‘Detropia’ Streaming Online Through June 17

Detropia is available free streaming online through June 17th from PBS Independent Lens. A hit at True/False 2012, this film compiles a variety of voices into a timely meditation on the collapse and possible rebirth of a great American city.

Watch Detropia on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Detropia is the latest inventive, politically charged film from the doc making duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. You can read more about their body of work here.

Posted June 1, 2013

Neil Platt’s blog ‘The Plattitude’; ‘I Am Breathing’ Playing Ragtag June 20

Watching a good documentary is frequently emotional. Yet even when placed alongside other non-fiction, I Am Breathing (T/F 2013) stands out for its undeniable poignancy. The film documents Neil Platt’s struggle against Motor Neuron Disease (MND), and the legacy he created for his wife Louise and infant son Oscar as his life slipped away. For anyone who has seen it, Neil’s story lingers as a forceful reminder of how precious our time really is.

Neil’s illness confined him to a chair, even taking away the use of his arms. As his body became a prison, his blog The Plattitude became his means of connecting with the rest of the world. As he puts it late in I Am Breathing, “the freedom to communicate has to be your strongest and most powerful freedom”. In the film we watch as he composes posts with voice recognition software, a laborious and frustrating process. We see his words spelled out on the screen and hear his thoughts transformed into beautiful and hilarious narration. In this way director Emma Davie builds the doc around Neil’s wisdom, courage and cheeky humor in the face of death.

Now the team of I Am Breathing is resharing all one hundred posts of The Plattitude, one each day, counting down until Global Awareness Day for MND/ALS June 21st, an event which will be marked by worldwide screenings of the film. This includes a free screening at Ragtag Cinema sponsored by the University of Missouri’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging one day early on June 20th.

Neil’s widow Louise wrote an introduction for the blog and added a commentary to each post. The original comments are preserved so that you can read the feedback and encouragement that meant so much to Neil. In addition to the film’s website, you can follow these posts on I Am Breathing‘s Facebook page and Twitter feed at the hashtag #Plattitude.

Following the T/F screening at Ragtag, fellow documentarian Alison Klayman asked Emma Davie about what was unexpected in telling Neil’s story. Her emotional response is in the video below.

Posted May 23, 2013

‘Stories We Tell’ Now Playing in NYC

Stories We Tell, a runaway hit at True/False 2013, is now playing theaters in New York with more cities soon to follow. Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary debut explores an uncomfortable family secret with humor and grace, carefully combining interviews, Super-8 archival footage and sly reenactments in an inventive structure. Avoiding the obstacles of self-importance and excessive cuteness that derail similar projects, Polley uses her family’s story to explore universal questions about the elusiveness of truth, the nature of familial bonds and the role stories play in our lives.

Sarah’s father, the actor Michael Polley, serves as the film’s narrator. You can hear his elegant and resonate voice at the beginning of the film’s trailer.

It’s difficult to say much more about Stories We Tell without giving away any of its twists and turns. If you’ve seen it already or wish to read on at your own risk, there are many places to turn. Tim Grierson at Deadspin, Manhola Dargis of the New York Times and Eric Kohn at Indiewire all offer insightful reviews. Rachel Dodes interviewed Polley about the film for the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. And you can listen to her discuss the film on San Francisco public radio.

Stories We Tell is now playing at the Angelika Film Center New York and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Posted May 10, 2013

Four Short Films by Arthur Lipsett

Arthur Lipsett transformed literal trash into cinematic treasure. Working at the National Film Board of Canada during the 1960s, he wove bits of discarded audio and film into unforgettable collages. The four films embedded below through the NFB archive, all less than 13 minutes in length, inaugurated his tragically short career. They continue to delight, confound and provoke some fifty years later.

As Brett Kashmere put it in a Senses of Cinema essay, Lipsett’s work “disrupts the representational value of documentary image and sound, moving beyond the genre’s aesthetic codes of truth and reliability”. What we see and what we hear seem at first unrelated. Sometimes the sights and sounds come to form some sort of compliment, but frequently they press against and even threaten to negate one another, creating an unresolved and unresolvable tension. Lipsett speaks through these strange sensory paradoxes, offering a fascinating commentary on modern life.

His first film, 1962’s Very Nice, Very Nice (which played before Zielinski at T/F 2011) places us in the shadow of Madison Avenue and the Atom Bomb.

