Documentary Classics

Two Captivating Video Essays from Sight & Sound

The British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound recently released it’s list of the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, the result of a new poll of critics, programmers and filmmakers. In connection with the list, they also released two captivating and provocative video essays. You’ll need to click the links below to watch them on their site, something we recommend highly.

The first is “The Art of Nonfiction” by T/F filmmaker Robert Greene. In it, Greene takes us on a whirlwind tour of 100-plus years of nonfiction cinema, presenting clips from masterworks and elucidating the inherent tensions which define the form.

Disorder, Huang Weikai, 2009, T/F 2010

 

gates of heaven

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

 

lessons

Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog 1992

 

leviathan

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, T/F 2013

 

In the second video, “What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner”, critic Kevin B. Lee looks at three anthropological films from career of director Robert Gardner. While tracing his evolving approach, Lee presses tough questions about “documentary” and the access to reality it promises us.

dead birds

Dead Birds, Robert Gardner, 1964

 

Rivers of Sand

Rivers of Sand, Robert Gardner, 1973

 

forest of bliss

Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner, 1986

Posted September 1, 2014

Thank You Boone Dawdlers!

The 2014 Boone Dawdle has come and gone, and we are happy to report another unforgettable day. Hundreds were undeterred by the threat of storms and joined us for a fun-filled bike ride, a scrumptious meal, a delightful concert and a fascinating film. As always, we’d be utterly lost with out the good will and hard work of an entire community of people. We want to take a moment to look back at the day and thank some of the people that made it happen. Along the way we’ll share some of our favorite images captured by photographers Stephen Bybee and Vivian Abagui.

Things got underway that Saturday morning with a tune up from Sarah Ashman and the rest of the crew at Walt’s Bike Shop, who generously provided support for our 15-mile westward journey down the MKT and Katy trails linking Columbia and Rocheport.

photo by Stephen Bybee

photo by Stephen Bybee

 

It certainly wouldn’t be True/False without music vibrating through the air. As we set off westward, tunes were here and there from Max Rubio, Dubb Nubb, SaP, Meeyoo, Step Daughter, Rae Fitzgerald, Ben Bushman, Nevada Greene, Sunshine Mamas and Ruth Acuff, who accompanied her beautiful, soaring melodies with a harp.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Folks looking for a burst of energy or perhaps just a simple treat were in luck, thanks to the delicious trailside snacks provided by Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream, Kaldi’s Coffee and Harold’s Doughnuts. For those that imbibe, there was a local beer pour featuring samples from Schlafly, Flat Branch, Broadway, Logboat and Bur Oak breweries.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

The Dawdle is defined by delightful and instructive digressions. This year we entertained by the folks from by Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers, Moon Valley Massage, Missouri Contemporary Ballet and the folks from the Greenhouse Theater Project, who gave short improvised performances.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Dawdlers also found themselves seeking advice from the Interpretation Station manned by John Reid and in the midst of a mini carnival at Hindman Junction featuring jugglers Phil and Melanie Knocke.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

In addition, Jeff Barrow and the Missouri River Relief volunteers offered Dawdlers a new treat, a short voyage on a scenic stretch of the Missouri River.

dawdlevivian

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

The final bit of trail before Les Bourgeois is especially taxing, coming at the end of our trek. Thankfully, cheerleaders from Hickman and Battle High Schools were kind enough to provide some inspiration. Meanwhile, the legendary T/F Sherpa team kicked it into gear, hauling more than 143 bikes up the hill and the bike loading volunteers began loading the hundreds of bikes into trucks for their return journey to Columbia.

vivian2

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

We’d arrived at our destination, Les Bourgeois Winery. Here our gracious hosts Curtis, Chelsea and Matt had a delicious meal waiting for us, featuring food from numerous local culinary contributors, more Schlafly beer and Les Bourgeois’ own wine. Then we stretched out and relaxed on the beautiful limestone bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.

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photo by Stephen Bybee

 

This summer’s delightful sunset concert was performed by the duo Drakkar Sauna, who combine classic country themes with inventive word play to create a unique style all their own.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Throughout the day, Doug, Steve, Justin and the rest of T/F tech crew once more rose to the challenge and worked around inopportune weather. They waited until just before showtime to setup the screen for this year’s film, An Honest Liar, explores the career and life of James “the Amazing” Randi, a world-class magician who became an important debunker of purported psychics and healers. Afterwards, co-director Justin Weinstein was kind enough to join us for a discussion of this provocative film.

photo by Vivian Abigui

photo by Vivian Abigui

 

Then, alas, the 2014 Boone Dawdle was at an end. Thanks again to everyone who made the journey with us, and a special thanks to the T/F Volunteers and Core Staff who worked a 15-hour day to make it possible. Let’s all hang our again in just six short months, March 5-8, at T/F 2015! And in less than a year it will be time to Dawdle again, on August 15, 2015.

