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

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

-Dan Steffen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted December 5, 2013

‘Revolving Doors’ Panel

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

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

Posted November 12, 2013

‘These Birds Walk’ Now Playing in NYC

These Birds Walk throws us into the chaotic world of the Pakistan’s lost boys, observing the residents and employees of one of the Edhi Foundation’s shelters for homeless and runaway children. The film’s poetic grace mirrors the startling eloquence of the children themselves, as face their predicament and search for something to hope for.

These Birds Walk is the first film to play True/False two years in a row, in 2012 as a work-in-progrss and in 2013 as a completed film. Just yesterday it captured the coveted Black Pearl Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Now New Yorkers can see the film for the for themselves at Village East Cinema.

John Oursler at The Village Voice called These Birds Walk “a touching portrait of youthful resilience” while at The Dissolve Scott Tobias declared the film “essential viewing”. And on Indiewire, co-directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq offered compelling advice on how to make a documentary rise above the “social issues” cliches.

But perhaps the best endorsement for the film is this trailer, which captures These Birds Walk‘s masterful scoring and photography.

Posted November 1, 2013

Michel Brault 1928-2013

This week the film world lost the great Québécoise director Michel Brault, an important pioneer in the observational “direct cinema” movement that fundamentally transformed documentary film. Catherine Perreault at the National Film Board of Canada offers a detailed appreciation of his life and works, including three selections from his oeuvre available streaming as part of NFB’s extensive online archive.

You can also watch a short clip from a conversation between Brault and Sean Farnel at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. In it Brault discusses the technological limitations of documentary filmmaking in days gone by, and how they forced the director to think on his feet.

Posted September 27, 2013

‘I Am Breathing’ in Theaters Today

I am Breathing (T/F 2013) gracefully presents the final six months in the life of Neil Platt, a Scottish architect, husband and father enduring the indignities of Motor Neuron Disease. We watch Neil, confined to a chair by his illness, come to terms with his mortality and construct a legacy for his wife and infant son. The film is built around entries in Neil’s blog The Plattitude, a fount of down-to-earth wisdom capturing Neil’s humor, courage and inspiring resolve.

I Am Breathing opens today at the IFC Center in NYC with more cities soon to follow.

Co-director Emma Davie participated in our cozy get-together, Campfire Stories, where she shared an unforgettable story about “the tape in the shoe box under the editing suite”, a final message from Neil the she and co-director Morag McKinnon couldn’t bear to look at. Campfire Stories was filmed by our good friends at CAT TV.


Posted September 6, 2013

‘Never Not Working: Shorts on Labor from True/False’ this Wednesday at DCTV in NYC

This Wednesday, August 28th True/False is partnering with the Downtown Community Television Center and Filmwax to present Never Not Working: Shorts on Labor from True/False. This free program (RSVP for tickets) will be held at DCTV on Lafayette Street in New York City.

In anticipation of Labor Day, we’ll be screening short documentaries depicting labor as an inevitable part of our lives, whether enjoyable and fulfilling, difficult and necessary, and/or both. These five selections were culled from a decade of our programming by T/F shorts programmer Karen Cirillo and T/F co-director Paul Sturtz, both of whom will be in attendance. They’ll be joined by Musa Syeed and Yoni Brook of A Son’s Sacrifice and Marcelo de Oliveira, sound designer of The Breadmakers, for a post-screening Q and A.

The films in this program are:

Tina Delivers a Goat (T/F 2013, USA, Joe Callander, 2 min)
Through taking council with a local village elder, Tina discovers the benefits of a goat, delivers the goat, says hi to mama and papa and behbeh, takes a photo, and leaves. Global generosity in all its blunt simplicity.

El Cerco (T/F 2007, Catalonia, Ricardo Íscar/Nacho Martin, 12 min)
As the fishing boats close in on the tuna, the tension escalates until the men capture their prizes.

