The stereotypical documentary is a collage of talking heads and archival footage, an oral history committed to celluloid in a neat 90-minute package with a clear beginning and end. There’s a lesson to be gleaned from its story, a strong thesis or a takeaway. While it’s true that there are good documentaries that follow this format—Ava DuVernay’s 13th comes to mind—the stereotype is incomplete at best and harmfully inaccurate at worst. Expecting documentaries to be built around a simple narrative is like expecting every fiction film to end with a 20-minute fight scene and a large explosion, when in reality non-fiction film can be just as varied—and surprising—as its fictional counterparts.
In the spirit of exploration, I went to Columbia, Missouri to take part in this year’s True/False Film Festival, which showcases non-fiction films over the course of a long weekend. You have to love film to commit to any festival for more than just a couple of screenings; you have to care, not just about film but about the nature of truth and how it’s presented, in order to commit to something like True/False. I could feel some of my fellow festival-goers hedging when they talked about attending the festival. Not because they felt ambivalent about True/False or the movies screened that weekend, but because there’s something special about taking part in a treasure hunt at the heart of a hidden gem of a festival. True/False feels special because it’s so intimate, and because it’s populated by cinephiles who love the underestimated and misunderstood genre of documentary features.
True/False’s theme for 2023 was “This Is a Test.” Not in the grade-school sense, but in the sense of experimenting, reiterating, failing, and evolving from those failures. In short, the test of being alive, of learning how to be a human through lived experience. And so, in the spirit of scientific experimentation, I propose a taxonomy of the documentaries I saw at True/False 2023. I’m not the first to do this—Bill Nichols proposes six documentary “modes” that capture the different historical stages of documentary filmmaking in his introduction to the genre, and other theorists have published their own classification systems—but this taxonomy is specific to True/False 2023 and the movies I saw there. As with any genre, these categories are porous, prone to bleeding into each other.
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Each of these films has a story, a throughline that arcs from a beginning to an endpoint. Some are neat; some are messy. Some trace a history, whereas others shape a story from events that happen in real time while the cameras are rolling. The intent is to tell an interesting story, to raise an issue (and propose a solution), to shed light on something unknown, or to reframe a historical event.
Time Bomb Y2K (dir. Brian Becker and Marley McDonald) is a time capsule. It presents the transition from the late ‘90s to the early aughts as a struggle to overcome the fallibility of human nature, focused around the efforts to fix the Y2K computer bug. The narrative here is standard: there was a problem, and it needed to be solved. The strength of Time Bomb Y2K is its ability to present that problem in simple terms, drawing from a wealth of archival footage—so many celebrities who had no business airing their opinions on the bug were asked about it during press junkets!—but the film’s simplicity is also its deepest flaw. The film works as a snapshot of ‘90s fashion and naïveté, but its curiosity only extends to the obvious consequences of the bug in American life and pop culture. It’s focused tightly on the United States, with other countries’ responses (and their successes in averting disaster) relegated to a few short minutes as the December 31 clock ticks closer to midnight. When the film sketches the disparate responses from private American citizens, those reactions feel shallow, too. Time Bomb Y2K raises some of the specters of American politics to come—the separatism, the polarization, the rise of the religious right and militias—without drawing firm lines between any of these forces, and without giving them much context. The result is a list of causes and effects, with only the bug providing the connective tissue.
Where Time Bomb Y2K goes broad, How to Have an American Baby (dir. Leslie Tai) maintains a tight focus on a very specific situation. The film follows pregnant Chinese women who come to the United States in order to give birth—and, by doing so, give their babies American citizenship. Tai’s style is quietly observational, allowing her subjects to speak for themselves as they navigate the intricacies and expenses of the American healthcare system. How to Have an American Baby focuses on the economics and privilege at play, watching silently as the expectant mothers go shopping for toys and formula for their children, and as they search for hospitals with the best—read: most expensive—neonatal care. Tai’s touch is sensitive, but she’s matter-of-fact. In one harrowing sequence, we watch a first-time mother give birth, and, a few minutes later, hear an interview with another mother who has just lost her child shortly after delivery. Neither of these sequences are exploitative because they’re entirely on the terms of the mothers.
