True/False Festival opening parade

1-4 March 2007

Is there a new wave in documentary filmmaking? Taken as a whole, the level of public engagement with films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Who Killed the Electric Car?, When the Levees Broke and Control Room seems to bespeak a certain tendency. Even the genre-bending connected with the film Borat: Culturtal Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan suggests a renewed enthusiasm for toying with the boundaries that divide the real world from the reel one. On one level, filmmaking of this sort may see itself as picking up where journalism leaves off; it may be filling a need for those disillusioned by how short television news has fallen in its coverage of politics, the war in Iraq, or the class disparity made pronounced during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps for this reason a dispirited public finds itself turning to documentary filmmakers in the hope that they will finally expose unacknowledged yet self-evident truths.

At one and the same time, however, provocative filmmakers have been accused of abdicating documentarians’ responsibility to present reality in its least adulterated form. A filmmaker such as Michael Moore would likely argue that he is merely doing the important investigative work most television journalists have been unwilling to do. While an approach of this sort is antithetical to the aims and ethics of veteran documentarians such as Frederick Wiseman, a certain generic restlessness has emerged out of the uneasy relationship between journalism and documentaries: how does one define the difference between reporting reality and presenting viewers with one filmmaker’s avowedly biased take on the real world? Perhaps because postmodernism has encouraged us to take pleasure in narrative’s constructedness, it has become an open secret of the documentary form that it benefits from providing a view that is always already skewed. Its popular successes seem to suggest that there is a virtue in overtly accepting that not even the facts can be framed unfettered by perspective. Even documentaries that try to avoid all manner of slant find themselves embroiled in political debate (there is, of course, a politics to March of the Penguins). If this is the case – if this is the new ground of contemporary documentary cinema – then perhaps it should not be avoided but instead embraced.

Crowd at the opening of the festival

The constructed nature of documentary cinema has been indeed embraced by Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Festival, which screened over 40 new films this year. The festival’s very name seems to urge a reconsideration of the form’s defining terms. Some of the many filmmakers in attendance seemed proudest when asserting that they are engaged in the process of framing reality. For example, Brett Morgen, the recipient of this year’s True/False True Vision award, was quick to differentiate his approach from journalism. In accepting the award, Morgen said “I’m not a journalist, not a historian, I’m a filmmaker.” One can understand his comment, the assertion of a line separating his work from that of reporters, as stemming from an anxiety about the overlap between the two areas. Morgen added: “My mission is to use every bandwidth to tell a story.” Mixing media on celluloid is one of Morgen’s staples; his work incorporates animation and collage. Both his films and his remarks call the terms of documentary into question: what happens, for example, when one uses animation to depict real events, or when a director re-employs the techniques of reality television for fictional ends with the aim of achieving a “truer” representation of the truth?

Such problems traditionally beleaguer any concise definition of “documentary”, and questions of this sort are explored annually at True/False. A moderator of one of the festival’s many panels offered the following definition: if festival organisers Paul Sturtz and David Wilson are willing to screen the film at True/False, then it’s a documentary. Of course, this answer is unsatisfying. One has to begin with the acknowledgment that in the spirit of Werner Herzog, Orson Welles and others, a number of films at the festival achieve their truth through falsification. One might thus propose the new term: “reality-based filmmaking”. What would such a genre include? Can it be made to encompass works such as false or staged reality television? Can it include low-budget remakes of Hollywood films, filmed in backyards and basements? One character featured in a mockumentary at this year’s festival even added the following conundrum: “Do [professional] actors make a pseudo-documentary more phony or more real?” How can one begin to parse such an observation? Because the genre has become so indeterminate – especially of late – a degree of openness and flexibility is a prerequisite for True/False organisers and attendees.

