Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? and four more True/False 2017 highlights

From fireworks festivals to film school, family sagas to portraits of retirement homes, the best of the 14th True/False Film Festival mixed beauty, topicality and self-reflexive questioning. But the undoubted highlight was Travis Wilkerson’s ‘white nightmare story’, “one of the most powerful reckonings in recent American cinema”.

☞ The no-label festival: True/False 2016 and the politics of programming

Jordan Cronk
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Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows a suburban-Philadelphia family through ten years of trials

Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows a suburban-Philadelphia family through ten years of trials

Now in its 14th year, the True/False Film Festival, held annually in the small college town of Columbia, Missouri, has grown from a regional curiosity to an international concern. No longer a stopover for documentaries navigating the more established festival channels, True/False is now a destination in its own right; in some cases, a film’s commercial trajectory can be set in motion on the festival’s reputation alone.

In other words, True/False is a brand – not in the corporatised sense, but in a way that a name can suggest not only a genre or style but a certain ideal in a work’s form and mode of address. It’s a cinematic sensibility so uniquely tailored to this age of accelerated consumption, alternative facts and fraught social dynamics that it’s little wonder that the highly reflexive, fundamentally paradoxical filmmaking practices championed by the festival have become the dominant manner by which much of contemporary nonfiction operates.

 

The Graduation

Claire Simon, France

The Graduation (2016)

With this sort of reputation comes expectations, and the 2017 edition of True/False managed to reinforce the festival’s astute selection standards while subtly reframing categorical notions as to their own programming predilections. Case in point, the work of this year’s True Vision Award recipient, Claire Simon. Three films by the veteran documentarian were shown over the festival’s four days, and though two of these, 1998’s Récréations and 2003’s Mimi, essentially qualify as repertory titles, all seem to have come from another era entirely – one not only before True/False, but from a time when the term ‘direct cinema’ implied as much a philosophical essence as a stylistic thumbprint. The English-born, French-assimilated Simon has spent nearly two decades crafting the sort of quotidian, quietly observational, and decidedly out-of-fashion films that prioritize subject and circumstance over formal concerns or conceptual considerations.

Her latest film, The Graduation, centers on the prestigious French film school La Fémis and the convoluted process by which they select their students. Alternating lengthy episodes from the applicants’ seemingly endless series of oral and written examinations, with both public and private deliberations by the graduate committee, Simon captures a strangely arbitrary vetting system whereby each candidate’s future is decided by the collective impressions of the board members (who we see are rarely in agreement). Students stumble and sweat their way through answers that are ignored, misread, or overemphasised, and Simon (a former La Fémis instructor herself), with slyly critical brio, slowly puts the institution itself up for review, reiterating that for all its technical necessities cinema remains a highly intuitive, unquantifiable art form.

 

Brimstone & Glory

Viktor Jakovleski, USA/Mexico

Brimstone & Glory (2017)

Intuition seems the sole animating force behind Brimstone & Glory, a near-wordless audio-visual odyssey set against the backdrop of Tultepec, Mexico during the city’s annual San Juan de Dios fireworks festival. Directed and shot on a combination of GoPro HD, Phantom high-speed and BlackMagic Cinema Pocket cameras by first-time feature filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski, the film documents the festivities from the midst of the maelstrom as hordes of young men set detonators, jury-rig wooden bulls and construct towering edifices that light up the night sky with pyrotechnic wonder.

Careening down dirt corridors and across expansive clearings, weaving through tight passes while keeping pace with barreling floats being dragged through the town’s thoroughfares, Jakovleski’s camera captures a city in the throes of celebration, united by energy and camaraderie. Accompanied by a swelling symphonic score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, the film maintains an impressive headlong momentum, musical in both sound and structure as moments of peace and preparation give way to kaleidoscopic montages in which neon light and plums of smoke smother the barely visible townsfolk below. Little at True/False could match it for pure visceral pleasure.

 

Distant Constellation

Shevaun Mizrahi

Distant Constellation (2017)

Meditative but never morose, Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation turns the words and faces of a cast of elderly people into a cinematic repository of memories and historical gravitas. Shot over a period of years in and around an Istanbul retirement home, the film approaches portraiture at both an aesthetic and thematic level.

