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.