Key questions along these lines – where documentary stands in relation to journalism, and whether a formal criteria for documentary filmmaking can be articulated – were addressed during the festival’s many panel discussions. One session entitled Unscripted: Tales of Doc Derring-Do took documentaries about competitions as its subject. Films of this nature are distinguished by the unpredictability of their outcomes; presumably, theatre-goers do not know before they walk into the theatre who will win, say, an international Air Guitar competition. In its most recent incarnation, documentaries such as Spellbound, Word Wars, Wordplay and Mad Hot Ballroom have all been popular successes, and this style of filmmaking was ably represented at the festival by Air Guitar Nation, American Shopper (Tamas Bojtor & Sybil Dessau, 2006), The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007; which profiles competitive Donkey Kong) and, to some extent, Enemies of Happiness, which documents an election in Afghanistan. Each of the films approached the concept of competition differently. While some of them, such as Vores lykkes fjender (Enemies of Happiness, Eva Mulvad, 2006) are rooted squarely in real life, American Shopper operates from a false conceit; its competitive “sport” is the wholly invented “aisling”, which has been described as “akin to synchronized swimming with shopping carts.” The filmmakers concocted aisling in order to have a reason to scrutinise the lives of their middle-American competitors. Coupling the real with the false, in the spirit of the festival, the filmmakers hired an actor and put him into a real-life situation. At the panel, the film’s producer, Katie Mustard, spoke about setting aside the momentum of competition, because it is, after all, not the competitions themselves, but the characters with whom such films stand or fall. Alexandra Lipsitz, an experienced producer of reality television and the director of Air Guitar Nation, likewise made clear that the person who loses the competition is frequently more compelling than the one who wins.

Danish director Eva Mulvad, who was behind Enemies of Happiness, agreed that one has to let the “characters” – insofar as one can use this term in connection with documentary film – guide a film’s content and tone. She felt that her protagonist revealed important nuances as filming progressed. Though her subject was Malalai Joya and her campaign for a seat in the Afghan Parliament, and her film is in this regard a record of a “competition”, the election was not as central to the film as the nuances of Joya’s temperament. Mulvad elaborates: “you have to be open, to try to understand your characters. They have their own logic.” One of three Danish directors represented at the festival, Mulvad also took time to praise the contemporary direction of American documentary filmmaking. Additionally, it was evident yet under-discussed that the three panelists were all women. In this regard the fourth annual True/False seemed to be a superior forum for women helming documentaries. Other films in the festival such as Kamp Katrina and The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (2006) were also co-directed or directed by women (Ashley Sabin and Pernille Rose Grønkjær, respectively).

Molly Bingham and Steve Connors

Among the journalists whose work was featured at the festival were photographers Molly Bingham and Steve Connors. At the panel Hot Spots: Shooting in the Trenches Bingham and Connors discussed both their photography and their new film Meeting Resistance, which was filmed in Iraq from August 2003 through May 2004. The conversations and interviews in their film took place largely in the predominantly Sunni Adhamiya neighbourhood of Baghdad, and the work attempts to understand the intentions of the Iraqi insurgents. It is principally concerned with questions such as “why and when did you start fighting?” and “what do you hope to accomplish?” The filmmakers had to wrap up their filmmaking at the time of the assault on Fallujah and the revelations about Abu Ghraib because, they felt, it then became impossible to conduct that kind of investigative work: the tone of their interviewees grew too antagonistic.

Connors, who is himself a veteran reporter of numerous conflicts and a former soldier, said that he came to feel that the conflict could no longer be covered properly. In the film’s testimonies viewers gain a growing sense that the Western soldiers are seen as foreign intruders, inflicting literal and figurative wounds on Arab culture. The fact that Connors and Bingham made a film rather than a lengthy news report again underscores a key difference between journalism and documentary. Through their filmmaking, the two had greater autonomy: they could study, analyse and frame the stories of the wounded and the dead among the Iraqi public rather than obsess over Jessica Lynch as many in the media were compelled to at the time. Connors and Bingham also reflected at length on the ways photojournalistic images have again and again been placed in misleading contexts, referring especially to a Time Magazine headline “Caught in the Crossfire”, which was illustrated with an image of people who were not “caught in the crossfire” but rather who had had a bomb dropped on their home. As filmmakers rather than ostensibly objective reporters, they found themselves freer to speak from an articulate anti-War position.

The Falling Man

The relationship between documentary film and journalistic photography is an implicit concern of The Falling Man, a film that starts from its director’s fascination with a still image. The film also goes by the title 9/11: The Falling Man and shares its name with Don DeLillo’s Falling Man: A Novel, a work that also deals with 9/11. Henry Singer’s film is to some extent based on an article written for the September 2003 issue of Esquire magazine by Tom Junod, and both the director, Singer, and the Associated Press photographer, Richard Drew, were in attendance. Insofar as it was inspired by Junod’s article, the film is in some ways an adaptation. The photograph that anchors the film depicts a man falling or jumping from a high floor of the Twin Towers. Singer first traces the impact of the photo’s publication in The Morning Call, a newspaper located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where it stirred up a controversy. He interviews the paper’s editor, who participated in the decision to publish the photograph, and she points out that she published it because she detected a grace and a quietness in the image. Her comments call to mind the way this journalistic photograph’s aesthetics are key to our engagement with it. Its iconicity and resonance comes from its resemblance, for example, to the archetypal Hanged Man of the Tarot, as well as from its apparently perfect symmetry. As Junod has pointed out, the falling man, who seems suspended motionless in empty space, can be seen to bisect the two towers like an arrow.

