The Highs and Lows at the Premiere Documentary Film Festival
For the last 16 years, the True/False Film Festival has challenged the way audiences think of documentary filmmaking, but it’s also reshaped expectations for the film-festival experience as a whole. Immersive art installations, a live game show, and the “March March” parade overtake the streets of downtown Columbia, Mo. Waiting is just part of the show, as buskers perform live at festival venues before film screenings begin. And then there are the “Q Queens” — seasoned True/False volunteers in Comic Con-ready looks — who reign over the festival’s queue lines. Rarely is nonfiction cinema made into such a spectacle.
However, it’s the top-notch programming that brings True/False festival-goers back year after year. Even narrative films can find their way into True/False’s lineup, so long as they wrinkle the line between fact and fiction. A great example from this year’s fest — held from Feb. 28-March 3 — is Our Time, the world-class Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ newest feature, which operates as a paranoid dissection of love and relationships when an open marriage begins to break apart. Biographical forces dominate every frame, given that the director has chosen to cast himself and his real-life spouse, Natalia López, as the central couple. Shot by Diego García (Cemetery of Splendour, Neon Bull), Our Time’s imagery warrants a firm recommendation alone. That being said, Our Time might pose as an honest investigation into what, for Reygadas, are very real forces, but what is conveyed onscreen feels far more self-indulgent than it is self-aware.
This years’ iteration of True/False saw an end to the festival’s secret screenings, in which films with world premieres at festivals later that year — such as Cannes or SXSW — would play first to a unknowing True/False crowd. Early cuts of high-profile films have screened at these events, which provide directors with the opportunity to test-drive their film before their official premieres. The catch? No one could write or talk about the True/False secret screening until after the official world premiere months later.
Functioning as a substitute for the secret screenings this year was Nathan Fielder’s Finding Frances. At that film’s screening, a True/False programmer took the stage to thank the crowd for years of loyalty on the secret-screenings front. In a similar fashion, he requested that audiences refrain from recording the never-before-seen bonus footage accompanying Finding Frances’ post-screening Q&A. The film is a series finale to Fielder’s hit show Nathan for You, and the audience was informed that, like the secret screenings, the True/False debut was a trial run to see how Finding Frances will play to moviegoers unfamiliar with Fielder’s series.
Still: Does a 2017 made-for-TV comedy feature belong at True/False in this capacity? That’s a tough sell for this critic, who, full disclosure, thinks Fielder’s brand of comedy is mean-spirited. Even the most diehard Fielder fan should be able to understand why screening a two-hour special, which debuted on basic cable, might appear to lower the standards of the festival. In theory, attendees could have seen the same two-hour footage on their Columbia-motel TV, had it been playing that night, making Finding Frances a frustrating waste of time for serious festival-goers. Furthermore, the film is just more of the same comedy from Fielder, whose character is something like David Brent of the U.K. version of The Office, albeit if the world were laughing with him.
If Chinese conglomerates take over American industry, what does this mean for working-class Americans, labor unions, and the (so-called) American Dream? Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory chases answers in Dayton, Ohio, where Fuyou, a Chinese-owned manufacturing company, opened its first U.S.-based factory in 2014. For many locals, the opening of Fuyou Glass America meant a restoration of jobs that evaporated after the 2008 recession, but at what cost? The Sundance-approved American Factory makes a strong case for workers’ unions, but ethnocentrism clouds this film’s line of sight.
Both Chinese Portrait and Up the Mountain bring a painterly gaze to China’s landscapes and its people. The former, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, blurs the line between video installation and nonfiction filmmaking. Since 2009, Wang has been travelling across his home country, taking moving video portraits of people, posing as they would for a still photograph. Admittedly, the impact of these images waxes and wanes. However, Wang’s ultimate goal, it seems, is to give insight into unseen corners of contemporary China; there, he certainly succeeds. Up the Mountain, meanwhile, takes a more literal approach to a painterly composition. Filming over the course of a year, director Zhang Yang records the lives of a community of artists living in the mountains of China’s Yunnan Province. Teacher Shen Jianhua and his pupils — a gregarious gang of grannies — document the daily lives of the Bai ethnic minority community through their paintings. Framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio, Zhang’s camera acts as another canvas, imitating their compositions and saturated color palettes. One of Shen Jianhua’s most devoted pupils, twentysomething Dinglong, finds himself pressed to leave village and move to the big city. Change is inevitable for both Dinglong and the Bai lifestyle that informs his practice. However, these paintings, as well as Zhang’s film, offer a way to preserve a way of life threatened by modernization. Visually stunning and a precious cultural document, Up the Mountain is sure to see heavy festival play this year.
State-enforced sterilizations, kidnapping, and systematic murder — these are but everyday realities for Chinese citizens under the nation’s one-child policy. At the start of One Child Nation, filmmaker Nanfu Wang — born under the policy herself — admits to not questioning China’s population-control methods until she emigrated to the U.S. and became pregnant herself. This revelation, and the end of the policy in 2015, prompted Wang to return the rural village she grew up in. What at first begins as an exercise in radical empathy and healing for Wang’s family spirals out into the global ramifications of this government-enforced social experiment. There are no villains in One Child Nation. It does, however, offer a warning. “This is not just a Chinese issue. It’s all around the world,” observed Nanfu Wang to a True/False crowd. “Not questioning anything — that’s what leads to propaganda.” The film certainly benefits from Wang’s ability to question everything, to convey her perspective and press on into the most difficult of issues. By following the story where it takes her, she reveals a ripple effect across two continents. Wide-eyed and daring, One Child Nation is a remarkable piece of investigative filmmaking, one that is highly recommended.