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True/False 2018: What Can the Documentarian Do?

The Task

In 1976, German screenwriter/producer Peter Märthesheimer wrote the punchily titled essay “What Can the Hero Do? He Can Change the World! A Few Problems Concerning Drama Production.” He began:

Many television plays, good and bad, have come about because a drama producer or script-writer has said at some time or other, ‘Something ought to be made about…’ Then a so-called ‘theme’ usually follows, a ‘problem’ which the person who thought it so serious that he wanted to ‘make something about it’ considers relevant […] Now there would be nothing against this approach, which cautiously and discerningly commits itself to the subject matter of the film, if this fixation with bringing the facts to light were always extended to consider the question of how the facts should be presented, how the bare theme becomes a living story, how the content finds a form and the one mediates the other. [1]

I’ve stripped this quote from its extremely specific context (very particular concerns steeped in the lineage of Brecht et al. concerning representation of the German workers’ struggle etc. etc.) because, obviously, it’s pretty germane to Where We Are Now (and have always been) regarding non-fiction filmmaking. True/False is (per its title) generally noted as a festival concerned with prodding documentary form, but that doesn’t mean function isn’t as pertinent. What is the task of the documentarian?[2]

“The task is to understand the here and now” is the broadest possible answer, spoken as the prompt of Leigh Ledare’s The Task, which records a three-day conference conducted at the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2017. The set-up was new to me (shamefully so considering the first such conference was held in 1957) but turns out to be rigorously codified, using the Tavistock method to study group dynamics. (You can find more context in many places, e.g. here). Briefly, a group of participants, monitored by psychiatrists trained in the method plus a handful of silent observers, convene with a fairly open-ended agenda: to begin speaking among themselves about the roles they inhabit and interrogate group dynamics as they’re being constructed, inevitably leading to clarifications about how race, gender, social status et al. affect the anxieties, agendas and status of those in the room. Ledare had staged a conference like this once before, in Zurich, prior to repeating it in Chicago. As he explains: “I was less interested in random diversity than in staging dialectical interactions between people of different ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and so on.”

In practice, this means all hell breaks loose within five minutes. The participants file in, the film picking up during their second (of four) sessions; six cameras surround the three concentric circles of seating, covering and cutting the events TV-style. The tone is mutely set by one (silent, presumably observing) man wearing one of those widely-circulated T-shirts reading “I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right.” The session gets heated quickly: “You seem to think I’m labeling myself as a victim,” one participant says. “I think that’s garbage.” Shortly thereafter, a very White Woman (of the kind my Twitter feed has been all about dragging of late) characterizes a now-absent participant as embodying the role of an “angry black man,” which goes about as well as could be imagined.

The crux: what does it mean to be (possibly) a perfectly fine person as an individual actor but still complicit with, or actively embodying, the pathologies and privileges that go with your identity? If these are articulated and owned by all concerned, can they be defused? Collectively, anyone who’s been paying any attention in, say, the last ten years has learned a lot of new vocabulary meant to explicate these social problems; the idea behind e.g. “erasure” isn’t new, the widespread deployment of that word is. A semi-specialist vocabulary confined to a very limited matrix has become general parlance, and what’s enacted here is an extension of what I see infinitely iterated on Twitter, my social media scourge of choice: people align themselves with people who use the exact same phrases and words as stand-ins for unbelievably complex pathologies and ideas, but at a certain point it’s impossible to actually say anything meaningful without enlarging that toolbox. This isn’t about the old liberal canard of “having a productive/respectful dialogue,” but about being able to actually articulate something complexly concrete.

What we get instead is, in some ways, predictable: an Asian-American woman is in near tears about how the role of Chinese immigrants in building the railroads has been, yes, erased, and a short time later someone feels it necessary to note (per approved right-wing talking points) that the Irish also built and suffered on those railroads (#AllLivesMatter). A white man gives a long monologue which he says right up top isn’t meant to exempt him from owning his white privilege — merely to note that he was an alcoholic til he was 32, thereby presumably giving him some kind of privileged wisdom through suffering, which is obviously a bunch of self-exculpating persiflage. Is it necessary to define yourself as a victim (a label one participant says everyone in the room covets) in order to feel like you then have the right to speak? That’s probably not going to help anything, especially when it’s the middle-aged white guy claiming he’s the one who actually feels attacked.[3]

The Task is an unbelievably bracing depiction of people trying to assimilate and make the vocabulary of the moment confront the times we live in; it’s full of cringeworthy exchanges, generated by tensions springing from obvious demographic charges that feel dangerous to acknowledge, the most consistent wall-to-wall exegesis of these negative social energies since (in a strange way) Gran Torino. In the bastard lineage of Brecht via Von Trier, The Task uses a strict set of rules to produce a shockingly blunt distillation of How We Talk/Think Now — to suggest, at least to me, that we all need to read more and think harder. Is this a starting point? “Useful films are those which show us how our conditions of life can be changed, by … developing out of the movement of reality a consciousness of this reality and … by starting new initiatives,” the German director Christian Ziewer wrote. “How can an attitude be produced in the viewer that will encourage him to develop a ‘consciousness of this reality’? For we do not believe that just looking at films will automatically awaken a need to relate them to our own lives and to take ‘new initiatives.'” This comes closer than most.