Much of Singer’s interview material is striking, particularly his conversation with a husband of one of the victims who speaks about his wife’s death and his feeling that the knowledge that she jumped or fell rather than burned to death provides him with a certain comfort. He also believes to have located among the many images of the day a picture of her descent, one that is included in the film and which, when we see it, is as compelling and iconic as the other image at the film’s centre. She is doubled over, as a diver, her hair cloaking her face. Singer’s film studies the consequences of the initial misrecognition of the identity of the eponymous falling man, and uses his family’s anger as a lever for discussions of why people would rather not speak of “suicide” in connection with the events of 9/11. Ultimately, the sister of someone who is taken for the man in the photograph reflects on what might be going through the falling man’s mind and concludes: “that’s something I’ll never know because that happened to him.” In this regard, it is a film about the limitations on what a photograph can convey; it is less about solving the mystery, than it is about dealing with the question of whether one can, at a distance, make sense of such a “choice”. Akin to Junod, the journalist whose piece inspired the film, Singer understands his project as one of confronting a stigma. His film, however, does more than that; it is a prolonged reflection on photography, aesthetics and ethics.

Also confronting issues of working between two media, though with a decidedly lighter tone, was the film Raiders: The Adaptation. The work functions as an inquiry into whether home video – in one of its earliest and least refined incarnations – could capture some (or any) of the excitement of 70mm Hollywood productions. Raiders: The Adaptation was shot in the 1980s when filmmakers Eric Zala and Chris Strombolos were teenagers growing up in Biloxi, Mississippi. The two set out to do a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark with very little money and using primarily Zala’s basement and backyard as sets. In attendance at True/False, the two explained that they spent so much time taping, viewing and editing their own work that the Spielberg film now looks to them like an expensive Hollywood remake of their film. The image quality is abysmal, yet there is a two-fold pleasure in its viewing: first, there is the frisson of familiarity that comes of watching Harrison Ford’s particular tics painstakingly reproduced one after the next. Also important, however, is the acknowledgment of the filmmakers’ relentless effort to capture accurately Spielberg’s special effects on their own shoestring budget. A thrill accompanies each one of their attempts to get things right. And still more interesting than the film is the story of its afterlife, which has become a bit of a mise en abîme: in March 2004 Vanity Fair reported the tale of the tape’s production, and the piece was subsequently purchased for production. Thus, the story of the making of a film based on a Hollywood film is presently being developed for production by Hollywood.

Likewise steeped in popular culture is AJ Schnack’s film Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006). Working with audiotape of interviews conducted and compiled by the rock journalist Michael Azerrad for his book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, this film was yet another True/False film inspired by the work of a reporter. Schnack puts Azerrad’s interviews together with images of Cobain’s varied haunts in Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. Schnack made clear that although the series of interviews were conducted in the early ’90s, he was keen to avoid including concert footage of the band or from the scene at the time in order to circumvent nostalgia either for Nirvana or for the heyday of grunge. The film’s reveries are slow, even languid, yet it is meant more as a poetic mediation and a prolonged visit with Cobain. It confronts directly his troubled relationship with his parents and throughout the interviews (25 hours of audio are here distilled into 90 minutes) the depression in his voice is inescapable. His despondency and his poverty – even subsequent to his signing with Geffen Records – clearly contributed to his suicide. In juxtaposition with Nick Broomfield’s fascinating Kurt and Courtney, a film that suggests that Cobain was Love’s victim, this film means to leave one with little doubt about the musician’s suicidal sadness.