Very Nice was originally conceived as an audio only experiment, in Lipsett’s words “purely for the love of placing one sound after another”. We hear a series of voices, at times threatening to speak for the film directly in samples of cultural critics including Northrup Frye and Marshall McLuhan. But just as our understanding begins to congeal, the audio melts away into incoherence and redundancy. The result looks like this:

“We’re living in a very competitive world today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago, everything is highly competitive, uh, would you like to answer that Paul? . . . people who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world, that is, they completely forget what happened last Tuesday, a politician can promise them anything and they will not remember later what he has promised, and ah, the . . . oh, the game is really nice to look at, for me I like football . . . in other words we are suffering from uh, everybody wondered about what the future will hold, what’s ahead of us, but if you feel well, you know inevitably whatever’s going to happen, you feel well anyway . . . warmth and brightness will return, and renewal of the hopes of men.”

And so on. Our faculty for discerning meaning in spoken language is deftly turned against us. So too, our capacity for reading expressions at a glance is frustrated and confounded by the visuals. Mismatched edits link still photographs of faces transfixed in rapture, terror, confusion, joy and sadness. Lipsett’s simultaneous tweaking of these two cognitive systems masterfully effects the “dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” promised above.

These head games also help to account for the film’s unnerving shifts in tone, an essential feature of all of Lipsett’s work. What at first reads as a brooding, somber meditation is quite suddenly a zany carnival. Late in the film a sudden parade of magazine cutouts dance before our eyes, and the soundtrack is given over to trite, jazzy music and ecstatic yelling. Tragedy and farce are indistinguishable.

Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Very Nice, Very Nice that he approached Lipsett about directing the trailer for his own black comedy of atomic warfare, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Lipsett declined, Kubrick directed the trailer himself, but in a style clearly indebted to Lipsett. It has always been one of my favorite trailers. The unnerving audio track fills me with a weird sort of giddy horror.

Lipsett’s second film, 1964’s 21-87, confronts humanity’s search for an essential identity.

The very first image is a forceful reminder of mortality, a leering skull letting us know the stakes. The series of film clips that follow depict modern life as either mechanized or frivolous. People are seen as actors performing roles: models in a fashion show, a man dressed in a space suit, kids gyrating to rock and roll, acrobats moving across a wire. A bombardment of faces is again essential to the film, this time as a procession on an escalator, jump cuts linking the uninterested faces moving simultaneously upwards and towards us.

After opening with an unnerving robotic grind, the soundtrack offers a diverse sampling of our religious and spiritual aspirations, “the search for the force behind this apparent mask”. These range from austere choral arrangements to soulful gospel music, from Orthodox liturgies to extemporaneous musings in a public park. By the time we reach the frightening conclusion, it appears we are content to be thought of as just a number.

Lipsett’s third film, Free Fall (1964), is his most abstract sensory overload.

A pounding jazz melee immediately sets the tempo for this cinematic blitz. Even when the film slows down, the relaxed interludes are fraught with tension. Visual and thematic motifs of the first two films reappear here, the sea of faces invoking humanity lost in the crowd, the bewildering snippets of anxious dialogue and monologue. But here they are in service of something more primal and frenzied. Human beings are juxtaposed with insects, maniacally scrambling across the frame. Our Free Fall could be from grace, either real or imagined, back into the the chaos of nature.

The final film in Lipsett’s inaugural quartet, A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), is a chilling history lesson.

Subtitled Additional Material for a Time Capsule, the film is more formally restrained than the other three, utilizing relatively longer snippets of archival newsreel footage. Public celebrations of “achievements”, political, cultural, economic, religious, military, technological and scientific, are fed back to us as an alarming spectacle. The common aura of pomposity surrounding these events, despite their diversity, creates a nauseating sense of the grotesque. This feeling builds until it manifests as the searing audio distortion of the film’s climax. Our present search for meaning, it would seem, needs to avoid such public displays of “meaningfulness” at all costs.

For a clear example of Lipsett’s continuing influence, see Adam Curtis’s brilliant It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010). Curtis describes this film as a “psycho-archaeological dig of the American Empire”. As in Lipsett’s Trip, shock edits highlight unsettling connections, and the comfortable compartmentalization of our historical memory is gleefully destroyed.

Curtis’s collage is just one example of Lipsett’s continuing relevance. His films feel perfectly at home in the age of YouTube and will no doubt continue to confound and delight far into the future.

