We are happy to announce the feature films included in our 2016 program! Each of these films expands the boundaries of nonfiction cinema, inviting audiences to be challenged, inspired, and entertained.
Several films are celebrating their debuts at True/False. The Pearl takes a sensitive look at gender through the eyes of four middle-aged trans women. The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is an impressionistic essay film about the prison-industrial complex. In Peter and the Farm, we unearth a rural tragedy in Vermont.
2016 also brings a marked increase in international titles, including films from China, Iran, Iraq, Australia, Argentina, and the Philippines. Discoveries include Those Who Jump, a landmark collaboration between two German filmmakersand first-time co-director Abou Bakara Sidibé about migrants seeking to scale the fences that separate Africa from Europe. Thy Father’s Chair isset in a transcendently messy Brooklyn apartment. From Argentina comes the intimate family story Nosotras·Ellas. Other films include Behemoth, a staggering journey through Inner Mongolia’s ravaged grasslands; Another Country (Australia), a guided tour of the outback; Between Sisters (Italy),in which a long-buried family secret is excavated; Helmut Berger, Actor about an uneasy relationship between subject and filmmakerand Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John (Canada),which seeks to locate a father who abandoned his family.
Fresh from Sundance comes director Roger Ross Williams’ inspiring, true-life fairy tale Life, Animated, which will play as the fest’s Jubilee film. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s fresh spin on the celebrity bio-pic. And the layered and revelatory Tickled transcends its silly subject matter. Coming from their Toronto film festival launches are Presenting Princess Shaw about an unlikely musical collaboration; Sherpa, an adventure film with a political conscience; and The Music of Strangers from Oscar-winning® T/F favorite Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom).
As part of the fest’s commitment to the cutting edge of nonfiction, True/False is embracing films that experiment with content and form. Titles include Deborah Stratman’s first feature, The Illinois Parables, Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, and Sergio Oksman’sO Futebol.
2016’s previously announced True Vision Award recipient, Mehrdad Oskouei, will be appearing with a couple of films including his newest, Starless Dreams, set in a rehabilitation center in Tehran. Also previously announced as the recipient of our True Life Fund, Sonita follows Sonita Alizadeh, a young Afghan rapper.
Also previously announced for the 2016 Neither/Nor series, the archival program of films that muddles the borders between fiction and nonfiction, True/False Film Fest is collaborating with film critic Nick Pinkerton on a series exploring Mondo cinema. Films in this series include the critically acclaimed Des Morts (1979), as well as cult documentary classics Mondo Cane (1962), The Killing of America (1981), and Africa Addio (1966).
We are proud to announce that Mehrdad Oskouei will receive this year’s True Vision Award in honor of his achievement in, and contribution to, the field of nonfiction filmmaking.
The True Vision award is the only award given out at the fest. Oskouei is the thirteenth recipient of this honor. Last year the award was given to Adam Curtis. Other recent winners of the True Vision Award include Laura Poitras (2010), James Marsh (2011), Victor Kossakovsky (2012), and Amir Bar-Lev (2013).
Oskouei will be appearing at the fest with his newest film, Starless Dreams, as well as a selection of his previous work. Starless Dreams is an intimate portrayal of the lives of seven girls at a rehabilitation center in Tehran, Iran. Starless Dreams acts as the final piece in a documentary trilogy that includes It’s Always Late for Freedom (2008) and The Last Days of Winter (2011), all of which explore questions of crime and delinquency in Iranian youth.
“We are incredibly excited to bring Mehrdad to the festival,” said True/False programmer Pamela Cohn. “His talent is in listening closely to the stories of the ignored and marginalized and then transforming them into something beautiful.”
About his own filmmaking Oskouei stated, “My responsibility as a filmmaker, along with aiding in positive and effective social changes, is to increase public awareness. I am convinced that a documentary filmmaker should at times show images of humanity’s suffering with the hopes of putting an end to such suffering. All my films have been made with this firm belief.”
One of Oskouei’s Tehran-based producers, Siavash Jamali, conveyed the following via email: “Mehrdad and the whole team of Starless Dreams are so delighted that he will receive this unique award.”
“It’s no small feat getting a filmmaker from Tehran to Columbia, MO,” adds Fest director David Wilson. “This kind of cross-cultural exchange and the conversations it will spark are at the core of our mission.” The award is given with support from Restoration Eye Care. The award is designed and cast in bronze by local mid-Missouri artist Larry Young.
