March of last year, as the world began to shutter, covering and then writing about True/False 2020 provided me with what felt like an effortless anecdote: This was the Last Festival Ever—from here There Be Monsters.
Seemingly aware of its reputation as 2020’s omega of S-tier film festivals, the Missouri-based True/False Fest, presenting the latest in documentary and experimental filmmaking, made the alpha move of being the first to safely return. This meant pushing 2021’s event to May, bringing in only a select group of vaccinated industry folks, moving premieres to an outdoor venue, and greatly reducing available tickets to curb attendee numbers. Most importantly, True/False launched Teleported, a virtual version of their festival curated with a leaner lineup of docs, as well as four shorts programs, live Q&As with all of the filmmakers via Zoom, nightly online and alcohol-friendly hang-outs, and “busker” performances filmed during the fest. The latter featured at least two lovely, luminescent performances (that I was able to catch) care of Angel Bat Dawid and Mary Lattimore.
The best surprise for those attending virtually was a large Teleported care package, assembled as an elaborate boxset by a local designer, replete with hidden compartments and the instructions in extremely large print that it was not to be opened until the first day of the fest. Whether we patiently followed directions or not, we found inside Missouri-made snacks and soft clothes and trinkets and handmade bric-a-brac, each piece unique and carefully considered as one way to further enrich our at-home viewing experience, however fully we wanted to embrace their efforts.
In the big box were five smaller boxes labeled with dates, increasing in size as the dates passed, their content to be revealed over coffee—which was also in the care package—every morning. In each we discovered various items to help establish some context and get with the vibe of each day’s scheduled premiere: from a small bottle of “environmental spray” prepared in the spirit of each film, to remnants and symbols of the lives portrayed on screen—an orange lighter like the one Delphine uses to light her cigarettes throughout Rosine Mbakam’s Delphine’s prayers, or a bag of Derby Chips, which we learned reminds the protagonist of This Rain Will Never Stop of his Syrian childhood. In yet another box, on a USB stick wrapped in an origami shrimp, director Emilia Mello saved field recordings of the Brazilian rainforest where No Kings is set.
Appropriately enough, “Uncertainty” was the theme for this year’s fest. But rather than lean into the easy anecdote as I once did, Teleported True/False tapped into deeper, richer veins of fear and anxiety, of obsolescing culture and losing battles, running throughout the lives the films captured.
In a short preceding one of the features, Quinn Else’s “Fire Season,” everything is engulfed—or engulfing, in the process of being engulfed, everyone standing around large lapping southern California flames taking videos of various buildings and the detritus of civilization burning down. I watched all of these Teleported movies from my house, where I’ve been stuck and in which, a lifetime ago it feels, I had to stay for days on end because the air outside was too poisonous. Much of Oregon was on fire. This is what home feels like—and what film festivals can be like—now. One hopes Teleported True/False is a sign of how the paradigm of film festivals should continue pulling itself apart to survive. Or just burn it all down. Regardless, they sent us sweatpants.
Robin Petré’s From the Wild Sea consists of observing people as they work—performing menial and physically taxing tasks, staying organized and professional, confronting disappointment, cleaning, maintaining. Our gaze is often kept stationary as we absorb the process of people doing their jobs, unblinkingly. It can be hard to watch, because staring at anyone fulfilling the role of “employee” is a fundamental reminder of one’s own meaninglessness and mortality, but also because anchoring most frames is an image of an animal (seals, swans, dolphins, whales) in peril, a sense of striking, squealing vulnerability laid bare in long, typically up-close takes. As Petré follows animal rescue workers at Seal Rescue Ireland and British Divers Marine Life Rescue, listening as they describe the scraps of plastic found in rescued seals (since died) or provide a clinical narrative for all the abuse inflicted on a dolphin’s corpse, the film is unambiguous. These are short lives caught in stylized shots of seal pens lit by beet-red nightlights. The helplessness of the creatures cuts deeply.
The images of suffering speak only for themselves, little explanation offered why so many animals wash up on shore, spit out by their ecosystems. Likewise, Petré offers the audience no solace in scientific didacticism. (We know, anyway, that this is our fault.) Instead, she submerges the viewer into the mundane and unpleasant labor of such environmentalism. A scene of a seal struggling to breathe as a worker climbs on its back to intubate it, our whole view glued to the animal’s head pinned between the worker’s legs, is palpably emotionally distressing stuff, but it’s also clearly exhausting. Efforts to return “patients” to the wild don’t always turn out disastrously, but they are always that—effort—and in chronicling the daily struggle to help these animals, From the Wild Sea mostly documents a story of slow, tiring disaster.