- Dan Steffen


Posted May 2, 2013

A Chat with Director Angad Bhalla of ‘Herman’s House’

Herman’s House (T/F 2012) opens this weekend at Cinema Village in NYC. It tells the moving story of the friendship and collaboration of artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, who has spent over forty years living in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell in solitary confinement at Angola prison in Louisiana. As part of an art project, Jackie helped Herman imagine and design his dream home, an exercise in creative resistance to the unbelievable inhumanity of his living conditions. I spoke briefly with the film’s director Angad Bhalla by phone yesterday about why he wanted to tell this story. 

Following its theatrical run, Herman’s House we play PBS’s POV this summer on July 8th.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first become involved in telling Herman and Jackie’s story?

AB: My introduction came through Jackie. She was a friend of mine from school, and we were politically active together, so I first learned about Herman through her art. A gallery in Europe put out a book of Jackie and Herman’s correspondence. When I read that, I realized there was something here even more interesting than an art project, that there was a compelling friendship and an unusual mentor/student relationship.

T/F: Did you know at the outset that you wouldn’t be able to film Herman in Angola?

AB: Yeah, I spoke with other filmmakers who had attempted to film Herman and they were denied. I wrote a letter and I was denied. But I spoke with him on the phone early on and I began to think, maybe not seeing him makes sense . . . that it’s a way to highlight his separation. But it was also a challenge, not to have your main character on screen.

T/F: Could you tell during that first conversation how powerful Herman’s presence was, and how powerful his voice was at conveying that presence?

AB: Yes, definitely. He was always very comfortable on the phone and very relaxed, but his voice was able to convey so many emotions.

At the same time we were worried about what we were going to show, because we wanted to have times where it was just Herman, where the audience was just with Herman and his thoughts.

T/F: And did you plan on using animation to help fill in those scenes?

AB: Yes and no. I knew we would need animation, but I didn’t realize we’d need to rely on it as much as we did. We were wary of the traps of animation, that we could fill in too much. We wanted to bring attention to what was lacking. We wanted the darkness and the black. We also didn’t want the animation to feel too digital, since this is the story about a man who has been in prison since the 70s. Nicholas (Brault) did an amazing job and once we found this texture it really came together. We knew we wanted to treat the archival footage in the film, especially since we didn’t have archival of Herman himself, to create an impressionistic sense, to make it feel like more of a memory. It really blended well with the animation.

T/F: What’s happening on the activism front? Has there been any movement on ending long term solitary confinement?

AB: It’s going to be a long journey. Once something has become an institution, like this has, it is difficult to change. I hope the film helps to humanize the issue, and that people can begin to develop an emotional connection to it, something beyond statistics.

This campaign is really happening state by state, since it is primarily in state prisons that this solitary confinement is happening. The NYCLU just helped organize a screening in Albany, New York that was attended by several politicians interested in working on this issue. In Arizona they screened the film as part of a campaign not to build new solitary cells. There is also a campaign to have the American Institute of Architects change their code of ethics to state that it is not acceptable to build inhumane facilities like these.

So there are a lot of ongoing activism throughout the country focused on this issue. I hope the film can continue to serve as a resource for them.

Herman’s House is playing now at Cinema Village in NYC. This weekend’s screening will feature post-film Q and As with filmmakers and activists working on the issue of long term solitary confinement. The schedule of screenings is as follows:

Friday, April 19, 7:00 PM (SOLD OUT!)
Moderator: Anna Sale, WNYC Reporter
Speaker: Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney, New York Civil Liberties Union
Speaker: Jackie Summell, Artist, Activist Featured in Film
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

FRI April 19, 9:15 PM
Speaker: Five, Mualimm-AK, NYC Jails Action Coalition
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SAT, April 20, 7:00 PM
Moderator: King Downing, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow
Speaker: Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director, Correctional Association
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SAT, April 20, 9:15 PM
Speaker: Jean Casella, Editor,
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SUN, April 21, 3:00 PM
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House
Speaker: Representative from Metro NY Religious Campaign Against Torture

Posted April 19, 2013

‘Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington’ premieres tonight on HBO

Our 2013 True Life Fund Film, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, premieres tonight on HBO. This film is director Sebastian Junger’s moving tribute to his lost friend and colleague, the photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed while photographing the Libyan civil war in 2011.

This year was the first time our True Life Fund film featured a subject no longer with us. In Tim’s memory, we raised funds for two charities closely linked with his life and work. These are the Milton Margai School for the Blind, where Tim took some of his most powerful photographs, and RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), an group recently created by Junger to provide war reporters with first-aid training. Through the generosity of our audiences and our TLF partner The Crossing we were able to raise a record $36,760 for these organizations.