 

 

Posted August 27, 2014

Sight & Sound’s Greatest Documentaries Survey: the Individual Ballots

Since 1952, the British film magazine Sight & Sound has published a much-discussed once-a-decade survey of the greatest films of all time.  This summer they limited the scope of their inquiry for the first time, asking critics, programmers and filmmakers to choose masterworks solely from the world of nonfiction. The results were announced a couple weeks ago in two Top 50 lists of The Greatest Documentaries of All Time, one for critics and one for filmmakers. Both lists crowned Dziga Vertov’s dazzling impression of city life in the early Soviet Union, Man with a Movie Camera, as the greatest documentary ever made.

This new canon, whatever its shortcomings, provides an excellent starting point for an education in nonfiction cinema. But focusing exclusively on the “Greatest Docs” lists misses most of the fun of this sort of exercise. The individual ballots, unranked lists of ten films submitted by each participate, allow you to consider which works resonate most profoundly with each individual, trace important influence and reference points for filmmakers and perhaps discover an overlooked masterpiece from another part of the globe.

Just a few days ago Sight & Sound shared all of the individual ballots on a nifty new interactive page, which offers multiple pathways to explore the poll and its films.

True/False programmers David Wilson and Chris Boeckmann were among those honored with invitations to participate. We reproduced Chris and David’s picks below, along with images from the works of nonfiction they consider the “greatest”. They only selected one film in common, the tragically under seen Disorder. Huang Weikai’s nightmarish epic of urban life in modern China screened at True/False in 2010.

Beneath Chris and David’s lists, we shared selections from many of the filmmakers surveyed whose work has screened at our festival. The ballots include comments offered by the participant, either about their lists as a whole or each individual film or both.

 

Chris Boeckmann, T/F Programmer

Film culture marginalises nonfiction cinema. I suspect one reason is that we feel more comfortable analysing and evaluating screenplays, sets and performances (work we attribute to conscientious artists) than unscripted developments, natural settings and fellow human beings. In the past year, I’ve noticed some signs, including this poll, that nonfiction cinema’s cachet is on the rise. I’m not sure why, but I hope I’m correct.

I spend most of my viewing time watching ‘documentary’ (I suppose I should note that several of the directors on my list don’t use this term, e.g. Allan King’s ‘actuality dramas’, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s ‘life cinema’). That’s not because of its educational value (I also read newspapers), but because I find it thrilling to watch gifted cinematographers and editors embrace spontaneity and wrestle with nature. I mean ‘nature’ in a very broad sense: plants, animals, buildings, weather, disease, time, other humans, ourselves.

Apologies to the many major filmmakers I’ve knowingly and unknowingly left off this rough list. If I revisited this prompt in the morning, the only film I’m certain would remain is Seventeen.

 

Seventeen (1984) Joel DeMott, Jeff Kreines

Seventeen

 

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Belovy

 

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

gimme-shelter

 

Farrebique (1946) Georges Rouquier

farrebique-ou-les-quatre-saisons_279736_37664

 

A Moment of Innocence (1995, T/F 2014) Mohsen Makhmalbaf

a moment

 

The Quince Tree Sun (1992) Víctor Erice

quince

 

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

a married couple

 

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

Disorder_1

 

Diary 1973-83 (1988) David Perlov

diary

 

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

fe08a08acbdd9d9fe07ad8b713db0dfe

 

David Wilson, T/F Programmer and Co-Conspirator

My list is in no particular order. Nor does it include many wonderful films. But I think it connects the dots of my personal film history, dwelling more on films that were made during my lifetime but acknowledging the great works that inspired those who inspired me. And if there are holes, well, it would be a shame to think that my education in nonfiction filmmaking was in any way complete.

I will almost always favour a film that moves me over one that doesn’t, but I strive to still appreciate and embrace the intellectual rigour of some of these films. Likewise, I remain a complete sucker for a beautiful image and a well-told story. I want a film that will scoop me up in its arms and carry me out along its path. The great ones never drop you.

 

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

manwith2

My appreciation may be more intellectual than visceral, but here is the taproot of everything that was to come.

 

Disorder (2009, T/F 2010) Huang Weikai

Disorder_21

 

An explosive mindfuck of a film. Modern China reflected in a puddle of oil and viscera.

 

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

man-on-wire

Of all these titles, this is one I will watch over and over again – smiling and crying each time.

 

Leviathan (2012, T/F 2013) Lucien Taylor, Véréna Paravel

leviathan

Nothing less than a revolution in nonfiction cinema. Also the most ‘metal’ film on this list.

 

The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnès Varda

gleaners4

 

Vernon, Florida (1981) Errol Morris

vernon

Others will no doubt pick The Thin Blue Line. But there’s a good argument to be made that, formally, this film has influenced more young directors in the last 30 years than any of his other films.

 

Gaea Girls (2002, T/F 2009) Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams

gaeagirls

Somewhere between Barthes and Von Trier lies this doc about women’s professional wrestling, made by the most empathetic doc director alive.

 

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

Harlan_County_USA1976c01

Not as funny as Roger & Me, but far more immediate in its class-based anger. And with better songs.

