Precarity, Therapy Films and Ethics: True/False Film Fest 2023
In its second post-pandemic, in-person year, True/False was still trying to convince audiences to come back (there were fewer venues this year than pre-pandemic) to watch artful documentary, but the in-person joy was contagious.
For one long March weekend, the True/False Film Fest turns the college town of Columbia, Missouri into an arts extravaganza. The films range from the mainstream (Going Varsity in Mariachi, a high-school competition film from the Texas border) to surprising (Milisuthando Bongela’s Milisuthando, about identity challenges in post-apartheid South Africa), to the strange (Raphaël Grisey and Bouba Touré’s Xaraasi Xanne/Crossing Voices, which uncompromisingly mixes past, present and future in Malian migrant Bouba Touré’s struggle for justice and autonomy) to the boldly experimental (Deborah Stratman’s Last Things, a meditation on rocks, geology and people that features creative re-use of archival material). Buskers entertain audiences before the films, playing anything from blues to modern classical, on instruments you may or may not recognize. The shops along the downtown streets have turned themselves into impromptu art galleries. There’s a costume ball to kick it off and a raucous parade that brings out blocks’ worth of enthusiastic locals, performing for streets of families recycling their Halloween costumes. I dare you to have a bad time.
One of the hallmarks of the True/False experience is the low-stress feeling of community. It’s easy to get into even sold-out screenings with a pass, and the pricing/perks prioritize passes. If you have to wait, costumed volunteers will amuse you. It’s easy to bump into friends and filmmakers—if you park yourself at the Ragtag Cinema, you can’t avoid folks. There are unticketed, intimate filmmaker-to-filmmaker chats, late-night soirees and, for industry/press folks, the festival facilitates connections with contact info, events and personal care and tending. The sites I attended were all accessible, and some screenings were open-captioned.
As well, the Based on a True Story (BOATS) conference, hosted at the University of Missouri’s famed journalism school just before the festival, showcases some of the films and filmmakers, and allows for both Q&As and productive hallway conversations. That conference launched with a true community moment. One of the field’s beloved, and fiercely mission-driven, filmmakers, Julia Reichert—whose career in social-activist filmmaking spanned four decades—had died three months before. Her widower, Steve Bognar, showed some clips (not without tearing up), and asked the audience for comments and suggestions on how to shape it into a film. He was deluged not only with ideas but with loving sympathy.
How’s your health?
Among the topics that surfaced in panels, hallways and parties was the health and future of the field’s organizations. The news of a hiatus at Full Frame, continuing uncertainty about the direction of the International Documentary Association, the folding of smaller festivals and austerity budgets for organizations still reeling from pandemic losses all made for conversation. Filmmakers speculated on what the role of festivals is at a time when major outlets (e.g., HBO, streamers) seem to capture the spotlight, and awards align with massive promotional campaigns out of reach for most indie doc filmmakers. Indeed, some filmmakers said they saw major film festivals weighing the amount of a film’s awards-campaign budget as part of their consideration for inclusion.
So, of course Tabitha Jackson’s conversation with critic Alissa Wilkinson at BOATS was a destination event. This was Jackson’s first public appearance in the U.S. since she left her position as festival director at Sundance Institute, after a controversy about Sundance’s decision to showcase Meg Smaker’s (then titled) Jihad Rehab. Dozens of filmmakers, led by those of Middle Eastern descent, had protested the film, for several reasons.
Citing a separation agreement requiring her silence on the specifics, Jackson did not address the controversy. (Some in the audience, still awaiting an apology from either Jackson or Sundance, found this either frustrating or too convenient.) Rather, she posed a question generalizing the challenge that the controversy had raised in that one instance: “How can we ask these hard questions of each other, given the power dynamics of institutions and individuals?
“We are in the messy, uncomfortable part of the revolution to make cinema more just, and in that process there will be some casualties,” she said. “The goal is much bigger than this particular moment, while understanding the moment and our role in it.” She noted that in the absence of open discussion (limited in her case by her separation agreement), destructive media narratives circulate—presumably she was referring to the “woke cancel culture” theme, which portrayed Jihad Rehab’s filmmaker as a victim, a theme embraced by the New York Times. “It reminds us of the importance of free, independent, rigorous journalism, unrepressed subject storytelling, and a community with enough good faith in each other to ask the difficult questions in a way that takes us forward.”
One cheering piece of news on the institutional front was a party hosted by venerable independent media arts organization Kartemquin Films. Its executive director, Betsy Leonard, and new artistic director, Amir George, lately of True/False, welcomed a stellar group of Kartemquin alums and supporters. (Gordon Quinn, the co-founder of the organization some 57 years ago, remains a part-time contributor to artistic direction.) Kevin Shaw, whose Let the Little Light Shine was a standout at last year’s fest, was among many others taking a break from several new projects to attend. Kartemquin also celebrated their Diverse Voices in Docs alum, Sebastián Pinzón-Silva, whose experimental and poignant La Bonga, made with Canela Reyes, showed at this year’s fest.
How’s your mental health?
The festival showcased several films that could huddle together under the umbrella of “therapy film.” All made by millennials, they feature a filmed evolution of intimate personal relationships, a process in which the camera serves as provocateur, recorder and healer all at once. How you experience these films probably has to do with your own feelings about therapy, as well as about the people undergoing this process.
