is full of hope, it represents this possibility for the future, that we don’t poison our children with the same ideas we were poisoned with, you know? Because I think that belief that everything has a spirit and that humans aren’t the best creatures on Earth is something that’s sort of innate in children. And it’s only after we’ve taught them to think opposite that they lose that. And maybe I’m just incredibly immature at heart and that’s why I still believe it. But to me those kids still have the innocence of being connected to the world.
T/F: And you always knew you needed that feeling at the end?
Oreck: I don’t know if that was always the plan. This is the other thing about my work. My process is so intuitive that a lot of times I don’t remember working. So a lot of time I won’t remember writing or editing. It will just happen. And I tend to write when I’m slightly tipsy or edit in bed when I’m just waking up or about to fall asleep because I feel like it’s easier for me to turn off that self-critic a little bit. Things just flow easier and they work better because I’m not fighting against myself all the time. So that makes it especially hard to pinpoint when specific ideas formed.
T/F: I feel like there’s rhythm and intelligence to the cuts in this movie, but I can’t explain it using logic. How do you get to this place? Is it a painstaking process? Do you need to step away from the film at times? Or does this all happen quickly?
Oreck: I feel like there are two ways that I edit. One is that I’m miserable, and I fight myself. I fight every edit. I overanalyze, and I get nowhere. I’ll just work all day, and then the next day I’ll come back, and everything will just look like shit. And I will just delete it and start all over again. But then there are moments when everything is really easy, and those are the moments that I don’t remember. I know that I tend to listen to music on repeat, so I’ll listen to one song on loop for six hours straight. And I’ll just keep editing to that. That’s really scary, and thank goodness nobody is around when I’m editing. [Laughs] Because they’d be like, “Oh my God. Turn it off. What are you doing?”
T/F: Wait, the music from your film?
Oreck: No, no. I generally edit with Final Cut silenced. I don’t listen to sync sound or any of the music while I’m editing. I’ll listen to something else and edit. And then, once I feel like the edit has its own rhythm, I’ll add things like sync sound and other sounds and the music. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll start with a piece of music. Like Beetle Queen for instance, the opening scene — with that, I started with a piece of music. But that rarely happens.
T/F: So you’ve been watching and processing your films just as images during the editing process?
Oreck: Yes, generally I do. What’s so nice about shooting on film is that I can do that, and I don’t have to take sound away. It makes it really easy because it’s totally separate. It’s funny. I record my own sound. I find that I’m almost never interested in the sound that a camera would want to capture. So Sean will be shooting something, and I’ll be somewhere else, completely doing my own thing with sound. I think it makes it richer. Maybe I’m just mistaken. There are only like three scenes of sync sound in that entire movie.
T/F: That’s obviously not the case with Aatsinki.
Oreck: Right, Aatsinki is probably 80 percent sync sound.
T/F: And with that film you’re also not listening to sound in the editing room?
Oreck: Yeah, pretty much. With Vanquishing, I listened to a lot of [composer] Paul Grimstad’s pop music. He has this one 50-minute track that I listened to straight on repeat. And Aatsinki, I listened to a lot of Cluster on repeat. That is super repetitive, I can’t imagine that I didn’t go a little bit insane making that movie. A lot of XTC too.
T/F: Do you think that the choice of editing room music influences the film?
Oreck: Yeah, I think so. I just started editing this short narrative film, and I almost exclusively listen to one Beach Boys track the entire time.
T/F: So that’s how the film is going to feel?
Oreck: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. If you listen to the piece of music, you certainly won’t see that reflected in the piece. But I do think that having a piece of music on repeat — it’s more about giving me my own rhythm. Because I think it’s just enough engagement. My mind can’t ever be working on just one thing. It’s why I can’t learn unless I’m doodling. I can’t listen to somebody unless I’m doing something with my hands. I feel like listening to one song on repeat, it’s not invasive enough to distract me. But it’s just enough to turn one eye so that I’m not just arguing. So that I’m not just having this incessant banter going on in my head.
T/F: There’s this shot that’s really sticking with me. It’s midway through the movie. This young guy on a boat peers through binoculars. What is he looking at?
Oreck: He’s looking at us. I assume they were looking at us, that’s what we assumed when were were shooting it. We were just set up on the street there, and they were docked on the river. We turned the camera on them, and they turned the binoculars on us. That to me is such a great moment in the film. I just talked about this in my last Q&A. Someone asked — something about “documenting the other” and “otherness.”
