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TrueFalse 2014: a Conclusion

March 19, 2014
true false

This was my first year attending TrueFalse, after years of nagging me my aunt, a faithful attendee since its inception, finally won me over, if for nothing else to shut her up.

A documentary film festival in the heart of Missouri on the tail end of winter doesn’t exactly sound like the ideal vacation for someone who already lives in the paradise of Palm Beach, FL. But I dug my winter coat out of my closet, and headed out the Show-Me State to watch a festival who grabbed the majority of their films from Sundance (I thought).

I was shocked when I arrived, how well planned out it was, the quality of the films they had available and more importantly, the way in which the films all seemed to “matter.” I’ve seen quite a few documentary films where the product is a well made documentary, but the subject matter is often insignificant. I didn’t feel that at all with any of these films.

I saw 10 films in three days in a total of five theaters, all relatively close to each other in downtown, and on campus, in Columbia. Minus the weather, the walking wasn’t bad; the timing of the movies worked well enough that I didn’t have stand out in the cold waiting, or have huge overlaps between films.

This festival is really well-organized, very well programmed and well deserving of its meteoric rise in popularity. Each film displayed must be accompanied by a member from the film (director, producer, subject etc) and there’s a Q&A period after each screening.

If you’re at all into documentary films, or film festivals, I’d highly recommend you schlepping yourself to the heartland next year and attending it. I paid $75 to see 10 films. Surprisingly seeing 10 films in essentially two days, watching movies from 9:30Am to 1:00Am was a lot more tiring than I thought. Next year, I’ll space it out better, and likely come for the start of the festival, upgrade my pass to see more movies and not pile them on top of each other.

I did not see a bad film while I was at the festival, though I did see a few films that I can assure you were not among the best of the festival.

My Final Film Rankings

  1. Tim’s Vermeer (9.5/10)
  2. Private Violence (8.5/10)
  3. Big Men (8/10)
  4. E-Team (7.8/10)
  5. Boyhood (7.7/10)
  6. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (7.5/10)
  7. Notorious Mr. Bout (7/10)
  8. 20,000 Days on Earth (7/10)
  9. Happy Valley (7/10)
  10. Ukraine is Not a Brothel (6/10)

Review: Boyhood

March 17, 2014
boyhood

Richard Linklater is probably best known for directing Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, one a cult classic and the other a Hollywood Blockbuster. Both with all-star casts and carefully crafted scripts, and shots. Boyhood is no different; it isn’t a documentary, instead a work of fiction that carries a similar authenticity to documentary film.

In Boyhood, Linklater tells the story of a child growing up, from six years old to his first day at college. To make this movie authentic, it was shot over a twelve-year period, using the same cast of characters, giving the audience a genuine look into how the “subjects,” or actors, developed.  It really flirts with the difference between fiction films, and a documentary; it connects with viewers on a deeper level than traditional fictional narratives.

The film follows Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) his single mother (Patricia Arquette), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their father (Ethan Hawke), whom they see occasionally. Viewers see the children’s lives develop through poverty, a parade of stepdads, and weekends with their father. Although Mason Jr. is the main focus of the film, each of the characters develop very well throughout: the mother who is attempting to do what’s best for her family, even if she’s not certain what it is; the father, who turns from being absentee to being a very big part of Mason Jr.’s life, and ultimately a fantastic father and husband; and Mason, a child who is always interested in more than what meets the eye, ultimately going to college to become a photographer.

Viewers could see the script changing, throughout the course of the film. The thought, or perhaps the goal, behind many of the scenes changing gave the film a fuller sense of authenticity, than a script written at one time, then acted out over the course of 12 years.

The film is long, at about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and in times it is plodding. The opening of the film, the first portion, seems disconnected from the rest of the film, but obviously sets foundational exposition that is necessary for the remainder of the film. Unlike traditional works of fiction, this didn’t follow a storytelling arc, or Freytag’s pyramid, per se. But there were definitely moments of climax; moments that were uncomfortable, points of humor and glimpses of redemption for each character, as well.

