Documentary Classics

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

close-up

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

momentofinnocence

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

themirror

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

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 Conversation with Filmmaker Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick was the recipient of True/False’s True Vision Award in 2006, and for good reason: His
interests in subjectivity and institutional corruption have rendered him one of the most prominent auteurs of the contemporary American doc scene. Dick began his career by chronicling “the pained, the freakish and the inexplicable that exists on the margins of everyday life” (to borrow from Ryan Stewart’s assessment of Dick in 2006 in Cinematical). These early works include Private Practices, about woman working as a sex surrogate, Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, about a provocative performance artist suffering from cystic fibrosis, Chain Camera, exploring the hidden lives of high school students and Derrida, a study of the controversial French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In more recent years Dick has tackled the powers-that-be responsible for that very process of marginalization within several prominent institutions: the Catholic Church in Twist of Faith, Hollywood in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Congress in Outrage and, most recently, the armed forces in The Invisible War. This last film, an expose of the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military, won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary last night and will be competing for the Oscar this evening.

Dick will be presenting The Invisible War in Columbia this Wednesday at 7 as part of the Based on a True Story Conference. He’ll also be participating in our panel “Military Secrets: Filming the Armed Forces” on Friday at 2:30 pm at the Odd Fellows Lounge.

A Tucson native who maintains strong connections with the film community there, Dick was in Arizona introducing a personal favorite, 1987′s classic muckraking/vérité hybrid The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, to the audience of the Loft Film Fest. (Considering his own films, it’s a choice that makes a lot of sense). We talked about the films spanning his 25-year career in feature documentary and the themes that drive his work. Dick’s films are renowned for their frankness, so it should come as little surprise that Dick himself is just as straightforward: Our conversation ended up reflecting the practical realities of commercially-oriented independent filmmaking as much as his own unique directorial vision.

(I would like to thank @TheLoftCinema and @LoftFilmFest for providing access to their offices to
conduct this interview.)

-Kyle Puetz

T/F: Starting out with Private Practices: the clinical and discreet depiction of sex with that film and the experimental and in-your-face depiction of sex within Sick . . . could you talk about your aims in regard to the different depictions within each movie?

KD: That’s interesting. With Sick, I was really guided by Bob. With the exception of “Autopsy” (the Nine
Inch Nails music video), I think most of the sexual imagery was shot by him or was shot by Sheree or
him. “Autopsy” I shot. One of the reasons I took on this film was I was really interested in seeing this
kind of imagery in a film. And particularly with the penis nailing, which had been shot before for his
installation . . . I’d already decided to put that in the film, and part of the challenge was, how do you
make a film that, by that time you get to that, the audience understands why it’s there . . . that it should be
there. That was a kind of challenge that I kind of had to rise to.

I guess the equivalent of the penis-nailing in Private Practices is the sexological, when the young client
takes a speculum and looks into the sex surrogate’s vagina and she kind of guides him through and talks
about it. I didn’t shoot it as directly. I guess I was concerned it was my first feature documentary and I
had no idea what the market was. I was actually a little discreet, I would say. There was no frontal male
nudity. In retrospect, that might have been a good decision in that it did OK. Playboy picked it up, and,
I don’t know, they may not have wanted male nudity. And overseas, it had a pretty decent television
release. I know there was a bit of a double standard there, but I wasn’t really sophisticated, wasn’t sure
what the market was, so I kind of played it a little safe.

T/F: So back to Sick. Did you get an impression of Bob as a provocateur or was he just so comfortable
with what he did sexually that he had a very open self-presentation?

KD: Well, I think both. Bob was definitely very open. I mean, Bob was one of the most self-focused people
I’ve ever met. You could not get him to focus on anything else. At one point, I wanted to . . . What’s the
Pasolini film?

T/F: Saló?

KD: No, not Saló. It’s a documentary where he goes and interviews different parts of Italian society about
sex… Soccer players and prostitutes… It’s pretty good. It’s really pretty good. It’s got Pasolini on
camera, and he’s interacting people from different parts of Italian society (The film is Pasolini’s Love
Meetings). I thought, God, I could do this in the United States and Bob would be perfect in that role.
And he would have been. But he wasn’t interested because the film wasn’t about him. I proposed that
film to him two years before I proposed making Sick. As an artist he was like, ‘I’m going to do my
work, you can cover me if you want. It’s fine’. So there was a quality of, there was just sort of openness.
And that related to Sheree’s attitude toward him, which was “I’m going to do with you whatever I want,
and part of that is exhibiting you’. Both of them knew there was a provocative element to that, and
liked that. For audiences that weren’t provoked, they were totally fine in coming to them in a direct
way. But for audiences that were provoked, that was also of interest to them.

T/F: I thought it was interesting that Sick and Private Practices both had scenes in which the parents
were confronted with the non-traditional sexual activities of their children. Did something about
that particularly resonate with you?

KD: You know, I always put parents in my films whenever I can. I did with Twist of Faith. I’m doing it
with this new film I’m doing, Invisible War, about rape in the military, about female soldiers who
are raped by male soldiers. And whenever I can get the parents in . . . Why? I don’t know. My dad died
about fifteen years ago, but I had a very close relationship with my dad and even closer with my mom.
I’m always interested in that kind of dynamic. Film is sort of made for — and so is the novel — for
examining family relationships. The more interesting and outrageous, provocative or ambitious a child
is, the more interesting it is to get the parent’s perspective.

T/F: When during the filming of Sick were you aware that you would go until Bob’s death?

