COLUMBIA, Missouri — That Cloud Never Left begins with one of the more unusual disclaimers I’ve seen: It is a work of fiction, but “the people, places, and the work are real.” That might be the best, most succinct definition of the art of documentary anyone’s yet devised. At the very least, it encapsulates the attitude at the heart of True/False, one of the most adventurous film festivals in the country. For a long weekend each spring, the college town of Columbia, Missouri turns into the center of the doc world.
Back to That Cloud Never Left: In it, director Yashaswini Raghunandan observes people in the Indian village of Daspara making toys out of basic elements like bamboo and, oddly enough, film strips. This unusual repurposing of cinematic material means that handheld windmills have little snatches of stories within them. It makes for a good pairing with Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That, At a Distance, Resemble Another, which also screened at the fest, and follows the meticulous processes of fabrication and replication in museum conservation workshops.
Many True/False selections are defined by their subject’s self-consciousness about their positions within their films. Case in point, when beloved TV astrologer Walter Mercado agreed to appear in the biographical film Mucho Mucho Amor, he knew he was nearing death, and that this could make for a fitting epitaph. (And indeed, he passed away between the filming and the doc’s premiere at Sundance this past January.)
Similarly, Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document (Single Channel) alternates between audio from Diamond Reynolds’s live stream of the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, footage of the artist in the eponymous gardens in France, and interviews in which she asks Black women whether they feel safe “in their bodies, on the street, in the world.” The result is a multifaceted consideration of how images impact people’s understanding of themselves. (The installation version of the film is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City.)
In some films, image-makers take direct control of how images reflect their lives. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, director Kirsten Johnson and her father Dick continually stage scenes of his death as part of their quest to cope with his impending actual demise. It is a wholly unique form of living obituary, one that can keep Dick Johnson “alive” even when he’s no longer here.
Meanwhile, prolific experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka makes literal Joan Didion’s truism about how we tell ourselves stories in order to live in his first feature, małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore. Two Indigenous protagonists discuss their hopes and anxieties about the future, their concerns framed by retelling of Native myths. And in Time, director Garrett Bradley tells the story of a family long divided by the father’s incarceration via their home movie archive. It’s a harrowingly personal gut punch about a pressing issue — the cruelty of the prison-industrial complex and its disproportionate harm of Black people and families — which never defaults to any of the expected formal tropes of an “issue” documentary. It’s also a masterful work of editing, blending its archival and contemporary elements in haunting black and white.
Other films consider the act of watching itself. Brothers Bill and Turner Ross, some of the most sensitively attuned observers of minute human behavior working in American film today, won the festival’s True Vision Award for their latest feature, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The premise is that it chronicles the final day of a Las Vegas bar, but it was shot outside New Orleans with a purposefully cast selection of patrons. Within this construction though, the subjects’ actions are real. The point is less in the “story” and more in what we glean from the (sometimes poignant, often very funny) interactions of the characters.
Continuing on the idea of watching, master video essayists Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee both scrutinize ISIS propaganda in their installation Bottled Songs 1 & 2. Galibert-Laîné questions the ethics of public websites hosting videos made as terrorist propaganda, while Lee assesses the formal strategies of a feature-length ISIS film by breaking it down shot by shot. Their installation pairs well with Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth. It focuses on a young Jewish American woman, a staunch supporter of Israel, as she watches footage from the occupied West Bank. As she verbalizes her reactions in real time and expresses cracks in her worldview and assumptions, we see firsthand how the curation and delivery of images can impact one’s point of view.
All these ideas were further discussed in a panel moderated by fellow Hyperallergic editor Dessane Lopez Cassell, featuring myself and contributors Monica Castillo and Beatrice Loayza, as well as multidisciplinary artist and curator Jon-Sesrie Goff.
In an age of constant and pervasive image creation, thinking critically about what we consume is vital. Year after year, True/False has continued to provide a forum for filmmakers, critics, and viewers to do this work and consider documentary outside of its traditional boundaries.
The True/False Film Fest ran March 5 through March 8 in Columbia, Missouri.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Hundreds of Artworks by NYC Teenagers Go on View at the Met
The talented seventh through twelfth-grade students are recipients of the 2023 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
NYC’s Flatiron Building Sells for a Whopping $190M
The sale to outsider bidder Jacob Garlick puts an end to the protracted legal battle between the iconic skyscraper’s five former owners.
The still from BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS so reminds me of when I worked my way through university in San Diego on straight nights, double shifts on weekend. This picture could be from Foxy John’s (Beer, Wine, Good Food, Low Prices), my study hall at the foot of Tecolote Hill.
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