It’s interesting because I find if I don’t do the intro and people don’t know I’m an American woman, I never get that question. I only ever get that question if I intro the film. It was the same with Aatsinki and Beetle Queen. If people knew I was an American woman, they would ask the question, and if I didn’t, they always assumed I was an old Japanese man or an old Finnish man or an old Russian man. It’s so weird I have to be male and old to have any sort of validity.
To me, that moment — yeah, we’re watching humans. But humans are watching everything, each other all the time. It becomes this hall of mirrors. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It doesn’t feel any more like looking at others than the way that we look at nature, for instance. Something outside of ourselves. I don’t know, I love that moment. It’s a potent moment.
T/F: Regarding audience response, I’ve been a little baffled by some friends’, as well as others’, responses. Some people seem sort of reluctant to discuss the movie because they don’t feel like they have a complete grasp of what you’ve created. I’m wondering if you could talk about this sort of desire to completely understand everything.
Oreck: I think it’s hilarious that humans are so intent on understanding everything. It all comes from this idea — from my deep belief that humans are bumbling along in the world. And almost all other beings on this planet have a better idea what is going on than we do. On a very basic level, I feel like humans are clueless. But obviously there are millions of people who would disagree with me, who think that humans are advanced and that we have all sorts of understandings. But I think we’re clueless on so many levels.
But with both this film and Beetle Queen, I put them in a foreign language because I want that atmosphere to be complete. I don’t want some American voice coming in and explaining something that has nothing to do with that American voice. It has to be in the language of the place. But I don’t want to have to tell people what to pay attention to. I want the film to be more like other art forms. In that …. you watch a Hollywood movie and you feel exactly what they want you to feel. Everything points you in one direction. It’s just really flat. But if you look at an incredible painting or if you walk over to an amazing piece of architecture or if you listen to an incredible piece of music, you’re having a different experience every time. And you get to pick out the pieces that mean something to you. When I listen to these songs on repeat, I will get stuck on a three-note loop. I will listen to the entire song just to hear those three notes that happen at the very end. You can sort of dive into little pieces, and that don’t think happen with film very often. But they happen with other art forms a lot. And so that’s more interesting to me. I like the idea that somebody could watch this film six, seven, eight times and always have a different experience and always notice something they didn’t notice before.
I just never want to tell my audience what to feel. I have ideas, and I want them thinking about ideas, but I don’t want to tell them which ideas are important and which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I don’t know, I’m just not interested in telling people about that. I just want to get them thinking. The films I like the most are the films that leave me asking questions. And the films that I can watch 5, 10, 15 times and still be blown away by their depth.
T/F: Are there a lot of those that you’ve seen?
Oreck: No, there aren’t. Specifically two come to mind. Tokyo Olympiad is a film that I could watch forever. And the Claire Denis film, Beau Travail. Those movies to me are just perfection. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Beau Travail. Even talking about it, I’m tearing up. That movie, to me — I don’t know how you ever make a film that can do as much as that film does.
T/F: Did you first see that in a theater?
Oreck: Yeah, I think that was the first movie that Sean and I saw together in the theater. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it. If it plays in a theater, I’ll still go see it.
Image from Beau Travail
T/F: You went from production of Vanquishing — a complicated film made with a crew — to production of Aatsinki — a simpler, observational movie recorded on your own. Was Aatsinki made in response to Vanquishing?
Oreck: They were definitely in response to one another. I got frustrated collaborating with Vanquishing. There were so many different people involved in that project. I couldn’t control the way they were affecting the way I was seeing the film. So Aatsinki was the perfect solution to that because that movie is such a pure distillation of my head in a way that none of my other films are. I think Beetle Queen and Vanquishing both represent ideas that are very true to the way I feel, but Aatsinki is the way that I see the world. Everything about that movie is me. Obviously Vanquishing and Beetle Queen are not that way because they’re Sean’s photography. And Sean shoots in a way that I would never shoot. And I appreciate that. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s incredibly talented. I think it makes the films more interesting, in terms of forcing me to work around the way that he shoots. But I’m also very proud of Aatsinki because it’s so true of the way I thought of the film from the moment I conceived of it.
Image from Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys
T/F: Those are all my questions for the moment, thanks! Unless you’ve since pinpointed the moment where you started looking at nature with your current perspective?