KD: Oh, that was right from the beginning. When I sat down with Bob and Sheree and proposed making
a film, they said fine. They really liked Private Practices. But Bob said, ‘Look there’s only one
requirement. You have to film until my death, through my death.’ That response was a real gift for
a documentary filmmaker. His work was so much about his illness and his impending death that it
just seemed to make sense. I think in his own way he would liked to have done work all the way to
the point of death — definitely, a lot of his work was about his death — he would liked to have done
work all the way through his death, doing work around it, writing diaries around it if he could. I mean,
he almost did anyway. I think he saw this film as kind of an extension of that desire. But he never
saw Sick as his work in any way. Like Derrida, Bob was very clear that ‘This is not my work, this is
somebody else’s work documenting me.’

T/F: Speaking of that, Sheree Rose’s role as producer in the film. Did she have no influence in how the
film was edited?

KD: She didn’t have a say, but she had a very strong influence. They both did. We were very close, and we
were continually talking about things. I was continually asking her about footage, discussing it with
her. Asking her if she had more material. In that sense, it was very collaborative. But, you know, she’s not a very detail-oriented person, really. . . [laughs] Her focus was always on excess.

T/F: Because she’s portrayed very ambivalently in the film. Both positive and negative…

KD: I know it comes off that way but I don’t see it that way. I see how audiences can. The main character
of any film is always going to be the protagonist, and anybody who has any conflict with him is going
to be seen in light of that and therefore seen negatively. Then, of course, submissives tend to get all the
attention as well, and the top is . . .  really, the top is a much harder job. [laughs] The scene where she’s
shooting, she’s stoned, she wakes him up, she wants to talk about how she still wants to top him and
have S+M sex with him even though is very ill — to me, I saw that kind of desire as the reason Bob fell in
love with her. Particularly if you’re a submissive, you want your top to top you all the time. So I found
that very lovable. I mean, it may seem crazy, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less lovable.

Also, I think this is what happens to any sexual relationship when one party gets ill. The other party
still wants to have sex. The fact that there’s still some desire is a good thing. A lot of audiences, as
you said, saw it as kind of ambivalent, or that Sheree was just being selfish, but I never did. I saw it as
— well, I guess you wouldn’t say charming — but as passionate. I still desire you even if you’re very
sick. I think that’s very positive. I still want to fuck you, still want to have sex with you, even if you can
barely move. And even after you’re dead. I saw that as very sweet and very positive. I understand that
people can react and see that in a negative light. I never did.

T/F: Moving onto the next few films . . . In retrospect, Chain Camera seems kind of prescient. Do you
feel like you anticipated YouTube a little bit?

KD: Yeah, yeah. Not that other people didn’t as well, but I was thinking a lot during that time and before
about giving cameras out to people, about all the footage that was being shot. In the nineties I had
this idea of setting up an archive of all the home video footage that had ever been shot over the past
several decades. It wasn’t as efficient or elegant as YouTube by any means. But what was interesting
is that after I made the film, in 2001, I came to see this confessional speaking to the camera footage
somewhat as my style, my signature – I used it in my next three films. Then in 2005, I was looking
Chain Camera again for the first time in several years, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, it looks like YouTube.
My whole style has just been stomped on, in a way.’

T/F: Was Chain Camera happening at the same time as Derrida?

KD: Yeah, I started Derrida, and then I gathered the footage for Chain Camera and edited it, then went
back and finished Derrida.

T/F: I was wondering whether Derrida’s thoughts on narrative had any influence in how Chain
Camera was put together.

KD: Not really, no. I would say no. I was pretty much aware of what the possibilities for Chain Camera
were before I started making Derrida. Especially after Sick and working with the footage Sheree
shot. One of the wonderful things about Sheree is that she was compelled to videotape, even in very
inappropriate situations, like when people didn’t want her to shoot, or when she was high, just like
she was compelled to try to push Bob. As a result, she shot footage that no one else would dare to
shoot. And most of this footage was very dynamic, roughly hand held, made all the better because how
unstable it was – it flew all over and made all these cutting opportunities. It made me want to do an
entire film of footage shot entirely by the subjects. But I wouldn’t say Chain Camera wasn’t influenced by Derrida.

T/F: How did you decide which of the students to include within the film?

KD: Well, we tried to include a range. It was a challenge. The tricky thing with that film is that it’s
a sequence of short films, in a sense. I continually rearranged the order of these segments, and
substituted them in and out, in order to see how it altered the subtle direction or arc of the film. But we
wanted a range of students. We had about half a dozen other really good ones that never made it into
the film. We had one which was really great, where this girl was coming home from a party where’d
she’d dropped acid. It was early morning, and she was walking home, still shooting and we here her
POV and hear her say: ‘Man, I’m so fucking high, I’m so fucking high, I just want to get to bed.’ Then
we see her approach her apartment and we see her hand reach into the frame to open the door. But it’s
locked and she realizes she doesn’t have the key and she starts flipping out and saying: ‘Shit, my mom’s
going to come home in a couple hours, I’ve got to get inside and get in bed.’ Then you see her, still
shooting, trying to figure out how to get into her apartment. There were just moments like that were
kind of incredible.

T/F: I think it’s kind of funny that she tries to avoid trouble, and at the same time, there’s a possibility
that she’ll be in this feature film.

KD: No, it’s true. [laughs] It’s true. They were great. One of the interesting things, though, that I found
especially with people talking to the camera: They didn’t really have an idea of who their audience was.
I mean, they couldn’t, because they weren’t filmmakers. So they were talking to no one and everyone
at the same time. At times it felt like they were almost talking to God. In fact, in one film, The End,
where we gave cameras to people in a hospice, one did begin talking to God. It was amazing how
people opened up, how they used the cameras. I found it really fascinating.

T/F: Then, of course, you did the same in Twist of Faith. But do you mind we come back to that one?

KD: No, no.

