Updates

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

We’re Having a Sale!

We’re having a summer sale in our online store. We’ve marked down numerous items and are offering free shipping for orders over $100. This sale runs through The Boone Dawdle (August 16) so swing by and take a look!

Posted August 1, 2014

Art Installation Proposal Deadline Extended

We’ve extended the deadline for True/False 2015 art installation proposals. You now have until September 8 to give us your take on “The Long Now”. Check out our Call to Artists page for more info.

Posted July 29, 2014

Apply now to become a True/False screener

T/F is in search of a few more members of the 2015 Canary Screening Committee. We are looking for folks who are are thoughtful, articulate writers, can help us identify films of interest to the festival programmers, and are available for 2 meetings per month. Screeners are required to watch at least 50 submissions over 5 months, and will receive a pass to the 2015 fest. See the application for more detail - Apply here by August 6. Questions? e-mail us at: submissions@truefalse.org

Posted July 24, 2014

Remembering Malik Bendjelloul

We’re still reeling from the punch to the gut we received a few weeks ago, the news of the sudden death of our friend, the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul. We met Malik in 2012 when he came to T/F with his first and sadly only feature, Searching for Sugar Man, the story of the rediscovery of lost singer-songwriter who inspired a generation half a world away. Both the film and its energetic and endearing director connected profoundly with Fest goers, especially at a packed closing night screening at the august Missouri Theatre.

Malik also participated as a judge in our signature game show, Gimme Truth!, happily filling in at the last moment after a cancellation. He immediately struck up a friendship with GT coordinator and all around T/F get-shit-done specialist Jaime Goncalves. Jamie recently noted “Malik treated an intern 12 years his junior as an equal. What could better show a man’s values?”

You can watch Malik’s performance on Gimme Truth! below.

To our surprise, Malik returned to T/F and the Missouri Theatre stage in 2013, just a week after winning the Best Documentary Oscar for Sugar Man. He also met with area high school students as part of the True/False Academy.

Malik with David at T/F 2013. photo by Rebecca Allen

In the weeks since his death, memories of Malik have begun coming in around the web. Michael Dunaway at Paste Magazine wrote Malik a Thank You Note, recalling their meeting at T/F 2012. And at The Talkhouse, directors and fellow T/F alum Ondi Timoner, Peter Nicks and Alison Klayman shared their impressions.

Finally, the Swedish television program KOBRA produced an entire episode in memoriam. It contains samples of Malik’s work and interviews on his approach and philosophy. You can watch the episode here.

Posted June 10, 2014

‘Only the Young’ Online from P.O.V. Until June 4

Only the Young (T/F 2012), a charming and candid look at the lives of three California teenagers, is available free streaming until June 5 from the PBS doc series P.O.V.

In his “Forever Young” dispatch from True/False 2012, critic Eric Hynes noted:

Viewed in a certain light, Only the Young’s attractive cast, hip subculture, and sunny California setting, could work alongside MTV’s reality soaps. But you won’t find any typecasting here, no genre boxes, no preconceived notions of youth imposed upon the subjects—or at least none that the supremely articulate characters wouldn’t cop to on their own. For Garrison, Kevin and Skye (who, at 16, has an emotional intelligence that outdistances pretty much everyone I know), fashion is fun but not defining, religion is relevant but hardly central, and class is negotiated but not exactly transcended. Co-directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet are both in their early 20s, just a few years removed from the experiences of their subjects, this age proximity serves to repel intergenerational objectification as well as “state of the youth” sloganeering, freeing the filmmakers to make a movie out of what and how they see. They frame on-camera parries as deadpan two-shots, playfully score slow-mo skate-stunts to classic soul (because why the hell not), and never stoop to exclamation when ellipses work just fine.

Also covering the Fest, Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully boldly announced “after only one viewing, I’m ready to file Only The Young in the all-time coming-of-age canon”.  And T/F associate programmer Chris Boeckmann, collecting his thoughts on the film, declared Only the Young “one of the most exciting documentary debuts of the past decade”.

But please, don’t take their word for it. See Only the Young below.

Posted May 6, 2014

May is Doc Month at Ragtag Cinema

An exciting series is happening each week in May at Ragtag Cinema. Thanks to the support of our friends at Landmark Bank, May is officially Doc Month at Ragtag, featuring the theatrical releases of five compelling new documentaries. The series includes three T/F 2014 selections returning to CoMo, a portrait of a fascinating artist and a film from our very own T/F co-conspirator David Wilson!