The film certainly wasn’t bad, but I don’t think it was the crowned jewel of the festival, either. I’d give the film 7.7/10; It was well written and included excellently crafted dialogue. The acting left a good amount of room for improvement, although I’d imagine it’d be difficult to play the same character for a month here-or-there over a 12 year period. I would watch the film again, but probably not in a theater.

Review: Ukraine is Not a Brothel

March 14, 2014
Ukraine is not a brothel

Kitty Green’s Ukraine is Not a Brothel documents the protest efforts of Ukrainian political activism group, Femen, and their protests against the patriarchal mindset of Eastern Europe. Green follows several members of the organization as they seek to raise awareness, and protest, of the misconceptions surrounding Eastern European women: that they are mail order brides and/or prostitutes.

This organization bares their breasts and often stages elaborate and aggressive scenes to garner attention in their protests. These protests are often taped and uploaded to the internet to increase awareness, and connect with people who donate to the cause, and the group.

From early in the film the viewers are introduced to a man,Victor Svyatski who, more or less, calls the shots. He provides Femen with logistics, and with a singular vision for advancing their cause, increasing their donations and ultimately making the most waves. The irony of this is palpable as these women are protesting, and fighting, for liberation from patriarchy; under the direct influence and instruction of their own patriarch. At one point he even connects the dots, saying he is a patriarch against patriarchy.

While the first part of the film is standard exposition, the trajectory changes approximately midway through, when it becomes more about the women, and the work they do, and eventually how they grow tired of Victor’s antics, and ultimately the epilogue reveals Victor is no longer a part of the groups initiatives. A moment where the connection between the efforts and the results: overthrowing the patriarchal rule were connected in moment of excitement for the audience.

All-in-all, I thought the film was pretty good. There were several style choices I didn’t like, I felt there was unnecessary nudity. Femen uses nudity in the protests, but filming several of the opening shots for each girls’ interview while they were in various stages of undress was a bit much, I thought. However, it creates a great picture of the plight of Femen, from being drug through the streets by law enforcement officers, to struggling to make ends meet as exotic dancers, to being subjugated and eventually “overthrowing” their “oppressor,” it’s a film that was interesting start to finish.  I’d give it a 6/10, and it was probably the film I enjoyed the least from the festival, but it was still pretty good. I did enjoy the Q&A with the director and with a member of Femen afterwards, its shed further light into the dynamic between Victor, the shadow master, and the women of the group.

Review: Private Violence

March 13, 2014
Private Violence

I think it’s safe to say, domestic violence is one of the worst things that happens on a continual basis. “Why didn’t you just leave him?” abuse victims are often asked. Cynthia Hill, the film’s director, takes a deeper look at this question, through the eyes of a domestic violence victim advocate Stacy as she works through the story of abuse victim Deanna Walters. A woman who was beat for several days, across several states, by her partner and the criminal justice system wouldn’t prosecute because they couldn’t determine jurisdiction.

The film opens with a woman who has left her abusive partner, and he’s trying to come after her. The advocates in this women’s shelter stand alongside her, intervene on her behalf with law enforcement and ultimately tells officials where the  abuser is located, leading to his apprehension. Certainly an emotional start to a film, heralded as one of the most intense openings, by the festival organizers.

The majority of the film focuses on Stacy and Deanna. Viewers are taken through the details of the emotional and physical abuse Walters endured, including very disturbing pictures; photographic proof that her abuser nearly beat her to death with a flashlight. There are several parts throughout the film where gasps went through the auditorium and I had to look away from the screen.

Though the film was, at times, very difficult to watch it has an uplifting end. Walters’ abuser was convicted, and sentenced to prison. The Q&A following the film with Walters, her advocate Stacy and Cynthia Hill was really good, as well, being able to see where the victim wound up and how she is doing. It’s incredible to see the story develop, as the abuse victim gains the confidence to ultimately testify against her abuser leading to his incarceration.

