True/False Film Festival 2024: Constructing a Collective Reality

Union (2024) | dirs. Stephen Maing and Brett Story

(All images featured in this piece courtesy of True/False Film Festival)


True/False is a festival for nonfiction film. Sometimes those documentaries manifest as stories with rising and falling action, with talking-head interviews of subjects who are conscious of the camera’s intrusion on their real lives. Others are a little more discursive, more recognizably a video essay, a manifesto, a memoir. Regardless of form, each one is an attempt to make sense of the pieces of the world around the filmmaker. I returned to True/False this year because I like the window it gives me into lives and stories I’d otherwise never run across. There’s no jury, and no competition. There’s just curiosity, and a space to let that feeling grow and stretch.

This year I was struck by three common themes braided amongst the 15 feature films I watched at the festival. The first was community, the conscious building of portraits of interconnected lives that have been brought together by choice or by circumstance. The second was a search for moral clarity, whether on the part of the filmmaker or on the part of the documentary’s subjects, seen through the interplay between storyteller and subject as they work to construct meaning out of the circumstances that have brought them together. Some of the films I saw treated the question of clarity as a call to push their movies even further, to examine the nature of truth and reality.

That question of truth—of whether the documentary is presenting a portrait of what is actually real—is one that has plagued documentaries ever since Nanook of the North. It’s a question that’s haunted me ever since I first became aware of documentary as a filmmaking mode: how can I trust what’s being presented as true? Somehow it’s easier to trust nonfiction writing and fiction filmmaking than it is to trust nonfiction film. I grew up in the early days of reality TV game shows like Survivor and The Bachelor, the kinds of shows that deal in the backstabbing lies and ugly truths people tell each other in order to keep up appearances long enough to win a prize. The truth—or the lie—is in the edit. Reality can be manipulated in a swift cut.

We’re past that point of questioning reality in nonfiction film now. It’s safe to say that Orson Welles answered the question with his joyfully circuitous pseudo-documentary F for Fake (1973), a film that served as a touchstone for at least three of the movies screened at True/False this year. It might also be safe to say that we live in a post-truth world, one where differences of opinion can sway legitimacy more than actual, reported fact. The question now is less about what is real, and more about how we go about constructing an ethical portrait of reality. How much do we show? How much is privacy worth? Is it worth the risk of harm to open up someone to the scrutiny of the camera? True/False, in the couple of years I’ve attended, has repeatedly answered in the affirmative. Documentary films are a complicated good, a window into understanding the lives of others that, at their best, makes both subject and audience vulnerable enough to come to a common understanding, to broaden the scope of the world a little more.

I’ve arranged my festival coverage into three loose groups: the films that I generally liked, but have questions about; the films that did not work for me, and the films that succeed in communicating the community, clarity, and truth that I was looking for. The lineup this year felt strong; it’s safe to say that I found something valuable in most of the movies I saw, even when they didn’t entirely work for me. I feel as though I’ve been invited to do the work alongside the filmmakers and their subjects.

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Girls State (dirs. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss) sits in conversation with its 2019 predecessor Boys State. Both films follow a cohort of high schoolers through a week of mock legislation run by the American Legion; Boys State (the documentary) takes place during Boys State 2018 in Texas, while Girls State focuses on the cohort at Girls State 2022 in Missouri, which just so happened to be held on the same campus at the same time as the 2022 Missouri Boys State. Where Boys State was about an American civics educational program, Girls State places politics in the back seat, focusing primarily on the ways that girls are socialized and underserved by the American political system. McBaine and Moss contrast the two programs through swift insert shots of Boys State—the arguing in legislature, the rigid discipline—intercut with longer sequences of downtime at Girls State, where the participants have noticed the distinct gap in budget and the differences in programming. This difference in treatment is only underlined with the leaked news of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade the same week. Girls State sketches its subjects with a generosity that allows their personalities to shine through. It’s a conventional story, conventionally enough told that there will be few surprises for anyone familiar with sexism and the rise-fall of three-act plot structure. The budget is high enough to merit an on-the-nose Taylor Swift needle drop over the credits. This iteration is fine, as far as observations of well-known inequalities go, but it’s still gratifying to see one of the 2022 Missouri Girls State participants notice that something is wrong, and decide to write a piece of journalism about it. This isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth telling.

Daughters (2024) | dirs. Angela Patton and Natalie Rae

Also ostensibly concerned with gender, but more keenly aware of race and class, was Daughters, co-directed by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae. Patton runs a mentorship program for girls out of Richmond, Virginia; one of the events they’ve put on is a daddy-daughter dance for the daughters of prisoners. The film follows a handful of girls, ages 5 through 16, as they work through their feelings about their fathers, and as they prepare for the dance; the documentary also grants access to their fathers as they work through mandatory counseling ahead of the event. We see the full gamut of human emotion—pride, shame, joy, and bitter tears—as the men are reunited with their children; like many American prisons, the prison where they serve out their sentences has phased out in-person (“touch”) visitation for expensive video calls, the burden of which their families must carry if they want to stay in contact. The film draws mental and emotional ties between father and daughter, sometimes cutting between parent and child in the same pose to emphasize the ties that remain, despite the distance imposed by the American carceral system. We never learn why the fathers are in prison, nor should we; we only know that the distance and time are difficult obstacles to building a parental relationship, a fact that the movie testifies to when it pulls in close at the end of the dance, cameras pushed in on tearful faces as families try to pack years of lost time into a few short, emotional minutes. The burden isn’t fair. Nor does it feel fair to be granted access to the precious moments that should be private: the film tells the truth about the pain its subjects go through, albeit at the cost of presenting that pain for consumption. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, one that the film aims to use to spur its viewers to reject laws that dehumanize prisoners and their families.

Union (dirs. Stephen Maing and Brett Story) is both a call to action and a collective action in and of itself, a film that takes on the viewpoint of a silent comrade in the struggle to unionize Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center on Staten Island. Subject Chis Smalls was fired from his job at the distribution center; rather than searching for another job, he turned to grassroots action to try to form a union of workers in the hope for better protections and fair pay. We sit in on gatherings outside the distribution center’s gate, watching as Smalls grills burgers and collects the names of workers interested in forming the union. We watch the long, hard conversations, the Zoom calls, the canvassing calls, the collective courage to risk being fired long enough to say, Enough, and the time-honored tradition of human organizations splintering under the weight of ego and differences of opinion. It’s rousing filmmaking, the kind that’s honest about just how hard the work of labor organization is. The moral clarity comes with the recognition that work won’t love you back, but that work worth doing is worth doing with dignity, leaving the position better for your successors. If the story feels incomplete, that’s because the struggle is ongoing.

In Agent of Happiness (dirs. Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó), we follow another person whose line of work requires him to survey his community in the hopes of improvement. Amber  Kumar Gurung works for the Kingdom of Bhutan, interviewing citizens in order to help measure the Gross National Happiness index (GNH). His job is to learn about their lives, their possessions, and how they feel about their place in the world; the King of Bhutan’s stated aim is for the government to prioritize the happiness of its people. As Amber interviews citizens for the GNH, he himself is searching for his own happiness—and citizenship. The film is sprinkled with participants framed by the villages and mountains in which they live, standout points on their respective surveys overlaid next to them like nutrition facts on a can of food. Number of cows: 2, feeling of fulfillment: 8, happiness score: 9. The expectation is for Bhutan to be the happiest country on earth, because it always has been; the film complicates that picture by following interviewees beyond their respective happiness surveys into their everyday, ordinary lives. Most subjects say at first that they’re happy. The truth is a little harder to find. Agent of Happiness occasionally loses itself in its digressions, pulling in shots of cows and mountains that underline Bhutan’s fairy-tale image of itself. The film coalesces around a burst of clarity in the form of Buddhist theology, late in the runtime; perhaps the key to contentment is acceptance of the suffering in life after all.

Seeking Mavis Beacon (2024) | dir. Jazmin Jones

Jazmin Jones sets out to find her own elusive figure in Seeking Mavis Beacon, which chronicles her search for Reneé L’Espérance, the woman who first modeled for the cover of the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing software, popularized in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Seeking Mavis Beacon eschews a forensic approach for an investigation that’s primarily based on vibes. Jones and her fellow investigator Olivia McKayla Ross describe themselves as “e-girl detectives,” presenting their story—and themselves—using an enthusiastic stew of pop-up windows, memes, neon colors, tarot cards, and a dash of pop philosophy. This being the internet, aesthetics are just as crucial to the story as the steps Jones and Ross take to reach their conclusions. You become what you consume; Jones and Ross attempt to build a sense of belonging that will answer all their questions by asking about the communities built around the Mavis Beacon software—and what it means to be a Black girl on the internet—all while mainlining TikTok and repeat viewings of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). They even splice in a clip of Orson Welles introducing F for Fake in their own introduction, part of the collage of meaning assembled from various cultural touchpoints that wouldn’t look out of place on a Tumblr blog. The film doesn’t quite manage to come to any conclusions that haven’t already been reached by other, similar searches for now-elusive public figures, but the journey itself is pretty damn enjoyable.

Where Jones and Ross look for definitive answers, director Lana Wilson explores the nature of truth, lies, and unknowing with her film Look Into My Eyes, which follows half a dozen psychics and mediums in New York City as they ply their trade. Where Seeking Mavis Beacon exudes bright enthusiasm, Look Into My Eyes is restrained and contemplative, questioning the nature of performance and truth alongside the art of the cold read. The film operates on a heightened sense of unreality, with medium sessions staged in anonymous offices that scream “gentrification,” exposed brick and cold white furniture making the sessions appear like a form of therapy. This is a film about people who seek spiritual care: both the people who go to see mediums, and the mediums themselves, many of whom want to break into the entertainment industry. We open on a session with a woman who had a shattering experience as a doctor in the emergency room, who just wants to know if the person she’d cared for long ago is okay. The answers are as definitive as the askers want them to be, and we come to find that many sessions are less of a one-way transaction and more of a two-way street, with searcher and medium having a conversation that brings each participant some closure to their respective problems—or perhaps more questions for them to sit with. It’s uncomfortable in a really chewy sort of way, and Wilson lays out the situation clearly enough for us to understand precisely what’s happening without telling us what or how to believe. Like a medium, the film isn’t here to give us any straight answers, but instead invites us to sit with the same questions that its subjects are wrestling with.

By far the most esoteric film I saw at the fest, sr (pronounced “sir,” dir. Lea Hartlaub) tackles the history of religion, culture, and displacement, all through the lens of the study of giraffes. Nearly every shot is long distance, opening up landscapes of open savannah under a cool, detached gaze as a cool, detached voiceover outlines, in German, facts about giraffes. How they’re studied, how different colonial powers found them fascinating, how a pair came to live at a zoo in Palestine before dying during the Second Intifada, how they’ve become mystical objects of reverence across thousands of years across continents throughout the Eastern hemisphere. Nearly a dozen people walked out of my screening. It’s cold filmmaking, of the kind that brushes up against fascinating questions (“Are giraffes kosher?” was one), then glances off them to explore another centuries-spanning mystery in brief. I can’t say that I learned anything life-shattering about giraffes during sr, but I was invited to contemplate the different ways that human beings are willing to displace others in the name of some mystical ideal, an act of dehumanization that happens repeatedly through the cycle of history. Maybe one day we’ll figure it out, but in the meantime, we’ll never run out of oblique ways to consider the injustices of the world.

Three Promises (2023) | dir. Yousef Srouji

Much less oblique, but no less timely, was Yousef Srouji’s Three Promises, a found-footage documentation of the Second Intifada assembled almost entirely from camcorder videos taken by Srouji’s mother. The film is brief, showing the flashes of bombs and gunfire in the darkness encroaching ever closer to the family’s home in Palestine. We see the director as a child, sheltering with his father and his sister from the fighting, begging their mother to come away from the window, where she’s filming the flashes on the horizon that betray the fighting on their doorstep. She cannot tear herself away from the darkness outside, nor from the power of the bombs; the film becomes a documentation not just of a family displaced by fighting but also about the bargains we make with ourselves, and with God, and with each other, when nothing in the world goes right. Riveting questions for a series of stitched-together home movies, a subgenre of documentary film I tend to have trouble with because of their lo-fi nature. Three Promises is difficult, focused as it is on the bombs and the encroaching dark. Through its edit, the film becomes a record of the magnetic pull of conflict, and the pain it inflicts directly and indirectly on the unjust and just alike.