Let’s take a look at the films:

Opening May 2: We Always Lie to Strangers

wealwayslie

David Wilson, a founder of Ragtag and True/False, and AJ Schnack, a Mizzou graduate and True/False alum (Kurt Cobain About a Son, T/F 2007amp;) co-direct this fascinating, tender documentary portrait of Branson, Missouri. Located in the Ozarks, Branson hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year, but its population barely numbers 10,500. As they follow four different families over the course of five years, Wilson and Schnack offer a nuanced look at the city as its residents grapple with economic uncertainty and social change. “Elegant. The filmmakers’ biographical ties to the region, though never explicitly spelled out, show through in a deep-rooted mood of chivalry, the kind of bittersweet, affectionate tone one associates with home. ” (Leah Churner, Reverse Shot) Opening night 5pm screening only will include a special musical performance from the Lennon Family, who are featured in the film.

Opening May 9: Particle Fever (T/F 2014)

particle

You could hear the cry go out last October when two physicists were given the Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs boson: “Would someone please explain?!” Fortunately, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson had trained his cameras on the Large Hadron Collider since its opening, awaiting this moment. The LHC is the largest science experiment in history: a 17-mile-long tunnel on the French-Swiss border with immense data collection systems, designed and operated with 10,000 scientists and engineers from 150 countries, in hopes of replicating the instant after the Big Bang in order to see what we can learn about the atom—and life itself. “Particle Fever is that rare, exhilarating science doc that’s neither dumbed down nor drabbed up.” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York)

Opening May 16: Finding Vivian Maier

findingvivianmaier

In 2007, young Chicago historian John Maloof attended a storage unit auction and bid $400 on a box of photographs and negatives. Never publicly displayed, they were the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs during her lifetime. Maier is now regarded as one of history’s greatest street photographers. In Maloof’s riveting documentary, he uncovers the strange, fascinating backstory by interviewing those who knew Maier. “More connect-the-dots detective thriller than traditional doc, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s revelatory riddle of a film unmasks a brilliant photographer.” (Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly)

Opening May 23: The Unknown Known (T/F 2014)

UnknownKnown_MIRROR_300DPI_sml-600x340

“All generalizations are false. Including this one.” So runs the central paradox in the body of wisdom known as “Rumsfeld’s Rules.” The secretary of defense under Gerald Ford (he was appointed at age 33) and George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld claims his rules guided the policies he championed, including launching wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Oscar-winning director Errol Morris offers up history through the prism of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, but this is more an inquiry into the philosophy of language than an unpacking of historical fact. “A cat-and-mouse game in which each player thinks he’s the cat, making it both thrilling and disconcerting to watch.” (AO Scott, The New York Times)

Opening May 30: Jodorowsky’s Dune (T/F 2014)

jodorwsky-dune

It was a match made in trippy heaven: in 1975, cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune. Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, the graphic artist Moebius, and Pink Floyd signed on to help. A phone-book-thick script was prepared and the 14-hour hallucinatory project that Jodorowsky called “the most important picture in the history of humanity” seemed to be on its way. But it was not to be. Director Frank Pavich’s inspiring tale of ambition and failure revisits the film that could have rendered Star Wars superfluous. “Fun. A loving testament to ambition.” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York)

Each film will play for one week. Daily showtimes for the following week are posted here every Monday by 5pm. Ticket sales become available each day beginning at midnight online here or at the Ragtag box office beginning at 10am each day.

See you at the movies!

Posted April 29, 2014

Back to School with Amanda Rose Wilder of ‘Approaching the Elephant’

Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.

Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?

ARW: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.

T/F: Where’s that at?

ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.

We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.

I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.

T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?

ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.

From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.

I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.

T/F: So, what’s True/False about your film?

ARW: Oh man, good question . . .

Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.

I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.

So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.

ATE-LUCY

Lucy in Approaching the Elephant

T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.

ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”

As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.

T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .

ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.

So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.

What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.

But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.

T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?

ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.

Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”

T/F: Haha.

ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.

T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?

ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.

How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.

T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?

ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.

T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.

ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.

ATE-JIO (1)

Jio in Approaching the Elephant

Posted April 12, 2014

‘Lies My Subject Told Me’ Panel

The delicate dance between filmmaker and subject took center stage in the “Lies My Subject Told Me Panel” at T/F 2014. Filmmakers Robert Greene (Actress), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout) chatted about deceit and deception, what they decided to leave out and poetic vs. factual truth in documentary art. Here are a few excerpts featuring each of the three directors:

Watch a video of the complete conversation here, or take it with you as an mp3 here. Shout out to our dedicated media partner Columbia Access Television for capturing all of these conversations.

