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True/False Film Fest 2023: Constructed Communities

La bongaLa Bonga

A reliable way for filmmakers to generate audience sympathy is flattering attendees by stoking their regional pride, as at my first screening of True/False Film Fest 2023: Maxime Jean-Baptiste’s short Moune Ô, followed by the world premiere (one of eight at this year’s fest) of Sebastián Pinzón Silva and Canela Reyes’ La Bonga. Attending in-person, the latter pair spoke of the sense of community they felt in Columbia, Missouri and how that related to their film, an observation that raised some cheers. In his subsequent webcam-taped intro, Jean-Baptiste said how happy he was to have his film showing even if he couldn’t be there. Moune Ô is in part about French colonial racism and the film industry, and Jean-Baptiste underlined his resistance to “the French cinematographic industry” and its habit of bestowing awards among an insular group of peers; he got some sympathetic chuckles, the way that mocking “the French” often does. Most ingenious was the Sunday evening introduction at my last screening, Art Talent Show, masterfully delivered with a sneaky grin by attending co-director Tomáš Bojar, who said that he’d had a “proper Missouri Sunday” starting with a diner breakfast, then church (“and I must say, those Baptists can sing”) and a local home team’s baseball game. This could have been affection, mockery or both, and the crowd ate it up. Bojar closed with saying he didn’t have much to introduce about Art Talent, because “if the film doesn’t speak for itself, I won’t be able to do anything about it anyway.”

All the films I saw at the fest’s 20th edition spoke to community or, more often, its fragmentation. (Sign of the times and the rest of our lives). In 2018, Silva described plans to make a first feature in the titular Colombian city of La Bonga, a ghost town near Palenque (site of his first short, similarly titled after its location): “We want to do a film very much inspired by Fitzcarraldo, starting in a journey back to La Bonga. When we get there, we’re going to recreate the celebration of the patron saint of La Bonga. We’re going to bring a huge sound system; just getting it out there represents Fitzcarraldo’s boat.” As promised then, La Bonga‘s large group march culminates in a rowdy party, but the film begins in absolute darkness, with no one present save one man behind the camera, holding a flashlight that illuminates the woods as his voice points out the parts of a house that once stood there. Loud dance music registers very faintly in the mix, and if I didn’t know the theater I was sitting in so well, I would’ve sworn I was hearing sonic bleed from the next auditorium—this faintly heard ambience is an audacious decision that’ll test the soundproofing of every venue this plays for the rest of its theatrical life. The source of this music, and the scene’s chronological position in relation to what follows, takes nearly the entire running time to become clear, and the bookending structure is satisfyingly clarifying and surprising in how it resets the narrative without feeling like a gimmick.

La Bonga follows classic slow cinema strictures in maintaining a familiar rhythm that a friend described as a few minutes of unleavened rigor (or, if you’re feeling less charitable, deliberate tedium) followed by a joke—the arthouse rhythmic equivalent of the Pixies’ loudQUIETloud. Those jokes and unplanned anecdotes are good and, since a lot of the walking is captured in very long shots, there are many places to place them. The build to the party includes a large fire that’s set to burn a clearing for the outdoor dance floor; there’s a nice moment where a man in a folding chair observes the flames in a kind of parodic, ante-upped version of “sitting and watching the storm.” La Bonga toggles between well-composed slow cinema master shots and more expedient handheld footage that tilts ethnographic, and while my usual biases would generally lead me to respond more to the former, the DCP was unfortunately so compromised color-wise that I found myself constantly envisioning what the images should have looked like, especially those whose effect clearly comes from big light/dark contrasts (e.g. moped headlights streaming out from behind a mountain curve’s darkness). The visual gap between intent and actuality was so big as to be enormously distracting, and I suspect I’ll like La Bonga at least 15% more when the issue’s been resolved and I watch it again.

