Back in 2020, True/False felt like the Last Festival—not ever, but of an era we’ll never get back. In between, the pandemic has swelled our awareness of liminal spaces—these petri dishes of danger we must traverse between sterile safe zones—and somehow we’ve arrived here, when True/False has returned fully in person, welcoming everyone back to Columbia, Missouri for four days of the best in international non-fiction filmmaking, including titles recently premiering at Sundance—one of the best of 2022 so far, Dos Estaciones, and such guaranteed crowdpleasers as Ramin Bahrani’s 2nd Chance and Rita Baghdadi’s Sirens. When Pawel Lozinski’s The Balcony Movie premieres on HBOMax, it will find a fertile home among episodes of How To with John Wilson and Painting with John.
Meanwhile, Sergei Loznitsa was supposed to attend with his excellent Mr. Landsbergis, but the Ukrainian director instead was in Europe, picking up his evacuated parents. At a Q&A, Russian director Ruslan Fedotov introduced his film by stating his lack of support for the war, that no one he knows supports it. During the Q&A, an audience member asked him what he may be trying to convey with Where Are We Headed?, a film that portrays Russian society limned in militarism and violence, and he responded, alluding to his film’s unexpectedly gentle final images, “I just said everything in the last frame. I believe in hope.”
Liminal spaces persist in occupying us—even the official festival intro before each screening shared a new filmed “liminal space” (with corresponding latitude and longitude) daily, first a baggage carousel at the Columbia airport (which exists), then a rest stop, a choir, an alleyway. After two years of watching movies home alone and stewing in isolation, the sensation of being there, in a Missouri college town with a crowd all staring at a highway bathroom many of them have used, felt like an awakening.
Here are our highlights from the 2022 True/False Film Fest:
It isn’t until halfway through After Sherman, following an impressionistic survey of his family’s South Carolina legacy via their inherited coastal land, that Jon-Sesrie Goff begins to tell of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Georgetown. Only 20 minutes after Goff’s parents, prominent church leaders in the community, left a quarterly meeting, nine people were murdered. Taking on the untold depth of his parish’s grief and shock, Goff’s father stepped in as interim pastor to help lead a broken flock back to the light. But rather than lean into any shades of true-crime, or bear any responsibility for investigating the tragedy on film, Goff counters with a quieter, more mundane act of violence, laying bare its shameless simplicity. At an auction selling plots of land part of the Carolina coastline originally bestowed to Black families following the end of the the Civil War—which includes Goff’s family’s land, only saved from auction, Goff explains, because the family’s heirs split the land amongst siblings, allowing it to stay financially manageable—Goff films white buyers blithely out-bidding people who were promised that land more than a century and a half ago, ignoring the pleas organizations representing proper heirs and even the camera filming how clearly they don’t give a shit. Brutality writ both large and small.