T/F: All right, I’m going to repeat a quote in Derrida I found really interesting: “Echo, cursed by the jealous gods, was never allowed to speak for herself, and was only allowed to repeat the ends of others’ phrases. But Echo, in her loving and infinite cleverness, arranges it so that in repeating the last syllables of the words of Narcissus, she speaks in such a way that the words become her own. In a certain way, she appropriates his language. In repeating the language of another, she signs her own love. In repeating, she responds to him. In repeating, she communicates with him. She speaks in her own name by just repeating his words.” As a documentary filmmaker, do you identify with Echo?

KD: Interesting that you brought that up, because my co-director Amy Ziering and I actually talked
about that when we were working with that scene. As documentary filmmakers we are Echo, bound
by whatever our subjects do or say, and our film can only speak by repeating what they do or
say. Because that’s all we have to work with. [laughs] I haven’t thought about that in a long time.
That’s interesting, though, because there is also a similarity between Echo’s love of Narcissus and
a documentary filmmaker’s “love” of their subject. There’s a real love — I don’t think “love” is
completely inappropriate in terms of the relationship, not necessarily to the person (though that can
be true, too) but to the character you as a filmmaker are fashioning. On the one hand, you’re trying to
bring out something as rich and as full as you can, but on the other hand, there’s this sort of gift that you’re giving, this sort of obligation or gift that you’re giving — and it’s not to the character, because this character doesn’t exist, but it’s not really to the person either, because you’re only working with the footage that you’ve shot and you’re only constructing an aspect of the person. In other words, the character. So there’s this kind of gift going back sort of the same way as Echo, but I’m not sure to whom . . . [laughs] I’ll have to think about it.

T/F: That brings me to the second part of the question I had. Because Derrida questions who is better
represented by the film, the subject or the actual biographer, I was wondering whether you
intended naming the documentary Derrida to be kind of ironic.

KD: [laughs] That you mean it really wasn’t about Derrida?

T/F: To some extent, yeah. Or maybe the title addresses the character versus the subject?

KD: No . . . That’s a good read, but no. I mean, we chose that title because the name Derrida is gold. So
many people have been influenced by him, really struggled to understand him – there’s such a draw
to the name itself. What was interesting to me is that the style of the film ended up being this kind
of crossover between an art film and a vérité film — because what I did was pull out all the vérité
moments that that were shot, everything that had happened before and after the official interview and
all the momentary asides, and included almost all of those in the film. That’s much of the vérité in the
film. But the film also includes scenes like the opening scene that is a tracking shot of driving through
Paris and its suburbs with Derrida’s voiceover. It ended up being a kind of balance between an art film
and vérité. That isn’t to say other people haven’t done that. But that was the real challenge and struggle
editorially, because people wanted both. An art film about Derrida: everybody of course wanted that,
they were dying for that. And, at the same time, they wanted to see behind the scenes because this is
almost a sainted figure in some ways. But those two genres don’t necessarily go together. Oftentimes,
people don’t even look at documentary as art films. I’ve sort of accepted that. It’s because most people
don’t really understand how documentaries are made, especially vérité documentary. People write
poetry, people are in bands, people see movies from the time they’re toddlers, so they have a sense of
those mediums, but I don’t think people understand how vérité documentaries are made really . . . and the
strange intensity of that experience.

T/F: Towards the end — obviously, it’s not very “objective” throughout — but toward the end, there’s
filming of the filming. For example, you see a shot at the beginning of Derrida going throughout
the streets. But later we see shots of the same situation, but the filmmakers are being filmed.
Could you talk about your intentions there?

KD: In its own small way, there was something historically significant about our coverage of Derrida
because he had never allowed that anywhere else. For many years, he wouldn’t even put his own photo
on the back of a book. He was very open to working with people, but he was very controlling about
his image. I mean, in the film he says he’s a narcissist, and as a narcissist, his image is never good
enough for him. I had a friend take this beautiful photo of him, and he said, ‘Oh, no, I look too much
like a philosopher.’ Well, OK, you are. I think the reason those scenes have impact, though, is that
not necessarily that it was me covering him — it would have worked with any crew covering him
— is that he was so frequently commenting on the filmmaking itself and his position as a subject of
a documentary. But also I think one of the reasons there is something attractive about the film was
there’s very little footage of him in day to day moments that exists anywhere else. If you want to see
Derrida now, you have to see the film.

T/F: So moving on to Twist of Faith now. How did you first start the project: Did you find the subject
or did you want to address the topic?

KD: No, what happened was that HBO came to Eddie Schmidt and I — he was the film’s producer — and
said, ‘Do you want to make a film about clergy sexual abuse?’ Holy shit, yes. Apparently, another
filmmaker had tried to work on it and had bowed out – I was never sure why. Maybe they were too
Catholic . . . but it astounded me that anyone would not jump at the chance to make this film, because it’s
such incredible subject matter.

Sheila Nevins, the head of docs at HBO, really wanted a film made on the subject, She’s a fascinating
person, and extremely influential. In some ways I think that three of the most important influences on
US documentary film throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s were Sheila Nevins, Michael Moore and
Sundance. And she loves vérité – loves it. I think in many ways she kept verite alive after its heyday
through the ’70s and early ’80s. Her original idea for Twist of Faith (she really liked Chain Camera)
was to go into a parish where some of the priests were accused or rumored of abusing children, and
give home video cameras to everybody in the parish and get their perspective and then cut a film with
that footage. That sounded great to us – but we found it was impossible to get inside a parish like that -
- the priests and bishops would never allow it. But in the process of looking for that parish, we started
working with SNAP, the Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests – it’s an advocacy group and
that has local offices around the country as well as national conventions of survivors.

T/F: The St. Louis meeting takes place in the film.