For the 2016 edition of our Neither/Nor sidebar, we are collaborating with film critic Nick Pinkerton on a series exploring Mondo (or so-called “shockumentary”) cinema and its offshoots. This is the fourth edition of Neither/Nor, an archival program of films that muddles the borders between fiction and nonfiction. For the third year in a row, Neither/Nor is presented with the generous support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Mondo cinema began in 1962, when the Italian directors Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara and Franco Prosperi released their groundbreaking Mondo Cane, which captures shocking cultural traditions from both the ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ world. In its opening minutes, Mondo Cane claims that “all the scenes in this film are true and are taken only from life,” adding that “the duty of the chronicler is not to sweeten the truth but to report it objectively.” But it’s clear that most, if not all, of the footage in Mondo Cane has been choreographed by its directors. This in-between work played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, received an Oscar nomination and was an international box office hit.
The success of Mondo Cane inspired dozens of startling globetrotting documentaries, which were often referred to as ‘Mondo films.’ At their worst, Mondo films could be thoughtless parades of misery and debauchery (see the Faces of Death series). But within this system, several conscientious directors created urgent, transgressive cinema. High on that list are Jacopetti and Prosperi, whose next collaboration, Africa Addio (1966), was a scathing indictment of the European nations who spent centuries plundering the African continent only to recklessly abandon it during decolonization.
In his 20,000-word monograph, Pinkerton persuasively defends the frequently maligned Mondo tradition and analyzes several of its greatest works, including The Killing of America (1982), a chilling film that uses disturbing footage to call attention to America’s increased gun violence, and Des Morts (1979), a sensitive meditation on how people worldwide process grief.
“When Nick first proposed this series, our instant response was to recoil,” True/False programmer Chris Boeckmann said. “Why would we ask our audiences to sit through such appalling material? But we were stunned by the movies he recommended and quickly realized that the ‘Mondo’ label (or even worse, the ‘shockumentary’ label) is often reductive and misapplied. The films in this series tackle important topics with an intensity and bluntness that’s sorely missing in so many of today’s ‘issue documentaries.'”
All Neither/Nor screenings will be free and accompanied by post-screening conversations, which will be moderated by Pinkerton. Special guests include Belgian director Thierry Zéno(director, Des Morts) and the U.S.-based Sheldon Renan (director, The Killing of America).
Nick Pinkerton is a freelance journalist and film programmer. His writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, ArtForum, Film Comment, Moving Image Source and Reverse Shot, among other publications. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, lives in Queens, NY, and has programmed at a variety of venues throughout the NYC area.
For more information about past edition of Neither/Nor and links to their monographs, visit the Neither/Nor page HERE.
The True/False Film Fest announces Sonita, a film by Rokhsareh Ghaem, as this year’s recipient of the True Life Fund. Sonita marks a decade of powerful films and deserving subjects sponsored by the Fund.
Sonita Alizadeh is a young, Afghan rapper living undocumented in Tehran, Iran. She shares a home with her older sister and niece and spends her days at an NGO for refugees. There, she goes to class, helps with chores, and performs impromptu rap concerts for her friends.
When Sonita’s mother comes to Iran for a visit after years of only having phone contact, we learn of her plan to take Sonita back to Afghanistan and sell her into marriage. Sonita’s brother has found someone to marry, and the family needs money to pay the mahr (similar to a dowry), for his bride. Selling Sonita as a wife will make her brother’s marriage affordable. Sonita has watched this happen with so many of her friends; she uses their experiences and her own as fuel for her lyrics.
What follows is a tumultuous struggle– a daughter who seeks independence, a filmmaker who questions whether to intercede, and a developing musician who longs for her voice to be heard.
Sonita will come to True/False from the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for World Documentary. Both Sonita Alizadeh and Director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami will attend all of the screenings at True/False.
The True Life Fund offers support to a film’s subjects in appreciation of their choice to share their stories with audiences. Funds raised through the True Life Fund will assist Sonita in day-to-day survival and achieving her musical aspirations.
True/False thanks The Crossing, a local Columbia church, for their continued partnership. The Crossing will be sponsoring the True Life Fund for the ninth year in a row.