Going Varsity in Mariachi (dir. Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez) follows a group of high school students in the Rio Grande River valley as they work to earn their place as an award-winning varsity-level mariachi band. They’re set back by the COVID-19 pandemic (the documentary traces the 2021-2022 school year, which marks the first time this school’s band teacher has been able to meet some of his own students in person), by the economic reality of attending an under-funded public high school, and by their own inexperience (the band’s guitarrón player first picked up his instrument only three weeks before the start of school). As narrative documentaries go, Going Varsity in Mariachi feels like a sports movie, with its crowd of lovable underdogs trying their best against stacked odds. The cinematography is polished, almost slick, which serves its subjects by treating mariachi with the respect the students have for it, but which undermines the documentary slightly by signaling the conclusion well in advance. I can’t fully fault the documentary for this; the students who make up the mariachi band, and their teacher, are all so likable that it’s impossible not to cheer for them.
Another underdog story, Bad Press (dir. Joe Peeler and Rebecca Landsberry-Baker), recounts the legal fight to enshrine free press in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. It’s a piece of journalism about journalism, the kind of clear-cut narrative populated with people who are easy to root for, partly because they stand for truth and freedom of expression, and partly because they’re just so damn weird. (One of the journalists at Mvskoke Media plays a synth pad in the office during his downtime.) As with Going Varsity in Mariachi, Bad Press is polished and professional, a twisty story told clearly with its turns paced out evenly so as not to give the audience whiplash. The tricky part about reporting the news is balancing the correct level of detail into a focused story that’s easy for people to follow, while keeping sight of the complexity and the context. Bad Press feels oversimplified in its eagerness to tell a unified, compelling story; I remained on board because I wanted the journalists fighting for the freedom to do their jobs to succeed.
Where Bad Press and Going Varsity in Mariachi distill their stories down into rousing tales, Xaraasi Xanne (Crossing Voices) (dir. Bouba Touré and Raphaël Grisey) revels in complexity. The film is a historical document first, and a manifesto second. It tells the story of Somankidi Coura, a farming collective in Mali founded by immigrants who’d lived and worked undocumented in France, but had chosen to return to Africa to try to break the cycle of capitalism and colonialism. The documentary takes on a cyclical structure, first establishing the place and geography of Somankidi Coura, then looping back in time to explore working conditions in France, then exploring the collective’s reasons for being in France in the first place. Along the way, Touré and Grisey branch off into explanations of France’s rich history of strikes and workers’ rights movements, and its place in the world as a colonial superpower. The film is dense and tightly edited, laying out its case not just as a story of overcoming, but as an argument against exploitative economic and social systems. Nor is the documentary interested in adhering to a three-act structure; instead, Xaraasi Xanne represents history as a spiral, with cause and effect chasing each other in a tightening loop that will trap the under-privileged within its coils unless they can build up enough momentum to break free in their own directions. If anything, I’d have liked to learn more about the cooperative; there’s a brief digression about the women in Somankidi Coura breaking away from the men’s farm that would have benefited from more detail. Still, the film is compelling, one of the best arguments I’ve seen supporting Audre Lorde’s statement that the master’s house will not be dismantled by the master’s tools.
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These films explore the nature of being by focusing in on a person, or a small group of people. More character study than story, they present a snapshot of someone—sometimes already famous, sometimes a family member of the documentarian (and, in one case from this year’s festival, both). Portraits can tell just as much about an artist as they can about the subject, and the documentaries I saw this year so often bled into memoir. Simply by virtue of trying to understand the existence and motivations of another person, the documentarians revealed—or betrayed—parts of themselves.
