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True/False Film Fest 2024: Creative Subjects

A woman with orange hair and glasses sits on a white folding chair in a gallery space.Philly Abe in Flying Lessons

“Are you getting what you want, bitch?” Philly Abe, the focus of Elizabeth Nichols’s Flying Lessons, repeatedly offers similarly styled examples of “director-subject negotiations,” in which the latter grumbles before giving the former what they want, now with the added gift of self-reflexive dramatic tension. Director-subject relations are currently an especially fashionable topic (cf. the recent, clearly-titled film Subject); at this year’s True/False Film Fest, Flying Lessons provided its most interesting treatment. Abe is presented first as a representative of a vibrant and unprofessionalized ’80s downtown NYC arts scene but has an equally important relationship to the filmmaker, whose presence is warm and supportive but largely silent, emanating not-articulable benevolence with an emotional doula component. The two met while living in a building owned by cartoonishly evil real estate developer Steve Croman, and Nichols initially contextualizes Abe in relationship to her under-siege rent-stabilized apartment, attending community meetings of rent activists or quivering with rage as gut renovation above makes her walls shake and dust fall below. In off-topic hours, Abe keeps expanding the boundaries of what she’s comfortable with on-camera, leaning into a penchant for performative/outsize emotion.

A character study of a difficult person, Flying Lessons presents Abe less in terms of hallmark artistic achievements, none of which are made great claims for, and instead more as a type of artist allowed to flourish by a real estate climate that no longer exists, a multi-hyphenate painter and performer remembering others who didn’t make it this far. A third of the way through, Abe attends an exhibition by one of her former directors, the late painter and muralist Richard Hofmann. After sharing bruising memories in front of Nichols’s camera with a friend about the AIDS crisis and Hofmann’s final days, a doc DP gathering footage at the show for an unspecified project steps into the frame, asking the pair for “one funny story, one serious story.” “Do I have to bitch-slap you”? Abe responds. Her reflexive aversion to providing snackable in memoriam content also foreshadows her diagnosis of, and subsequent rapid decline from, pancreatic cancer in a predictably devastating final act. An image of an incense smoke trail curving in the air acts as an elegant synecdochic stand-in for Abe’s death, a rare overt poetic flourish in a film that outsources most of its outsize gestures to clips from her appearances in bombastic, proudly loud and crude NYC underground films, mostly by Todd Verow. The film’s genre is neither “affable first-person Amerindie doc” nor “uber-formalist European hybrid poetry,” successfully occupying an understated spot in between.

Flying Lessons was one of eight world premieres at this year’s 21st edition of True/False, my 14th attending IRL; for my purposes, it still provides an unparalleled social structure. Looking around, my instinct was that ticket sales were down relative to last year, when the festival reported 28,900 attendees; this edition’s official count was indeed slightly lower (27,200 for film screenings, 28,540 with music showcases, per the fest). A volunteer who’s driven a shuttle for the fest for 12 years pointed out that during the peak of that period, each film’s intro would end with an invitation to clap for True/False’s “800+ volunteers”; now, that number’s 500. She attributed diminishing attendance to the pandemic and streaming, as good guesses as any and speaking to familiar concerns for festivals and exhibitors all over. It is, nonetheless, quite something to step into the art deco environs of the Missouri Theatre and find an entirely packed 1200-seat house for, say, a 61-minute Palestinian family video diary; at such moments, the definition of what a crowdpleaser could be seems to be visibly stretching before your eyes.

And the audiences tend to be patient, with by far the most uncharacteristic walkouts I saw this year at Lea Hartlaub’s sr. Making its post-Rotterdam US premiere, this essay film pays tribute to the inherently comical properties of giraffes and the pleasures of pure archival research. For a while, sr is good fun; it’s obviously entertaining to consider the abstruse question of whether giraffes are kosher or learn the history of their introduction to China. Given the animal’s African origins, there’s a particular emphasis on the giraffe as locus of colonial histories: targets on safari expeditions and, later, attractions on preserves run by the descendants of colonizers. On a historical basis, the animals generate obvious subtexts, while in the flesh they add substantial visual value. Hartlaub gets a lot of mileage from very wide shots where their swaying and loping are barely perceptible; seen closer, craning over plantation house balconies or poised outside windows, they unpredictably disrupt the space around them. But sr eventually devolves into an undifferentiated research dump of giraffe arcana, general research in search of an application. As a colleague deadpanned outside, “I like that kind of movie, but…” I do too, and still couldn’t blame a single civilian viewer for streaming out as 106 minutes ground remorselessly on.

In the opening voiceover of Armel Hostiou’s desultory but amiable The Other Profile, the director explains that after finding a duplicate Facebook profile for himself based out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and having his request to have that fake profile deleted rejected by the social network’s moderators, he went to Kinshasa to personally look into it. Using identity theft as a prompt to open-ended comedy rather than, say, a plunge into a true-crime underworld, Hostiou locates his fraudulent other self halfway through, after a great deal of running-time padding in an admittedly very satisfying scene. A potentially rancid power dynamic—French white man travels to former Belgian colony to locate/publicly shame a much poorer black man—is theoretically defused by the fact that the more powerful person in this equation has had his identity stolen for unclear (but almost certainly illegal, and possibly shameful) reasons. Since his fake other has harvested Hostiou’s identity, that gives the filmmaker freedom to focus back on him, reciprocally harvesting him for a different form of personal gain. This all crunches neatly, with a precision seemingly designed for workshops on ethical director-subject relations, and the movie is occasionally quite funny.