The True Life Fund is comprised of thousands of individual gifts, matched through a generous grant from the Bertha Foundation. In 2016, True/False hopes to raise more than $25,000 for Sonita. To give, visit www.truelifefund.org, text (573) 818-2151, or donate at the True/False screening.
Last year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence received the True Life Fund. The fund went to support the film’s subject Adi Rukun and his family in their relocation process.
The True/False Film Fest will take place March 3 – 6 in downtown Columbia, Missouri.
This year True/False music expands its signature, rootsy folk sound, reaching out into the wide sea of American talent and pulling in a diverse display of fiercely independent, internationally influenced musicians.
With acts ranging from the Ghanaian gyil/xylophone of L.A. based SK Kakraba, to the big Balkan sounds of Boulder’s ten piece brass band Gora Gora Orkestra, to the Iraqi lute-like oud of Rahim AlHaj out of Santa Fe, the globally infused buskers represent a new era of American folk, one highlighting cultural variety and innovation.
Cross genre acts dot the line up with musicians like the alternative pop/R&B/gospel of DeQn Sue and the avant-garde, electric blues guitar of Marisa Anderson, sounds that unhinge expectations and merge together the heritage of American sounds. The distinct roots of the True/False tone rings out too with fest favorites The Creek Rocks (Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu) and new favorites The River Kittens, a sweetly harmonizing trio hailing from St. Louis.
The Blue Note will co-host an Opening Night Party featuring Louisiana natives Seratones, a band whose spirited live performance beams with the essence of original – and future- rock n’ roll!
Headlining the Blue Note show is Lee Fields & the Expressions, strong soul with a long legacy that grooves across the stage with the natural ease of slow jam heartbreak and the upbeat rhythms of love.
Check back for ongoing additions and a complete showcase schedule. And be sure to secure a Busker Band for entry into all music related events, available here.
As True/False grows, so does our creative fervor and our ambition for the new. Lately, we’ve drawn increased inspiration from other forms of storytelling, and in 2016 we’ll unveil the Good Wizard arcade. This home of T/F transmedia will be styled after a classic 80s arcade, but filled with virtual reality and participatory installations intent on building a new narrative language for these emerging forms.
As we explore forms of storytelling that are ‘Off the Trail’, we’ve concocted a true transmedia happening. It’s part immersive theater, part live-action video game, part puzzle room. More than anything, this event transforms typical storytelling and challenges you to take an active role in the narrative.
LOST LETTERS is an hour-long performance, to be experienced in groups of up to 10 people. With your party of other adventurous fest-goers, you will be challenged to work your way through a narrative in 60 minutes or less. Actors and clues of many varieties will guide your way, but completing the experience will rely on creative thinking and teamwork.
Because of the intimate nature of the performance, reservations for LOST LETTERS are ultra-limited. Tickets for a single session will be $38 for all passholders and non-passholders alike. Once you’ve purchased a ticket, you’ll be able to reserve a time slot to attend for a specific hour. Lost Letters will run 8 times per day on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of True/False (March 4 – 6). Time slots may be selected starting Feb 15, following the announcement of the film schedule. As this is a team event, you are welcome to sign up with friends (up to 10 people), or you will work as a team with others who have chosen the same time.
Film, music, and art installations are the three creative tributaries feeding, growing, and evolving the festival. December in the True/False office is full of passionate brainstorming and discussions as we work to curate this living thing. Talented makers are beginning to emerge, and we’re too excited to keep a lid on it. Here’s a brief teaser of what’s to come at the 2016 fest.
After reading that T/F’s theme this year, Off the Trail, was all about exploring secret missions and hidden spaces, Boston-based filmmaker Jesse Epstein was compelled to write to us. For the last several years, she and a team of cinematographers, photographers and musicians have been sneaking into the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania to document its transformation into a casino…and just to poke around. Bethlehem Steel, and its shipbuilding corporation were two of the most powerful symbols of American industrial manufacturing muscle. Their demise, and final closure in 2001 after filing bankruptcy, was the beginning of the era in this country when the economy shifted away from this kind of large-scale factory manufacturing and also failed to compete with cheap foreign labor, causing tens of thousands of steel workers to lose their jobs and their livelihoods.
Epstein says, “It’s been a wild adventure: walking more than a mile down train tracks and climbing over fences with a Bolex, hiding from security inside old lockers until the sun went down.” She and her cohorts have collected lots of original material, consisting of super 8, digital video, stills, music composed with recorded ambient sounds, and more. “The plant was built as a sort of cathedral to industry and it’s hard to even describe the feeling of being in there.”