With tenderness and a lyrical attachment to the farms and Gullah culture of his home turf (as well as an immersive, ecosystem-appropriate soundscape), Goff confronts his past as it’s splayed out in the stories of his neighbors and loved ones: In antique agreements between dead people, in letters from great-grandma describing the soil of the family’s tract, in psychogeography and conversations between Black friends in New York talking about how unsafe they feel, and simultaneously how drawn they are to, moving back to the South. As Goff has said of his film, “Rather than depicting Black subjects as at the whim of violent forces, it is a document of the imparting of wisdom between generations of African Americans on how to survive not just materially, but spiritually.” Autobiography, ethnography and reclamation, After Sherman resists pity, instead glowing graciously. It is, if anything, a magnanimous debut. —Dom Sinacola
Children of the Mist
What’s most disturbing about Diem HÀ Lê’s directorial debut isn’t the subject matter but, rather, how nonchalantly it’s treated by those in front of her lens. Among the Hmong people of North Vietnam, it’s customary for young girls to be kidnapped from their homes, forced to become child brides for whoever steals them away. Children of the Mist’s bucolic setting—this mountain community feels like it exists in a mythic past—belies the Hmong’s cruel ritual, and the film focuses on 13-year-old Di, who fears that she could be the next target. But even her parents aren’t all that concerned—after all, it’s tradition—and Diem serves as a silent observer as the townspeople play kidnapping “games,” mocking the terror that awaits these girls. Children of the Mist is deceptively restrained in its first half, but that leads to a finale that’s raw in its pain and anguish. Few recent documentaries have captured anything so heart-wrenching as Di’s abduction, with Diem trying frantically to intervene, her camera recording every traumatizing moment. This is sobering filmmaking that illustrates a terrible injustice and the patriarchal attitudes that keep it thriving. —Tim Grierson
Factory to the Workers
It should have been an inspiring story: In Croatia roughly 15 years ago, the employees of a machine-tools factory decided to form a collective, letting the workers truly call the shots and giving them a stake in the company’s future. Srdan Kovacevic’s riveting debut visits the factory a decade later, finding a labor force that’s become disillusioned as the demands of capitalism grind away at their resilience. For fans of Frederick Wiseman’s style of observational documentary, Factory to the Workers is a meticulous examination, Kovacevic’s camera capturing several compelling figures, like the factory’s beleaguered director, in a series of tense meetings and emotional showdowns. There’s a beautifully bleak sense of quiet despair here as we watch the drip-drip-drip of small humiliations. (The workers’ salaries are paid only partially, tempting the younger employees to flee for better opportunities elsewhere—especially outside of Croatia.) Factory to the Workers leaves its ending unresolved—will the bosses be able to secure much-needed financing?—but in a larger sense, these people’s fate has already been determined. If you’re seeking a hopeful portrait of David overcoming Goliath, look elsewhere: Factory to the Workers is unsparing in its depiction of a sinking ship. —Tim Grierson
Fire of Love
Director Sara Dosa knits together an awesome array of 16 mm footage to tell the doomed love story of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft against the bright, molten backdrop of their shared obsession. Foregrounding the couple’s demise during the explosion of Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991, Dosa allows their charm and enthusiasm to keep the film’s tone afloat—much like Maurice’s unrealized dream of riding a customized canoe down a river of lava—reinforcing the drama of their romance in lovely animation and Miranda July’s voiceover, musing about hidden fault lines and fate and, perhaps too late in the film, the ways their work has contributed inimitably to saving countless lives. Regardless, the Kraffts’ footage stands alone, thrilling and magnificently shot, as much a testament to their lives as a reason to catch Fire of Love on as towering a screen as possible. —Dom Sinacola
Playfully exploring art’s function in the modern world, director Nastia Korkia chronicles the efforts to transform a former Moscow power plant into “a space for collaborative art production and enjoyment.” GES-2 is divided into whimsical chapters, one involving a hunky security guard watching over a Kandinsky as patrons enter the room to see what the big deal is. (It’s telling that Korkia focuses on the interactions between the visitors and the guard rather than spending much time looking at the actual painting. Most memorable of the exchanges involves a female patron wishing the guard would take off his shirt — at least then there’d be something compelling for her to stare at.) Ranging from avant-garde musical performances to the studying of precisely how the building is being remade, Korkia’s film is constantly thought-provoking, asking a fascinating question: How do we craft public spaces that allow us to better appreciate the importance of art in our lives? Korkia, who also produced the True/False standout Where Are We Headed?, succeeds in making this potentially dry academic exercise into a riveting celebration of human beings’ desire to create—whether it’s a painting or a building to house it. —Tim Grierson
