The True/False film festival in Missouri wrapped up on Sunday, and from my vantage point, it was another success. In its 11th year, the festival has garnered the reputation of being one of the beloved film festivals (if not the most beloved) in a very crowded field, thanks to its solid documentaries, laid-back attitude, and emphasis on good times.
This was my third time at True/False and although the bloom has fallen from the rose a bit for me, I’m happy to report that the festival’s curation of documentaries has never been better. Last year, the festival featured two of the best and most important documentaries in the past decade, The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell. But both of those films already had a lot of heat, so True/False can’t claim them, as festivals tend to do when they host an early showing.
This year, there wasn’t a similar hands-down heavy hitter, but I was blown — insert Jamie Foxx pause here — away by three virtual unknowns. Those films were Uncertain, which is a work in progress, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and Actress. You can read my short reviews of those films in my previous column.
I’ve long suspected that David Wilson, co-conspirator/head of the festival (with Paul Sturtz), once had posters of Morrissey tacked on his wall, so I wasn’t surprised by the existential themes in many of the documentaries I saw. For me, this year was full of stories of broken men. (I can’t discuss some of the films because they are still embargoed.)
Not that the ladies were left out, but their stories were less focused on internal demons than external ones, such as Private Violence, about domestic abuse survivors and Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, about a group of feminists who strip as part of their public protests.
As a viewer, it’s always interesting to see how a film settles in after one leaves a festival, and since writing about my top five films, I have found Actress, about an actress-mom’s life, to be the one that has haunted me the most. Director Robert Greene has tried to do something so ambitious with that film — to create a non-fiction melodrama, which means that it is both cinéma vérité real as well as a piece of performance. Greene is courageous because he tries to do both, but at the risk of one destroying the other. (Other documentary directors have done this, but rarely on such a domestic, familiar scale.)
There are moments in that film — images and scenes — that I can not really understand what’s real and what’s not, especially a devastating image of its main subject with a terrible injury, rendered in aestheticized slow motion as her children sit next to her. The image is deeply unsettling. It may as well have been rendered by David Lynch or Albert Maysles.
As one who writes about documentaries, I can appreciate being spooked, and enjoying a film that I find problematic, but I have to wonder if outside of a small circle, there will be audiences who will appreciate Greene’s film. A festival is an echo chamber — so many people with similar views talking to one another — that a film like Actress can feel like it’s something it’s not.
That film, those of us who love it, and, heck, the entire festival, may just be dancing on a pin.