Oreck: I remember very specifically being 8 years old and being in my mom’s bed with my sister. She was reading to us, and she said the word reincarnation. I asked her what that meant, and she explained it to me. And it was a weird sort of locking into place — because I had always believed that and never had a word for it. That happened again with Beetle Queen and with animism. That other people could possibly believe that things weren’t as — oh jeez. [Oreck pulls out binoculars]
T/F: You OK?
Oreck: Yeah I just noticed that this beautiful honey locust outside my window is really sick. I haven’t been here in months, but it’s doing really badly. It’s just in my view. It looks really bad. How did that happen? Who did that? Jesus Christ. Oh, poor guy. [Laughs] Sorry. It’s really upsetting to me.
T/F: So you look at the plant life out your window a lot?
Oreck: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If I didn’t have a view of trees, I think I would have left New York much longer ago. But I have two families of bluejays that live here. I have a bumblebee that returns every year to lay her eggs. You know, it’s a honey locust, so in the wintertime you get crowds of starlings and lots of pigeons, of course. Not so many pigeons on this block, actually, but there are pigeons across the street that I like to watch. They’re hilarious. I get to watch the leaves turn and fall. I get to watch the buds come out in the spring. That’s such a big deal for me. I’d like to have the view of a field or a forest or the ocean instead of a playground and trees. But I’ll take the trees.
Citizenfour, the new documentary from nonfiction auteur Laura Poitras, returns to Columbia this Friday at Ragtag Cinema. Covering in present tense the story of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and his leaks to Poitras herself and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, this film is certainly a monumental work of journalism. But first and foremost, Citizenfour is a masterpiece of observational filmmaking and a captivating, paranoid thriller. A.O. Scott wrote in his rave review in the New York Times:
Cinema, even in the service of journalism, is always more than reporting, and focusing on what Ms. Poitras’s film is about risks ignoring what it is. It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.
We were honored to help launch this film earlier this month with two special screenings at the birthplace of Ragtag, The Blue Note. Director Laura Poitras Skyped with T/F co-conspirator David Wilson following the later screening. We’ve made the whole Q and A available online.
Citizenfour is the final chapter in a trilogy of films on the war on terrorism and the post-9/11 world. Laura Poitras presented the first two, My Country, My Country and The Oath, at True/False 2010, where she received our True Vision Award. A recent in-depth interview with Poitras in The Atlantic discussed Citizenfour as part of this broader work and Poitras’ motivations as a documentarian.
Don’t miss your chance to catch this vital film in the cinema.
This Sunday the exciting new doc CITIZENFOUR comes to the Blue Note in our special T/F event. This film reveals the behind-the-scenes story of Edward Snowden, who contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras with startling classified information about NSA surveillance, a decision with world-altering ramifications.
Before delving into this incredible tale, you may want to catch up with or revisit a couple on important precursors from the career of this important nonfiction auteur.
CITIZENFOUR can be seen as the final entry in a trilogy of films exploring foreign policy and security culture in a post-9/11 world. The first was My Country, My Country, which examined the difficulties of electoral politics in US Occupied Iraq. The second was The Oath (T/F 2010), available streaming below from Hulu. This work focuses on a pair of men with direct ties to Bin Laden, Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The former is a dominant and paradoxical screen presence, the latter a haunting felt absence.
Snowden was inspired to contact Poitras because of her New York Times Op-Doc The Program, a short constructed around an interview 32-year NSA veteran turned whistle-blower William Binney.
We are very excited to announce our Secret Screenings coming to The Blue Note October 19. True/False is proud to help launch CITIZENFOUR, the much-anticipated, real-life suspense story by Laura Poitras.
CITIZENFOUR reveals the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about the NSA and global surveillance to Poitras and her reporting partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden, who called himself CITIZENFOUR in encrypted emails with Poitras, set off global shockwaves with his revelations. As Poitras documented arguably the biggest spying revelation in history, she became part of the story herself. Poitras and Greenwald still hold hundreds of unreleased intelligence documents given to them by Snowden, putting them in continued danger of retaliation by the US government.
This film is the final work in Poitras’ trilogy documenting security and foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. Her first film in the trilogy, My Country, My Country, explored electoral politics in US-occupied Baghdad and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Her second, The Oath, was an intimate portrait of Abu Jandal, a former driver for Osama Bin Laden. It’s available to watch right now on Hulu. Poitras appeared with both films at T/F 2010 where she received our True Vision Award for her persistent creative advancement of nonfiction cinema.
CITIZENFOUR premieres today, October 10 at the New York Film Festival. It will play twice at The Blue Note on October 19, at 4:30 and 8:00 PM. Both screenings will feature live music from Syna So Pro and post-film Skype chats with Poitras. Tickets are available online now or in person (cash only) at the venue the day of the show.
Both screenings of CITIZENFOUR are underwritten by the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.
T/F’s panel discussions bring together film directors, visual artists and film critics for candid conversation on the hows and whys of their crafts. Sometimes overlooked in the whirlwind of T/F weekend, we’ve now made the complete set of T/F 2014 conversations available to watch on our video page. Or if you’d like to take a panel with you on a jog or to the grocery store, click on any of the titles below to find an audio mp3 you can stream or download. All of these discussions were preserved thanks to the hard work of our media partners at Columbia Access Television.
The Critical Takedown
Nonfiction films entering the world are still plagued by two types of criticism. There’s “be nice, this topic is worthy” damnation by faint praise for films with “important” issues, and the “Where’s the context?!” stigma faced too often by more personal or artful films. How to strike a balance and what DOES creative nonfiction need from critics? Sam Adams, the editor of Criticwire engages three cranky malcontents (i.e. critics), Nick Pinkerton, Ela Bittencourt and Adam Nayman, who have all the answers.
T/F 2014′s visual theme of magic/realism suggested an intersection between the mundane and the fantastic. But it wasn’t until visual artists from all over the country offered their creative sparks did the theme come alive. Artist and writer Anne Thompson coaxes magic from T/F bumper director Jarred Alterman, T/F 2014 poster artist Akiko Stehrenberger, sculptor Taylor Ross, who made the interactive mechanical sculptor in the Missouri Theatre lobby, and “TransPlant” pod installation artist, Leland Drexler-Russell.
Lies My Subject Told Me
Present tense films are crafted through an agreement between filmmaker and subject, but sometimes the bond is broken. During these fragile moments, the foundation of the relationship is questioned and a new trajectory takes hold. Hot Docs director Charlotte Cook hosts Robert Greene (Actress), Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) for a discussion on deception.
Beyond Pretty Pictures
What was previously off limits is now possible through affordable, lightweight equipment, and low-cost DIY hacking. Increasingly light-sensitive cameras liberate filmmakers to capture nighttime scenes; miniature, waterproof cameras are cheap; skeleton crews allow subjects to feel more comfortable revealing themselves. T/F alumni Omar Mullick quizzes Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) on how they harness technology to tell better stories.
Place is the Space
Nonfiction filmmakers locate vivid places and people whose stories jump off the screen – then they sift and winnow to find the soul of the place. True/False mascot Beadie Finzi chats with Tracy Droz Tragos (Rich Hill), Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive), and Mark Levinson (Particle Fever) who reveal how they cast films where settings don’t act as backdrops but as stars in their own right.
Africa is Not a Country
To a Western mind, Africa may appear as a slideshow of slums, safaris, refugees, and marathon runners. In a clutch of T/F 2014 films, though, outsider filmmakers avoid shopworn stereotypes to tell distinctive stories from a diverse continent. T/F ringleader Ingrid Kopp asks Tobias Janson (Concerning Violence), Rachel Boynton (Big Men), and Joe Callander (Life After Death) how they circumvented the pitfalls.
Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.
This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It is now available to rent on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon. I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.
T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?
TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.
As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.
T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?
TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.
It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.
T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.
TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.
image from Rich Hill
T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?
TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.
We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.
We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.
We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.
Harley and his grandmother in Rich Hill
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.
I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.
But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.
T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?
TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.
We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.
T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?
TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.
T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?
TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.
It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.
T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?
TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.
When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.
T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.
TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.
Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.
T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.
TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.
There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.
The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.
Andrew in Rich Hill
The PBS doc series POV has established itself as a major outlet for compelling and timely documentaries. Recently they aired two essential T/F selections, both of which are available to watch online right now.
The first is Big Men (T/F 2014). Over the course of five years, filmmaker Rachel Boynton gained inconceivable access to the back rooms to tell the story of Ghana’s first oil well and its exploration by western oil companies. The 82 minute broadcast version of this work is available streaming until September 24.
Also available is After Tiller (T/F 2013) an empathetic look at the four doctors remaining in the US who openly perform late term abortions. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane take us inside intimate counselling sessions, carefully exploring the tough decisions facing each patient. You can watch After Tiller online until October 1.
Don’t forget to explore POV’s website for extras, filmmaker interviews, more films to watch and more.