Premiered as part of an installation at AIC, The Task showed at True/False decoupled from its original context, (hopefully) bringing it to much wider awareness. The festival did the same a few years ago when it pulled Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas from its Vimeo/YouTube home onto the big screen, and again this year when Sophy Romvari’s short film Pumpkin Movie opened a three-part program of two shorts and one medium-length feature. Finding films both outside the traditional fest realm altogether, and through deep-dives into festival side slates is one of True/False’s strongest programming points; Romvari’s short played extremely well in the room.

The setup and staging are simple: Romvari and her friend Leah Collins Lipsette hook up for a Halloween-week Skype session, carving jack o’ lanterns while swapping stories of everyday sexism. There are three main setups: a wide shot of Romvari’s Toronto apartment, a downtown skyline in the background; a close-up of Romvari herself, and a reverse shot close-up of Lipsette as mediated by laptop monitor. Keeping these sightlines simple and pleasingly crisp as they’re intercut, Pumpkin is a quickly made film that avoids tripping over its own visual feet, the better to emphasize the creation of solidarity via sharing depressing information. Nothing retold here crosses into the land of sexual assault; the equally important emphasis is on the cumulative morale-suck of dealing with subtle and not-so-subtle sexism on a daily basis, told without any need for underlined emphasis. (It is not indicative of anything good happening at this present social moment that I was continuously braced and waiting for stories in a Weinstein vein to enter the picture; who would be surprised?) Low-key collective laughter of grim recognition is the kind of mass reaction a YouTube platform can’t generate.

Allah himself was back with Black Mother, which is way more complicated to explicate. A photographer before leaping to film, Allah constructed Field Niggas from long, slo-mo exposures of his subjects, hypnotically assembling those images ahead and before their accompanying audio testimonies. Black Mother does the same thing but far more so, expanding the field of interview inquiry from 125th and Lexington-radius to the entirety of Jamaica and similarly blowing up the footage source options: now there’s super 8, 16mm and digital in the mix. It’s structured in three trimesters, though it was impossible for me to figure out how each cohered: the bullet points I noted for the first (sex work, food, disease, marijuana, more food) seem strung together more on the basis of intuitive rhythms rather than the construction of a thesis. This is in no way a problem: it’s a seriously pleasurable film to watch, a constant slipstream of striking images and sounds. There’s a recurring image of a Steadicam-mounted camera going up and down a small set of outdoor stairs as rain pours down, an itchy rhythm that’s intuitively enjoyable without needing translation into some kind of Concept.

This is absolutely not my territory to speak about, but I’ll note some, let’s say, skepticism about the role enacted in the film by the black maternal body. Sex workers are contrasted with the figure of the ideal Jamaican woman in one particularly lengthy audio snippet: she is womanly, mothering, supportive, eats healthy country food and generally is the kind of woman who, in supporting a man, is therefore characterized as being stronger than him. This admirable woman is also a symbolic stand-in for Jamaica as a nation in its ideal(ized) form — with natural resources kept out of the predatory hands of colonizers — in contrast with the sex workers who stand in for the present reality. I absolutely am not a specialist in representations of black women, colonially-inflected or otherwise, and I heard all manner of responses (not precisely correlated to gender or race) to how this works in the film; my own thought is that even while the sex workers are given significant space to speak for themselves as both individuals and representatives of a particular professional class, that’s an awful lot of work for bodies to symbolically perform. The film is no less absorbing for it, and on a visceral level it’s extremely pleasurable; I’d be curious to hear more from others on this loaded question. I mean curious as in actually curious, not begging the question for an answer I’ve already settled on.

Dieudo Hamadi’s Kinshasa Makambo was, to understate, a bracing way to start a viewing day; at the very least, it put things in perspective. Makambo begins with a shot that lets you know a filmmaker with real visual chops is working via the kind of composed flourish that won’t be possible later: exterior shot, house, doorway cover flapping in the breeze. An overheard voice from within inquires where the first subject (of three) is going: “I bet it’s politics again. Go live with your father if you want to do this nonsense.” It’s a nice moment of offscreen comedy and calm; a few minutes later, it’s protest time, and there’s a burning car right there. Opposition troops show up nearly immediately, tear gas is deployed and the camera must go on the run; it’s unclear to me if it’s moving so fast as to make continuous motion capture technically impossible, or if some frames have been removed, but the effect renders chaotic flight via strobing visual resets.

