Here are my five favorite films from this year’s True/False film festival.
1. Uncertain (dir. Anna Sandilands & Ewan McNicol)
When a film can be art, entertainment and have social relevance, it has hit the trifecta. It happens rarely (see The Act of Killing). It happens here. I was deeply moved by the lyrical images of light pouring through swampland. I found the cinéma vérité storyline of the characters who live in the small, impoverished town of Uncertain, Texas, totally gripping — an ex-con with a deep spiritual connection to the boar he hunts at night; the angry, young man who has a big heart but few prospects; the aging fisherman, just barely clinging on. (Yes, the film focuses on just men, which is one of its few faults.)
And the story moves along at a nice clip. All that within the context of a town dependent on the nearby lake endangered by a pestilent plant. Talk about biblical.
This print is being called a work in progress but I think it won’t need much more to make it one of the early best docs of 2014.
2. The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (dir. Jessica Oreck)
Like Uncertain, this poetic film cuts between cinéma vérité and beautiful imagery to tell the story of a people in a place. Starting with a startling card that tells us it’s “Eastern Europe after the 20th century,” which is a clever way to suggest a place that is both caught in its past as it faces its future, Baba Yaga is cinematically breathtaking, from shots of buildings to forests or mushrooms or children laughing.
Threaded through a narration that reflects on humanity’s battle with chaos and wrapped around a Brothers Grimm-like animated tale of two children and a witch, the film is as ambitious as it is a pleasure to watch.
(I was disappointed that the screen on which I saw Baba Yaga washed out some of the colors so I look forward to seeing it again.)
3. Concerning Violence (dir. Göran Hugo Olsson)
This archival documentary rendered by Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson is many forms in one, including historical text, video essay, political diatribe, art film and journalism. The subject is the colonization of Africa, and we hear an early 1960s anti-colonial text of Frantz Fanon as we watch an incredible pastiche of footage that is so clear and technically nuanced, from the grain of the black and white to the clarity of audio, that it feels like a Hollywood recreation of what archival footage should look like. I talked with a journalist who suggested the doc was an unreconstructed Marxist film advocating for violence. I can see how one could interpret the film as a romanticization of its subject but I don’t mind; the feat is in how incredibly vivid Olsson recreates a dated text.
4. Actress (dir. Robert Greene)
Director Robert Greene’s film is about his neighbor, Brandy Burre, who is an actress. She is also a mother of young children, living in Hudson Valley, New York, and a part of a difficult domestic situation. She’s also a woman struggling to find her identity and happiness. But the most important thing to focus on is that she is an actress, which is to say that she is a performer, and Greene has worked in collaboration with Burre to create a film that is its own genre; documentary melo-drama. In addition to the cinéma vérité moments that tell the audience that this is a real person going through real situations, there are theatrical vignettes rendered in slow motion, with music. This film is very unusual because it defies the audience to plug it into any one genre. Its unsettling characteristic will be appreciated by cineasts but will alienate mainstream audiences. But it’s not vague. It’s clear in its complex relationship to how it is a mix of reality, representation, performance and true.
5. 20,000 Days on Earth (dir. Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard)
I never liked Nick Cave. I never got into the groove of his music and found his lyrics and low-timbre voice self-important and annoying. So I went to this as an act of charity to give the guy a chance. And he did not disappoint. Borrowing from tried and true elements of other rock docs, 20,000 Days has cool concert and sound studio footage. But I wouldn’t have been into it without the innovative frame of an acted-out day in Cave’s life, narrated by himself with text that articulates the workings of the heart of an artist and man.
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