 As The Tide Comes In is a combination of two currently popular hybrid documentary sub-genres: the subtly understated portrait of a small town whose dwindling population portends the end of a way of life (The Sky Turns, Inori, Nights Gone By), and non-polemical movies meant to sneakily hammer on the urgency of climate change (Nocturnes, Pau Faus’s Fauna). If there’s a lot of this kind of work out there, Tide, focusing on the Danish island of Mandø (population: 27), is distinguished by leaning into humor instead of the more standard end-of-days pathos, and by writer-director Juan Palacios’s compositional and editorial precision throughout a brisk 84 minutes. (There’s an intriguingly specific credit for Sofie Husum Johannesen as co-director and story developer; the Danish national served as a kind of anthropological advance team, scouting and trustbuilding with subjects before the outsider Spanish director arrived.) An opening sequence shows a hose being dragged across the island, moving in under six cuts from wide shots that take advantage of the spectacularly scaled yet simple geometric tension of a line crossing a landscape to a close-up of main character Gregers Jørgensen, steadily collapsing the distance and perspective at each reset.

Palacios was fortunate that with only 27 characters to choose from, there were some actual interesting ones. A scratchy-voiced smoker with aging parents, Gregers is re-introduced post-title card drinking a beer while driving down a road and watching the Danish version of Farmer Wants a Wife on his phone before getting out and catching a fish with his bare hands from a roadside puddle; he provides a fine central combination of boorishness, bathos, comedy and back-to-the-land skills, around whom secondary characters revolve none-too-urgently. Most poignantly there’s Mie Laverentz, shown early on celebrating her 99th birthday and impressively managing to blow out a large number of candles in a minimum number of tries as the camera dollies in ever-so-slowly, with a pace and control reminiscent of Silent Light; the whitewashed walls and rural surroundings probably fueled that comparison point, but the chops on display are nonetheless comparably impressive. This is Palacios’s third feature (the first I’ve seen), one he explains in the press kit he was essentially hired to make; this is, thus, a commissioned auteur movie, walking a precise aesthetic line of familiarity and surprise.

“I’m not really sure how you wind up something on a subject like this other than dying yourself,” Ralph Arlyck admits towards the end of I Like It Here, a film with three main areas of concentration: death, the filmmaker himself and curiosity about seemingly everyone he comes into contact with. I hadn’t heard of Arlyck until a friend who admires his work told me about his newest film, a 2022 premiere that landed (better) late (than never) at this year’s True/False. To prep, I caught up with Arlyck’s reputation-making 1970 short Sean, a brief interview portrait of an adolescent in Haight-Ashbury, and the 2005 feature follow-up Following Sean, in which the filmmaker catches up with the now-grown boy and his family. Arlyck practices a mode that could be described as “culturally mildly conservative Ross McElwee,” simulating endless digressions with a great deal of sculpted skill, repeatedly highlighting the gap between what he as the documentarian wants and the various (dis)comfort levels of his subjects while retroactively contemplating the ’60s and its fallout from a “common sense” position that’s basically “that was necessary but also smelly, and I’d rather be cozy at home.” 

If Following Sean’s attempted vibe is “affectionate and contemplative,” something about that tonal affect bugged me; a gloomier companion, I Like It Here was a better fit. Where Following Sean’s opening credits offered sunny helicopter views of the Bay Area to a sentimental score, I Like It Here is firmly of the present in beginning with more budget-friendly drone shots of Arlyck’s house and surrounding environs in upstate New York. The weather is gray and foggy, there’s no music, Arlyck’s voice is older and frailer; his body has worsened and so has the world. The film spins out both stories of his neighbors and retroactively considers his life and career, with generous clips from a 50-years-plus filmography that seems to have largely aired on PBS. Throughout, Arlyck repeatedly contemplates his relatively imminent demise, latching onto the odd detail to demonstrate what end-of-life thought processes are like—most chillingly for me when he notes that since he goes through pencils slowly, one day he realized the box currently in his desk might be the last such he ever buys.

Like Philly Abe, Arlyck represents not just himself but a type of artist; in his case, a first-person documentary essayist with the time and resources to repeatedly resculpt his lived experience into coherent reports on himself. It’s personal filmmaking without either the earnest tropes of contemporary variants on “sharing your story” or the arch humor of John Wilson, who’s fused McElwee and the Kuchars into his own very specific lane. What I Like It Here represents is the culmination of over 50 years of experience as an unfashionable, professional documentarian, outlasting changing tides of cinematic trends and surviving the perpetual quest for financing while continuing to produce work to one’s own satisfaction. May we all be so lucky.

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