Mizrahi, a trained photographer with Turkish roots (she was born in Boston), films her encounters with the facility’s ageing – and in some cases, dying – residents head-on, in starkly lit tableau, framing their weathered faces against shadowy depths of variegated light. Juxtaposing their anecdotes, which range from pained remembrances of life during wartime to bittersweet tales of love and loss and labour, with the din of a large-scale construction project happening just outside the building’s walls, the film seems to drift in fluid synchronicity with the surrounding commotion.

This pairing of industrial upheaval with the burden of socio-historic tribulation can’t help but recall the docufiction experiments of China’s greatest living filmmaker, Jia Zhangke (particularly Still Life and 24 City), while Mizrahi’s formal acumen and rigorous compositional sense nod to the self-professed influence of Portugal’s Pedro Costa, whose Fontainhas trilogy similarly exposed and personified the souls of a neglected community on the brink of extinction. Distant Constellation was presented at True/False as a work in progress, with, among other lingering post-production details still be finalised, an unfinished soundtrack; that it felt not only seamless, but holistically measured in both form and content, speaks to Mizrahi’s preternatural command and commendably empathetic worldview.

 

Quest

Jonathan Olshefski, USA

Quest (2017)

Considering America’s current cultural flashpoint, it’s unsurprising that many of the festival’s homegrown entries tackled topical issues, particularly those related to class and race. Notable among these were Quest, by Jonathan Olshefski, a ten-years-in-the-making portrait of an everyday African American family in suburban Philadelphia who endure a demoralising series of hardships without buckling, and Strong Island, a stirring and infuriating first-person procedural in which director Yance Ford attempts to trace the shrouded events behind the unmotivated killing of his brother, whose white murderer was never indicted.

Though stylistically opposed – Olshefski’s expansive sociopolitical saga brings to mind the urban panoramas of Steve James, while Ford’s more reflexive approach pulls from a distinctly personal strain of essayistic nonfiction – these two films together sketch a powerful portrait of the modern African American experience.

 

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Travis Wilkerson, USA

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)

The Los Angeles-based experimental filmmaker Travis Wilkerson comes from the latter school of cinematic self-inquiry. His latest, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, the unequivocal highlight of this year’s True/False, takes this approach further – and to greater heights – than ever before.

Unsettlingly, Wilkerson, a 48-year-old white American man, found the inspiration for this incendiary new multidisciplinary work in his own family. Troubled by a story about his great grandfather S.E. Branch’s involvement in the murder of an unarmed black man named Bill Spann in mid-century Alabama, Wilkerson traveled to the small town of Dothan to investigate the rumours.

What he found, and what we watch and listen to him deliberate upon, was not news of a single murder, but an entire history of racism and brutal violence against the local black community. Branch, he discovers, was an outspoken bigot linked to multiple instances of violence and abuse against black men and women. With only a pair of vague news clippings and Spann’s death certificate as evidence, Wilkerson proceeded to trace the entwined fates of the Branch and Spann families.

What we witness in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is both the documentation of that investigation, played out on screen via home movies, vintage photographs, historical documents and newly shot footage of the filmmaker’s travels (which eventually take him to Spann’s unmarked grave), as well as the role Wilkerson himself plays in the excavation and personal recrimination of the murder, almost 70 years on. Wilkerson himself provides live voiceover narration while seated in front of a laptop. The futility of this quest is the crux of the film and the aspect of the project that most plagues Wilkerson, whose narration is in a constant state of second-guessing, self-indictment, and flat-out shame at the extent of the atrocities. “This isn’t a white saviour story,” he begins, cautiously. “This is a white nightmare story.”

When, in the course of his research, Wilkerson discovers that his mother’s sister is a practising white supremacist, the film takes on an increasingly disturbing urgency. Seated in front the screen, unable to divorce himself from his own complicity in this ongoing story, Wilkerson forcefully prompts one of the most powerful reckonings in recent American cinema. The director is said to be preparing a single-channel version of the film for wider distribution considerations, a noble and necessary step to get this humbling work in front of as many people as possible. It remains to be seen how the film will play in this new context; but seen live, it’s an experience all but impossible to shake.

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