Radiant City

Cobain would undoubtedly have had much to say about the suburban disquiet on display in the innovative Canadian film Radiant City (2006). The work was co-directed by Gary Burns and Jim Brown, a radio journalist for the CBC. Because of its sociological and academic angle this is a film that could and should be adopted for university courses on development and planning. Radiant City takes its title from Le Corbusier’s utopian vision of the future of urban life. Yet here, in contradiction to that dream, the modern city’s radii are seen to extend ever outward, until the city’s centres have all but collapsed. This film bears witness to an expansion that has put human beings in less and less contact with one another. Its subjects live in and around Calgary, and every member of the family at the heart of this film exhibits an air of self-hatred about their choice to live in the suburbs; they know what they’ve given up in exchange for “space” and what they’ve gotten themselves into. The family’s mother plans everything around conducting errands while the father, who commutes to work two hours a day, quietly sabotages his car as a way of opting out of the day-to-day. Their precocious children are well aware of how grim this lifestyle is, and they make their opinions known while treading atop high voltage electrical boxes and cell phone towers. The new dangers of these suburbs are made to appear as bad as or worse than the old urban ones. In turn, the film calls on sociologists and city planners, who each discuss the impossibility of artificially recreating the virtues of small town life, especially once they have given in to the desire for more and more “private space”. James Howard Kunstler, author of Geography of Nowhere, describes these suburbs on camera as “brutal, depressing, unhealthy, and degrading”, and Joseph Heath, author of The Rebel Sell, elaborates on what he calls “the brutal spectacle that politicians like to call growth.” Instead of “strip mall”, the phrase “power centre” is now employed, and this poetic film makes clear that one needs to call on euphemisms to cover up the well-orchestrated and ever expanding mess.

A somewhat related aspect of American life is depicted in Vanessa Roth’s Third Monday in October (2006). The film is also a “competition” film insofar as it follows middle school elections from start to finish. While there is some suspense about who will become the student body president of these middle schools, it is once again the film’s characters, win or lose, who are the real sources of fascination. The film takes place in the Fall of 2004, just as the contest between Bush and Kerry was drawing to its close. The candidates in Third Monday are eleven 13 year-olds from four schools in San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin and Marin County. In San Francisco, two students, Mick and Jenny, run against one another, and the two apparently have limited means; they neither come from wealthy families nor do they attend a particularly well-supported school. The election there is contrasted with the one at Hall Middle School in Marin County, at which the front-runner, Sam, has branded himself with the Superman logo, and each candidate is provided with a constant flow of resources and guidance. In Atlanta, the African-American students competing against one another are each cheerleaders, supported by their mothers. This film allegorises all manner of US class and social difference. It is filled with moments of poignancy, such as when we see Mick struggle, unaided, to come up with a campaign slogan, or when we watch him attentively hang his sole campaign poster in the school hallway. Roth knows how to let her camera linger as Mick protects his creation with scotch tape, one tiny strip after the next. Another key element, and evidence of Roth’s subtle eye, is the way the poor judgment of the teachers often creeps into the foreground. We see a teacher refuse to take responsibility for a mistake, one that is caught on film, and see another berate one of the candidates, a moment that leads to a deftly filmed scene in which we hear the off-screen sound of tears falling. These teachers, too, are fallible. Roth’s work recalls Alexander Payne’s Election insofar as it turns the small details of school elections into a national apologue.

In that Third Monday highlights the difference between African-American, Filipino-American and Texan communities in the US, it can be said to be a film about race in America, something that plays no small role in Marco Williams’s Banished (2007; also known as Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America). Williams, who was also responsible for the equally compelling documentary Two Towns of Jasper, studies the past and present of three American cities. He visits a group of almost entirely white communities including: Forsyth County, Georgia; Harrison, Arkansas; and Pierce City, Missouri. He there uncovers the history of how blacks have been driven from these towns, and, more importantly, how these events have continued to be improperly uncovered and understood. As with The Falling Man, Banished was inspired by good journalism, particularly by research into lynching as reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Joplin Globe. The film follows one of its African-American protagonists to Pierce City as he attempts to move his great grandfather’s remains, which lay buried in an unmarked plot, away from the town. Despite the decency of many members of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, he meets with resistance at every level. The documentary goes to Harrison, Arkansas, where blacks were driven from the town a century ago, and where they have recently established a task force on race relations. The task force is well intentioned, but it was formed because the town has (to the embarrassment of some residents) become a comfortable home to the Klan. Williams, an African-American filmmaker, goes to visit notorious Klansman Thomas Robb at home, to investigate why he was drawn to Harrison, and in a similar scene, a retired man explains to Williams that he has moved to the town because of its “lack of blacks”. The scene is powerful, as are the moments when Williams captures town residents looking for polite alternatives to the racial epithets they are evidently used to using.