After watching Epstein’s short, 2,200 °F, we were intrigued with the beauty of her footage and the scope of the project and commissioned Jesse to edit a special piece for our 2016 Great Wall film installation. The piece will “aim to capture the sense of excitement and intensity we felt when sneaking in, exploring this industrial ruin, and finding the various clues of the people who had been there.”
Jesse will be at the festival in person to not only present and exhibit The Bethlehem Steel Film, but will also be one of the Ringleaders conducting film introductions and question and answer sessions, as well as one of our workshop leaders for DIY day since she is also passionate about working as a youth media educator. A Sundance Award-Winning filmmaker, Jesse received an MA in Documentary Film from NYU, and was named one of “25 Filmmakers to Watch” by FILMMAKER Magazine. Her films have screened in many film festivals worldwide, at The Museum of Modern Art, The Peabody Museum, and Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. Jesse’s shorts, Wet Dreams and False Images and 34x25x36 played at True/False in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Her three-part project on media and physical perfection called Body Typed is distributed with New Day Films.
Hearing Things hail from Brooklyn, NY where they have lead the neo-surf rock wave over the past few years. Combining organ, drums and sax, they are part loungey jazz throwback and part Middle Eastern rockabilly, a sound that is both foreign and familiar all at once, an auditory time machine that seamlessly travels between the past, present and even future. The musicality of the band is strong and undeniable, each member rising from a solid lineage that they groove around with precision.
Front man Matt Bauder began his musical career studying saxophone under classic bebop artists, making roots in the world of standard jazz. Since then he has expanded far beyond the genre to explore the challenging realms of sound installation, experimental composition and soundscape creation. Bauder has also lent his talents to the likes of Iron and Wine, Arcade Fire and is a frequent collaborator with NYC visual artist Aki Sasamoto. Rounded and ambitious, his breadth of knowledge can be heard gyrating behind each note he releases on stage.
Keyboardist J.P. Schlegelmilch has been playing music since the age of six, rounding out his education at the Berklee College of Music and SUNY Purchase on piano, accordion, and electric keyboards. Like Bauder, his work transcends classification touching on hybrids like indie-jazz-folk with his outfit Old Time Musketry, to playing with indie-classical chamber group Fireworks Ensemble, to even appearing on film soundtracks, most notably the critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild. After years in various backing positions Hearing Things’ drummer Vinnie Sperrazza founded his first band just last year, releasing his debut album Apocryphal on Loyal Label. His compositions hint at jazz progressions but there is a signature, textural approach with a trace of rock ‘n’ roll that adds an extra layer of depth and listenability.
Like all of the programming at T/F, Hearing Things exhibit a high level of artistry and craft but it is their desire to explore that space just outside the boundaries that aligns best with the fest. Their sound is a reimagining of genre that moves beyond its history, landing in completely new and uncharted territory: a blending of tradition with a visionary twist. Hearing Things’ possess a technical clarity but it is how they challenge their own abilities that make them an embodiment of the T/F experience.
Even though Hearing Things is brimming with musical technique, listening to them is far from belabored. There is a spirit that haunts their songs, seeps out from the stage and makes you want to rumble onto the nearest dance floor. As their bandcamp provokes, “Prudes, ghosts and tittyshakers; the hustlers and sweet talkers alike, will sway to this brand new beat.”
Artist in Residence, Taylor Ross, Returns
True/False is excited to welcome back Taylor Ross, an artist who embraces the power and mystery of what it means to wander. Ross’ T/F 2016 piece is built around the joy of exploration; she trails off the trail and into the fields and forests of Missouri and Iowa. There, she gathers plants like Milkweed, Dogbane, Yucca, and Velvetleaf. These dead plants ripen anew as she works them into fibers, and eventually garments. The beauty of these hand-harvested, handmade garments reminds us that clothing is, in fact, the first architecture of the body.
Ross says, “The purpose of collecting, spinning, and weaving coverings for people to try on is to offer a direct, physical, emotional, tactile, olfactory experience of that land and materials surrounding these people as they shuffle in from all over. We are so cut off from the bounty that lays beyond the well-trod path and this is very exciting for me, because it means that there is something to be illuminated, offered, shared that might give an experience of place in a direct way.”