 

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

grey-gardens-7

Staked the claim for ‘non-political’ docs and their importance in the world.

 

Night Mail (1936, T/F 2007) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

nightmail

The creative treatment of actuality.

 

Ballots from some of the T/F Filmmakers Surveyed:

 

Clio Barnard, director of The Arbor (T/F 2012)

These are all films that have a significant meaning for me – films that were pivotal personally in wrestling with what documentary film is and what it can do. They are listed in no particular order…

Chronicle of a Summer (1961) Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin

Paris Is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston

Dreams of a Life (2011) Carol Morley

Grey Gardens (1975) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

Housing Problems (1935) Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey

Louyre This Our Still Life (2011) Andrew Kötting

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Tina Goes Shopping (1999) Penny Woolcock

The Battle of Orgreave (2002) Mike Figgis

The Last Bolshevik (1993) Chris Marker

 

Daniel Dencik, director of Expedition to the End of the World (T/F 2013)

What strikes me when putting together a list like this is not so much how dependent a film is upon a great director, but how crucial the main character is. For me the secret of a well-crafted documentary lies very much in the use and perspective of the first-person singular. When a documentary film really succeeds it is when the spectator is led into the captivating mind of a truly intriguing persona: as a spectator you get an idea of what it means to be that person, unfiltered and with a chilling honesty. Documentary are so great because they make you understand how another person’s mind works, what are that person’s dreams, struggles, demons, fears, idiosyncrasies. No other art form can step into the mind of another person in quite that way. So instead of comparing documentary filmmaking to fiction, one should perhaps rather compare the discipline to that of brain surgery or heart transplantation.

Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog

The strange and unforgettable presence of Timothy Treadwell makes this film a terrifying fable about the longing of man to find his place in nature, and the impossibility that lies in the nature of this ambition.

Into the Abyss A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011) Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog transforms the cruel reality of two death-row inmates into a staggering lesson in compassion and empathy.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Dieter Dengler is one of those characters that has gone from total obscurity into the mythology of modern filmmaking, all because of Werner Herzog’s film.

Armadillo (2010, T/F 2011) Janus Metz

Armadillo is a gripping tale of the boyish will to live life to the fullest – in this case the inexplicable drive to sacrifice your life in a far-away war – cleverly told in a powerful and rough cinematic language by Janus Metz.

A Springday in Hell (1977) Jørgen Leth

This gritty film about the Paris-Roubaix race captured the inner feeling of the greatest of all sports, bicycle racing. Blood, mud, tears, sweat and glory all come together in this masterpiece of heartbreaking beauty.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

With tremendously sexy footage from the 1974 heavyweight fight between Ali and Foreman, this sports doc is the one film to show the aliens when they arrive and ask what we humans are all about.

Metallica Some Kind of Monster (2004, T/F 2004) Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

An honest and at times painfully embarrassing look into the everyday life and struggles of arguably one of the greatest bands on Earth.

Senna (2010) Asif Kapadia

Whether you’re a petrolhead or not you become totally captivated by the Jesus-like presence of Ayrton Senna, and the film draws a precise portrait of the mind of a true legend.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) Sophie Huber

Dark and pessimistic, Harry Dean Stanton enters into your consciousness through this tender film and makes you fall helplessly in love with him.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012, T/F 2012) Malik Bendjelloul

A remarkable film about how one of the greatest talents of folk songwriting, Sixto Rodriguez, could disappear into obscurity before he even broke through – and then be rediscovered through the very making of this charming film.

 

Robert Greene, director of Kati with an I (T/F 2010), Fake it So Real (T/F 2011) and Actress (T/F 2014)

Edvard Munch (1976) Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins’ expressive biopic about the great Norwegian artist features real interviews, an elusive, mesmerizing structure and has the soul of great nonfiction.

The Store (1983) Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is one of our greatest artists and his entire filmography is a singular, essential dissection of the very structure and concept of the American institution. The Store just happens to be his funniest, most revelatory film, and my favourite for the moment.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

A completely perfect film, which observes the truths and illusions of the sporting human frame.

The Century of Self (2003) Adam Curtis

An essay film about identity and the creation of commodified individualism that’s as expressive and mysterious as it is illuminating.

News from Home (1976) Chantal Akerman

Less a documentary than a structuralist performance piece, masterful as an earthy, austere symphony of New York City, quietly devastating as a mediation on loneliness and alienation.

Belovy (1994, T/F 2012) Viktor Kossakovsky

Kossakovsky’s observational camera finds truth, mystery, sadness, desperation and uproarious life in rural Russia.

As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) Jonas Mekas

Impossibly personal while profoundly universal, the great Jonas Mekas gives a glorious, emotional, living cinema romp through his own life and our collective consciousness.

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

A devastating, present-tense political portrait of a society on the brink, still relevant as an invaluable historical document as it is an immersive, eternal cinematic experience.

A Married Couple (1969) Allan King

Essential direct cinema genius Allan King creates an intimate, hilarious, troubling portrait of a failing marriage that simultaneously heralded the new documentary intimacy, foregrounded the role of performance in nonfiction and laid down the template for reality TV.

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

 

Viktor Kossakovsky, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2012, director of Belovy, Vivan Las Antipodas! (T/F 2012) and Demonstration (T/F 2014)

The film that started it all for nonfiction storytelling and started it all for my personal understanding of the power of reality cinema. The camera is always in the right place.

This is a list I made for screening at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in 2012, here in order of importance to me.

They’re films that challenged me both when I first saw them and again when I revisited them. Instead of trying to tell you something, they try to show you something.

If you were to add up all the new elements these films have added to the language of cinema, you would have the perfect documentary alphabet.

Ten Minutes Older (1978) Herz Frank

Man of Aran (1934) Robert Flaherty

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Spiritual Voices (1996) Aleksandr Sokurov

Workingman’s Death (2005) Michael Glawogger

Seasons (1975) Artavasd Peleschjan

Position among the Stars (2010) Leonard Retel Helmrich

Look at his Face (1966) Pavel Kogan

Our Mother is a Hero (1979) Nikolai Obukhovich

A Tram Runs through the City (1973) Ludmila Stanukinas

 

Kevin MacDonald, director of Touching the Void (T/F 2004) and Life in a Day (T/F 2011)

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

I love the fact that the editor, Charlotte Zwerin, gets a directing credit on this. So often in documentaries the editor is at least as important to the finished film as the director. I think this is the best film ever made about performance – but it also manages to say so much about the hippy dream turning sour and the power of the image.

Nespatrene (1997) Miroslav Janek

The Unseen is generally unseen but is a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it at the inaugural It’s All True doc festival in Brazil. It tells the story of blind children who become obsessed with taking photographs.

Now (1965) Santiago Álvarez

The most potent campaigning film ever made. Only five minutes long it is raw, technically innovative and angry. The Lena Horne song that it is based around is forever stuck in my head.

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister

Humphrey Jennings was a genius at yanking together unexpected images – the John Donne of cinema. This film is pure poetry and makes patriotism seem not just acceptable but admirable.

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

I love its intelligence, its coolness and its humour. It influenced every film I have ever made.

When We Were Kings (1996) Leon J. Gast

The most exciting and uplifting non-fiction experience I have had in a cinema

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) Hubert Sauper

An imaginative, fiendishly gothic tale about the the survival of the fittest and the Nile Perch.

Roger & Me (1989) Michael Moore

Michael Moore brought entertainment back into documentary films – and made it the strange bedfellow of anger.

Hotel Terminus (Klaus Barbie, His Life and Times) (1988) Marcel Ophüls

Ophüls is a genius and I could just have easily chosen Sorrow and The Pity for this list.

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Because it did something new.

 

James Marsh, recipient of the True Vision Award at T/F 2011, director of Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Wisconsin Death Trip, The Burger and the King and Project Nim (T/F 2011).

Each of these films seems to me to enlarge on the possibilities of the medium and each of the filmmakers (with the exception of Ari Folman) has a whole body of work that I revere and admire. The other characteristic they all share is a commitment to the poetry and power of the visual image, both discovered and created. They are all truly cinematic films in every respect.

If there is one filmmaker on this list who stands above the others as a documentarian, for me, it would be Frederick Wiseman. As soon as a Wiseman film starts you know you are with the perfect guide – his editing rhythms are poised and hypnotic, and his attention to detail and to the primacy of the potent, revelatory image is constant and surprising. Above all, it his generosity and respect towards his characters that distinguishes his work. Interestingly, for a filmmaker who has no use for the adornments of score or created imagery, he describes his works as ‘reality fictions’. I can’t think of a better description of the documentary medium or indeed a better alibi for us all.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Le Sang des bêtes (1948) Georges Franju

The War Game (1985) Peter Watkins, Peter Watkins

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Hospital (1970) Frederick Wiseman

Fata Morgana (1971) Werner Herzog

The Battle of Chile (1975) Patricio Guzmán

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

My Winnipeg (2007) Guy Maddin

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

 

Michal Marczak, director of At the Edge of Russia (T/F 2011)

The Five Obstructions (2003) Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Jørgen Leth

Close-up (1989, T/F 2014) Abbas Kiarostami

Moi, un Noir (1959) Jean Rouch

Sympathy for the Devil (1968) Jean-Luc Godard

Jak Zyc (1977) Marcel Lozinski

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Werner Herzog

Khlebny Dyen (1998) Sergey Dvortsevoy

Gimme Shelter (1970) David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Ya tebya lyublyu (2011) Pavel Kostomarov, Alexander Rastorguev

Faits Divers (1983) Raymond Depardon

 

Jesse Moss, director of Speedo (T/F 2004) and The Overnighters (T/F 2014)

Salesman (1968) Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Barbara Kopple

The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Woodstock 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) Michael Wadleigh

Dont Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker

Crumb (1994) Terry Zwigoff

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

The Cause (1990) Ken Burns

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing (T/F 2013)

My list of 10 arbitrarily excludes these films:

Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1967)

Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile (1975)

Jon Bang Carlsen’s Hotel of the Stars (1981)

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976)

Imamura Shohei’s History of Postwar Japan Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) and A Man Vanishes (1967)

Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Rithy Panh’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003)

The Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)

Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Ira Wohl’s Best Boy (1979)

Ulrich Seidl’s Losses to Be Expected (1992)

Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997)

Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Bread Day (1998)

Dusan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968)

Whenever we film anybody, they stage themselves, acting out fantasies – half-remembered, second-hand, third-rate – that they wished they fulfilled. The films I’ve chosen teach us that the ‘state of nature’ for nonfiction film is to reveal, prism-like, how fiction always constitutes our ‘facts’. These filmmakers deploy their camera not to record, but to provoke, and in the process have the courage to immerse themselves in the manic, delirious and tragic play of fantasies that make us what we are – inevitably and assuredly staggering out of the darkness into blinding truths.

Titicut Follies (1967) Frederick Wiseman

Close-up (1989) Abbas Kiarostami

Shoah (1985) Claude Lanzmann

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) Werner Herzog

W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism (1971) Dusan Makavejev

Animal Love (1996) Ulrich Seidl

Gates of Heaven (1978) Errol Morris

The Apple (1997) Samira Makhmalbaf

The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) Fernando Solanas

The Perfumed Nightmare (1976) Kidlat Tahimik

 

Jessica Oreck, director of The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014)

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) Kon Ichikawa

Tokyo-Ga (1985) Wim Wenders

Vive le Tour (1962) Jacques Ertaud, Louis Malle

The House Is Black (1962) Forough Farokhzad

Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) Harun Farocki

Love Life of the Octopus (1965) Jean Painlevé, Geneviève Hamon

The Voice of the Water (1966) Bert Haanstra

Herman Slobbe – Blind Kind II (1966) Johan van der Keuken

Microcosmos (1996) Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou

Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank

 

Anders Ostergaard, director of Burma VJ (T/F 2008)

The Fog of War Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003, T/F 2004) Errol Morris

Night Mail (1936) Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright

Être et Avoir (2002) Nicolas Philibert

Startup.Com (2001) Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus

Last Train Home (2009, T/F 2010) Lixin Fan

Waltz with Bashir (2008, T/F 2009) Ari Fulman

Man on Wire (2007, T/F 2008) James Marsh

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (1983) Godfrey Reggio

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore

Olympia (1938) Leni Riefenstahl

Posted August 18, 2014

Sight & Sound Announces Its Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The British film magazine Sight & Sound has announced its first-ever list of the greatest documentaries of all time. The top 50 films includes T/F selections The Fog of War (T/F 2004), Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Waltz with Bashir (T/F 2009), The Act of Killing and Leviathan (T/F 2013).  Also included are the Iranian films The House is Black and Close-Up which played T/F as part of our 2014 Neither/Nor series.

This list is generated by a survey of film critics, programmers and academics. A separate list ranks the choices of documentary filmmakers. We’ll have much more to say about this survey when we can dig through all of the individual ballots, to be published on August 14.

the-fog-of-war-20031

The Fog of War, Errol Morris, T/F 2004

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Neither/Nor 2014

 

Posted August 1, 2014

Up to Speed: A Chat with Director/ Cinematographer Nick Bentgen of ‘Northern Light’

This week, Northern Light (T/F 2013) receives its theatrical premiere at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. It screens at 7:30PM nightly through June 22. Filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff will be in person at Thursday and Friday’s screenings. For tickets, visit this page ( http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/669737).
-Chris Boeckmann

From a snowmobile driver’s perspective, a race consists of careful maneuvers and breakneck turns. For the detached viewer, it amounts to, literally and figuratively, going in circles. Five hundred of them, in the case of the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, the race at the center of Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light.

In his directorial debut, Bentgen observes the households of Walt and Isaac, strong-willed, hardworking racers who reside in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Walt is a dedicated father and seasoned rider whose racing career seems to be at a standstill. Isaac is a young and ambitious rising star, married without children. As resolute in its vision as its characters are to their sport, Northern Light is an immaculately photographed and intricately structured study of their world.

One of its fundamental interests is competition, which looms heavy over the community. Sport, which the film observes not only in snowmobiles but also in bodybuilding and auto racing, is an alluring, inescapable presence that’s frequently at odds with an even bigger competition, capitalism. Bentgen’s camera registers the physical and emotional tolls of both.

But as much as it is an essay about the American struggle to balance checkbooks and athletics, Northern Light is also an incisive character study, wedding empathy and scrutiny to bewildering effect. This is a film where characters perform tender acts of altruism one moment and engage in casually bigoted dinner table conversation the next. Bentgen trusts us to navigate — revel in, really — all this messiness.

Too often nonfiction films take characterization and plot tips from the tidy world of fiction. A meticulously constructed film of ellipses and characters who inspire wildly conflicted emotions, Northern Light seems to find its storytelling inspiration from some completely new world: the real one.

A year ago, I interviewed director/cinematographer Nick Bentgen via Skype a week before his film celebrated its New York premiere at BAMCinemafest.

T/F: I’m wondering if Northern Light is very different from the film you set out to make.

NB: I was staying in this cabin that my dad and his siblings all shared — it’s actually my grandpa’s cabin, he passed away a long time ago — and I knew I wanted to tell a story set in this place I spent a lot of time in as a kid. I had only a few DVDs with me. Nashville was one and also Two-Lane Blacktop. When I first found the I-500, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just likeNashville and Two-Lane Blacktop!” Of course it’s not. It’s nothing like that, but still, I kept coming back to those masterpieces while I was making this movie. Gradually it became its own thing.

T/F: The reason I ask is — perhaps this is something that’s entirely accomplished in the editing, but it feels like there are so many moments where you have a clear idea of the film you’re making, of its themes. For example, during the race scene when you manage to capture Emily and James, two characters who don’t really seem to know each other, in the same frame as one tells a crewmember that God’s going to bring their team to victory and the other complains to his buddy about body aches.

NB: Well, yes. By the second or third week, I realized the film was about this community, that this place was the story, regardless of who we eventually ended up focusing on. So like Nashville or any movie that’s a large community portrait, I felt it was fair game to let anyone pass in and out of the story. So sometimes people you haven’t met will just appear, you’ll get a little bit of their story and then they’re not in the movie anymore.

During the race, we were very lucky that multiple people we had been filming with were in the same place. It was irresistible to put them in the same frame. Also, we only had one camera, so microphone placement was very important. We had to decide who the story was about on that shooting day. That shot where James and Emily are in the same frame is this beautiful moment. They’re on completely different wavelengths and yet they’re in the same community.

T/F: So on that day you chose to put the mic on Emily.

NB: Right. With a verite doc, I feel like how you make it is so tied up with why you’re making it because you have such limited means. We knew it was a big day for Isaac, and with Walt’s team, they didn’t have a radio system we could use. There were logistical reasons why we chose to put the mic on Emily, but it was the best choice. She became so excited, and the story totally funneled through her in this great way.

T/F: Going into the I-500, it doesn’t feel like Walt has much chance of winning the race.

NB: Walt has a philosophy of life that I really appreciate and respect. That’s why I spent so much time filming with him. The bigger things he focuses on — spending time with his family and working hard — make him a really captivating subject. And flawed, like all of us. Early on, I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to win?” And of course he wants to win. And he’s done well in races, but I don’t think that’s why he does it. He doesn’t do it to win. Isaac has a much different philosophy. He’s out there to win. I think that contrast is why they’re interesting as subjects.

T/F: If Walt doesn’t race to win, what’s the draw?

NB: Speed. There’s this scene we cut where he says “Once racing is in your blood, it never goes away.” He grew up doing it. Lots of the guys who are into snowmobiling got into it at a very young age.

T/F: Structurally, I find it interesting that you frontload a lot of really challenging moments, particularly instances of sexism and homophobia.

NB: Our one strategy in editing — or dilemma, I guess — was being true to the environment Lisa and I were in when we filmed. Maybe it was just by happenstance, or maybe it was conscious, but the final movie is structured a lot like our experience there. At first, we didn’t know these people, and with any stranger, you take a lot on assumption. In any community, there’s xenophobia or some other issue that prevents you from identifying. As you’re watching the film, I want you to go through that process of estrangement and then become closer with these people and feel like a part of the community.

T/F: One of the reasons your film stands out from a lot of other observational documentaries is the photography. You consistently use a tripod. I’m wondering if your camerawork changed very much over the course of production.

NB: It’s funny, I really feel like the first month or two is the best photographed stuff. That’s partly because the camera was a barrier, this wall I put up. Emily, Walt, Isaac — I connected with all of them at different times during the shoot. If you watched the 300 hours of dailies, it becomes clear that I start caring less and less about what the image looks like as I become more interested in what’s going on. But we did have a rigorous rule set. The first rule was to use a tripod whenever possible, and the second was to not screw with the camera if at all possible. There are a lot of times where the camera feels like a fly on the wall, and that’s because it is: it was just left there.

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T/F: Was documentary new to you?

NB: The film’s editor Yoonha [David Park] and I have grown up together in the film industry. We went to school together, and we worked for a music website called Pitchfork where we had 15 minutes, maybe an hour, with our subjects. That was a good early experience.

Most of the jobs I could get as a filmmaker were often doc-style. I wasn’t usually given a lot of toys or money, so you tend to fall into this documentary style regardless of what you’re filming. After a while of shooting documentary, I realized it was the best way to tell stories because you can’t control everything. And then you have to make decisions very fast. It’s also the best way to learn to be a DP.

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about photographing the I-500. Your technique feels pretty unconventional. You don’t get a whole lot of coverage of the race itself. You don’t mount cameras on the snowmobiles or stick cameras all around the track.