KD: Exactly, exactly. And we got in contact with the Toledo branch and at just the right time. The local
SNAP person told us ‘There’s this fireman, Tony Comes, who was abused by a priest who is going to
speak publicly and do his first interview tomorrow evening’. We flew up the next day and shot his
interview with the paper that night.

T/F: And just as in Sick, he already had a wealth of footage available for you?

KD: Not a wealth. But he had one amazing piece of footage, which he had shot months before we even met
him, and days after he moved into the house he lived in. For him, this house was his dream house –
it was a middle-class in Toledo, nothing special — it was nice — but he had never thought he could
live in a place like that. He was really happy for a few days. Then he finds out the priest who’d abused
him lives five doors down. And so he took his daughter and put her on his lap and filmed him telling
her not go down the street or ever talk to that man, because that man had done something very bad to
him when he was little. And the reason Tony filmed that was that he was just beginning to think that ‘I
might be in a lawsuit, and I want this as documentation of the kind of pain I have to go through.’ He
also shot some really wonderful footage of he and his wife skydiving, and we used that. It was just
extremely poetic, because at the point you see this footage in the film they were right on the verge of
breaking up, and you see this ecstasy when things used to be good. But he was great with the camera.
One in three subjects is great with a camera, and he was just great.

T/F: So did you encourage him, once you met, to just continue doing that?

KD: Oh, yeah. I think maybe he had the same kind of camera we did, actually, so he used that. But even
now, with the film Invisible War, we have four or five camera out with subjects now.

T/F: Tony Comes is a really interesting in that, at least initially, he’s the antithesis of what we expect
victims to look like. Could you talk about what drew you to him as an individual?

KD: That’s part of it. He has, on camera, this sort of Marlboro Man kind of persona. He’s a little different
in person, but his style just works really great on camera. Very open, very emotional, which was
good because you can see how the trauma affects him in his day-to-day life. Oftentimes, people are
just trying to cover it up and he was really open with it. It was a challenge editing, though, because I
remember the first time we met him, even before he’d agreed to be in the film, he started talking about
his abuse, and then started crying, and I thought, ‘Jesus, I just wish we were rolling.’ Of course, you
can’t be rolling before somebody’s said yes — this is always the dilemma. But it turned out he’d cry all
the time, so one of our jobs was cutting around the crying, which is unusual. Usually, you cut for it. It
was actually good that he’s an emotional person.

But as far as the victim thing, you say he’s not a “typical victim”: This is really interesting because this
is the dilemma that survivors — particularly I would say, of sexual assault or abuse — face. Because
of their trauma “typical victims” often have this sort of “crazy” element that comes not only from the
abuse or assault, but also from the fact that this abuse is never publicly acknowledged – the survivor
isn’t believed and the perpetrator is never punished in any way. This craziness can sometimes make
them somewhat unapproachable as a person and as a film subject. And if they’re unapproachable,
audiences don’t identify with them. And if audiences don’t identify with them, their experiences don’t
enter into the public realm. And then that isolates them even more. And makes them even “crazier”.
Which is why it’s so important that these stories continue to be told.

It’s also a dilemma for the filmmaker, because you can’t take the “typical person” who’s traumatized
because he won’t or she will be hard to identify with. That’s why with Tony, it worked. And we’re
running into the same challenge, and I think we’re succeeding, in Invisible War. Because these women
are equally traumatized; it’s equally devastating to be raped in the military as it is to be raped by a
priest.

T/F: In relation to the film you’re showing today (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On) . . . Twist of
Faith kind of has the same theme: an individual whose personal experience causes him to speak
truth to power. Was that an influence at all?

KD: It’s always been kind of a subtle influence. I saw it when it first came out, in ’88. It is by far the most
memorable documentary I’ve ever seen. I continually think about it. I think about it more and more now
as my films have taken a more political and confrontative turn. Twist of Faith was kind of the start of
these more political, confrontational films, if you will, although Sick, obviously, has a lot of political
elements to it. Yeah, I do think about it. There’s a propriety, even when you’re making a political film
that is difficult to go beyond. So, you know, there’s moments when you’re watching The Emporer’s
Naked Army Marches On that you’re almost thinking, ‘Well, the filmmaker should have intervened,’
or ‘They shouldn’t be even covering this subject. They’re just way too confrontational and crazy and
irresponsible.’ The main subject ended up trying to kill somebody — you know, not on camera, but he
proposed it to the filmmaker to have it covered on camera. But at the same time, it does make for very
riveting cinema, which brings in audiences and helps the cause. We’re continuing to deal with that in
every film. How far can we push things and not lose whatever sympathy comes with propriety?

T/F: You mention that your films have become more explicitly political. Do you feel that your
responsibility toward your audience has changed?

KD: Well, the way I feel is that I’ve just added another element to my films. I’ve done vérité films, I know
how to do them. I love them. I also really love films that take on a political issue, particularly one that
hasn’t been taken on. So it’s even more of a challenge to do the two: to break into new political territory
but at the same time have a vérité element, which is always harder than a non-vérité element. It’s more
work dealing with a subject almost all the time, digging up vérite. Sometimes, on the non-vérité side, it
can be very difficult to get the interview you need to get. That’s oftentimes the real trick: How do you
pull in somebody who normally wouldn’t speak? But for the most part in terms of production and post,
it’s harder to make a vérité film, and many ways, in terms of filmmaking, much more thrilling. So I see
these films as trying to put these elements together. The Emperor’s Naked Army is a classic example of
it succeeding brilliantly.

As far as the political films that are out now, I’m glad they’re being made: both George W Bush
(because he angered so many documentary filmmakers) and Michael Moore can claim some credit for
this proliferation of political films – although I think it’s on the wane – which is too bad because I don’t
think the form of confrontative, verite, political films has been explored fully.