The film definitely pushes an agenda, one that should be pushed I’d argue, that abuse is way too prevalent in our society, and often goes unnoticed. It presents everything fairly, without hyperbole. It was well shot, and edited beautifully to engage the audience. It was paced excellently and overall incredibly well-directed. Even though it was incredibly difficult to sit through, I’d give it an 8.5/10, making it my second favorite film of the festival. It’s a difficult story that needs to be told.

 

Review: Big Men

March 12, 2014
Big Men

Director Rachel Boynton said prior to the screening of the movie she started with a few phone numbers and a plane ticket, and that was about it, as she set out to film this documentary. What she delivered was an incredibly well-told story, from several perspectives about oil exploration and harvesting in multiple countries.

In Africa, a “big man” is a person who has a lot of money, and it becomes the title of the film, because everybody wants to become a “big man,” rebels who sabotage pipelines for profit, investors who finance oil exploration, energy executives looking for a huge payday and governments who try to maintain the largest profit for their country, or in some cases themselves.

Boynton tells a compelling story centering on US-based Kosmos Energy and how their relationship with the Ghana government evolves as they seek to develop the Jubilee oil field they discovered in 2006.  As Kosmos faces increased financial pressure, from investors, Ghana carefully, and slowly, seeks to renegotiate the terms of the deal in favor of more generous terms to the country. Boynton looks deeply into how this slows the company, and ultimately leads to the ousting of the President, by the board of directors.

The stark contrast painted in the film is between how Ghana views and treats the resource of oil, as the profits generated from it belongs to the people and how the country of Nigeria views and treats it, as the profit belonging to the government, arguably a corrupt government, who thrives while the people of their country die. The militant rebels seek to sabotage these oil pipelines so they can profit from the rich oil reserves of their country.

Rachel Boynton is heard throughout the film, pulling no punches and asking very difficult questions to very powerful people, including a group of militants armed to the gills with assault weapons. Big Men is the result of seven years of Boynton’s filming, and was fantastically cut. Originally, I was expecting to see a documentary about US corruption, sneaky dealing and whatever else comes to mind when cynical people think about how the US operates oil fields internationally. I’d give this film 8/10, it was fair and showed an incredible amount of perspectives. I’d absolutely watch this film again in a heartbeat.

Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

March 10, 2014
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Directors Ian Foryth and Jane Pollard give viewers a different look at peculiar and puzzling pop-star and cultural icon, Nick Cave. in 20,000 Days on Earth. It starts with him getting out of bed, and then beginning to write, clacking away on a seemingly anachronistic typewriter at a desk surrounded by books.

This documentary purposefully doesn’t expose all of Cave’s mystery, or allow audiences to completely wrap their heads around all the complexities of the singer/songwriter. Vox Media asserts, and I agree, “they deliver one of the most original and interesting character portraits and artist profiles since The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2005.”

Cave continues to be an enigma throughout the film, despite unparalleled access to his life, personally and professionally, including a glimpse into a seeming therapy session; songwriting process and the recording studio for the album Push the Sky Away; as well as his interactions with fellow musicians. Also folded into the film is footage of performances over his career, and ends in a swelling moment of emotion as Cave takes the state in the Sydney Opera House.

I’ve been a huge fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for a while, I find their music and songwriting style to be fascinating and enjoyed the documentary for providing me a deeper look through the process, and into the mind of Nick Cave. As this isn’t a traditional documentary, and uses a lot of staged re-enactments, a stylistic choice pioneered by Forsyth and Pollard. For a viewer who doesn’t have a deep appreciation, or familiarity with the character, and enigma, that is Nick Cave, I’m not sure this documentary would be as enjoyable. I’d give it 7.0/10 stars; I enjoyed the use of re-enactment, and the ambiguous look into the mind of an incredible singer/songwriter.