The other world premiere I saw, Brian Becker and Marley McDonald’s Time Bomb: Y2K, lives at the opposite end of the scale in every way, a crowdpleasing, all-archival HBO Docs title whose structure couldn’t be clearer. Even though there’s a certain unavoidable amount of “look at those dated fashions” gawking in the opening stretches, Y2K‘s primary purpose is neither nostalgic pandering to elder millennials (myself included) nor holding up the recent past’s most embarrassing clips for mockery and/or political condemnation. Locating its narrative almost exclusively in the US from 1996 up to the millennial moment of truth, Y2K‘s opening is a condensed reminder of the exponential growth of the internet. The audience laughed at mid-term footage of Bill Clinton and Al Gore holding up newly-installed cabling, but there’s not really a joke here besides the obvious optical ridiculousness of a president and his VP pretending for a photo opportunity to be casually clad working joes—most of what’s funny in this film would have been so for any halfway-alert citizen the first time around.

Per populist documentary norms, Time Bomb identifies two throughline protagonists that embody an optimism/pessimism binary: John Koskinen, the “Y2K commissar” who led federal government efforts to solve the problem, and Peter De Jager, a computer scientist and private citizen prophet of doom who, in his own telling, had been one of many programmers warning about it since the ’70s. While it’s easy to imagine the Michael Lewis version of this story, in which two seemingly marginal names are in fact the central protagonists of a zeitgeist flashpoint, Time Bomb‘s structure instead casts them as occasional voices tying together a number of threads. With segments including recaps of how militia movements, secular survivalists and evangelical grifters responded, the film keeps the actual science of fixing the problem offscreen while presenting a clear narrative: once, this country confronted a rapidly imminent problem and took the necessary steps to fix it, beginning with acknowledging reality and proceeding to create and enact a science-based, essentially technocratic solution. We will never repeat this process on a larger scale since the very idea of, e.g., “acknowledging climate change is real” is already “divisive” because a gerrymandered portion of the United States has a nearly literal death-grip on what we anachronistically still refer to as “our future.” The Y2K bug could be a teachable moment; instead, it’s already an artifact for reasons that go way beyond laughing at primitive webcam streaming. Time Bomb manages to convey all of this clearly without voiceover, title cards or sledgehammer-heavy editorial juxtaposition, a feat that’s impressive in its legibility. I’m not generally in the market for this kind of uber-populist work and was surprised to find myself arguing that side for once with friends.

The North American premieres included Mohanad Yaqubi’s R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity. In Yaqubi’s telling, this film grew directly from 2015’s Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory, an assemblage of materials related to the Palestinian people and their occupation struggles. Most, though not all, of Off Frame‘s clips came from the PLO’s Palestine Film Unit: there were also clips of Godard and Gorin touring America to raise funds for Palestine, British newsreels et al. R 21 collates 20 even deeper cuts in the same vein, long in the care of a Japanese comparative literature professor who brought them to Yaqubi. A good number of these are Japanese shorts from the ’60s and ’70s which answer a question I’d never thought to ask: what did anti-Zionist Palestinian support look like in Japan at the time? The results are inevitably at least a little fascinating, and there is also a lot of archival ingestion porn for those who want it: celluloid being loaded onto flatbeds, scanning programs tracking the color levels of each layer of emulsion and a number of warping artifacts way more interesting than the VHS-glitch aesthetic currently saturating nonfiction film. Both the archival narrators, as well as what seems to be a present-day framing voiceover, speak to what’s presented as anti-intersectional solidarity against American imperialism shared by the Japanese and Palestinians—an analogy that is definitely pushing it and possibly not to be taken at face value (whether I should was impossible for me to gauge). My interest level dipped up and down in direct relation to how compelling I found each rediscovered short, but it’s an interesting thought exercise in re-exhuming lost forms of potential solidarity.