NB: It’s funny, I feel like the race scenes are more conventional than I ever expected them to be. There are also more of them than I figured. There are three in the movie. Initially, I set out with this really crazy artistic tactic. I said I was going to film the race in case I needed it, but my plan was to film from the checkered flag of one year to the green flag of the next year, never showing a race. But I figured out that it was completely not true to the experience of people in this community. I really needed the viewer to care a little bit about those races because all the people I’m filming care a lot. If you don’t care at all, you don’t understand where all these people are coming from. So it became a big part of the film’s narrative.

At some point, I saw Senna and said, “Well, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never make anything that thrilling.” There are also logistical reasons why it’s shot the way it’s shot. We had one camera, so there was no way to keep track of all the racers . You’d need eight cameras on the track. It would have become a big production. Instead, I decided to embrace the tools we had. When I later saw the footage, I thought it felt like a removed version of a race, which matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie. The camera is never telling you how to feel, and you have to find other ways in.

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T/F: I sort of want to ask you about the way you use nature throughout the film, but it seems like a silly thing for you to discuss.

NB: I haven’t done that many interviews. After you’re done with a film, it’s easy to put everything in a this-is-the-reason-why box. But my favorite filmmakers, Altman especially, say there’s not really an explanation for everything. The whole time we were making the film, we wanted to get across the experience we had. It was more a tone we were going after. And nature is just an all-encompassing thing that dictates life. I feel like explanations are easy enough to do, but it limits what the movie is or what a story can be. I don’t really have explanations for everything.

T/F: That seems like a good place to stop. (laughs)

Posted June 19, 2014

The Great Wall Honors the Career of Filmmaker Les Blank

The Great Wall is True/False’s outdoor movie screen: the massive, Shakespeare’s-facing wall of the Picturehouse Theater (aka the Missouri United Methodist Church). Join us for this free walk-up cinema on Friday and Saturday nights of the Fest from 7 – 11 pm.

This year, we will be celebrating the life and work of the renegade filmmaker Les Blank who passed away in April of 2013.

For more than 50 years Les Blank’s films preserved American subcultures that otherwise might have been forgotten. With a signature idiosyncratic style all his own, Blank captures the essence of a moment and brings it to life. Instead of the fly-on-the-wall method of his contemporaries (Wiseman & Pennebaker) Blank immersed himself in the communities of the people he turned his lens upon. It’s no surprise that Les Blank was only the second white man Lightnin’ Hopkins trusted.

His most well-known film Burden of Dreams is a fantastical look at Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make his masterpiece Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon. Herzog once said of Blank “He has his own little universe that he creates with Burden of Dreams. If Burden of Dreams was only the making of Fitzcarraldo it would have been lousy. He was beyond my comprehension. I only knew the man was a very, very good filmmaker.” Blank had a particular knack in establishing a strong sense of place: everything in the frame relates back to the environment in which it occurs.

Burden of Dreams

Blank’s films serve as an important anthropological preservation while pushing the cinematic form of documentary forward. True/False has decided to feature four of his earlier works which would go on to establish him as a force. Dry Wood (1973, 37 min.) and Hot Pepper (1973, 54 min.) capture the daily life of French-speaking blacks in southwestern Louisiana’s Cajun country. A Well Spent Life (1972, 44 min.) and The Blues Accordin’ To Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970, 31 min.) are two great ethno-musicological films lit by Blank’s fascination in the cultures, history and music of the now well-known blues musicians Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

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At 7:10 on Friday, Jim Bogan, a writer, filmmaker and professor who is also an old friend of Blank’s, will kick-off The Great Wall by leading a toast in honor of Blank’s life and work.

Posted February 21, 2014

The Academy Presents the Second Annual Neither/Nor Series

The Neither/Nor series is an ongoing project to map the history (and present) of “chimeric” cinema, adventurous filmmaking that defies classification as either fiction or nonfiction. Every year True/False will partner with a visiting film critic who will present four films and produce a limited-edition monograph featuring essays and interviews. In the 2014 edition, esteemed film critic Godfrey Cheshire will introduce us to the self-reflexive Iranian cinema of the 1990s. Neither/Nor is underwritten by a generous grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We’re holding a Neither/Nor kick-off reception on Tuesday, February 25th at 6 pm at Ragtag Cinema. There you can meet critic Godfrey Cheshire before he introduces a screening of his own 2007 film Moving Midway, a look at the relocating of his family’s antebellum home to escape Raleigh, North Carolina’s sprawl. The series begins in earnest at Ragtag on True/False eve, Wednesday, February 26th, with Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece. The rest of Neither/Nor will take place during T/F 2014 at Big Ragtag. A Moment of Innocence plays Thursday at 5:30 PM, The Mirror Friday at 12:30 PM, The Apple Saturday at 10:30 AM and Close-Up screens again Saturday at 8:30 PM. All of the screenings in this series will be free.

Here’s a short introduction to this year’s selections.

Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, 98 min.) In this 1990 landmark, director Abbas Kiarostami takes a bizarre case of identity theft and convinces its real-life subjects to participate in a creative reenactment. Hossain Sabzian is a young, underemployed lover of cinema. One day while riding a bus, he meets a woman and convinces her that he is film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When she is confused why such a famous man would be riding public transit, Sabzian explains that it’s important to draw inspiration from the real world. Under this pretense, he worms his way into her family’s home and bank account. When the family starts to become suspicious, they invite an ambitious journalist to come investigate.
- Chris Boeckmann

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A Moment of Innocence (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996, 78 min.) In 1974, when Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old anti-Shah militant, he stabbed a policeman at a rally. Makhmalbaf found himself in prison for six years, while the police officer suffered serious injuries. Many years later, after Makhmalbaf had found fame as a director, he ran into the same police officer during a film shoot, and they agreed to collaborate on a film. In the brilliantly structured A Moment of Innocence, we witness the two men as they work together to recreate this incident. As they go about this process, we discover that the men have very different memories of what transpired on that pivotal day.
- Chris Boeckmann

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The Mirror (dir. Jafar Panahi, 1997, 93 min.) In the center of Tehran, as the day comes to a close, a young first-grader named Mina (played by Mina Mohammad-Khani) walks out of her school and discovers that her mother is nowhere to be found. Impatient, and with one arm in a sling, she decides to find her own way home. Mina boards a bus and listens in on the various conversations unfolding around her. That bus, it turns out, is heading the wrong direction. Eventually, all of a sudden, a frustrated Mina does something surprising. Jafar Panahi, then a protégé of Close-Up director Abbas Kiarostami, directed this playfully reflexive 1997 film.
- Chris Boeckmann

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The Apple (dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, 1999, 86 min.) Directed by a then 17-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who co-wrote the screenplay), this 1998 film recreates a scandalous news story using the real life participants. In an Iranian neighborhood, a strict, unemployed father and his blind wife keep their 11-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, locked in their house. After neighbors complain to the welfare ministry, a social worker comes to release them. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-documentary follows Massoumeh and Zahra as they receive their first taste of freedom and observes their father as he sits behind bars, reflecting on his actions. Makhmalbaf’s auspicious debut is a profoundly unsettling exploration of patriarchy. Screens with “The House Is Black” (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, 22 min.).
- Chris Boeckmann

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Posted February 10, 2014

T/F Awarded Three Year Grant by AMPAS for the Neither/Nor Series

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded a three-year, $75,000 grant to the True/False. The funds will help produce our Neither/Nor series, which celebrates “chimeric” works that straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Being recognized by the Academy in such a significant way is one of the greatest milestones in our history. Because of their support, we’ll be able to delve deeper into the exhilarating work suggested by our name.

Begun earlier this year with a survey of films shot in New York during the ‘60s, the Neither/Nor series is an ongoing project. Each Fest, T/F will collaborate with a visiting film critic to map the history (and present) of chimeric cinema. We believe that by championing a more permeable line between forms, both the non-fiction and fiction film can be reimagined in fresh and provocative ways.

For its second Neither/Nor edition, we plan to highlight Iranian chimeras, a rich tradition of unclassifiable, self-reflexive cinema that received international attention in the 1990s. Critic Godfrey Cheshire, who has written extensively on Iranian cinema, will produce a limited-edition monograph and present four films at the festival.

Posted November 18, 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

Watch ‘The Interrupters’ and a Campfire Story From Steve James

One of the most unforgettable films ever to screen at True/False was our 2011 True Life Fund selection, The Interrupters. Steve James’s documentary introduced us to violence interrupters working in the troubled streets of Chicago. These interrupters are part of a program created by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin called Ceasefire (now renamed Cure Violence), based on the thesis that violence should be approached like an infectious disease, where the goal is to prevent each individual case of transmission.

The film’s deep humanism comes from the life stories of the violence interrupters themselves: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. All former gang members, the interrupters don’t shy away from their violent pasts, but instead utilize their reputations and gained knowledge to help their communities. We watch as they courageously interject themselves into intense situations, speaking blunt truths and directly confronting the drive for revenge or respect, passions that so frequently lead to acts of violence.

The 114 minute cut of The Interrupters is available to watch for free online through the PBS series Frontline.

The Interrupters was inspired by co-producer Alex Kotlowitz’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence”. Director Steve James was moved by this piece because of his personal connection to Curtis Gates, who was senselessly killed in a 2001 shooting. Curtis was the older brother of William Gates, one of the principle subjects of James’s 1994 film Hoop Dreams. Universally recognized as a documentary masterpiece, Hoop Dreams follows two basketball prodigies from poor neighborhoods in Chicago who dream of achieving fame and fortune through careers in the NBA. You can watch this essential film for free streaming online through Hulu.

Steve James returned to T/F this year to participate in our annual event Campfire Stories, an intimate gathering where filmmakers share tales about compelling scenes that didn’t make it into their films. In the clip below, James recounts an incident at a gas station which illustrates the violence interrupters problematic relationship with the police. Campfire Stories was captured on video by our friends at Columbia Access Television.

Posted September 3, 2013
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