TRUE/FALSE FILM FESTIVAL – Day Four Report
By Stephen Tronicek
The feeling of the final day of a film festival is one of a unique purgatory. Everyone has been there long enough for the initial excitement of the opening few days and the encroaching end is coming up quickly. It didn’t help that this morning, Daylight Savings time applied. I was writing up yesterday’s piece at 1 am, only to realize that it was instead 2 am and in horror, I threw myself into bed to get up for an 8:30 am Q. Luckily, I got up on time.
That 8:30 Q lead to a 9:30 screening of Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows. Picking up where he left off with documentaries like Starless Dreams, Sunless Shadows shows us the lives of a few women on Death Row in Iran. What differs Sunless Shadows from other films of its kind is the lack of separation between ourselves and the subjects. Most films would be quick to dismiss the murderers as something other than human but Sunless Shadows brilliantly handles this, allowing us to understand the lives of these young women. Abuses are described, personalities are highlighted and connections are made. The formalistic elements, including some incredibly moving video diaries where the women speak directly to the camera, make the film even stronger. By the end, I felt close to the women and surrounded by wants and needs. What more should a documentary do?
I’m thankful that Netflix picked up at least two good documentaries this year. The first was Dick Johnson is Dead. The second is Crip Camp, which starts as an autobiography of co-director James Lebrecht, then transfers into an exploration of the fight for civil rights for people with disabilities. The opening minutes follow archival footage of Camp Janete, a camp for children with disabilities created around the time of Woodstock. The footage is inspiring and wonderfully restored, capturing that feeling of blind idealism that comes with the happiness of youth. This explodes into the future. Judith Heumann starts as a camp counselor, then becomes a shining beacon in the world of activism. It’s nice that this idealism never disintegrates in the film’s perspective either. Lebrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham craft a documentary that handles some horrible things, yet their focus is always on the achievements of the disabled people. Lebrecht talked about the two types of disabled representation on screen: the against all odds “overcome adversity,” type and the “Million Dollar Baby, ‘Just kill me now’” type. Crip Camp tears those boundaries down for 104 minutes, moving into a space that respects and raises up people in the most unpretentious way it could.
Before the next feature, a short film played called See You Next Time, a look at the relationship between a nail stylist and a customer, which doesn’t really work. The film has a few cutaways to impressionistic vignettes that show the “spirits,” (other actors) of the protagonists. The contrast of the two isn’t enough to make See You Next Time significant, even if the concept is formidable.
The feature, however, was significant. Directed by Ursula Liang, Down the Dark Stairwell is about the 2014 death of Akai Gurley, a young black man who was shot by Chinese/American officer Peter Liang. After the shooting, both the black community and the Chinese/American communities stood up, but for different reasons. The black community condemned Liang for the shooting and the Chinese/American community condemned the police system for Liang being the only New York Police Officer ever brought to trial at the time. Down the Dark Stairwell does a good job of illuminating both sides of the issues and the complaints that both sides provide. Yet, the conclusion of the situation and the purpose of the film is to not provide easy answers. Systematic racism affects both communities and as long as it is perpetuated, conflicts like this will exist.
And then, the moment of truth came. The final film. This year, that film turned out to be John Skoog’s Ridge, which plays a bit more like a narrative than a documentary. Two cows leave a farm. The residents of that farm When asked of this, Skoog brought up the way that the work of Agnes Varda or Chantel Akerman used to use documentary elements in their narrative features. It’s an interesting way of looking at the form. As far as the quality of the film, Ridge is a furiously compelling work of slow cinema. Reminiscent of the work of Bela Tarr and the Varda, the camera slowly pans around, pushing the narrative forward. Because the camera is such an important player in the film, it makes sense that the film would be startling to look at. Skoog comes from a background in photography and he and cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt craft the best imagery of the festival. As Ridge came to its quiet close it suddenly dawned on me that there would be no more movies to watch. While the beginning of the last day feels purgatorial, the ending feels joyous. Walking back to the car, I thought back over the last few days. Most of the films were fantastic with City So Real, So Late So Soon, Crip Camp and Dick Johnson is Dead sticking out. The experience of seeing 13 films in Columbia will stick with me and I’m happy I spent my time there.