Around the edges of these quietly intense vignettes, scored only by the bleats of seals or the dying breath of a beached whale suffocated under its own weight on shore, there looms the notion that, despite their best intentions, these organizations may be doing more harm than not. Still: This is all they can do. In one scene, a worker at the rescue facility tries to keep birds from snatching the frozen fish doled out to the seals in the enclosure. She mostly fails. A sign behind her reminds visitors that this particular enclosure is sponsored by Brita water filters.
In No Kings, director Emilia Mello joins a few members of the Caiçara, a fishing community on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, in their quotidians. Among tidepools, Mello finds a girl of maybe 9 or 10, Lucimara, catching a seafood feast for her friends, then later wielding an intimidating knife to filet a fish, going at it from all the least safe angles. Somehow, she doesn’t slice her tiny hand open, nimbly bossing her friends around as she tempts fate. Like the scene of preteen boys hucking a saw blade at the wall in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood ending without injury, No Kings stays sweetly, sluggishly low-stakes. Many things could go wrong, but they don’t.
In addition to Lucy, Mello spends time with a fisherman on the verge of marriage, a soft-spoken guy given to spurts of philosophy and small epic poems. Though his job is hardly romantic, his fellow fisherman known to indulge in a few lines of coke and confront the indifferent violence of the ocean with an equally indifferent attitude to the massive stingrays and octopi and countless majestic animals that slap and twitch and die uneventfully on the deck of their ship. His calm lends the minutiae of the Caiçara lives a surreal edge, and No Kings persists dreamily, the slightest hiccup in their lives bound, we’re convinced, to wake them up.
Which is when Mello, in the film’s closing moments, uses a title card to describe the likely disappearance of the Caiçara, their culture and land pillaged on all sides by climate change and a fascistic government and unregulated development and unfettered capitalism. The usual. At the end of No Kings, this new information, rather than define the characters through trauma had it been presented at the beginning of the film, emphasizes the urgency of the Caiçara’s survival. During her Q&A, Mello added, “These people are in the middle of their own lives…and I’m in the middle of their lives with them.”
When we meet Delphine, though she’s in her early 30s and looks even younger, it feels as if she’s in the middle of her life too. In long monologues, punctuated by practiced puffs of one cigarette after another—lit by the film’s throughline, a bright orange lighter—she tells us who she is. Delphine’s prayers takes place in one room in one apartment, but it begins in poverty in Cameroon, director Rosine Mbakam’s storyteller stumbling in and out of pidgin, then French, then pidgin again, all depending on where the narrative takes her. Though Mbakam’s camera, and Mbakam herself, never leave Delphine’s cluttered Belgian flat, every moment is compelling. Delphine is a natural, and she seems to know that. She uses it, works with it—has earned it—and that influence extends to the director. If anything Delphine tells us is exaggerated, we understand the truth beneath the embellishment; if anything she tells Mbakam is fabricated, Mbakam at the very least appreciates how much the fabrication keeps Delphine’s story moving.
Because Mbakam received this year’s True Vision Award, we were also given a screening of her 2016 documentary, The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman. In it, Mbakam takes her toddler son back to meet her mom in Cameroon, beginning to come to terms with her liminal status as an African immigrant married to a European (white) man. In one crucial scene, Mbakam films her mother watching Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), only the second the woman has ever seen, which closely resembles the fate of Delphine and of so many African women. Mbakam cuts away long before her mom experiences the film’s tragic ending. I still wonder what she thought. I still wonder if that means she’s never seen anything her daughter’s made.
From the first moments of Delphine’s prayers we can gather that Mbakam is old friends with Delphine, but eventually learn that they didn’t meet until they were both African immigrants in Europe. Otherwise, they would have never crossed paths at home in Cameroon, hailing from different social strata. Belgium equalizes them. There they are both outsiders, and that is all they are to many. Delphine describes becoming a sex worker at age 14 to make money for her family, then marrying a European to continue supporting her family and moving to Belgium, but still needing to turn tricks now and then despite her husband’s income—their marriage clearly loveless and her body still at the mercy of white sexual colonization. Then Delphine breaks into full-on religious invocation in the film’s final moments, breathless as she finally lets herself be vulnerable, begging for forgiveness. She must have done something to deserve this life. She’s sorry.