Ghosts of Cité Soleil

Race issues are obviously also in the foreground of Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006), a film about the gangs that control a poor and dangerous neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. The director, Asger Leth is the son of the Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth (featured in The Five Obstructions). The film’s pedigree draws attention to the relationship between that tradition, which lately has gained international recognition for its use of a verité style, and contemporary modes of documentary filmmaking. The intensity of Ghosts of Cité Soleil is hardly far from that of the most riveting Dogma films such as The King is Alive. For his documentary Leth has unprecedented access to leaders of local gangs, and the film puts forward the thesis that the gangsters have a special arrangement with ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a relationship that kept them around. Leth’s film does not seek to investigate the truth of its political claims, but rather acquaints us with a pair of compelling gangsters. Its most electrifying figure goes by the name Tupac, who spends a good deal of time testifying – and singing – directly into the camera. Despite the integration of footage of Haiti’s recent coup, the aim of this beautifully and lyrically photographed work lies less in commenting on Haitian history than in demystifying its gangsters, or inquiring into whether one can learn to identify with them over the course of its 90 minutes.

The filmmakers obviously took risks to make Ghosts of Cité Soleil; running around a rough neighborhood with a camera was likely a dangerous business. There is a similar air of danger around Jason Kohn’s Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (2007), a film that is not for the faint-hearted. Kohn’s film contains a fairly savvy analysis of how Brazilian political corruption leads to class struggle which in turn and comes back to haunt the wealthiest citizens of São Paulo, who are now in the position of doing everything possible to avoid becoming the victims of kidnapping and extortion. Kohn, who interned for Errol Morris (an influence one notes insofar as aspects of this film recall Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), was partly inspired by New York Times reporting that described São Paulo as the kidnapping capital of the world. Because one of the hallmarks of the new kidnapping industry is the slicing off of ears (to provide “proof of life”), the film contains some hard-to-watch images of ear surgery. It is, however, thoughtful in its treatment of the industry that has grown up around the kidnapping business, and Kohn seems to have obtained an unusual level of access to an actual kidnapper. The director also includes a series of conversations with a “Mr. M” who lives in fear of being kidnapped, and who takes an instructional course in driving to avoid kidnappers. Present at the festival, Kohn explicitly discussed influences including widescreen documentaries such as Tokyo Olympiad (1965) and Africa Addio (1966). While there are hints of Morris’s technique in the filmmaker’s approach, this film seems have borrowed more from Quentin Tarantino’s signature style than from The Fog of War.

Another film at True/False which played for the less skittish crowd was Zoo (Robinson Devor, 2007), which, if nothing else, educates its audience in a new use of the word “zoo” as a term to describe those who engage in bestiality. This film about zoophiles or zoosexuals takes its cues from a well-publicised animal sex case in Enumclaw, Washington, where a man died from injuries incurred while having intercourse with a horse. The film is not as graphic as one might expect, nor is it as interesting. At the festival, it was preceded by Chris Wilcha’s short film Joe No Love, which was drawn from Ira Glass’s television series based on his This American Life radio program. Joe No Love is about a 14 year-old boy who claims that he will neither express love nor fall in love, explaining to the camera that love makes you act like an idiot. The film is interesting and amusing, but one also may wish to take note of the stylistic and formal markers that separate it from Glass’s radio program, or rather, all that is gained through the strategic employment of images. Glass’s familiar voice is in evidence, but so are a series of well-placed slow motion sequences where Joe plays with swords (à la Dungeons and Dragons), which are intercut with images of more mature looking girls, who ostensibly form his peer group. In this way, the film not only contrasts pre and post adolescent sexuality, but the relative limits of radio and film.

The New York Times asked Glass whether he was becoming a documentary filmmaker, and he answered: “We don’t say ‘documentary’ because ‘documentary’ sounds boring. We try to avoid that word.” Until now, Glass was likely best known as a journalist, but presently – at least in some measure – he is wearing the hat of a filmmaker. One would not like to see all journalists trade in their badges, become documentarians, and dispense with all pretense of objectivity, yet a new inclination in filmmaking as well as a new wave of documentary festivals suggests that there is a cultural gap into which “reality-based films” have stepped. This broad direction, open to capturing its subjects through animation and fabrication just as much as through the conventional techniques of verité, now calls for a new, broader language.

About The Author

Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of After the Fact: The Holocaust in Twenty-First Century Documentary Film (2015), The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth (2007), and Aesthetic Vision and German Romanticism: Writing Images (2007). He is the editor or co-editor of several books including Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory (2008) and Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema (2013). He is currently co-editing a volume of essays on the US Holocaust’s Memorial Museum’s archive of outtakes from Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah.