Possibly the best embodiment of its festival host, the documentary GES-2 has high art as its ostensible subject, but the civilians keep stealing the show. A burly security guard distracts visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition, construction workers mug and play accordion for the camera, and an elevator repairman has mere hours to save an opera.
Director Nastia Korkia’s approach is compared to Frederick Wiseman in the program, but the comparison doesn’t account for all the cleverness here. Wiseman mixed with Jacques Tati almost gets it. Wiseman would include the scenes of a haggard project manager attempting to keep the project’s budget under control, and Tati would approve of a conceptual artist who has to retrieve his fish balloons from the ceiling with a retractable measuring tape. But would either attempt to induce an audience sing-along?
In the only fully finished performance depicted in GES-2, a singer belts out a single lyric, translated as “Sorrow conquers happiness,” over and over. The transliterated Russian words appear at the bottom of the screen with karaoke-style highlighting to encourage the movie’s audience to sing along with the audience on screen. The actual performance went for six hours and (wisely) Korkia only approximates the effect; “Sorrow conquers happiness” is a terribly morose sentiment, but when repeated long enough and with enough people, it becomes meaningless, then absurd, then something incongruously joyful.
So it goes at the celebration of the practical and the playful, as the 2022 True/False Film Festival operated under intrusive clouds of real-world sorrow. The directors of the festival’s two Russian entries, GES-2 and Where Are We Going? condemned the invasion of Ukraine in their introductions. The fabulous “Q Queens” hustling crowds into theaters reminded everyone to put on their masks and display their wristbands designating proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The 2020 festival ended just as nationwide shutdowns began and, after an uncharacteristic outdoor-oriented May festival in 2021, True/False now attempted to resemble its old self – a four-day marathon of mostly documentary features and shorts that consistently draws sold-out crowds to venues large and small in the college town of Columbia, Missouri.
Of the eight features and five shorts I saw during three days of the festival, only two made overt reference to the pandemic, though the program still bore the marks of a couple pandemic years. Many films were comprised of archival footage, a couple had finished their filming before 2020, and masks appeared in the margins of others. One film, Vedette did not have masks, but it took place almost entirely between two neighboring houses on a mountain in the Alps and featured a cow as its protagonist. This certainly qualified as a “bubble” production.
The film that dealt most effectively with the pandemic didn’t even take place in the same world. We Met in Virtual Reality was filmed entirely within the open source VR social platform VRSpace. Filming entirely within virtual space, director Joe Hunting portrays the online community as a place where members don’t just goof around with physics-defying cars or take classes, but also find support in their depression, grief and good old-fashioned loneliness – especially when other social options are cut off. The mass of cartoonish avatars – a perplexing number of which sport tails and massive bouncing breasts – seems impossible to parse at first. But Hunting keeps us oriented among the chaos by keeping to traditional filmmaking techniques, cutting into close-ups and having subjects sit for interviews via their avatars. It’s made with real care for the community which feels less and less intimidating and odd the more time spent there.
Would that all the films were so good at distilling their subjects’ verve. One of the big titles, Fire of Love, arrived after coming out a big winner at Sundance, at least in sales terms. It’s an irresistible premise – married couple Katia and Maurice Krafft met studying volcanoes and spent their considerable careers studying them, amassing a trove of 16mm footage from the cusps of eruptions before being killed by a volcanic explosion. But the movie fails to share the kind of passion that led the Kraffts to die for their science. The film’s interest in the science is too flimsy to be alluring yet the narration – by Miranda July, whose voice searches for a deep lava well within – makes the experience too guided to allow immersion in the images. It must have seemed an idea too good to fail – and their sales price would say they were right – but the movie manages to keep so clean of detail that the journeys of the Kraffts along breathtaking volcanic ridges take on the tedium of home movie footage. Not until late in the game when the Kraffts begin applying their studies to the prevention of deadly volcano disasters does the film gain some shape.
A wealth of material can be a blessing and a curse, as in the more successful Riotsville, USA. The film starts from footage of false town streets constructed to train military and police how best to squash civil unrest in the late 1960s. This gets assembled with context from contemporary news programs and coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions while a voiceover tries to make sense of it all, or at least add some poetry. The five-year production process is evident in the film’s scattershot form as it tries to cram months of research into a digestible dissertation. Still, the film’s most memorable moments thanks to its decision to leave some oddities in. Some pointed, as when new announcers blithely throw to Gulf Oil ads during coverage of the RNC, others just humorous relics of the 60s, like the mind-boggling number of cigarettes consumed during the average newscast, puffs of smoke blowing across the network’s logo at a commercial break.
Although even the darlings from this year’s virtual Sundance Festival delighted in having a live audience at last, films from the here and now – or at least the recent past – arguably benefitted most. In Let the Little Light Shine, high-performing elementary school The National Teachers Academy has been placed on the chopping block by Chicago Public Schools, who wants to turn it into a high school to appease the neighborhood’s newer residents. The majority Black NTA doesn’t take this latest attempt to at gentrification lying down, and the battle pitting NTA parents and faculty against the hostile district forms an irresistible David-and-Goliath story, with an enthusiastic crowd supplying angry murmurs and spontaneous applause.
Thousands of miles away from Southside Chicago in the Amazon Rainforest, The Territory follows a community of Uru-eu-wau-wau people as they attempt to protect their home – incidentally also a natural resource described as the beating heart of the planet. Cattle farmers boldly enter the land, emboldened by newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro and his anti-Native rhetoric, slashing and burning sections of rainforest with abandon. It’s not until the Ure-eu-wau-wau gain a set of cameras to document the invasions, that pushback becomes possible and they go on a slash-and-burn campaign of their own. More applause, naturally.
The audiences rose to their feet for the filmmakers and the subjects who made the trip to Missouri with their movies. Maybe this will or maybe this won’t move the needle on serious issues like educational inequality and environmental destruction, but the spark between audience and art is true. We find joy together, even when sorrow conquers happiness.