T/F: Do you think your personal experiences, with Private Practices or Sick for instance, influenced or
informed This Film Is Not Yet Rated?

KD: Ah, in terms of censorship? You know, Sick was censored in Australia, and it was censored . . . what’s the contemporary art museum in D.C – the Hirshhorn. It was scheduled and advertised to play there two nights but it only played one – I’m fairly certain the Republicans squashed the second screening. But those films didn’t influence the making of This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

What did motivate me more was the issue of the studios’ domination of the industry. This was much
more about the issue of independence in film. In my mind, the film ultimately has less to do with
censorship than with the way Hollywood dominates the film industry — and not just the ratings
system. Which, by the way, is something you see and feel most when you live in Los Angeles, where
you see and live with it everyday. People in Los Angeles understand the film business better than
anybody else in the country, so sometimes when you read people from outside writing about it, you
just kind of laugh. It’s like if you don’t live in New York and are not close to the banking industry, your
understanding of it is all second, third-hand.

It about this incredible cartel that’s dominating all aspects of the business: not only the ratings, not
only the business side but even aesthetically. And everybody immediately adjusts to their demands,
even “independent” filmmakers — as soon as independent filmmakers become successful, 90% of
them just adjust their thinking toward the studios and as a result, the U.S. film industry is so pathetic in
many ways, and independent film is pretty much dead, unless it’s in an isolated pocket away from Los
Angeles. But the film was more a hate letter to the studios, that’s really what it was.

T/F: Your last two films have really shone a light on those in a position of power and influence,
and issues of transparency. I was just wondering, as a filmmaker, you felt you had the same
obligation towards transparency.

KD: In what I do?

T/F: Mm-hmm.

KD: That’s interesting. That’s a good question. I don’t really feel that I do, and the reason is that if my
decisions were affecting other people then, yes. If I were doing something in my film that somehow
impacted other people and other people came and said, ‘I need to know what’s going on,’ then yes. But
I’m demanding transparency about these issues because these issues are affecting lives of millions
of Americans. It’s not because I want to pry into somebody’s private life and open it up. I mean, who
doesn’t, but… [laughs] But take Outrage, for example. I wasn’t interested in just outing politicians
who were closeted. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that these politicians were claiming to
be straight and voting anti-gay in large part to protect the fact that they were in the closet. And that
hypocrisy, and their votes, impacts millions of people.

But that’s a good question. I mean, I have to be very careful. When you’re undertaking an investigation,
there are all kinds of grey areas you’re getting into. That’s a lot of investigation in Outrage that never
ended up in the film because we couldn’t 100% corroborate it. The film about the making of Outrage
is much more interesting than the film, and that is completely the truth. I know filmmakers often say
that, but in this case it’s certainly true. Ultimately, though, your objective, once you’re in this political
realm, is to get this story out. You can’t compromise that by showing all the grey areas, because in the
political realm, people don’t celebrate complexity, they will just attack the film and blunt its message.
And this grey area, though interesting, is ultimately not that relevant, because it’s not really what you’re
focusing on.

T/F: Would you like to talk a bit more about The Invisible War?

KD: There are no accurate statistics, but some figures are as high as one in three women who are in the U.S. military are either raped or sexually assaulted by a male soldier or multiple male soldiers. This has been going on since World War II, when women started being a part of the military. It’s very possible that there have been more than half a million rapes or sexual assaults. And there’s been a very, very small amount of prosecutions. I mean, prosecutions with punishments of three years or more are probably less than 1%. Often officers are protecting these perpetrators, who are frequently serial rapists who isolate who isolate and assault new recruits again and again. The military is just beginning to address this – but it’s moving much too slowly. And the trauma these women experience is profound. It’s not just the rape, which is bad enough, it’s that as soon as they’re raped, they’re viewed as damaged goods, and nobody comes to their support. If they come forward, they’re viewed as damaging unit cohesion and their sometimes even raped again if they come forward. And they have incredibly high incidence of PTSD, higher than women — they’re not supposed to be in combat, but many women are — higher than women who are in combat. And 40% of women who are homeless veterans have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Their lives are destroyed. We’ve interviewed about 20 survivors on camera, and my producer Amy
Ziering has talked to another 60 . . . and the stories are unbelievably horrific. We’ve talked to several
women who were single and who were raped by married men, and the women were charged with
adultery. In a time of war, nobody really wants to touch this subject or take on the military. But rape
happens just as frequently when we’re not at war – if there ever was such a time. I’m really committed
to the subject and actually very angry. Veterans are a forgotten population, victims of sexual assault
in the military — and it happens to men, too — are a totally forgotten population, and I want to help
change that.

Posted February 24, 2013

Neither/Nor Series with Film Critic Eric Hynes

We are excited to announce the first edition of Neither/Nor, a new annual collaboration with our other half, Ragtag Cinema. This series celebrates the art of film scholarship, while offering a historical overview of “chimeras”—films straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. Every year a film critic will select and present four films.

In the inaugural Neither/Nor, film critic Eric Hynes takes a look at New York City chimeras from the late 1960s. Eric is a widely respected freelance writer whose work has appeared frequently in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and Slate.com. Other outlets include Cinema Scope, Film Comment, SundanceNOW and The New York Times. He is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, where he’s also the host and co-producer of the Reverse Shot Talkies video series.

For each Neither/Nor selection, Eric has written an essay and interviewed a filmmaker. These essays and interviews will be appear in a monograph available at the Ragtag box office. The first two screenings in this year’s series will take place at 6pm on February 26 and 27 at Ragtag Cinema, while the second two will be part of True/False 2013. Neither/Nor is underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

We’ll let Eric take it from here and introduce this year’s series and its films.

Chimeras have existed since the advent of film, a form that has always simultaneously offered to record and represent, to capture and simulate life. But as filmmaker Jim McBride says, “Something was in the air” in the mid-to-late 1960s, particularly in New York City, where the likes of McBride, William Greaves, D.A. Pennebaker, as well as transients Peter Whitehead and Jean-Luc Godard, were making gloriously uncategorizable works of cinematic art. It was a moment when everything and everyone seemed to be riding, or even embracing, the edge of things, when films and politics and morality suddenly seemed undefined, up for grabs, subject to reinvention. With the Civil Rights era giving way to Black Power, Kennedy idealism ceding to Johnson’s military morass, Beat Dadaism transforming into hippie agitation, and mod Godard morphing into Mao Godard, it was as if utopia and dystopia were both within reach—if not one and the same.

For these four filmmakers, as well as other fellow travelers in New York and beyond, it was a moment when politics, formal curiosity, and the sudden mobility of both the camera and sound recording invited an approach to cinema in which every shot, every gesture, every decision seemed less a statement than a question. Reality and fiction were constantly being blurred—for serious and for play, and ever sincerely. The four films in this series were all recorded during 1967-1968 in New York City, and all are both invaluable time capsules of that moment and impossible to box or bottle up. There are resonances and ricochets between these four films—having all drunk from the same wild New York well, with its fly-on-the-wall documentarians and Warholian flair, its Actor’s Studio interiority and Living Theater political absurdity, there would have to be. Viewed together they represent less of a cinematic leap forward than a scattershot concentric expansion into the beyond—beyond genre, beyond the limits of film itself.

Filmed over the summer of 1967, David Holzman’s Diary marked the advent of cinema verité by slavishly albeit fictionally aping it, while 16 months later the vanguards of that movement subtly aped themselves in 1 P.M.; in between, The Fall would both deconstruct and co-opt the movement’s objective approach, while Symbiopsychotaxiplasm cajoled its flies on the wall to swarm to the center of the room. Method actor Rip Torn bustles through 1 P.M. (as he would several chimeric films of the era), dadaist destructivists make mischief in The Fall, a salty nude model steals the show in Holzman’s, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm closes the circle with a former Method man making an entire film crew into an extension of his own directorial performance. News and politics of the day buzz between background and foreground of all four films, from Vietnam and the Newark riots to ubiquitous activist Tom Hayden. And in the most startling overlap, an elevator rise up a half-formed skyscraper in The Fall is almost exactly matched in 1 P.M.; while the former metaphorically implies a toppling in its very title, the latter ends with a literal, time-lapse dismantling of a city tower.

Rising and falling, accumulating and dispersing, evoking and projecting, destroying and creating, these are films whose true common thread instability. And it’s instability that makes them, still, vital. Their very form—their deliberate unwieldiness—makes them perennially modern. Strictly speaking, they’re neither documentary nor drama, scripted nor spontaneous, true nor false. They’re neither/nor, and therefore pretty much anything they want to be.

Neither/Nor 2013 Selections:

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (dir. William Greaves, 1968, 75 min.)
February 26, 6pm, Ragtag Cinema

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is the cinematic equivalent of a ship listing, steadily and helplessly, over a waterfall. In the summer of 1968, venerated veteran filmmaker William Greaves set out to shoot an independent film in Central Park. The project entailed three different cameras recording three tiers of action: one filming a fictional scene in which multiple sets of actors would perform the same dialogue about a squabbling married couple; another capturing the making of that scene, triangulating the actors and their assigned camera; and a final camera widened out to the whole community of machines, actors, crewmembers and bystanders. Both in terms of the camera set ups and the rotation of performers, it’s clear from the start that process was of more importance than product. What’s not immediately but soon becomes clear is that the process was just as fucked as the product. Yet as cinematic train-wreckers go, it’s not that Greaves is hell-bent on torturing anyone, it’s more that he conducts himself with such benign ineptitude that everyone begrudgingly goes along with the inanity—for a while. It’s only when the crew starts asking questions, and steals away to record a secret bull session in which they question the wisdom of everything they’ve been asked to do, that they entertain the possibility—like prisoners realizing they’ve been caught in a maze—that Bill Greaves has been neither benign nor inept. And that’s when the film transforms from a curious shambles to the closest a meta-textual making-of whatsit gets to a thrill ride.

1P.M.  (D.A. Pennebaker, Jean-Luc Godard and Richard Leacock, 1972, 90 min.)
February 27, 6pm, Ragtag Cinema

It was like a Sixties-era cineaste supergroup. And like all such assemblage, it was destined to dissemble, to be a dream team deferred, to elicit a mess of metaphors pitting sums vs. parts. Over here you had the inexhaustible trailblazers of Direct Cinema, the most celebrated and pejoratively pegged flies on the wall, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Over there you had the notorious JLG, Jean-Luc Godard, the international arthouse superstar turned ardent political provocateur. Throw in method acting madman Rip Torn, rock n’ drug culture messengers the Jefferson Airplane, cult heroic polemicists Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, national leader for Students for a Democratic Society Tom Hayden, and black nationalist poet LeRoi Jones (the soon-to-be Amiri Baraka), and you pretty much had boho 60s rabblerousing incarnate. The story is that it didn’t really come together. The story is of bafflements, bruised egos, and abandonment—a film left unfinished, and participants free to foster their legends elsewhere. Yet that story is ultimately irrelevant to the cinematic record, to what you can actually see with your eyes. Everything in 1 P.M. is shot with the same busy curiosity, simultaneously offering an astonishingly rich record of its time and place, and, by dint of the filmmakers’ many fabrications, offering an auto-critique of cinema verité itself.