Breadmakers (T/F 2008, UK, Yasmin Fedda, 11 min)
At a unique Edinburgh bakery, a community of workers with learning disabilities makes a variety of organic breads for daily delivery to local shops and cafés.

A Son’s Sacrifice (T/F 2007, USA, Yoni Brook, 26 min)
A young American Muslim struggles to take over his father’s halal slaughterhouse in New York City.

Il Capo (T/F 2011, Italy, Yuri Ancarani, 15 min)
A choreographed, spooky look at a marble quarry, this film features the best use of a monolith and upward pan since Kubrick’s 2001. Man, machines, nature come together in an elemental masterpiece.

To create the authentic festival atmosphere, T/F 2013 buskers Mountain Animation will be warming up the house before the lights go down. Below you’ll find a sample of the Brooklyn-based power duo performing in Union Square. They were also recently named among the seven best busking acts in NYC by the Gothamist.

New Yorkers, we hope to see you there. Remember, tickets are free, but going fast. RSVP soon if you want to join us.


Posted August 24, 2013

‘Cutie and the Boxer’ Hits Theaters Today

The fraught, often paradoxical relationship between love and art is brought into focus in Cutie and the Boxer (T/F 2013), opening today at NYC’s Lincoln Center and L.A.’s Nuart Theater before hitting cinemas nationwide. This impressive documentary debut by director Zachary Heinzerling is a clear-headed and compassionate observation of the private life of artist couple Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out Heinzerling’s chats with Karen Kemmerle at Tribeca and Hillary Weston at BlackBook where he explains his process and the interaction of the Shinoharas’ art and his own.

Cutie led to one of the best moments from this year’s Fest. Following the Sunday screening at the historic Missouri Theater, Ushio Shinohara gave a live demonstration of his “action art” to a cheering crowd in an adjacent parking lot.

photo by Roxana Pop

You can check out Ushio’s website for examples of his finished pieces. To catch Cutie and the Boxer, visit a theater on the list below.


Posted August 16, 2013

Campfire Stories: Jarred Alterman on the Making of ‘Dear Valued Guests’

Campfire Stories has become an indispensable part True/False. Every year, eight filmmakers take part in this intimate little gathering. They munch on smores and share stories about that one great scene that for whatever reason just didn’t make their film.

The 2013 edition, held in the cozy Odd Fellows Lodge, kicked off with Jarred Alterman. He spoke about Dear Valued Guests, a short he co-directed with T/F co-conspirator Paul Sturtz. Guests takes us back to the strange final days of the Regency hotel, which housed countless True/False guests in downtown Columbia. With this oddly charming structure slated for demolition, a group of artists takes over the top floor for one last crazy party.

In his Campfire Story, Alterman recounts how Guests was nearly aborted, only to be rescued by a heroic if chemically enhanced maintenance worker named Rainey. Check it out in this video captured by the team from our media partner CAT TV.

Dear Valued Guests had its New York premiere as part of the Rooftop Films “Industriance: Black Out” shorts program. Here’s a short trailer.

Posted July 26, 2013

Coming to Terms with ‘The Act of Killing’

Note: This round-up of the conversation surrounding The Act of Killing originally ran on our blog for the film’s theatrical premiere on July 19th. The film returns to Columbia today, October 4, at our sister theater Ragtag Cinema. Check out Ragtag’s website for showtimes. The screening on Monday, October 7 will feature a post-film Q and A with University of Missouri film professors.

The Act of Killing (T/F 2013) is without a doubt one of the most important films of the year. Making its theatrical premiere today, this relentlessly shocking, surreal and disturbing film has already generated a fervent conversation spanning the globe.

In his director’s statement, Joshua Oppenheimer describes meeting former death squad leaders, men unanimously boastful about their role in the anti-communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. Unafraid of prosecution, the killers remain part of Indonesia’s ruling political class. They share a love of American movies, and are happy to participate when Oppenheimer has them re-stage their crimes in lurid, nightmarish cinematic set-pieces. They enact the roles of both victim and perpetrator, and then watch themselves perform on screen.