Taylor’s original piece will be on interactive display –go ahead, try it on!– during the festival.
About a month ago, Taylor drove down to Columbia from her home in Iowa, and gave a community artist talk followed by a fiber-finding session. Together, we scoured the area alongside one of our own Katy trailheads, and other local fields and forests, for the plants Taylor will work into her final T/F product. Taylor will be visiting Columbia several times between now and the festival to wander and find her materials. If you’re interested in participating in her next trip, email email@example.com.
Stay tuned for more news about artists, musicians, and films in the new year! See you at the fest…
Freedom Summer, a documentary by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), looks back at the summer of 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized hundreds of student activist to take segregated Mississippi by storm, registering voters, creating freedom schools, and establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
*Please note, the Friday screening is specifically for CPS High Schoolers & Educators. We feel this moment in Columbia is a particularly salient one for students, and we’re excited to offer one of these presentations just for our high schools. Please bring school IDs for admission to the Friday screening.
All of our community is welcome to the free screenings on Saturday & Sunday, as space is available.
On November 18 at the Missouri Theatre, True/False and the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism (a new addition to the University of Missouri’s Journalism School) are co-presenting a special screening of the documentary Killing Them Safely. Directed by Mizzou Journalism School graduate and Columbia resident Nick Berardini, Killing Them Safely is a gripping, nuanced look at a company, TASER International, as it confronts charges that its eponymous product, an electroshock weapon, has killed people.
For Berardini, the film is the result of an all-consuming six-year journey. In August 2008, a police officer fired a taser at Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly resident, who lost consciousness and was pronounced dead two hours later. Then an MU broadcast journalism student working at KOMU (underneath current Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel), Berardini reported on the incident. Shortly thereafter, he started production on the documentary, which took him all across the continent. Berardini learned extensive details about similar cases, acquired many hours of archival material (including deposition footage of TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith) and, crucially, secured an interview with TASER International Vice President Steve Tuttle, a peculiar and fascinating spokesman whose performance serves as the film’s backbone. Berardini then edited his engrossing, disturbing, sometimes darkly amusing film alongside True/False alumni Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real), who is now also a Columbia resident, serving as “Filmmaker In Chief” at the Murray Center.
Killing Them Safely premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 under a different title, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. It received glowing reviews and was then picked up by distributor Sundance Selects, who will release the movie later this year. In early November, T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann met Berardini at Uprise Bakery to discuss his filmmaking journey.
To order tickets to the November 18 screening, visit this page
T/F: I studied in the strategic communications sequence of the journalism school, and you studied in the broadcast journalism sequence. In strat comm, they teach you how to handle interviews with journalists. You need to have three points, and you’re supposed to find sly ways to make them over and over. You know, “That’s an interesting question, Bob, but what I think we really need to be focused on is….” Meanwhile, I assume the broadcast sequence is teaching you how to break the public relations representatives, to get past those three points. I’m curious how you approached this big interview with Steve Tuttle, TASER’s spokesperson. Was he using the same technique I just described?
NB: Yes, he’s definitely in that mold of ‘here are the things we can say that are most effective.’ This is a life-saving tool that prevents the use of deadly force. That’s their very simple mission statement: “Protect truth, protect lives.” He says four or five of the same exact things over and over again. What works about rhetoric in his case is that most of the times when he has to say those four or five things, he says them in a very simple context. It’s a 12-second soundbite for the news. It’s a statement that’s issued to a newspaper. He doesn’t have to sit one-on-one with a person like me.
I didn’t go in with the goal of attack. I didn’t go in looking for “gotcha” moments. Going in, I think my biggest strength was genuine curiosity. If I tell you I want to understand your point of view, I’m going to sit there and try to understand your point of view. So I take everything at face value, and it works for twenty minutes. Over the course of a day, it becomes exhausting. Over the course of four hours, if you can only say the same things over and over and can’t really elaborate, then what are you left with?
T/F: Aside from length, how does your interviewing approach differ from broadcast journalism?
NB: If I were to do a TV news story about TASER International, I would want to go in with all the research done so that if Steve Tuttle says “A,” then I could counter with, “But that’s not true based on this thing.” But I’m making a film that is less about what and more about why. I’m more interested in motivation and process than I am in information.
