On Friday True/False expanded into more and more venues, events, screenings, concerts, panels and parties. This makes our job in the Fest Digest even more of a fool’s errand, but we’ll try to provide a little bit of cohesion to the day that was. Below you’ll find descriptions, images and video of just a few of the things that happened yesterday.
Before each program on Friday, fest-goers saw Jarred Alterman’s second microfilm “The Clockmaker”, in which “Pendulum” Bob King considers time as something we think we grasp, but is ultimately mysterious.
In the august setting of the Missouri Theatre, Friday began with an extraordinary event in T/F history. For the first time, T/F partnered with Columbia high schools to bring each and every 10th grader from Columbia public high schools to a special showing of What Happened, Miss Simone at Missouri theater.
photo by Sarah Hoffman
The film charts the life of the combustible, brilliant jazz singer Nina Simone. After the film, students asked questions to director Liz Garbus, who discussed Simone’s psychological afflictions and their complicated relationship with her ability to produce incredible art.
photo by Ryan Henriksen
Afterward, students migrated to the greater Orr St. area for our DIY (Do It Yourself!) Day! Orr St. Studios housed a large parade preparation workshop, with glitter galore, and mask and banner creation for the March March. Smaller individual breakout sessions focused on filmmaking, music, screen-printing and advice from those with success in creating a life of artistic expression.
photo by Ryan Henriksen
photo by Ryan Henriksen
In an attempt to dig deeper into the minds of the many brilliant guests we bring to town, we put on a series of conversations at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. In our first, panelists Kevin B. Lee (Transformers: The Premake), Zhao Qi (producer of The Chinese Mayor) and Dean Ming Yang and Dr. Zhenzheng Wang discussed the state of documentary filmmaking in the People’s Republic of China and different models that filmmakers there have attempted to try to reach audiences.
photo by Corey Ransberg
True/False presents but a single award each year. Our True Vision Award honors the career of a working filmmaker who has made significant contributions to nonfiction cinema. This year that honor went to Adam Curtis, who for over twenty years at the BBC has reevaluated history through brilliant archival montages.
At noon Friday Curtis presented a unique program at our second home, Ragtag Cinema, titled Unstoryfiable: Where Journalism Fails and Modern Power Begins. Talking in-between short films, segments and clips, Curtis’ wide-ranging, audacious and frequently humorous presentation argued that new systems of power, grounded in predictive systems for risk management, hide in plain sight because they are impossible to capture with either narrative or imagery.
photo by Jarred Gastreich
Immediately following Unstoryfiable, Adam was whisked away to the Missouri Theatre, where Paul presented him with the True Vision Award ahead of a screening of his new film Bitter Lake, which examines the tortured history of Afghanistan in light of a fateful agreement between the United States and the House of Saud.
photo by Billie Stock
When the bright and sunny afternoon Friday afternoon rolled around it was time for the March March, in which we usher in a new season with a joyous parade down the center of downtown Columbia, featuring music, costumes, puppets and more.
photo by Sarah Hoffman
photos by Ryan Henriksen
Meanwhile at the Picturehouse, it was the first screening of Spartacus & Cassandra, an artful blend of verite intimacy and lyrical interludes about the lives of two Roma children at a crossroads. Director Loanis Nuguent and subject Camille Brisson were on hand afterwards for a spirited Q and A.
photo by Corey Ransberg
And at Rhynsburger Theatre, Sam Green presented The Measure of All Things, a constantly evolving live-documentary featuring live musical accompaniment. As still images and video clips appeared on screen, Green narrated a interwoven series of tales inspired by entries in The Guinness Book of World Records, including the time the world’s second tallest man saved the life of a dolphin.
photo by Whitney Buckner
A little later filmmakers and festgoers come into close contact at the Oddfellows Lodge during Campfire Stories, an intimate event where filmmakers tell stories of “the scene that got away.” In one of this year’s entries, Khalik Allah of Field Niggas described gaining and then losing a subject, and a friend. Our friends at CAT TV captured his tale on video.
The night ended at Tonic with the @CTION Party. By the time midnight rolled around, the dance floor was crammed with bodies in motion to the sounds provided by DJs Gold E Mouf and Cousin Cole.
photo by Jarred Gastreich
Friday’s gone, but there’s so much more T/F to come. Time to head out back into the festival. But before we do, let’s take one last look at Friday through a video recap, amazingly created overnight by the diligent T/F Video Team.
T/F Opening night brings with it adrenaline and jitters, followed by the sudden ecstasy of being once more in a crowd of fest-goers and a feeling of that excitement echoed back. No matter your preparation, True/False only truly exists in the present, right now.
Before all of the opening night films, the first of Jarred Alterman’s T/F 2015 microfilms examining our concept of time screened. “The Astrophysicist” introduces us to Angela Speck, who explains how, in her extra-intuitive domain of inquiry, time becomes a measurement of distance.
The promise of a new True/False weekend manifests in our annual fancy pants gala, The Jubilee. Costumed T/F fans packed the august Missouri Theatre, enjoying drinks, hors d’oeuvres, the joyful noise created by a menagerie of performing buskers.
photo by Jarred Gastreich
photo by Jarred Gastreich
Eventually, we all found our seats for a screening of Best of Enemies a film which offers fascinating context to the vital archival footage of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s seminal televised debates of the late 60s. Afterwards co-director Morgan Neville tried to explain the feeling of finally sharing a film with an audience after being alone with it for so long. He also said he wants to provoke discussion about “civil and uncivil discourse.”
photo by Megan Stilley
Later at the Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, Morgan Knibbe’s impressive feature debut Those Who Feel the Fire Burning screened for the very first time in the United States. By forcing us into the perspective of a hovering ghost, the film aims to “throw the audience into the deep” of the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe. Afterwards, Knibbe talked with the crowd and T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann about wanting to find a poetic approach to this problem that went “further than the numbers and factual information.”
photo by Taylor Blatchford
Opening night came to an end at Cafe Berlin with the Toast/False busker showcase, featuring the bittersweet music of Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu, Jack Grelle & Ryan Koenig and The Strangled Darlings, seen below.
photo by Corey Ransberg
Thursday night was but a warm-up for what is in store for us today. But before we plunge ahead, let’s take one more look at the excitement of opening night via the T/F Video Team, whose work features Miss Jubilee & The Humdingers’ song “I Found A New Baby”.
Welcome to our daily digest. Here we’ll be covering the Fest each day as it happens and trying to talk about True/False as a whole. Paradoxically, the only way to do this is to look closely at a few individual parts. In these daily updates, we’ll be covering just a fraction of the film screenings, Q and As, panel conversations, concerts, parties and art exhibits happening this weekend in coordination with the T/F photo and video teams.
In 2015 we want to talk about time. Among the arts, cinema’s relationship with time is unique. A film only truly exists inside of its brief run-time, yet inside of that sacred set of minutes, great cinema dominates time, underlining it or erasing it, chopping it to pieces or stretching it out before us. Likewise, our festival is a mere four days, but we aim to offer an experience which opens temporally both backwards and forwards, outward into the years.
To look at T/F we need to start not at the beginning, but at many beginnings, conceptual, temporal, geographical of the threads which have gathered together into our festival.
To help explore the daunting theme of time, we once more called upon the services of filmmaker Jarred Alterman, who crafted the microfilms you’ll see before each and every screening. Here’s an enigmatic preview of what he has in store for us.
True/False exists to investigate the contradiction at the heart of cinema, a medium which can faithfully capture slivers of reality while constantly manipulating our experience. A couple years ago we began an important new part of this inquiry thanks to the generous support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Neither/Nor is an annual partnership with a visiting film critic to map a history of chimeric cinema, films which aggressively embrace cinema’s central paradox. This year in our third Neither/Nor program critic Ela Bittencourt is presenting a series of shamefully under seen work from Poland, covering the last two decades of that nation’s Communist rule. Ela created a beautiful monograph featuring essays and interviews on all six programs in the series, available right now at the Ragtag Box office.
Months of preparation and research for Neither/Nor culminated last night in a kickoff for the series at Ragtag Cinema, downtown CoMo’s 365-day a year cinema born of the same parent organization and inseparable from the Fest in innumerable ways. In the Hittsville gallery space hosted a photography show of the work of filmmaker Bogdan Dziworski, one of the Polish masters we’re honoring this year.
photo by Taylor Blatchford
Inside Ragtag’s big theater we held a reception for Ela with authentic Polish food from Columbia’s Cafe Poland. We then settled in for a presentation of Arena of Life, a program of unforgettable short films by Bogdan. Afterwards Bogdan spoke excitedly as Ela translated about his desire to blend the surreal and the real through aggressive sound design and told an unbelievable story about a planned prison break.
photo by Rebecca Allen
Meanwhile, our annual fundraising effort for a documentary subject, the True Life Fund, is already well underway. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, the man responsible for The Act of Killing and it’s companion film The Look of Silence has made appearances at all four Columbia high schools, discussing with students how Adi Rukun, The Look’s protagonist, heroically confronted the still powerful men who killed his brother along with hundreds of thousands of others in Indonesia’s anti-communist purges of 1965-66.
photo by Allison Coffelt
At our venues around town and on the University of Missouri campus, our army of volunteers has once more sprung into action, transforming spaces into temporary, yet glorious cinemas. Below you can see the ball room of the Tiger Hotel in the process of becoming The Forrest Theater once more.
photo by Morgan Lieberman
Our production team has already spent months and months in T/F’s secret lab, constructing the numerous art installations which will reveal a hidden utopia inside of our city. Here Glenn Rice installs his “light cone” piece in downtown’s central artery, Alley A.
photo by Rebecca Allen
And our central hub of operations, the T/F Box Office, has settled into its new home in Imago Gallery at Hitt and Broadway. The bustling crowds picked up their tickets and passes and scooped out the merch underneath chandeliers and murals dedicated to a creature with extraordinary longevity.
photo by Billie Stock
Finally, last night T/F eve came to an end at Eastside Tavern, where Relevant Hairstyles where part of a weird and wild start to our 2015 music program. Buskers will be playing before each and every screening this weekend.
photo by Jon Asher
It’s about time. The preparation is finally at an end. Let’s get started.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durstis a six-part HBO series examining enigmatic millionaire Robert Durst, still free despite being implicated in a disappearance, a murder and a dismemberment over the course of three decades. Created by the team of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, the men responsible for the unforgettable Capturing the Friedmans, The Jinx artfully presents a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives, outrageously including that of Durst himself in an extensive, uncomfortable interview.
Robert Durst in The Jinx
The Jinx deserves to be recognized as both great television and great cinema. For this reason, T/F will be presenting three different programs of The Jinx during the Fest. The first program features episodes 1 and 2 and the second episodes 3 and 4. The third, Sunday night at 9:00 the Vimeo Theater at the Blue Note, will feature episode 5 the same night it premieres on HBO. If you’ve been watching at home or want to catch up on HBOGo, you can jump in for a special extended Q and A with co-creator Marc Smerling, who will be addressing for the first time the startling revelations contained in this episode. It should make for an unforgettable conclusion to T/F 2015.
You’ve probably noticed on our schedule that most of the screenings are now marked “NRT” for “No Reserve Tickets”. This may even include the screenings for that one film you really wanted to see. Please, don’t panic. The “No Reserve Tickets” does not mean sold out. You can still use the Q!
We’re very proud of our Q system, which we feel does a great job of keeping T/F accessible, despite of its growth. But we understand it can be confusing and intimidating, particularly for people who haven’t used it before.
So here’s how it works. At each of our venues you’ll immediately notice the conspicuous ‘Q’. One hour before each and every screening, the flamboyantly dressed Q Queen will begin handing out numbered Q cards. Frequently, a line forms at the Q in the lead up to this one hour til showtime mark.
Once you get your numbered Q card, you can go grab a bite to eat or take a stroll around town. Just make sure to come back 15 minutes before the show starts. That’s when we’ll start filling seats off of the Q, based on the number on your Q card, so make sure you’re back with 15 minutes. To speed this process up, the Q Queen will have you form a line in numerical order. We always hold back seats to fill with the Q, in addition to the seats belonging to ticket holders who decide not to come (something which happens frequently at the film festivals).
Once your number is called and you’re ready to head into the theater, you’ll need to do one of two things. If you have a pass, you can just flash it to the volunteer at the door and head on in. Otherwise, make sure you have cash on you to pay at the door.
It’s easy once you get the hang of it. We promise.
This year we are introducing a new incentive to get folks out and ‘Q’ing. Every time you get a Q card, put your name and email on the back. Whether or not you get in to the screening, make sure to hand your card in to the Queen. We’ll draw one Q card at random for all four days of the Fest. Each lucky winner will receive one LUX pass to T/F 2016! Sorry, volunteers, Ragtag and True/False staff are not eligible.
Some things to keep in mind when planning your ‘Q’ing.
How big is the venue? The bigger the venue, the more people will for sure get in on the Q. Ranked from biggest to smallest, our theaters are: The Missouri Theatre, Cornell, The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, The Picturehouse, Geology, Rhynsburger, The Globe, The Forrest Theater, Big Ragtag, Odd Fellows Lodge and the Willy Wilson Theater at Ragtag.
What time of day is it? People tend to have a tendency to sleep in and skip that first screening in the morning. Late at night, they might decide that they’ve already had enough for one day. This frees up more seats for the Q. But if you want to go to a screening at 7 pm, you’ll probably have to line up at the Q a little earlier.
Have fun! Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Tell someone about a film you saw. If we’ve done our job right, there should be more than enough to talk about!
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.
Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.
True/False: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.
Jesse Moss: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.
It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.
T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?
JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.
The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”
Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.
T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?
JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.
For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.
In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.
Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.
I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.
T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?
JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.
Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.
Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters.
T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.
JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.
In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.
I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.
You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.
T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?
JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.
T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?
JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.
There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”
T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?
JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.
T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.
JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.
T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?
JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.
It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.
What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.
The Great Wall, T/F’s free outdoor cinema, is back in 2015, now newly situated right outside T/F’s international headquarters at 9th and Broadway. Films will play from 7-11 the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of the Fest.
This year The Great Wall will feature two different programs. On Friday and Sunday, we’ll be projecting a shorts program titled Swan Song for the Factory Age. Watch as the walls of modern industry are toppled and a postindustrial civilization arises.
It begins with the hypnotic Single Stream (Ernst Karel, Toby Lee and Pawel Wojtasik, 24 min.), which shows our throwaway society as it reaches operatic excess.
image from Single Stream
In the nihilistic The Digger, the Bell, and the Tropical Pharmacy (Jennifer Allora, Guillermo Calzadilla and Tony Gerber, 21 min.), we ride shotgun on a single-minded, musical excavator.
image from The Digger, the Bell and the Tropical Pharmacy
Assembly Line Movement (Jesse Sugarmann, 22 min.), introduces former Pontiac factory workers pantomiming—with surgical precision— their now-obsolete daily rituals.
image from Assembly Line Movement
In Layover (Vanessa Renwick, 6 min.), in which birds swoop over our demise, their relentless choreography signaling a new start.
image from Layover
This program will also feature a short film from this year’s True Vision Award winner Adam Curtis.
On Saturday night The Great Wall will feature Our Sweet Malik, a tribute to our late friend Malik Bendjelloul. Malik stole our hearts in 2012 when he brought his musical fairy tale Searching for Sugar Man to True/False. He also starred at our game show Gimme Truth! as the charming, befuddled foreigner. Then fresh off of his 2013 Oscar win, he made a victory lap to mentor T/F’s high-school students. With the gracious guidance of Brittany Huckabee—T/F alum and partner of Malik—we’re projecting a number of his visually arresting short works, which herald his later breakthrough.
Make sure to include a little space in your T/F 2015 schedule for a bit of cinema out under the stars.
Note: Gateway Packets are now sold out. But do not fear, we’ll have thousands of tickets on sale for these and other films at our box office beginning March 5.
The Gateway Packet is now on sale until 6 pm on Friday February 27 for T/F 2015. For $40, the Gateway grants you the ability to reserve three tickets online. For a select set of screenings at True/False 2015, which runs March 5-8. You can reserve tickets for three different screenings or multiple tickets for the same one; it’s up to you. Gateway is a great to introduce someone new to T/F. Pick up yours here.
This year’s Gateway screenings are as follows:
(T)ERROR, Thursday at 6:45pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, Thursday 9:30pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Drone, Thursday, 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
Cartel Land, Friday 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
I Am the People, Saturday 10:00am, Geology
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Saturday 9:30pm, Missouri Theatre
Finally, The Jinx a multipart HBO series, where filmmaker Andrew Jarecki presents a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives around millionaire Robert Durst, who happens to be the center of multiple murders and disappearances. The Sunday screening that is part five, so those watching along on HBO or HBOGo can join in. If you’ve caught up, check out the analysis of the latest episode on Vulture.
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.
T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?
Amanda Rose Wilder: 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.
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.”
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.