Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Truthiness and Falsiness in Columbia, Missouri

Branchage went to the insanely enjoyable True/False Film Festival in Missouri last week.  We're extremely proud to be associated with this very special documentary festival, and we fell in love with the town of Columbia, MO.  Here are some thoughts on some of the films we saw...

On the Saturday evening of the True/False weekend, the film festival hosted a gameshow called Gimme Truth.  The panel of documentary filmmakers had to decide which of ten two-minute locally-made documentaries was 'true' and which was total fiction.  Each film shown to panel and audience was either 100% factual or 100% made up.  The panel struggled to correctly peg even half the films.  The audience loved it.

It's no great shakes to point out that the tension between realness and fakeness was always going to be prominent at a festival called True/False, but T/F 2011 seemed to revel in paddling about in the murky waters of Documentary Truth.  It's been forty-odd years since the heyday of the Maysles brothers, but there's often still a hankering after verite and a strange amount of stick thrown at docs that stray too far into artifice.  (What bothered people more about CATFISH, for example - that the filmmakers were taking advantage of a vulnerable (and possibly ill) documentary subject, or that they were trying to take the savvy viewer for a ride?).

 Gimme Truth gameshow
A panel event on 'hybrid documentaries' (so very) early on the Friday morning of the festival looked at reenactments, dramatisations and staged scenes, with four intimidatingly interesting panelists, and led us to check out Marcin Sauter's NORTH FROM CALABRIA.

This Polish imagining of a perfect rural village is filled with dozy eccentrics, agreeable visitors, strangely imaginative teens, a lot of pottering, a little sputtering, a significant amount of muttering, some indulgent friendships, some incomprehensible amateur dramatics, some inappropriate giggling and a tender selection of old love, new love, young not-really-love and unlikely courting... It's an absolute delight from start to finish.  Marcin Sauter went off in search of the village he wanted to make a film about, and by taking 12 actors with him he created that village.  His portrait of Chelmsko Slaskie gorgeously renders everything that is enigmatic, special and idiosyncratic about mundane life.

In a post-screening Q&A Sauter took pleasure in not revealing which of the villagers are his actors - they may have been brought in and given a brief, but their interactions are still real enough.  (Sidenote: here's to Q&As with witty deadpan Polish directors speaking through cheery translators - as Sauter spoke you couldn't guess he was finishing with a joke until the brilliant translator laughed as she was about to say it.  It was perfect).

Fellow panelist Clio Barnard's actors are as clear as Sauter's are obscured. Using actors to lip-sync to recorded interviews with the family and neighbours of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar has an extraordinary effect - distancing you from the characters in THE ARBOR while simultaneously connecting you to them and their stories more intimately than you ever really feel with talking heads interviewees.  There's something eerie about the disembodied voices emanating but not quite emanating from the characters you are watching, as they move like slow, ominous ghosts through the kitchens and bedrooms of the Buttershaw Estate where Dunbar lived her whole short life.  The performances are just extraordinary, feeling so real even while you know they are not, as the cast act along to every stutter, sob, false start or mis-placed breath of the source interviews, and it all comes out in deliciously thick Bradford accents (that required subtitling for the American/international audience).

Added to this are blistering performances of Dunbar's plays (themselves autobiographical) staged with just some shabby furniture in the middle of the grassy quad of the Estate.  The crowd gathered around to watch includes other actors from the film and a rabble of confused or intrigued local inhabitants. So many levels of truth, acting, and reality here.

In the panel discussion, Barnard mused that all documentary involves some level of artifice - some decision of the filmmaker, the cinematographer, the editor, that alters 'reality'.  In THE ARBOR she is interested in exposing all of that artifice and flagging up the discrepancy between realness and what you can possibly portray in film.  She does that here to stunning and moving effect.  (Someone more pretentious might say it's Brechtian in its frame-breaking qualities.  But not us, no...)

And then there was LA BOCCA DEL LUPO.  At once a document of the love story of weather-beaten ex-convict Enzo and Mary, who waited patiently for him; and a sultry, evocative love-note to the weather-beaten city of Genoa through the ages.  And it's also a rejoicing in the weirdness of people, with strange barmen performing an inscrutable dance to camera...  Pietro Marcello's film is flagrant and beautiful in its constructedness, using reams of layered archive footage of Genoa, cut into lengthy shots of Enzo (both character and actor) wandering the cobbled streets, or hanging at his fruit stand.  Marcello conjures a rich, poetic, scruffy kind of an Italian world, ancient but in flux.  And then, all of a sudden, all that is replaced by the most extraordinary, long, fixed camera joint interview with Mary, who talks, and Enzo, who sulks indulgently.  Marcello informed the audience after the screening, that's not an interview, it's a confession.

We heard that Oliver Laxe's YOU ARE ALL CAPTAINS is another film from T/F that would fit in with this lot, but there were only 4 days and 40-odd films to watch plus panels, parades and parties... so we've asked for a DVD and will post an appendix another time... 

But the film that started the festival for us was Robert Greene's FAKE IT SO REAL, and although it doesn't use actors, or lip-synching, or wear its artifice on its sleeve, it depicts so tenderly the balancing of fake and real (specifically in American independent pro wrestling) that it nicely set the tone for a weekend of True/False-ness at True/False.  And with audiences as astute and engaged as those at T/F the similarities between wrestling and documentary-making (shaping reality to make it entertaining? creating narrative to keep an audience hooked? developing characters that people will engage with? all while trying to seem 'real'?) won't have gone unnoticed. 

FAKE IT SO REAL, though, following a week in the life of the director's cousin and his wrestling team, is captivating and charming, and with a cast of amazingly strange characters it doesn't need to do much faking. 

What this trailer captures is the eccentricity, the posturing, the play acting and the real physical stresses and pains.  What you'll have to wait for the film to appreciate is the love, the sense of community and camaraderie, the teasing, the efforts, the skill, the sense of a man finding something he's pretty good at when maybe he wasn't so good at too many other things... the sense of a man who's spent a lot of years not fitting in and searching for a place for himself finding it in communion with a group of other men who may be a bit like that too...  And when it comes to the earnest rookie Gabriel, determined to fine tune his wrestling persona as a make-up wearing angel, you find yourself rooting for the most cringingly watchable underdog imaginable.  When Gabe mentions that his ex-girlfriend has a restraining order against him, uncle-like fellow wrestler David whistles, 'oh, so you're that guy'.

Beautifully and intimately shot, and tightly edited with an eye for humour, gentle mocking, and the sweetness of storytelling, FAKE IT SO REAL is a nugget of joy.

It's painfully trite to say, but FAKE IT SO REAL kicked off our True/False weekend with a reminder that the faking of it can add to the real of it, the False of it adds to the True of it, and it's all the other stuff - the heart of it - that makes the difference.

March March: Rain couldn't rain on T/F's parade
No room here to write about how mentally brilliant all of the rest of the festival was, but just enough space to cram in a shout out for all of the people who run True/False and who make it so pleasurable and easy to enjoy - you'll spot them at 10am creeping around behind panelists adjusting microphones, peddling back and forth across town on their push bikes all day, charming their guests over nibbles in the evening, and wiggling on the dance floor at 4am.  Every day of the festival. Always grinning.

1 comment:


Your articles are great :-) Felt like I was actually there after Reading it...