Posted April 10, 2014

‘Gypsy Davy’ Writer/Director Rachel Leah Jones talks Flamenco and Filmmaking

David Serva Jones is one of the only Americans to ever become a world-class flamenco guitarist. He is also a heartbreaker who has left numerous women and children in his wake. One of these children is writer/director Rachel Leah Jones, who set out over the course of a decade to get to know her estranged father and collect stories from the people who he left behind. This includes her own mother, a Brooklyn girl who became a flamenco dancer and began a family with David in Berkeley in the early 70s. Gypsy Davy (T/F 2012) combines these investigations with haunting archival footage and elegant and biting narration. The result is a compelling examination of one man’s hard-to-pin-down legacy.

This film is now available on Hulu (embedded below) for viewers in the U.S. You can also watch it on a wide variety of digital platforms, including iTunesAmazonYouTube and Sundance Now and buy a DVD/CD combo pack including a soundtrack of David’s incredible music.

A few months back, I got the chance to speak with Jones about her film via Skype while she waited for a train in Tel Aviv.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you get interested in telling a personal story in a film? Is this something you always thought you’d do?

RLJ: Well, I set out to tell this story without “taking it personally”, without talking about myself. Then finally, towards the very end, I had to capitulate and accept the fact that I was the reason there was a story. Everyone else was just living their lives and I was the one who wanted to stop and examine things.

Gypsy Davy was the first film that I started shooting and the third that I actually finished. It was good that it was already my third movie, because that way it was less painful to finish.

T/F: So when did you actually start filming?

RLJ: So it’s quite literal in the film, the very first shot in the movie is pretty much the very first shot I took. This is when I get called to his side after the accident where he broke his pelvis and shattered his wrist. That doesn’t mean I edited chronologically, but when I asked myself “What is the story I want to tell?” and “Where does it begin and end?” it made a lot of sense to say “Okay, where did it really begin?”

So, I just started filming. It took a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to do and muster up the courage to go and meet everybody. I had a life to live, jobs to work, other movies to make, kids to have; there was a whole decade of life that happened at the same time. And although this wasn’t how I intended to make the film, in the end I think there is some satisfaction, both for myself and hopefully for the viewer, in seeing us change over time.

T/F: So how does that process interact with the narration? It’s written in the second person as a letter to your father. Was that planned from the beginning?

RLJ: No, I had hoped that there wouldn’t have to be narration. Eventually, it became clear to me that that was out of the question. At the end of the decade, at the end of the day, I understood that the only person who went through any kind of change was me.

It starts with the big drama of his broken wrist. Will he ever play guitar again? And then more drama: he adopts his fifth kid, he gets married for the fourth time. All of this stuff happens to him and yet nothing happens to him. The man doesn’t change over the course of that decade. These twists and turns are all sort of par for the course; it’s what he’s been doing for 50 years.

So then, it was me who transformed in this period. I had to go figure out where I was at 40 where I may not have been at 30. I had to create that character and write a voiceover for her. And that was kind of the worst, not because I don’t like to write. I can write voiceovers for other people really well, but writing your own voice is tricky. How much of it was going to be true? Who was that girl going to be?

For the longest time I couldn’t figure if I should do it in the second person addressing him or in the third person addressing the audience. I kept changing it this way and that way. Like, “I was born in Berkeley California”, I don’t need to tell him that, he was there. But, “When I was ten years old, I started telling people he was dead”, that’s not as intense or interesting as “I started telling people you were dead”.

So, I did what probably a lot of documentary filmmakers secretly do when they’re finishing their personal movies. I went back to my therapist. I came with my laptop and these two voiceovers and said, “I’m sure one of them is truer than the other”. She just looked at me and said “why do you have to choose?”

Finally, I broke it down on paper, and realized every time I spoke in the third person I had put archive and every time I spoke in the second person my father was on screen. So it had already been resolved structurally, I just didn’t see it. And save for one or two adjustments, it was already written and written in both voices. When I ask people if the narration was in the second or third person they can’t remember. My therapist was right, why do you have to choose?

T/F: Could you talk some about how you structured the film? You use a non-linear structure to create mystery quite effectively.