Like Xaraasi Xanne, Milisuthando (dir. Milisuthando Bongela) delves into the historical consequences of social systems that harm the people subject to them. Bongela grew up under apartheid in South Africa, though she didn’t know about apartheid until after it was over, when her family picked up and moved from their house in Transkei to a new middle-class one in integrated South Africa. She explores the reverberating consequences of apartheid, from the integration of schools to the way that race and privilege warps her relationship with one of her best friends. This exploration feels expansive yet intimate, assembled from personal memories, archival footage, and interviews with her grandmother in their old house shot on a handheld camera. Laced throughout is Bongela’s poetic voiceover, which contextualizes the history where needed, but more often expresses her own lived experience and feelings, even as she asks herself why she feels so driven to tell her story in this way. Milisuthando is a self-titled debut album, a work of history refracted through the lived experience of its director.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (dir. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson) condenses the artistic and political life of its subject into a colorful, humorous, energetic package. Nikki Giovanni is as blunt as her poetry; her tell-it-like-it-is attitude lends itself to a surprising sense of humor, which showcases her power of communication both on and off the page.The film intercuts its footage of Giovanni giving talks and reading her poetry with colorful shots of space, and the ocean, and rockets taking off. Form meets function: the illustrative bumpers match Giovanni’s straightforward, conversational poetry style, and they give the viewer the space to contemplate her words. It’s almost too much space; the images are just abstract enough that their connection to the documentary’s subject matter is sometimes tenuous—a distraction at worst. Giovanni is a prickly person, and the film made me love her for it, but I wish it hadn’t skated past the more prickly aspects of her personal life—such as her estrangement from, and eventual reconciliation with, her son—in favor of so much empty color.
Prickly relationships are difficult to depict, especially in non-fiction film; it’s doubly hard to articulate a problem as you’re feeling your way through it. Joonam (dir. Sierra Urich) attempts to feel its way through the director’s Iranian-American heritage as she visits her mother and grandmother. Urich shoots video of her family on a handheld camera, deliberately echoing the shots from home video of her parents as students on the edge of the Iranian Revolution, and from their arrival in the United States.
Throughout the film, Urich juggles her project with lessons in Farsi, using both her camera and her studies to try to understand her mother, and to attempt to communicate with her grandmother, who speaks little English. Joonam is tender, but the film meanders as Urich feels her way through her relationships with her family; the camera rolls on from the backseat as the three women drive from place to place, repeating the same songs and arguments they’ve had before, the words turned into a litany through repetition. Ultimately, the film feels like sifting through someone else’s photographs, or like tagging along on another family’s vacation: uncomfortably honest as we watch Urich and her mother argue about their respective identities and perceptions.
Different perceptions of the same event color the short “The Feeling of Being Close to You” (dir. Ash Goh Hua), a brief memoir about identity, abuse, and running from the latter. The film takes the form of photographs and VHS footage, laced together by a phone call in which the director confronts their mother about their childhood, not so much to seek reconciliation as to engender understanding. Like Urich in Joonam, Hua deliberately echoes the images from their childhood without deliberately restaging anything.
“The Feeling of Being Close to You” was paired with The Taste of Mango (dir. Chloe Abrahams), another memoir-adjacent documentary about difficult parent-child relationships. Abrahams handles the issues of physical and sexual abuse delicately as she crafts a gentle portrait of her mother, and of her mother’s family history; the difficult relationship here is not between Abrahams and her mother, but between Abrahams’s mother and grandmother.
The Taste of Mango is structured like a letter, with long stretches of voiceover by Abrahams expressing the questions and the feeIings she couldn’t tell her mother about directly. Her writing is poetic; I could feel the filmmaker’s love for her mother in every frame she was onscreen. That love extends to a desire for happy endings, which unfortunately lends itself to a coda that buttons up the story just a little too nicely in a situation that, in reality, never buttons up.
It Runs in the Family (dir. Victoria Linares Villegas) takes the desire to uncover secret histories and attain closure, and runs with that impulse in surprising directions. The film contends with Villegas’s legacy as a queer filmmaker in a family who consciously buried their connection to the Dominican director Oscar Torres. One of my fellow festival-goers described Villegas as “the Dominican Republic’s answer to Agnès Varda” after seeing her most recent feature, Ramona, which also played at True/False this year. I wasn’t able to make it to Ramona, but I can see Varda’s sensibility shining through It Runs in the Family. Like Varda, Villegas is willing to blur the line between non-fiction and fiction by including recreations to make a point. She films her interview subjects as though they’re moving portraits, and she composes tableaus of props that embody the family legacy she’s trying to uncover. In one sequence, Villegas assembles a pile of family photographs, pills, and cigarettes, then dumps bronze paint over them: a literalization of the way Torres’s existence was “bronzed” (Villegas’s words) over, as though he’d never existed. The symbolism might be obvious, but it’s assured and considered all the same.