In Joonam, Iranian-American filmmaker Sierra Urich chronicles her adoring relationship with her grandma and fractious one with her mom as she tries to find a heritage she’s comfortable with. She is remarkably frank in revealing her petulance and impatience. In Red Herring, UK filmmaker Kit Vincent relentlessly pursues his father and mother as he tries to get them to engage more with the fact that he has a fatal brain tumor at the age of 28. He finally gives it up, though, deciding that he’s hiding behind the camera and needs to face his own fears without it. Fair enough, he hasn’t got all the time in the world. Danish director Anita Mathal Hopland, whose father is Pakistani, shows us more than a decade of admittedly often-uncomprehending home video of her Pakistani family in Moosa Lane before the film turns abruptly to her fatally-ill young cousin’s visit to Denmark. She is looking for greater connection than she otherwise has with her Pakistani relatives through the filming, and I’m unclear about whether she found it. In Theo Montoya’s Anhell69, which I found profoundly moving and sad, a doomed generation of trans Colombian young people finds both their confessional and their memorial. Finally, there’s The Taste of Mango, in which Chloe Abrahams slowly reveals a three-generation link of gendered violence, and how that experience is hidden until it can’t be hidden any more.
One question about therapy films, like therapy itself, is when the process is complete. The Taste of Mango communicates an enormous sense of love and generosity throughout, not only revealing the filmmaker’s origins in fine art with exquisite visual and aural interludes but also in the conversations between the women. The alternation between what is said and what isn’t or can’t be becomes a compelling reason to watch. And yet, Abrahams told me, two years ago the film would have been a completely different experience. “I made this film to clear my head. And for a while it was a very angry film,” she said. Putting the work on screen distanced her from it enough to help her work through it, and she came to greatly admire her mother for her courage in admitting what had happened. Eventually she decided to make her primary audience her own mother, to work to avoid sensationalizing the hair-raising violence that has punctuated these women’s lives, and to create an experience that could “gently carry the audience through it.”
Trauma and Resistance
The question of confronting and resisting systemic violence came up repeatedly in conversations. Bad Press, by Becca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, contains hilarious moments in its portrait of an embattled group of journalists at Mvskoke Media fighting for freedom of the press within the Muscogee nation. Mvskoke Media received the True Life award, which designates one project that a film profiles for audiences to direct donations to. Angel Ellis, a journalist featured in the film, talked about the challenge of writing exposés about leaders of the Muscogee nation because of her passion to make its government as strong as possible to resist U.S. government incursions. “As an indigenous person, if I hear the word ‘resiliency’ one more time I’ll vomit on my own shoes,” she said. “I don’t have a fucking choice. Look at us exist and thrive despite the world. This is a system designed to completely eradicate you. We experience great joy because you have to have those times.”
Filmmaker Joe Brewster (Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, co-directed with Michèle Stephenson), a former therapist, echoed a concern for resistance as he considered how to think about trauma in filmmaking: “If we look at the level of inequity in this great country, there’s trauma everywhere. The question is, How can we resist and thrive, given those odds? You can help people thrive with trauma, if you look at what these people who have experienced trauma have been able to achieve. That’s why we go to the movies.” Stephenson added, “There’s a healing that happens in the process of taking into your own hands your own story.” That was what Nikki Giovanni had done with her poetry, and their telling of the Afrofuturist poet’s story celebrated a way to resist and thrive.
What’s the right thing to do?
A concern for participants and teammates in the filmmaking process was also a recurrent theme in film discussions. Sam Osborn, the Latino-American co-director (with Alejandra Vasquez) of Going Varsity in Mariachi told audiences that a first question they asked themselves was how to make sure the film was not extractive of the community. The filmmakers moved to the small town they filmed it, participated in daily life there and are working on ways to benefit local mariachi programs through their engagement work. The makers of Time Bomb: Y2K commented that, for primarily archival films, it’s important to consider how upsetting it can be for first-line researchers to sift through disaster footage.
For Our Body, a riveting, cinéma vérité portrayal of encounters in a French hospital for women’s reproductive care, veteran filmmaker Claire Simon got permissions from everyone to film astonishingly intimate moments. She found that some people wanted to help with the mission of educating people about reproductive health. When told by an audience member that the film was “health care porn” for Americans, given the high quality of personal and emotionally-attuned care women received in the film, she laughed and said, “Yes and it’s all free!” The film’s warm and celebratory portrayal of birth contrasted sharply with the brutal and sometimes deadly medical care suffered by Chinese women coming to the U.S. to give birth and secure their child’s citizenship in another selection, Leslie Tai’s How to Have an American Baby. But good will only took Simon so far. Doctors understandably refused to give her permission to film someone receiving a diagnosis, because it would be impossible for them to provide informed consent. Fortuitously, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to film the shocking moment she was told.
Some filmmakers showed participants work in advance of screenings, and others did not. Victoria Linares Villegas, True False’s True Vision award-winner, whose film Ramona is part-fiction and part-documentary, paid her participants, pregnant teenagers, for the time they spent with her and her team. She also paid location fees. She did not, however, show the film or edits of it in advance. She wanted them to see themselves in a theater for the first time, to be “queens for a night.” For Bad Press, the filmmakers came into the situation with a lot of trust; Landsberry-Baker, a member of the Muscogee nation, is executive director of the Native American Journalists Association. They showed an early rough cut to participants, who liked it but didn’t want to continue to see cuts. “Their ability to trust me as a fellow tribal member and former colleague was super important,” Landsberry-Baker said.
Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor at American University, and the author of, among other works, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).