This clip from the film shows the horrifyingly banal attitude towards mass murder these men exhibit. In it, former paramilitary leader Anwar Congo demonstrates an execution technique designed to minimize post-kill cleanup. Then he performs a little dance.

In a fascinating interview with Sight and Sound, Oppenheimer talks about how the film evolved from documenting the victims to filming the perpetrators.

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast. And the audience, seeing people who killed hundreds, thousands of people, and boasting about it, will see at once why we’re so afraid, and taste a little bit the nature of this regime.”

And [from then on] I felt I was entrusted with a work of historical and moral importance, exposing a regime of impunity through its celebration of killing. At that point I think I saw [killers like Anwar] as the people who killed my friends’ relatives and were keeping my friends afraid. But inevitably I became close to them. It was a very intimate journey: I think to make a good film with anybody you have to get very close, be willing to be intimate. I went looking for embodiments of pure evil, but found ordinary people.

In another interview with Nicolas Rapold of Film Comment, Oppenheimer talks about his evolving relationship with the killers.

I would like to hear a bit about that, if you could. What’s it like to be undercover, in a way, for so long? I mean, emotionally—you’re describing a certain repression.

Well, first I take a little issue with the term “undercover,” because of course at the beginning…

I mean that more as a figure of speech.

No, but it’s an insightful one, it’s one worth exploring because at the beginning many of these men had different goals. The general goal at first was to glorify what they did. That could never have been my goal: to glorify mass murder. So in that sense I was undercover. But people’s goals changed. Adi comes into this film acting as though he wants to use it as a vehicle for reconciliation, and to say sorry to the victims. And I thought, Oh, wow, this is an opportunity to go in a very interesting new direction. And very quickly the shallowness of that position made itself clear, and the depths of his hypocrisy became clear. And by the end he realizes that this film’s going to make him look bad, and I could be openly confrontational with him, as I am in the car, when I talk about going to The Hague, and that it would be good for the victims’ families for the truth to come out. So by the end there with him, I’m not undercover.

With Anwar, he starts with this motive, but somehow around his nightmares, a second and very unconscious but almost physical motive comes out: to get in touch with his brokenness, the part of him that died from killing people. And working with him on that and the whole second half of the film, I was also not really undercover anymore. When he’s choking on the roof, the dishonest thing to do would be to stop filming, or even to go put my arm around him and say it’s going to be okay. Because it’s not going to be okay. And I’ve told him what the film is now, and he’s said, Okay, if that’s what it is, I understand, I’m not angry, I want to see it. I’ve told him, I’ll send you a DVD when it’s safe to do so. I didn’t say, Do you want to see it? Because I didn’t feel he had to see the film.

Oppenheimer was assisted by numerous Indonesian collaborators, who were forced to stay anonymous due to the political uncertainty surrounding the project. In her piece “The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing” Caroline Cooper describes the disconcerting effect of seeing “anonymous” appear again and again in the film’s end credits. She also reports on the carefully arranged private screenings that have spread throughout Indonesia, where the film is likely to be suppressed.

After seeing the film, documentary heavy-weights Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers. The pair discusses the film in a video piece for Vice magazine, where they highlight its cinematic qualities and speculate about what it means for the future of documentary. Also, Morris penned a lengthy essay on the film for Slate, where he compares Oppenheimer’s use of recreations to Hamlet’s staging of “The Murder of Gonzago” to “catch the conscience” of his uncle Claudius. He also explores the Indonesian genocide’s relationship to Vietnam-era U.S. foreign policy.

Elsewhere, in an essay at the New Statesman, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses the film in connection to what he views as the erosion of the public space.

The Act of Killing‘s festival run resulted in an impressive collection of awards and now the critical reaction is overwhelmingly positive. At Slate, Dana Stevens calles it “Among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting — a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.” While A.O. Scott of the NY Times remarks “The horror of The Act of Killing does not dissipate easily or yield to anything like clarity.” And Jonah Weiner of the New Yorker observes, “The typical investigative documentary sets about unearthing a truth obscured by ignorance and/or deception, but with The Act of Killing, that structure is severely scrambled: what Oppenheimer ultimately seeks to reveal is Congo’s self-deception in the face of acts he freely admits he committed.”