Review: Happy Valley

March 6, 2014
Happy Valley

Amir Bar-Lev takes viewers on an in-depth ride through different viewpoints surrounding the Penn State University atmosphere surrounding the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case. Bar-Lev uses a victim (Sandusky’s stepson, Matt), a biographer of Joe Paterno ( Joe Posnanski), a student (name not known) and Paterno’s son and QB coach, Jay Paterno to create a seemingly 360-degree view of the scandal that forever changed Happy Valley, and Penn State University.

The tone of the film centers around a program torn asunder by abuses of the highest order: a football coach treated like a demigod for “doing it the right way” who ultimately failed to do the right thing; a university doing all it can to repair its reputation, and rebuild its program; and most importantly a victim trying to rebuild his life, after testifying against the man who adopted him and abused him.

Bar-Lev captures key moments of emotion, juxtaposed with media footage, to paint the picture of a man (Paterno) who for more than a half-century had done things the “right way,” who was just as concerned with the character of his players as their results on the field; and ultimately a man who admitted to his biographer, “I should have done more” when Graduate Assistant Mike McQueary reported sexual abuse to him.

The film captures the revolt of students, of whom some found a deep part of their identity in the Penn State University football program, and the beloved face of the university coach Paterno. In my opinion, Bar-Lev chose a student that was difficult for the viewers to connect with, his arrogance and myopic viewpoint of the issue was incongruous with the tone of a university attempting to rebuild out of the depths of scandal. I’m not sure if that was an intentional choice by the director, or not.

Ultimately, the film takes the viewer on a painstaking journey of highs and lows, emotions ranging from sympathy to sorrow; grief to anger, and ultimately reprieve as the program begins to rebuild and life turns to “normal” again. Bar-Lev blends the story of the university’s rebuilding and the parallel of Matthew Sandusky personal redemption very nicely. Viewers with understanding of college sports, the allegations or no familiarity with the situation at all would all find tremendous value in this film. I give this film a 7/10 stars, and think the student viewpoint could be expressed a little less myopically, and fairly, to represent the attitude of the entire student body.

Review: The Notorious Mr. Bout

March 5, 2014
The Notorious Mr Bout

The Tajik-born post-soviet military man, Viktor Bout loved his video camera. The Notorious Mr. Bout blends a significant amount of footage from Bout’s collection as well as news reports and interviews to tell the story of a self-made man who would later become a prisoner in the US on arms trafficking charges.

Bout started an import/export business after the fall of Communism in Soviet Russia. This documentary weaves a story spread throughout five continents and multiple decades to give viewers a deeper glimpse into Bout’s life. The media painted a picture of Bout as a cold, maniacal business man who could, and would traffic arms to anyone at the drop of a hat.

In using Bout’s own footage, directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber showed a more compelling, somewhat likable side of the man accused of being the “Merchant of Death.” Directors Gerber and Pozdorovkin sifted through countless hours of Bout’s film, media reports and other footage to bring viewers this compelling tail.

Though the film humanizes Bout more than some might like; it lays out a parallel narrative to the one presented by the US government and the media. Viktor Bout, throughout, claims his innocence; his was Alla Bout by his side constantly, defending her husband against these crimes of incredible magnitude. The film features Alla watching the Bout home footage often, some of which she hasn’t seen in years. In the Q&A afterwards, Pozdorovkin says “Her face was a storybook.”

This documentary wasn’t an activist film, designed to stir the audience into defense of Bout; but it did present a compelling case to at least re-examine the entirety of the situation surround the 2008 sting operation and arrest in Bangkok that led to the 2010 extradition and criminal proceedings in New York. The directors maintain neither side of the story is completely correct, and the truth lies in between. I enjoyed the weaving of the story through the decades and locations using a blend of footage to present an engaging, gripping story. I’d give it a solid 7/10 and would recommend giving it a watch, when you can.