Maksym Melnik’s Three Women premiered at DOK Leipzig, and it was pointed out to me that its inclusion at True/False represents a form of relatively off-the-beaten-track curatorial elevation relative to the festival’s generally heavy balance of Sundance/IDFA-sourced titles. A loose, pre-invasion Ukrainian village portrait, Three Women is a well-crafted piece of verite, deftly edited down from a clearly voluminous mountain of footage and tonally characterized by the obviously warm relationship between the affably beaming Melnik, often seen carrying a microphone down rural roads, and his titular subjects. These relationships are mediated by the cinematographer’s gaze—often impolitely referred to as “the German,” it emerges that this key crew member doesn’t speak or understand Ukrainian and is choosing his frames and who to follow with (correct) instincts that add an interesting layer of remove. Three Women lacked the X factor that would take it to the next level for me, but two friends’ reaction indicates this is the kind of feature other nonfiction directors are likely to respond to strongly—not least because, less than any story arc (there are rumblings of political change in the background but the characters essentially remain static), the film is propelled by Melnik’s genuine affection for his subjects and hunger for their conversations.

My best-of-fest was Theo Montoya’s Anhell69, the festival’s other Colombian film which, regardless of its dark premise (“People Who Died [Medellín 2022 Remix]”), pinged a lot of my personal pleasure centers. The opening narration tells us that Montoya’s social media networks are a “graveyard,” while the end titles inform us that eight of his 20something friends were dead by the time production ended. Death proves visually inspiring on multiple fronts, starting from the opening shots of an open casket being driven in a hearse under moody red night lights, slowly and elegantly spacing those passing overhead illluminations out to reveal Montoya’s face. Recurring audition footage from 2017 and subsequent verite follow-ups with a cross-section of queer subjects offers a number of casually nihilistic soundbites of the “live fast die young” variety, with an underpinning of post-anthropocene weariness; when asked what they see for the future, one subject replies that the whole idea of even conceptualizing a future seems impossible. Visually and tonally offsetting this melancholy moodpiece is an occasional secondary set of imagery generated by a fantasy narrative in which the ghosts of the recently dead return to party and hook up amongst the living, causing rightwing pushback. The dead here look like the redeyed ghost from Uncle Boonmee, but Montoya makes that by-now iconic image his own, in part by relocating it from the forest to the city; one such spirit sitting alone in a movie theater is appropriately spooky. In addition to some beautifully worked-out drone shots, Anhell69 also features a number of behind-the-windshield views that, in tandem with the thematic emphasis, give new meaning to the moving “phantom carriage” shot.

As for Art Talent Show, it doesn’t necessarily speak for itself, at least not when it comes to Bojar and co-director Adéla Komrzý’s POV; much like Bojar’s introduction, that could be celebration, satire or both. Joining the 2022 “what’s the point of art school” cluster of Showing Up (which is basically “in favor of”) and The African Desperate (which hews closer to “burn it all down”), Art Talent Show derives laughs from the multiple audition components, from portfolio reviews to interviews, to get into Prague Academy. Is it “punching down” to get laughs out of earnest young studio types? Probably—but it is, of course, hard not to laugh at one that serves as this film’s correlative to TÁR‘s BIPOC-pangender-student-vs.-reactionary-lecturer scene. Here, there’s no actual confrontation, just an uneasy attempt to find a common language between between two male teachers and their prospect, with all parties uneasily grinning at each other as the applicant a) uses “we” to avoid female pronouns before showcasing a portfolio that seems to consist entirely of charcoal drawings of penises, making for the most illustrated phalluses in one place since Superbad‘s end credits b) pivots from denouncing smoking to saying that maybe it’s actually OK, insofar as “smoking is good for nature because it kills people,” as clear an example of Art School Brain as there ever was. If it’s 25 minutes too long the film is, nonetheless, beautifully shot and consistently funny while observing a zone where inspiration and bullshit perpetually dwell side-by-side out of impossible-to-separate necessity. I’m waiting patiently for someone to screengrab one appalled professor’s response to a particularly wonky artwork: “I feel like punching somebody for this shit.”

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