T/F: I think the trailer is very clever, but I was surprised to see how it sort of throws Steve under the bus in its final seconds.
NB: These guys are true believers.They believe in this way of policing. And when you have a true believer, you have to treat them with the respect of a person going through their own thought process. Steve is a guy who lies for a living, but what is the reason behind the lie? Why does he feel compelled to lie? Because they clearly know at this point that their weapon kills people. It’s a question of what’s the biggest threat. Do we deserve to exist? Is the world a better place because we exist? Steve is not an evil person. He’s a complicated person dealing with complicated subject matter that he simplifies in his mind to protect the simplest goal, which is that we must survive because the world is better with us than without us.
T/F: You use a lot of deposition footage where John Burton, a lawyer featured prominently throughout the film, questions TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith. How does his approach to interviewing differ from your own?
NB: The movie is about this company—its history, its rise, its controversy and where it is today—and for the movie to work, they need a good adversary. The lawyers are great adversaries. They’re the only thing that truly threatens the company. When you listen to their interviewing style, you realize they’re there because they want to win. They do amazing work, but they wouldn’t sit there if it was a bad case. They’re taking cases they’re pretty confident they’re going to win. When they’re questioning, they’re trying to prove a very technical or specific point in legalese in order to win a case six months down the road in trial. To prove negligence. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to enlighten myself and the audience to a way of thinking, to a point of view that they’re not familiar with, that’s different from their own. The styles are different because the intentions are different.
T/F: When you were studying the lives of Rick and Tom Smith, did you find a way to relate to them on a personal level?
NB: Yes, there’s definitely a tunnel vision aspect to both of us. In many ways, this movie is a commentary about all of us. It’s about the way we see ourselves—the best version of ourselves—versus what we really are. And I constantly experienced that disconnect with my film. For years, I told myself this movie is going to be amazing for all these reasons. And you think that way because the sheer panic that sets in when you realize it’s not going as planned could put you on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Especially when you’ve put, like I have and like they did, your life into something. In order to deal with the collateral damage they created, TASER International started telling little lies that became much bigger over time. Once the consequences were no longer hypothetical, there were two ways out: own up to it, face it and admit that you made a mistake, or cling to the best version of yourself, that idea that you had when you started.
T/F: You started this film as a reaction to a very upsetting local news story. There’s been a lot of reporting on TASER International in the years since.
NB: The film is still timely and relevant. It’s not because policing issues are at the forefront of the news. This is a story that’s as old as human beings. It’s about the promise of technology, the promise of innovation, the desire to want things to succeed before we’ve fully through the consequences of those things because they’re new and the consequences are hypothetical. This is the ultimate absurd example because it’s an electric weapon. It has the most clear hypothetical ‘what can go wrong’ questions attached to it.
The film is also about what you do when you’re at this crossroads and your livelihood and your way of thinking is on the line. And why do we constantly take things at face value from the people who have the most to lose? That’s what most blows my mind. I don’t want to say everyone believed them, but the law enforcement community jumped on board with the company right away. And the company was the only one providing information about their product. Obviously they had the most to the lose yet were somehow the most trustworthy. I just don’t get it.
T/F: Killing Them Safely explores different problems, but it doesn’t offer any solutions.
NB: The traditional way of making an issue film, and what distributors typically want, is to offer the simplest presentation of that issue so people can then get active, sign a petition and feel good about themselves. There are films that should use this approach. But the problem with making a movie like that is that movies should be three-dimensional. They should be more than just bullet points. And what makes that impossible with Killing Them Safely is that it’s partly past tense. It’s retrospective. It’s about something that has already happened and the consequences of what’s already happened. There’s no way to rally the troops and take 500,000 tasers off the streets in the United States. That’s not possible. The movie is not going to make the same mistake by offering a simple solution when there isn’t one.
T/F: But do you want the film to have any sort of social impact?
NB: I certainly do broadly. I’m no anti-capitalist, but we’ve taken capitalism to this extreme now where we’re surprised when the actor with the most to lose acts in self-interest. And it’s not just the general public being surprised, it’s the fact that our regulatory system for something like tasers is basically the product liability system. Which inherently means someone is going to die before anyone does anything about this thing. This is an electrical weapon, it’s not a Lego. This is a weapon used in violent situations and yet it’s regulated the same way a toaster is. That goes back to an attitude of victim-blaming that we have and a distrust of the tort system that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. While there’s excessive litigation between individuals, corporations have insane protection from lawsuits. People have no idea how difficult it is to bring a product liability case and be successful. And it has to be that way because the system has to inspire ingenuity. Because most people aren’t making weapons, most people are making other products.
I don’t think there’s some sort of broad overhaul that needs to happen; taser is a very niche product. But I also think the film is a condemnation of the way we place trust in those acting in self-interest when they’re operating under the guise of business, job-provider, life-saver. We just fall for rhetoric way too easily. So it’s more about a general skepticism about people whose job it is to be skeptical— police administrators, politicians, city council members when they buy these weapons — than it is about writing a law that could prevent this sort of thing.
True/False caught up with Sarah Gavron, Director of SUFFRAGETTE, which opens today in select US theaters, to talk about connections between her documentary work and her current endeavor.
T/F:Both SUFFRAGETTE and VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (T/F 2013) are based on real stories. Could you talk about the process of making films that are based in reality, when one turns out to be narrative and the other a documentary?
SG: There’s a lot of overlap, certainly, in the research phase. With Suffragette, we spent six years working on the script and most of that was research. You know documentaries about historical subjects are spent researching, but I wanted to embed Suffragette in the details of the time and make it feel as authentic as possible.
I wanted to break from the fictional period drama which keeps its distance and, instead, really immerse you in that period. So, I used quite a lot of documentary techniques: a handheld camera, a lot of time, giving actors a lot of freedom to capture the performance, rather than controlling and staging it for the camera.
As you well know in documentary, that’s what you’re doing a lot of the time, unless you’re reconstructing sections. You’re capturing it. And so that kind of fluidity and freedom means keeping an eye open and pushing the camera to follow whatever’s interesting and emerging or unfolding in front of you. We tried to give it that very real aesthetic so that you felt immersed in that world. It felt believable.
Did you find yourself varying from the script much as you worked?
Well, there were two processes. We rehearsed for quite a long time, and that was really about meticulously pouring over the script and fine tuning with the actors to make it feel right and as bespoke as possible.
Then, when we were on the set, there was a little bit of interpretive dialogue, but mostly interpretative staging and feel. We sort of improvised– we didn’t improvise in terms of the shape of the scene or the dialogue, but the actors came up with a lot.
There are so many ways of making a film, but if you look at something like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Wes Anderson film, it’s storyboarded down to the last frame before you begin. The film itself is very much like the storyboard. Suffragette was far from that, at the other end of the spectrum. In it, there was a script and we were following that shape, but in terms of the actual moving, framing, and staging of each scene, it was organic. It evolved out of the process of being there on the set, interacting, and finding it in the moment.
Did you find that filming Suffragette in that way was easier for you?
I think it’s the way I naturally work. I think it felt right and exciting to this piece. You can make a film in a highly fictional, heightened way where you watch it, but you admire it. But we really wanted you to just connect with it, with these working women, to make this piece of history relevant and visceral and resonant today.
That aesthetic translated to every department. They weren’t wearing the usual film make-up, and for the clothing we used a lot of original stock, so actors were wearing clothing from the time, rather than having made lots of pieces.
I think what documentaries have taught me is to be alive to the moment. You have to be watching and absorbing and reassessing. You have to be adapting to what’s unfolding in front of you.
Often with a narrative film you have an enormous crew, and it’s much more flexible, and more planning has to go into every moment because of the scale of it. A documentary, then, is very freeing in that respect: you can go with the flow. I tried to bring that into the filmmaking process as much as possible.
Did you always intend to shoot it like a documentary, or did you have a moment when you realized that it needed to be done that way?
It was always the intent, from very early on. We looked for as many real locations as possible, because if you’re going to shoot in that way, you want as much of the 360 environment, rather than films where there’s a set in the corner and that’s it. It’s got limits.
For instance, I wanted us to shoot in the Parliament. We asked for access, and they said no one ever has; they told us we’d have to build a set or find some corner in another building. But we petitioned them, suffragette style, and we did get access. And then we went in there, with 340 artists, stunt people, horses, period vehicles, and we staged a protest in the very place that barred women for centuries.
When we were shooting that, we had four cameras, so we were really letting the action run. We had rehearsed it to make sure no one was going to get hurt, but we let the action run and then captured it.
Suffragette will be opening at Ragtag in early December.