Germán Arango’s Songs that Flood the River wades through grief with Oneida, a resident of the Colombian town of Bellavista, on the Pacific coast, where 19 years ago (almost to the day of the film’s premiere), 119 people were murdered. They hid in a church while guerilla and paramilitary forces fought their way through Bojayá, and that’s where they were killed by an errant mortar, their bodies eventually buried in a mass grave nearby, families for the most part unsure what happened to their loved ones’ remains. To give shape to her grief, to reach out and grope through the darkness to remember what’s been forgotten, Oneida learned to sing traditional Afro-Colombian dirges (alabados) to calm the anxious souls of the dead.
Much of Songs the Flood the River is filled with Oneida’s music, repetitive and vocal and participatory, chanted like raw funeral hymns, which she teaches to other Bellavista residents. Performed with a chorus, her songs can be overwhelming, sometimes sumptuous but occasionally bitter, even brutal. That Oneida lost her left leg to a vicious snake bite when she was young makes her purging of grief all the more acute. She seems to understand the contours of loss.
Loss drives Alina Gorlova’s This Rain Will Never Stop, about a large Syrian family surviving their post-diaspora lives in Ukraine, Germany, and Iraq. Gorlova begins in Donbas, with young Andriy Suleyman, a Kurdish Syrian refugee volunteering with the Red Cross to help those affected by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. His Ukrainian coworkers casually ask him about the civil war overtaking his homeland, about Kurdish wars in other parts of the world, where he fits into all of it. A fellow volunteer jokes about how much trouble the Kurds seem to start. And though his responses are kind and level-headed, if sometimes too sedate, Andriy seems resigned to his lot in life. He is a child of violence, defined despite his best efforts as a person who is dispossessed. A man waiting his whole life for the rain to let up so he can return home and assess what he’s lost. While he waits, at least, he’ll do what he can to help.
In cinematographer Vyacheslav Tsvetkov’s rich black and white, This Rain Will Never Stop travels with Andriy—from Ukraine to Germany for his brother’s wedding, to Iraq to make a surprise visit to his uncle and cousins, even up to the Syrian border, the film’s color palette transforming Ukrainian farms and German dancehalls and crumbling Iraqi neighborhoods alike into the same intricate forever-gray. Andriy will return to that border twice over the course of the film, each time greeted with the image of a river that looks both too deep to ford and too simple to just get over. His reveries spent on trains or buses are portioned out in chapters, interrupted at times by visions of landscapes—beautiful, though they could be anywhere—manipulated into a jarring digital melange. It’s disorienting, never quite cohering into a salient thought or sensation, though we know we are going somewhere. Right? Andriy is always returning, never arriving. We wait for him to get somewhere. Where can he go?
Closing night film The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World, similarly chronicles the thankless journey of always going somewhere but never quite getting anywhere. More people at work, doing their jobs—in this case, director Claire Simon tells the otherwise pleasant story of the town of Lussas, where Ardèche Images, in the midst of founding a new documentary streaming service called Tënk, has spent the past 40 years bringing the filmmaking industry to an otherwise rural, farming community. A documentary film about a documentary streaming service shown at a documentary film festival: The concept loses most of its cutesiness as Simon spends time with the non-filmmaking residents, especially a farmer who could clearly not care less about documentaries. Meanwhile, the employees at Ardeche—based out of founder Jean-Marie Barbe’s family grocery store—argue about which documentaries to curate, debating the merits of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries as only insufferable cinephiles can, and the Mayor of Lussas just wants the cultural and tourist funds to keep coming in, even if many townsfolk keep a steady diet of indifference about the cinema.
Inevitably, funding and burnout jeopardizes not just the future of Tënk, but Ardèche Image’s growth and Barbe’s health. Stress emanates from the screen, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked at a start-up, which are all uniformly terrible. Work piles up and subscriber numbers stagnate. Interns begin to question their chosen fields, begin to hate what they once loved. The sense that it is a job—that this is work—takes over. Then we cut to the farmer’s wedding ceremony, presided over by the Mayor, and the weight of juggling artistic idealism vs. practical business matters feels suddenly lighter. If only briefly. In that dichotomy, Simon reveals the artifice of what she’s doing. Which: Documentarians love that shit. And I do too. Movies are back, baby!
Dom Sinacola is a former editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.