Clearly, this conversation is far from over.

The Act of Killing plays today at the Landmark Sunshine in NYC with director Joshua Oppenheimer in person. Drafthouse films has announced numerous cities to follow.

Posted July 19, 2013

A chat with ‘Computer Chess’ Director Andrew Bujalski

Andrew Bujalski’s work has made a major impact on independent film during the last decade. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), inaugurated the “mumblecore” movement, a genre utilizing minimal production costs and an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue to create intimate studies of the lives of 20-somethings.

His new film, Computer Chess (T/F 2013), is something rather different, a formally perplexing period piece. Through what seems to be documentary footage, we are invited back in time to the very early 1980s. A motley assortment of computer programmers have gathered at a motel to pit their programs against one another in a computer chess tournament. Down the hall, a New Age encounter group is attempting to expand its collective mind. But it soon becomes clear things aren’t quite going as planned. The chess programs start making inexplicable moves, leaving their bewildered creators to interpret the meaning of their strange behavior.

Computer Chess opens today at Film Forum in NYC. In anticipation, I chatted with Andrew about his odd and hilarious film, via computer.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Andrew, thanks for chatting with me! Your previous films are all set in the present. How did you get interested in making a film that takes place in the past?

AB: Well, the whole project began with a fantasy of shooting something on these beautiful old black and white analog video cameras. I held the notion in the back of my head for years and at some point stumbled onto the historical fact of these computer chess tournaments which, for whatever reason, ended up lodged in my subconscious right next to this camera pipe dream. I didn’t go out seeking a period piece per se. It sought me out I guess.

It was certainly daunting to take on a period piece given our limited resources, but I was comforted by a belief that a good period piece is never really about a “perfect” recreation of any particular era. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about Abraham Lincoln, as vast as the research and the capital that goes into historical “accuracy” is, the intent is never truly to transport us to 1865, but to open some wormhole between 1865 and now, to use then as a metaphor for now. If you build your wormhole right, hopefully the audience won’t get distracted by whatever little anachronisms creep in, and I’m sure we have a few.

It helped of course that, though I was very young at the time, I was alive at the time we were depicting, as were many of the cast and crew, so we could draw on a more personal relationship with the era than just what we’d gleaned from books.

T/F: The programmers are all such vivid characters. Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process? How did you go about finding the right people to play 80s computer nerds?

AB: The casting process is always just a walk in the desert with a divining rod. Every time I’ve done it I feel like I’ve been praying for miracles and miracles have been laid at my feet. I wish the rest of life worked that way.

The short answer is I thought, if you want guys who look and sound right talking about computers . . . why not approach guys who know a lot about computers? James Curry certainly seemed like a godsend when Wiley Wiggins introduced me to him at a party. Not only is he remarkably charismatic (and a brilliant natural actor), but he had been a child prodigy programmer in England. So even though he *should* be too young to know this stuff, he actually had crystal clear memory of all the early 80s programming-speak in the movie.

Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Dr. Schoesser, is a computer science professor at University of Chicago.

Wiley is known to movie people for his iconic (I swear it bugs me when people abuse that word, but I think it’s earned here) performance in Dazed & Confused, and later in Waking Life, but he’s incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about technology. He was a terrific adviser for us at every stage of this process.

T/F: How did the encounter group become part of the story?

AB: I wish I could tell you about some Eureka moment where all the elements aligned, but I do believe it all assembled very slowly over the course of years.

That said, we never specify the date that the movie takes place. It’s clearly somewhere on the cusp of the 70s and the 80s, and I liked the idea of exploring that as a “transitional” era. The pop culture view of history would have it that everyone hung up their bellbottoms on Dec 31 ’79 and started playing Pac Man on Jan 1 ’80, and of course our experience in real time is much more fluid. Indeed, both the “touchy-feely” encounter stuff of the 60s and 70s, and the tech revolutions of the 80s continue very much to resonate in our culture today.

Dramatically of course it just made for a useful contrast. As one of the characters in the movie says, “We’re all kind of like seekers here.” I do believe that the quest for artificial intelligence, as incredibly technical and dryly scientific as it can be in its particulars, is essentially a metaphysical pursuit. In building a new intelligence we must be, on some level, seeking to understand our own. And these hippie-dippies are up to the same thing, just employing a wildly different methodology.

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

AB: Oh boy. You know, at the risk of being pretentious (and, cautious as I am in other facets of my life, I am a *daredevil* in that one), I’ll go ahead and say that all cinema is True/False. And that that’s the secret of its magic. The camera is by its nature a documentary recording device. Of course you can do all sorts of artful things with the it, but its essential function is to represent the True. Editing, meanwhile, is by its nature a narrative device. Every edit is a convenient Falsehood. And in that sense, everything from a Fred Wiseman piece of “direct cinema” to Star Wars is built on that same continuum of truth and lies, and draws energy from both poles.

That’s part of my fear about the digital age that’s upon us! As movies are increasingly built in the simulacrum environment of the computer, the documentary aspect seems to risk getting weeded out of movie making altogether. Soon enough we won’t need actors . . . then we won’t need writers, or directors. The movies will still make money somehow, because that’s what they’ll be programmed to do, but what the fuck will they be about?

T/F: Formally, Computer Chess appears at first (to me at least) to be a hodgepodge of found footage, ostensibly shot by a video team hired to document the tournament and its opening panel discussion. We see a camera operator rebuked by one of the organizers for aiming his camera at the sun. But the film very quickly evolves into something much stranger. How do you understand the POV?

AB: For whatever influences and reference points were bouncing around in my head going into this project, one comparison that I never expected, which came up at our Sundance premiere and often since, was to Christopher Guest’s work. Of course, and probably rightfully so, he pretty well seems to own the concept of mockumentary. But I was surprised that people were so anxious to categorize the movie as mockumentary when, as you point out, that conceit gets (mostly) abandoned quite early on. Odd shifts in perspective throughout the movie, and the unanswered questions that come with them, provide much of its texture.

But in retrospect I am realizing that beginning, as we do, with the most “real” looking footage in the movie has a really powerful grounding effect. It is part of how we watch movies that we spent the first several minutes hungrily absorbing context. I think it’s why we so often find ourselves bored an hour into a movie (when we think we understand everything that has happened and is going to happen), and almost never feel bored in the first ten minutes of anything (when anything still might be possible). Because Computer Chess begins with straightforward enough mockumentary, we seem to stake a claim in “realism,” which becomes increasingly absurd as we make our way a million miles away from it.

T/F: Your work has been praised for another dimension of “realism”, your approach to dialogue. In your movies conversations stop and start awkwardly, thoughts are left half finished and at times multiple discussions are layered on top of one another. The result is a style of deadpan hilarity completely different from the now ubiquitous Christopher Guest style direct-to-camera confessional. How do you go about directing dialogue? Are your films scripted?

AB: They were all conventionally scripted until this one; here we just worked from an 8 page treatment. Ultimately though the process with the actors was close to identical, the main difference being that I just had to show up *better* prepared, lacking as I did a document to bury my face in when instincts failed me.

Directing a scene is always just problem solving, and the more you do it, the more you develop (for better and worse) go-to solutions . . . . But I don’t know that there’s any secret formula for it. Indeed a director tends, in most measurable senses, to be the least talented person on any given set! The only things you’re really bringing are (a) the necessary hubris to think you deserve to be in charge, and (b) your eyes and ears, which tell you when things are feeling “right” and when they aren’t. You steer by that and hopefully figure out how to clear all the obstacles in your path, given (inevitably) limited time and resources.

Posted July 17, 2013
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