Review: Tim’s Vermeer

March 5, 2014
Tim's Vermeer

Tim Jenison is an eccentric inventor and technologist. Probably most noted, for being the founder of NewTek, a company whose products I buy often for my work (video switchers, 3d software etc). In addition to be regarded the founder of desktop video revolution (per his Newtek Bio). Tim Jenison is not a painter, or an artist with any formal training.

This film documents Jenison’s attempt to replicate the photo-realistic paintings of 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Jenison is operating under a theory that Vermeer used technology, more so than technique, to create his masterpieces. Jenison believes the master painter used a mirror to replicate colors, provide realistic paintings.

Penn Jillet, who is a friend of Jenison, produces the film (Teller directs) as well as provides insight into Jenison throughout the nearly five-year process of replicating the physical room from “The Music Lesson” and then painting, in painstaking detail. Jenison not only seeks to do this to reproduce the work of the Dutch painter, but also as a proof that it was possible, and likely, that Vermeer painted his masterpieces int he same way.

In typical Jenison eccentricities, he decides to go “full Dutch” teaching himself to read Dutch, traveling to Vermeer’s hometown to study the light for his identical replica to Vermeer’s studio. He spares no detail in replicating the painting using the methods of the 17th century artist.

The final result of the film is an engaging look at Jenison’s quest. While the movie literally, at times, shows paint drying- the combination of editing as well as both Teller and Jenison’s wry wit and sarcasm break the potential monotony for the viewer. The film also serves as somewhat of a presentation of art history; involving several key theorists into Vermeer’s paintings using technology (mirrors) instead of traditional painting techniques.

Jenison is able to replicate, and even improve upon the level of detail in his work. Jenison who readily admits he isn’t a painter, proves that technology can overcome technique.

While Vermeer’s paintings hang in museums all over the world, Jenison’s hangs in his bedroom above the fireplace.

The film was really well done, and is a unique look at a unique perspective on Vermeer’s body of work. It lauds the incredibly detailed, time-consuming and literally back-breaking work of Jension. It was shot beautifully, edited well and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might have been my favorite film of the festival, that I saw, I’d solidly give it a 9.5/10 and recommend every see it when it comes to your city.

I didn’t have Tim’s Vermeer on my original schedule, which is why I didn’t include a Preview post about it. I’m glad I made the swap.

Review: E-Team

March 4, 2014
E-Team

Ross Kauffman tells a gripping story in E-Team of members of Human Rights Watch who, in times of suspected crimes against humanity, document these atrocities stirring public, and even governmental, response on the issues.

Throughout the film, first-hand, the audience is introduced to people who have had their lives torn apart by crimes against humanity, often minutes after it happens. Kauffman follows The Emergencies Team as they interview people who have witnessed bombings, murder of civilians and firestorms at the hands of the government. This documentary centers on the work by the E-Team in Kosovo (Slobodan Milosevic), Libya (Moammar Gadhafi) and Syria (Bashar al-Assad) as they capture stories, corroborate facts and ultimately report these  war crimes to the world.

This documentary was fantastic because it simply documented what took place. It didn’t have an agenda, other than to tell a story. It wasn’t overly complex and engaged the viewer simply by having a camera present as victims told their stories to reporters, and then how the workers took the information they gleaned to then become advocates for the victims of these atrocities.

Kauffman did a great job of allowing the viewer to see both sides of the subjects of the film, alternating between in-the-field footage, with bombs and rockets as well as footage of the members at home and at play with their family. There was humor sprinkled into the film, without this the film would have been much darker and difficult to sit through. The viewer also gets to see the testimony of one Human Rights Watch member at the Hague in the trial of Milosevic, reminding the viewer their work has a purpose and finality beyond simply capturing and releasing information to the general public.

The film was very well done, but did have some graphic images that make it a tough pill to swallow. The film was fair, it didn’t sensationalize the work the E Team was doing, it accurately reflected the importance of the information and dissemination the team did. I’d give it a 7.8/10. The documentary could have been poorly done and I would still find it fascinating given the subject matter, but Kauffman applied excellent storytelling and direction to the film.

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