RLJ: I don’t think I was looking to be mysterious at all. There are two obvious ways you could go. You could go from the present and roll it back from 100 to 0 or you could go forward from 0 to 100. But I asked myself, where does my story begin? It begins with my mom and me and we’re smack in the middle. So it begins with woman number three. And then what happened? Woman number four. And then what happened? Woman number five. But wait, where did it really all begin? Woman number one. But listen, there’s also woman number two . . .

That logic presented itself almost immediately. And save for a little bit of tweaking around woman number two, I never had to rearrange it. Something that seems really thought out was completely intuitive and just sort of took care of itself.

T/F: Watching the film, I found my attitudes towards David’s art very interesting. The virtuoso of his guitar playing is undeniable, but I also regarded it with a Darwinian cynicism, that it’s fundamentally a seduction technology or something. And that ambivalence comes through in the narration as well. So I wanted to ask you, do you enjoy David’s music?

RLJ: Today, totally. When I was younger, flamenco altogether, David’s or not David’s, I had a hard time with. I don’t know that I ever hated it, but I had a hard time with it. I had a hard time with it for white middle class reasons: the funky aesthetics; the throaty, growling vocals.

But it totally grew on me, and I totally learned to appreciate it, because, having heard it all my life, I also knew it deep down inside. I don’t play music, I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t do music or dance. I’m the brainy, mouthy one, those are my tools. But if I hear flamenco, I anticipate what’s coming. Now I can really enjoy flamenco, including his. Also, I can actually recognize his playing, which I couldn’t do when I was younger.

Bottom line is, he’s a really, really good musician. He’s not a flashy player. He doesn’t really care for the notion of solo guitar. For him guitar is all about accompaniment. Flamenco is basically about rhythm and song, or cante in Spanish, and the other stuff: guitar, dance, are additions. He understands himself in that supporting role, first as an accompanist, the person that brings out the best in the singer. Also, he really understands negative space. He understands the lack of sound as the place where the last sound you made reverberates. It’s a gentle and intelligent understanding of what music is about.

So I appreciate him as a musician. What I don’t appreciate is everybody’s romance of the artist as somebody who can’t do family and can’t do commitment. I don’t buy the notion that there’s an either/or. I’m not a brilliant filmmaker, but I’m assuming I’m not a bad filmmaker. I still have a kid, I still change diapers, I was still pregnant and nursing in the editing room. Very few women and way too many men get away with this notion that it’s either/or.

The music is fantastic and wonderful and it’s a perfect vehicle for him to express himself emotionally. All of that I buy, just not the either/or thing.

T/F: Last thing I wanted to ask about is the archival of your childhood that you use in the film. What is it that makes it so evocative? I’m always at a loss for why super 8 footage has such a cinematic quality.

RLJ: There’s a mixture of footage there, some is 16mm that my mom and her friends shot with an experimental filmmaker named Damon Rarey who was pretty active in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. He shot the garage sale footage where the two women go chasing after the guy who, because they’re so busy fighting over him, manages to rip off all of their stuff. They go running after him, and finally realize when he’s out of reach that all they have is each other.

I’d never even seen that footage until quite late in the editing. There was a point where I was like “How should this movie end?” and I had this vague recollection that I had asked my mom this very question, but I didn’t remember her answer. So I went back to some interview with her that I had thrown out a long time ago and found her answer, where she mentioned the garage sale film. I didn’t think much of it at the time of the interview, but now that I was editing I was like “I need that footage!” Someone located the one remaining copy on a farm in Northern California and telecined it for me. When I saw it I was like, it’s the story! It’s the movie of the movie! I had already written the voiceover about being born in the middle of a garage sale, so it was too perfect.

A lot of the other footage is Super 8 that my grandfather shot when he’d come out to visit from New York. The thing about all of the archive in the film is that Gypsy Davy is also a portrait of a generation. It’s a generation of bohemian baby boomers. It’s a self-aware yet unselfconscious generation; these people felt they had the right to reinvent themselves culturally, to change their names, even to assume new ethnic identities, to some extent. You can see it in the footage and photographs, it’s the bold and the beautiful. It’s not my generation, which gets all uptight and confused with identity politics. We’re much more self-conscious about the way we image ourselves. Whereas our parents were of that modernist era that took itself for granted and had a ball playing make believe. We, their children, on the other hand, are the products of post-modernism’s deconstructions, reconstructions and, let’s admit it, malcontents.

Posted March 31, 2014
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