One of the most assured documentaries of the festival was Red Herring (dir. Kit Vincent). When director Vincent is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, he picks up a movie camera, using the lens as a scalpel into his own familial relationships as he and his family attempt to come to terms with the diagnosis. His father, in particular, accumulates hobbies, picking up at least half a dozen over the course of the documentary. The presence of the camera hangs over every family exchange: Vincent refers to himself as a “Grim Reaper with a camera” in voiceover as he catches himself in the bathroom mirror, and the lens and handles of his equipment cover his face like a skull mask, hulking over the shoulder of his partner as she brushes her teeth.
This sardonic tone permeates Red Herring, but Vincent leavens it with humor, catching his family and especially his father as they come to terms with the director’s mortality with dry wit and misdirection. Vincent uses the artifice of his camera to build meaning out of his everyday life; his family buries themselves in gardening and reading and studying Torah. His conversations with his loved ones sound spontaneous, but the way they’re framed at 45-degree shot/reverse shot angles mimics the standard conversational format in a fictional film. If the presence of the camera sometimes feels contrived, that’s partly the point. Vincent is conscious of the tension the camera brings to the conversation; more than anyone, he’s aware of the anxiety that sudden knowledge of mortality engenders. Red Herring feels special because it’s an embrace of that uncertainty, a willingness to lean out over the edge of the unknown and to try new things in the time that’s left.
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These films are non-fiction in the sense that they draw upon real events—or real facts—but express a mood or a feeling rather than tell a traditional story. Tone poems can be insular or expansive, but characters and events take a backseat to the overall mood.
In Dogwatch (dir. Gregory Rentis), we follow security guards assigned to protect container ships as they pass through hazardous waters. Despite depicting an occupation that primarily focuses on logistics, Dogwatch is completely uninterested in details, choosing instead to focus on the curve of its subjects’ shoulders as they while away the days between jobs. The film splits its time between three different men, but refuses to differentiate between them; their identities outside of their jobs don’t matter, nor do the specifics of those jobs. Dogwatch sums up guard duty as a series of endless drills without explaining the point of any of them, not even the particular importance of standing the watch from which the documentary earns its name. Instead, the film is an attempt to capture the boredom of an occupation that’s increasingly vestigial; we’re told that the Somali pirates these men guard against are much less of a threat now than they had been ten years before. One of the subjects goes so far as to say that life would be better for everyone involved if the pirates returned. Piracy would make the film more interesting, too; to stand dogwatch is to be bored, but the point of a documentary is to demonstrate why something that might otherwise be overlooked is actually interesting.
Out of all the films at the festival, I was most frustrated by “That Day, on the River” (dir. Lei Lei), a short that preceded another feature. It’s tempting to use the term “collage” when describing movies assembled from archival footage, but the term fits here, with most of the visuals created from black-and-white and technicolor films from late-‘50s China. Lei Lei pulls these vintage films apart, chopping and screwing them like a remix by running them back and forth. He etches images into the acetate, repeating imagery over and over again as the layers and the voiceover accumulate meaning. The entire film turns on a sequence of drone-shot footage over a river, tinted entirely blue, in which a story of parental abandonment is recounted in voiceover. In the moments when the drone glided over the water, I thought I understood the point, but then the vintage footage repeated itself, and, in the repetition, the short lost me.
I’ve saved my favorite for the end: Deborah Stratman’s Last Things is a true tone poem, an assemblage of images and voiceover with no central character other than the passage of time. The film proposes a timeline for the end of days, built on the foundation of geologic study. As documentaries go, this one is science fiction; the science might lean on the hard end of the SF scale, but the tone is all poetry. Stratman braids together images of minerals, explanations of the ways that even rocks can go extinct, and diagrams of Darwin’s Tree of Life; the disparate pieces comment on the interconnectedness of things, and of their collective mortality, without a hint of sentimentality. We’re all stardust, she says, without directly quoting Sagan; in the next moments, she paraphrases the creation story from Genesis. We’re all stardust, we’re all works in progress, and we’re all going to have to face up to our mortality someday. What a grand experiment.