The Fall (Peter Whitehead, 1969, 110 min.)
Thursday, February 28, 5pm, Little Ragtag

The Fall is a bow shot and parting shot for Peter Whitehead, a 30 year-old British filmmaker who dropped the mic and scarcely returned to the stage after all was edited and done, literally wandering the desert to teach falconry in Saudi Arabia the decades that followed. This would be tragic if the film didn’t entail a career’s worth of ideas and developments deployed at once. In town for the 1967 New York Film Festival, Whitehead was cajoled into training his lens on Gotham, the de facto capital of a civilization he found both kinetically alluring and politically deplorable. From that autumn through May of 1968, he would shoot a daunting spectrum of activity: a pro military rally in Washington Square Park, an anti-war march on D.C., art openings, art happenings, poetry readings, football games, dance parties, photo shoots, Newark in smoldering ruins, and the tide-turning sit-ins at Columbia University. An essay, a dialectical exercise, a visual and sonic experimentation, a documentary, a stunt, a record, a statement, an idea, a harangue, a grenade, an opus, The Fall presses hard against its time and place until it pulses outward to the past and future, then back in on itself, as exhausting as it is exhaustive, as totalizing as it is total.

David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967, 74 min.)
Friday, March 1, 7:30pm Little Ragtag + Saturday, March 2, 8pm Big Ragtag
With director Jim McBride!

David Holzman’s Diary comes on as a first person, documentary-style, chronological diary of David, a young man recently unemployed and potentially going off to war. David rambles for the camera about his ambitions and ideas, shoots his home and surroundings, and generally tries to give a wholistic sense of his life. The footage is so raw that it seems to be edited in camera, with David visibly switching the machine on and off, and including interstitial sequences of placement, light flares, and distorted sound. Yet it’s all a fiction. Released in 1967, director Jim McBride’s movie anticipates (and pre-satirizes) the next half-century of first-person cinema—of video cam monologues, of YouTube exhibitionism, of faux confessionals, of media’s psychic irresolution. McBride’s film is a fiction, but his script anticipated the dialogue of our contemporary lives. Do film and other media bring us closer to, or farther from, ourselves? Are we ever alone? Are we ever in control of the devices we’re meant to control? Are reflections of self ever anything but fictions? Are fictions ever anything but reflections of self? David Holzman’s Diary captures a moment when modern man was able to see better than he ever had before, yet his sense of self only got murkier.

-Eric Hynes

Posted February 12, 2013

Victor Kossakovsky Presents the Top Ten at IDFA

IDFA, the world’s biggest and most prestigious documentary film festival, is now underway in Amsterdam. IDFA has always been an important event on the True/False calendar, responsible for significant discoveries such as Last Train Home, Burma VJ, Afghan Star and Family Instinct. This year T/F co-director Paul Sturtz and associate programmer Chris Boeckmann have made the journey to the Netherlands in search of powerful new films for T/F 2013.

Every year IDFA selects a master filmmaker to present his or her documentary “Top Ten”, a set of important films that have informed their work and continue to reward repeat viewings. These films are shown at special screenings during the festival. This year the honor has gone to Victor Kossakovsky, the Russian auteur who also received our 2012 True Vision Award.

Kossakovsky presented his earliest and most recent features at T/F 2012. This was a rare treat for an American audience, as Kossakovsky’s films are shamefully still unavailable in the US. His first film, The Belovs (1993), places us alongside an elderly brother and sister living together in rural poverty, their lives punctuated by intense pain and joy.

His new film is ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, a whimsical and mind-bending trek around the planet to compare existence at points exactly opposite one another on the globe.

For those of us who couldn’t make the trip to Amsterdam, but want to dig deeper in the history of documentary, there is good news. Half of Kossakovsky’s Top Ten selections are available online.

His list begins with two early masterworks. The first is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Russia, 1929), recently declared to be one of the ten greatest films ever by Sight and Sound’s critics poll. Vertov was a Soviet film theorist who maintained that the Russian Revolution required a new revolutionary cinema, one completely divorced from what he regarded as the pernicious influence of literature and the theater. Man with a Movie Camera is the fullest expression of this vision; it has no story, but employs a dazzling array of editing techniques to present a true symphony of a city. The film is available online with an excellent new soundtrack from The Alloy Orchestra created from Vertov’s notes.

The second early feature is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (England, 1934), a stunning ethnographic study of life on the Aran Islands off of the West Coast of Ireland. Flaherty’s films have been described as “docudramas” or “ethnofictions” because of his willingness to stage scenes and even reconstruct cultural practices no longer in existence at the time of filming. In the case of Man of Aran the shark hunting techniques the islanders employ in the film had not been in use for over 50 years.

Interestingly, Kossakovsky selected two similar short films. In both we study the faces of people who are themselves studying a particular piece of art. In the first, Pavel Kogan’s Look at Her Face (Russia, 1968), a tour guide introduces museum goers to Da Vinci’s famous painting Madonna and Child, and hidden cameras capture a diverse and fascinating range of reactions.

In the second, Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older (Latvia, 1978), the frame gracefully dances across the faces of young children enthralled by a puppet show. In contrast to the primarily natural sound of the previous film, Ten Minutes Older features a bold orchestral score, which helps to powerfully evoke the transporting nature of the arts.

The final film available online is Artavazd Pelechian’s Seasons of the Year (Armenia, 1975), an eloquent visual poem on the complex relationship between nature and humanity in an isolated mountain community. In a mere 29 minutes the film covers the cycle of an entire year. The unorthodox soundtrack combines Vivaldi with traditional Armenian folk music.

You’ll have to track down the remainder of Kossakovsky’s Top Ten elsewhere. They are: The Tram Runs Through the City (Ludmila Stanukinas, Russia, 1973), Our Mama is a Hero (Nikolai Obukhovich, Russia, 1979), Spiritual Voices (Alexander Sukharov, Russia, 1995), Workingman’s Death (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria, 2005) and Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, The Netherlands, 2010).