Hetherington’s photography captures human dignity and frailty in the midst of war and its aftermath. His unforgettable images continues to attract attention and create conversation.

photo by Tim Hetherington

photo by Tim Hetherington

photo by Tim Hetherington

The last two photos are both part of exhibitions of Hetherington’s photography currently running in NYC. “Sleeping Soldiers”, pictures of US troops deployed in Afghanistan, is at The International Center for Photography. And ”Inner Light: Portraits of the Blind”, black and white photos taken at Milton Margai between 1999 and 2003, is showing at the Yossi Milo Gallery (you can find coverage of this show and a selection of images on the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog). You can explore more of Tim’s work in online galleries at Vanity Fair, the Guardian and HBO Documentary Films.

Tragically, Tim’s promising career as a filmmaker was only in its infancy when he died. In addition to co-directoring with Junger the masterful Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo (T/F 2010) Hetherington created the short film Diary, available below through Vimeo. He described Diary as “a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres tonight 8 Eastern on HBO, and will be available afterwards on HBO Go and HBO On Demand.


Posted April 18, 2013

True Life Fund raises $36,760 for RISC and the Milton Margai School for the Blind

Each year, the True/False Film Fest selects one film as its True Life Fund recipient. This is a way for us to give back to that film’s subject who has made a significant achievement in selfless social impact. When documentary subjects share their stories with us they not only reveal painful details about their lives, they frequently incur a financial burden or even put themselves in danger. This year’s True Life Fund film, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, tells the story of someone who has already given his life. Tim worked as a photojournalist in war torn countries, documenting the true life stories of the people he found there. He died on the way to the hospital from complications due to shrapnel wounds while photographing the civil war in Libya. Columbia has a rich history of producing great journalists, so we felt our home town would be especially responsive to Tim’s story. That has proven to be so, with the 2013 True Life Fund reaching a new record in donations, totaling $36,760.

This number was reached through a combination of audience donations made during the two screenings of the film during the fest, entry fees for the True Life Run, a generous matching donation from the Bertha Foundation, support from the official True Life Fund sponsor The Crossing and the incredible efforts of the students of Hickman High School. $20,000 of the funds will go to RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), an organization founded by the film’s director Sebastian Junger in honor of his fallen colleague and Restrepo co-director, Tim Hetherington. In a phone conversation Wednesday between RISC’s Deputy Director, Lily Hindy, and True Life Fund director, Tracy Lane, Hindy was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Columbia, “We are so grateful. Thanks to you, we can fund an entire training session.” Each training session provides 24 combat journalists with a medical kit and the medical skills needed to save each other’s lives on the battlefield. Junger visited The Crossing during T/F, to share his experiences alongside his former colleague on the battle field and to explain the life-saving opportunities that RISC provides. Hindy visited Columbia’s three public high schools as well as the photojournalism department at MU during T/F week, to share information about RISC with young journalists. $16,760 will go to the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone, where Tim took many photographs.

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres on HBO this Thursday, April 18th. A slideshow of Tim’s photography is available on their website.


Posted April 12, 2013

Staring Eyes by Chase Whiteside & Erick Stoll

Chase Whiteside and Erik Stoll, the team that brought us the unflinching taxidermy short Lifelike (T/F 2011), created a short film during last month’s fest. Staring Eyes documents the shared anticipation in the moments before a T/F screening at Ragtag Cinema. Take a look.

Posted April 5, 2013

True/False 2013 Critical Reaction

Over the past few weeks, many people have written kind words about their True/False experiences. Here are a few of our favorites.

Film critic Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold had an amusing conversation in SundanceNOW about their first trip to our small mid-western town.

Nicolas Rapold: I too was suspicious, especially when I heard the verb “experience” applied to True/False in lieu of “attend.” But fortunately the high quality of the programming never put me in the awkward position of praising the hospitality for want of anything else to say. Some of my increased feeling of well-being came from seeing theaters packed for the likes of a Chilean film featuring old folks in a nursing home waiting to die. It made me vaguely ashamed of the single-digit audience turnouts not infrequent at challenging programs back home in bonnie New York. Obviously the festival is a special event, but where are these curious moviegoers of many ages when I sit nearly alone at something awesome at Anthology Film Archives, wiping last-minute-samosa grease off my hands? Are my eating habits perhaps driving away potential waves of repertory enthusiasts?