Gods of Mexico
Entirely wordless, Gods of Mexico introduces rural Mexican lives via labor—how workers shape, traverse, collect the land. Excavate whatever’s inside it. All this toil director Helmut Dosantos renders in astounding detail, first with workers harvesting salt from tiered salt pans and shoveling out makeshift earthen furnaces, then, in the film’s final third, with coal miners as they attack Mexico’s bedrock from below, amongst the bats. In between, Dosantos defines the Mexican countryside in moving black-and-white portraits, setting title cards as regional markers, but otherwise leaving viewers to study face after face of the people who define Mexico’s land and draw from them whatever they might. Occasionally he punctuates the quiet and stillness with an explosion of fireworks (preferably spewing from a papier-mache hat decorated as a bull), but Gods of Mexico is never more satisfying than in its opening act, when we witness a group of men do their jobs, from tired beginning to exhausted end, and walk away leading pack animals loaded with the results. —Dom Sinacola
I Didn’t See You There
This startling and candid essay film stars its director, Reid Davenport, as he critiques how the disabled are viewed by others. Davenport, who has cerebral palsy and operates a wheelchair, doesn’t add subtitles to his narration, nor does he allow us to see him on-camera. Rather, we watch the world as he watches it, with his camera flying down the street, occasionally nearly being hit by oblivious motorists or pitied by well-meaning but condescending passersby. I Didn’t See You There uses as a framing device a circus tent that’s been erected nearby Davenport’s home, inspiring him to reflect on the marginalization of people like him for generations. (In his darker moments, he wonders if his life is appreciably better than those forced to work as freaks in the bad old days.) The movie takes dead aim at ableism, and Davenport’s anger can be corrosive—deservedly so when you witness, for instance, how insensitive people can be when they thoughtlessly block a wheelchair ramp he needs to get into his apartment complex. Searching and humane, I Didn’t See You There is a personal saga told with battered grace. —Tim Grierson
Sergei Loznitsa’s second film of 2021, yet another rigorously constructed collage of archival footage—beautifully restored and culled from seemingly impossible sources—Mr. Landsbergis reaffirms the Ukrainian director as more than an essential documentarian of 20th century Eastern European and Russian history, but as a kind of unbelievable filmmaking myth. In such films as Austerlitz and State Funeral, Loznitsa recontextualizes and reassembles recorded history to pick apart the imperfect ways we remember our shared past. Beyond accessible civics lessons, his films are astounding feats of physical labor, a testament to long hours of research and uncanny dedication and luck, complicated even more by the man’s prolificacy, crossing genres as he releases two, three movies per year. When in one camcorder shot of a makeshift barrier going up inside the Lithuanian TV station catches another camera filming the same, and Loznitsa then somehow switches to the simultaneous footage from that Super 8, the one we just saw, the heart flutters. Space-time shrinks just a bit.
Over the course of four hours, Mr. Landsbergis tells in painstaking chronological detail the struggle for independence in Lithuania, the first former member of the Soviet Union to break free in 1990. At the head of the story is Vytautas Landsbergis, co-founder of the Lithuanian pro-independence movement and subsequent Chairman of the Supreme Council, the recently liberated country’s governing body (until 1992, when it was disbanded for a new constitution). Landsbergis, today nipping at 90 years old and backed by a long career as both politician and academic, speaks sagely to Loznitsa of those first days, his voice rarely transcending a conversational murmur as he recalls the curious intensity of his initial go at politics, falling by pure necessity from music teacher into the role of ersatz revolutionary leader. Pit against both Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin, Landsbergis strikes a figure of assurance, casting a stern aura of grandpa nature to ward off the desperate violence of perestroika in the waning years of the USSR. The man’s calm contrasts the extreme nature of much of Loznitsa’s collected footage—that is, when it doesn’t offer strangely soothing glimpses of men making speeches and having meetings within the mundane halls of power—as Gorbachev’s military intervenes in Lithuania. Seemingly taking place over the course of a long afternoon, the elderly man in blue sweater sitting outside comfortably surrounded by well-manicured shrubs and flowers, the interview underpinning Mr. Landsbergis becomes increasingly warmer, a conversation shared intimately. It’s odd—accepting that a politician of Vytautas Landsbergis’s stature and position isn’t a psychopath, or a secret coward, or anything less than he seems. At least in Loznitsa’s eyes. —Dom Sinacola
Sierra Pettengill is fascinated by the ways that Americans reveal their true character in the monuments they construct and the behaviors they exhibit. The director of Graven Image, a study of Stone Mountain that played at True/False in 2019, returns with Riotsville, USA, which shines a light on a little-known corner of our history. Concerned by the increase of urban rioting in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a panel to get to the root of what was causing these uprisings—meanwhile, the American military began running drills in manufactured cities to train for future civil unrest. Drawing from priceless archival footage, Pettengill illustrates how systemic racism, then as now, is ignored in favor of other “solutions”—in this case, the buildup of law enforcement to stamp out protest. The scenes of the Riotsville training—complete with cops woodenly playing rioters—would be funny if there wasn’t something profoundly chilling about the way that those in power callously view those subservient to them. The documentary is so enraging it may inspire you to take to the streets. —Tim Grierson
The focus of 2022’s True Life Fund, and picked up for theatrical release by National Geographic, The Territory chronicles the efforts of a faction of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people (dubbing themselves the “Indignenous surveillance team”) to uphold the dwindling boundaries of their native Brazilian rain forest against state-sanctioned violence. With the indelible help of the Uru-eu-wau-wau community and their young leader Bitate, director Alex Pritz crafts the film as a portrait of peril, attempting to preserve a vanishing way of life on screen while documenting, with restraint and not a small amount of danger, the conflicting forces—political, colonial, environmental, legal—encroaching on the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s literal island. As Bitate defines his role as leader in such a dramatically changing world, bringing more and more technology to his people as non-violent tools to fight back invaders, Pritz introduces us to the other side of the tree line, to the farmers attempting, within the law and without it, to take land they believe is theirs, willing to burn the jungle to embers to prove they can rebuild something better. Willing to kill, to savage villages, to raise something more civilized. Even as Bitate gains international attention for the small successes his surveillance team achieves, and even as an ambitious farmer’s co-op falls apart (along with his plan to legally steal a huge chunk of Uru-eu-wau-wau land), The Territory admits that this cycle will continue. The Uru-eu-wau-wau will never get land back. But in Pritz’s images, together with those shot by the Indigenous people themselves during the pandemic, life persists unabated, hungry and righteous. It’s enough to understand what’s truly being lost. —Dom Sinacola
Where Are We Headed?
Ruslan Fedotov’s camera—snaking through thrumming crowds or silently surveilling intimate moments—captures contemporary Russian life with a clarity that feels remarkably rare for Western eyes. That’s partly circumstantial, Fedotov’s perspective untouched by the Russian authorities that populate nearly every breath of his film. It’s also in how little else Fedotov explains for audiences outside the borders of his home. At the True/False premiere for Where Are We Headed?, Fedotov described how he may have, unconsciously or not, removed details which might provide necessary context for confused, non-regional viewers, because (unconsciously or not) his original intent for the film was to prioritize audiences in Eastern Europe and Russia, people who do not need CliffsNotes on VDV Day or primers on the various nationalistic statues gussying up urban subway stations. Working from footage accumulated over the course of a year, Fedotov grasps at breadth, filming maintenance guys attempting to assemble Christmas decorations, students out for a night on the town, a woman with jarring hair dye reverently massaging the aforementioned subway statue for seeming eons. And always at the fringes, occasionally ready to burst at the heart of the film, is the threat of state violence. VDV Day allows young white men with chips on their shoulders to drunkenly haunt the city, ready to pull shit apart; a memorial march strikes a similar chord to that of a mass protest. However much he comes upon covertly, his safety undoubtedly an issue here and there, Fedotov’s camera engages in each scene with incredible intuition, coasting on the energy of a drunken revelry or nervously picking up the conversation between a man without a head wound and his friend with a head wound. All of it bears portent, especially when the Russian government’s militarized omnipresence manifests more and more heavily throughout, as if the film’s barreling toward something. When it ends, unexpectedly, with something resembling optimism, the effect is bracing. —Dom Sinacola
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. He’s also on Twitter.
Tim Grierson is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of seven books, including his latest, “This Is How You Make a Movie.”