Six years ago, at IDFA 2006, Kossakovsky presented another list of 10, his provocative Ten Rules for Documentary Filmmaking. The list, reprinted below, is still much discussed and still much worth discussing.

1. Don’t film if you can live without filming.

2. Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.

3. Don’t film, if you already knew your message before filming – just become a teacher.  Don’t try to save the world. Don’t try to change the world.  Better if your film will change you. Discover both the world and yourself whilst filming.

4. Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.

5. You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.

6. Try to not force people to repeat an action or words. Life is unrepeatable and unpredictable. Wait, look, feel and be ready to film using your own way of filming. Remember that the very best films are unrepeatable. Remember that the very best films were based on unrepeatable shots. Remember that the very best shots capture unrepeatable moments of life with an unrepeatable way of filming.

7. Shots are the basis of cinema. Remember that cinema was invented as one single shot – documentary, by the way – without any story. Or story was just inside that shot. Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before.

8. Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.

9. Documentary is the only art, where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.

10. Don’t follow my rules. Find your own rules. There is always something that only you can film and nobody else.

Kossakovsky explained each of these rules at length, as well as presenting clips from his films, in a ten part masterclass at the festival.

Finally, for a small sample of Victor’s own work, check out his recently released New York Times Op-Doc. The short film LULLABY spies into a growing phenomenon in Europe, homeless men and women sleeping inside banks near 24 hour ATMs. The film is part of the Why Poverty? initiative, which uses films to encourage conversations about poverty.

-Dan Steffen

 

 

Posted November 20, 2012

Chris Marker 1921-2012

Chris Marker, the enigmatic filmmaker, writer, photographer, multimedia artist and philosopher, died this summer in Paris on his 91st birthday. A member of the French Resistance during World War Two, Marker’s filmmaking career began in the 1950s as part of Paris’s Left Bank Film movement and ended just before his death with strange video experiments on his youTube channel. The six decades in between generated a remarkable body of work that will continue to demand attention far into the future.

Throughout the history of True/False a quotation from Marker has served us as a guidepost: “Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined”. This wonderfully bewildering sentence invites multiple interpretations and has us still scratching our heads ten years on. But whatever else it may mean, it clearly points towards Marker’s greatest achievement, the discovery of a new type of nonfiction filmmaking. Marker’s films don’t compile facts, they seek out experiential truths, uncovered at the intersection of the world and an individual mind, complete with its passions, its memories and its political commitments. By bringing the essay into the cinema, Chris Marker changed the documentary form fundamentally and permanently.

Immediately following his death, Dennis Lim composed Marker’s obituary for The New York Times. Lim observed, “His sprawling and constantly evolving body of work, which ranged from books to installations to CD-ROMs and included more than 50 films of varying length, was at once fragmentary and cohesive, united by an abiding interest in the nature of time and memory and by a strong physical and intellectual wanderlust.” Ronald Bergan covered his passing in The Guardian, noting, “Marker’s creative use of sound, images and text in his poetic, political and philosophical documentaries made him one of the most inventive of film-makers. They looked forward to what is called ‘the new documentary’, but also looked back to the literary essay in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne.”

Perhaps the best overview of Marker’s filmography is this essay written by Catherine Lupton for The Criterion Collection, in which Lupton argues that “The subjective documentary viewpoint, which Marker did so much to pioneer, is now the norm rather than the outrageous exception”. In addition, the blog chrismarker.org hosts a wealth of writings both about and by Marker. This includes this essay by Marker on the repetition of the words “freedom and power” in his favorite film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It concludes with the characteristic provocation “Obviously, this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart. But do those who don’t deserve anything at all?”

Of the 52 films Marker directed, two have been universally recognized as masterpieces. The first is La Jetée (1962), a 27 minute science fiction film created entirely, with one brief but important exception, out of still black and white photographs. It’s story, perhaps familiar through Terry Gilliam’s 1995 remake 12 Monkeys, is about a post apocalyptic time traveler, drawn into the past by a powerful childhood memory of a woman’s face.

One remarkable thing about the film, given the restrained nature the visuals, is how effectively the story is told through its rich soundtrack. Film critic Michael Koresky examined this soundscape in a video essay for the Criterion Collection titled “Echo Chamber: Listening to La Jetée“.

Marker’s second masterpiece is Sans Soleil (1985). In it a woman reads us the letters of a fictional camera man, clearly representing Marker, who travels the globe in an uninhibited search for “things that quicken the heart”. Perhaps the greatest of all essay films, Sans Soleil ties together musings on video games, shrines to cats, censored pornography, revolutionary politics, Vertigo, stray dogs and countless other things, creating a captivating philosophical reflection on the nature of time and memory.

Both La Jetée and Sans Soleil are available as part of single DVD box set from the Criterion Collection and available streaming on Hulu Plus.

The Louise Blouin Foundation of London is currently presenting a survey exhibition of Marker’s video and photographic work. The video introduction below displays some of the Marker’s photography of North Korea, and a series juxtaposing images of female passengers on a Paris subway with traditional artistic representations of beauty.

More of Marker’s photography can be explored online at the Peter Blum Gallery.

Finally, in honor of his passing, Criterion is sharing a short film by Marker, created during the filming of the Vertigo segment of Sans Soleil. Junkopia (1981) is a wordless observation of discarded objects, which Marker somehow imbues with a hypnotic power.

Hopefully these resources will encourage you to begin your exploration of Chris Marker’s substantial oeuvre. As his guiding obsession is with time and memory, it seems fitting to revisit his works again and again. They always seem to have new secrets to share with us.

Posted November 2, 2012
 
 
 
   
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