Nick Pinkerton: The movie you are referring to, of course, is Cristian Soto and Catalina Vergara’s The Last Station, which, with its highly composed images—a face perfectly framed in a small mirror at the bottom of a drawer comes to mind—and lack of the instructive graphics and contextualizing voiceover that mark the infotainment documentary, is fairly representative of True/False’s programming. As for the cinema savvy of the average Columbian (Columbianite?), I must agree—the only time anything like “Oh my stars” prudery emerged was in a screening of Peter Whitehead’s The Fall, when a Destructionist theater group pummeled a live chicken to pieces against the wires of a piano they’d already chopped into kindling with an axe, after which half of the crowd walked out to protest the senseless death of some poultry in 1968. This played as part of a sidebar called Neither/Nor hosted by Columbia’s one FULL-TIME cinema, The Ragtag. The bill-of-fare was made of historical precedents to the festival’s signature dish, neither-fish-nor-fowl documentaries that blur the boundary between… well, you know the rest. Jim McBride was there with David Holzman’s Diary, while the Neither/Nor series was curated by some New York critic called Eric Hynes, who sort of looks like the Hip, Concerned Teacher in an after-school special from 1981. Where did they get that guy?

Critic Eric Hynes, who curated our first ever Neither/Nor chimera series, described True/False as “some kind of monster” in an excellent piece for Cinemascope. Among many other things, Eric wrote on what he sees as our unique critical slant.

With these films as a kind of standard for docu-cinematic delirium, it becomes tempting to judge all of True/False programming according to that standard. While this may be a somewhat reductive or misguided impulse (the implications of which I’ll explore shortly), it nevertheless speaks to True/False’s unique place within the festival landscape. Not just another doc survey, industry marketplace, or act of small-town self-promotion, T/F has a genuinely critical slant—and one that, by now bringing critics into the curation process, implies an ongoing interrogation of the art (and act) of documentary filmmaking rather than just a showcasing of the year’s more appealing fare. At least potentially, it’s programming as scrutinizing rather than cheerleading, inviting critical engagement not just with the chosen films but also with the choosing of those films.

Ben Kenigsburg at Time Out Chicago said of his weekend:

I wanted to write about T/F almost immediately after I arrived, because it’s clearly one of the best-managed and enjoyable film festivals within extended driving distance of Chicago. (The trip takes about seven hours, though various permutations of flying and busing are also available.) Compressing a heady mix of filmgoing and socializing into a long weekend—this year’s edition ran February 28 through March 3—the event seems both intensely curatorial and casually eccentric. Or to put it another way: Never did I dream that one day I could order borscht from a Missouri cinema concession stand and then take it into a screening of Jim McBride’s landmark docu-fiction David Holzman’s Diary (1967).

Vadim Rizov crafted two excellent dispatches for Filmmaker Magazine, briefly reviewing films he saw here in Columbia. The first reflects on These Birds Walk, The Garden of Eden and The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, while the second ponders Sleepless Nights and Computer Chess. Vadim also gave us a shout out in the Onion AV Club’s best festival experiences.

Other outstanding responses included Kevin B. Lee’s “Funner Than Fiction” Video at the British Film Institute, Tim Grierson’s report at Paste Magazine, Brian Brooks’s coverage for The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Basil Tsiokos’s post at What (Not) To Doc, Tom Roston’s capsule reviews at PBS’s Doc Soup blog and IndieWire‘s list of 8 things we are doing right. Locally, The Columbia Daily Tribune and Vox Magazine expanded their coverage further than ever before, digging deep into every nook and cranny of the festival.

On the audio side, Adam Schartoff of Brooklyn’s Filmwax Radio recorded a series of dispatches from Columbia featuring conversations with Gabriela Cowperthwaite of Blackfish, film producer Esther Robinson, T/F co-conspirator David Wilson, Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq of These Birds Walk,  Maxim Pozdorovkin of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Judith Helfand about our SWAMI program. KBIA also created an eleven-part series titled True/False Conversations which offers both audio and transcripts of brief interviews with filmmakers and fest-goers.


Posted March 21, 2013

Congrats to T/F Co-director David Wilson on Winning Special Jury Recognition for Directing at SXSW

Congratulations to T/F co-conspirator David Wilson and his co-director AJ Schnack who just received Special Jury Recognition for Directing for their film We Always Lie to Strangers at South by Southwest. Pete Bland reports.

Posted March 13, 2013
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