Hamadi alternates between theory and practice. On the theory side, there’s opposition rallies, training sessions prior to protesting on how to fashion a gas mask from Canadian Pure (the DNC’s most ubiquitous brand) water bottles and internecine arguments. The context is obviously a bit more consequential than my daily routine, but “What have your citizen’s movements done? You’re not going to change the regime with Facebook” should sound very familiar to anyone who’s spent too much time observing arguments about the efficacy of hashtag activism. (Hamadi also has a nifty, probably unintentional solution for how to elegantly insert a URL so viewers can learn more: one of his subjects wears a t-shirt for the not-updated-in-some-time congoweek.com.) Preparations alternate with regular counterpushes of violence, the feeling that something must be done repeatedly butting up against the reality when attempts are made and nothing changes. This is not an excuse to just give up, simply a record of grim odds. Towards the end, we see one subject, bullhorn in hand, dropping truth in the middle of a market, but no one’s listening — they all have shopping to do, and lending an ear might be dangerous anyway. It’s a brilliant micro-image for the oft-futility and necessity of activism; a title card tells us elections delayed in December 2017 were delayed once again in December 2018. That date has yet to come, but a colleague noted the particular poignancy that the card will probably be true by then.

The fest’s most what-is-this UFO, Beata Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet is a single-shot 81-minute excerpt from 400 hours of footage she captured over two weeks embedded with Ukrainian fighters. I’ve neither the skill nor energy to lay out the factional particulars at work here; Bubenec is basically accompanying with a group of anti-Russian Ukrainian fighters. Bullet begins with Bubenec scanning a bombed bridge; the troops she’s with detain and bring to HQ a man they suspect of being a pro-Russian sympathizer. It looks like torture might ensue, but eventually it’s substantiated that he’s on the same side; a chalkboard session diagramming attack tactics and geographical difficulties for the recapturing of a nearby village ensues. The detainee leaves, and Bubenec promptly latches onto a dude arguing — in the crudest, most violence-threatening terms — with his girlfriend for a solid 20-something minutes. There is a coda of sorts, as the combatants prepare to depart for another mission, but the arc is one of great sustained tension followed by a longer steady deflation. The experience of watching the film is most interesting as an increasing aggravation of the question, “What is the point of this?” That’s the kind of brain-teaser I enjoy, and while I could place some form of plausible reading on it (men, in and out of war, displaying the same kind of aggressive tendencies etc.), it was kind of disappointing to see that Bubenec had no real insight into what she’d made or why. Even a curt, Lynchian refusal to shed light would have been heartening; as it is, I’m not sure what I saw or what (un)conscious value it has. (And the ethics are sketchy.) Still, I’m glad it was in the program, if only as a counterbalance to its festival premiere, where screenings were disrupted by pro-Russian protests.

I’d seen a cut of Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll’s América last summer, so there were no real surprises there; they took an already solid work and improved it. What I wrote then still covers the fundamentals: “Whiteside and Stoll had gone to Mexico intending to make a film about American tourists there and instead befriended Diego, a young man who became their subject. One of three brothers, Diego looks after his grandmother — whose name gives the film its title — moving in with one brother and his girlfriend. Diego’s father was incarcerated for failing to take care of América properly, and the tensions of caretaking fray familial bonds. […] The unsentimentally affecting film is tough-minded about elder care, surprisingly funny when watching squabbling siblings and edited at a deft, surefooted clip.” I want to emphasize three things here: one of those sibling arguments is an all-time-great meltdown of misdirected roughhousing, elder care is not a fun subject (especially if you’ve done any hospice-related labors) and those two factors worked well in combination before ah an audibly responsive audience. I’m mentioning this because the immediate response I got recommending the film to a fairly hard-to-faze colleague, specifically upon hearing the words “elder care,” was “I can’t do that right now.” A totally understandable reaction, so I’m noting here that this is, finally, not a bummer but balanced, no less a crowdpleaser (in a good way) for its tough-mindedness.

The last thing I saw at this year’s festival was Boris Poljak’s short They Just Come and Go. It’s a 20-minute short situated at Croatia’s Bacvice beach, observing, mostly via long lens, a variety of seaside recreation, from the elderly’s ablutions to the younger and cheerfully debauched. There’s a shot of a particularly dissipated young dude walking naked with a Jack Daniels bottle, trying to balance himself solely on his hands on a mid-water platform before falling back in;  he’s not much bothered and looks pretty blissed-out. On its carefully limited, observational terms, this is a pretty delightful slice of sustained (mostly) good vibes, and I’ll use it as a closing stand-in image for my ninth year attending True/False; it was, as usual, instructive and delightful.

[1] Both this quote and the subsequent bit from Christian Ziewer’s “More About the Uses of Film” are taken from the 1981 BFI monograph WDR and the Arbeiterfilm: Fassbinder, Ziewer and others, by Richard Collins and Vincent Porter, whose appendix contains about 40 pages of similarly rousing primary source material from German filmmakers of the late ’60s and ’70s if you’re into that kind of thing.

[2] Now more than ever.

[3] A friend talked to one of the participants, who said the smaller group sessions off camera were much more productive; I’m imposing a bit of my own pessimism, but so is the editorial construction of this film. I completely understand why someone might find that unconscionably infuriating. There’s already been a fair amount of debate about whether the film’s withholding of much of the context I’ve mentioned manipulates the situation and results even more than we see or the participants realize, which is a valid question but one I’m personally inclined to table; it’s all about the results, and there are answers out there about how it all worked if you’re really curious.

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