Where Three Promises watches catastrophe drawing near, Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano (dir. Cyril Aris) deals with the aftermath of disaster, following a film crew picking up the pieces in the days and weeks after the 2020 Beirut explosion. They’d been scheduled to begin filming a feature that fall; what had once been the ordinary calculus of balanced budgets and film schedules and COVID-19 testing became much more fraught with the Lebanese pound in free fall, and, with it, the film’s funding. It’s impossible to write a metaphor this clean for the film crew’s relationship with their home country. The film they’d been preparing for was a meditation about abandoning Beirut, set twenty minutes into the future in a semi-apocalyptic version of the world that could not compare with Lebanon’s new reality. It’s remarkable to watch the film crew pull together a piece of art, already in production, that helps them make sense of their lives at a restless moment with an uncertain future.

I Like It Here (2022) | dir. Ralph Arlyck

The only certainty of life, muses Ralph Arlyck, is that someday it will end. His film I Like It Here (2022) is a ruminatory autobiography of sorts that loops discursively through his own life and the lives of the aging artists he’s surrounded himself with. Arlyck has the uncontrollable urge to pick up the camera and film everything—an instinct shared with Srouji’s mother in Three Promises, albeit decades apart and half a world away. Arlyck examines himself by focusing his camera on his neighbors and family, asking them about their lives, their artwork, the way they see the world—all while maintaining a running commentary about where his subjects will be in a few years, and how he feels about that with the benefit of a few years’ hindsight. We hear about his son, a hospital chaplain, and his neighbor, an old man living off the grid in a ramshackle hut, practically in the same breath; the two have circumstances that could never compare to each other, but each one is facing down the question of mortality from differing perspectives. The voiceover is poetic, more akin to an essay or radio reporting than it is to conversation; I kept thinking about This American Life while I was watching the film, and if the comparison seems a little too pat, please remember: This American Life frequently makes me cry.

I had a tougher time with A Photographic Memory, a memoir of sorts by Rachel Elizabeth Seed trying to track down remnants of her mother, the photographer and journalist Sheila Turner-Seed, who died unexpectedly when Rachel was only 18 months old. Seed reconstructs her mother through the fragments left behind: the interviews she conducted, the photographs, the books and magazine articles. The reconstructions are painstaking, bringing the audience down the same detours that Rachel herself went down, sometimes in ways that prove more distracting than clarifying. We start with recreations of the interviews in black and white, Rachel filling in for the part of her mother, her face obscured from the camera in the same way that her mother is hidden away from her by time and death. These recreations assert themselves so gradually in the edit that at first I’d thought they were actual archival footage; when I realized that Rachel was playing the part of her mother, I found myself once again unmoored from the identities of both women, an alienating choice that made both people less clear, even as the film assumes that they’ve each become more illuminated. As Rachel unearths more about her mother, she finds a way to have a conversation of sorts with her ghost: an interview between filmmaker and subject, spliced together with editing until the whole picture coalesces around a portrait that shows mother and daughter, their identities clear and whole and yet distinctly related. 

Ibelin (dir. Benjamin Ree) was by far the film I heard other filmgoers talking about the most at the festival, riding a wave of word-of-mouth coming out of its premiere at Sundance. The documentary profiles a young man named Mats Steen who had a rare muscular degenerative disease that killed him at the age of 25. Before he died, he’d left his computer password behind for his parents to find his blog and his World of Warcraft account, where he’d spent most of the last years of his life. His parents had assumed that their son had died lonely, unable to socialize in the same way that his peers had; they hadn’t realized that World of Warcraft had been the vehicle that had opened up their son to a rich and varied social life. Ibelin takes Mats’s chatlogs and translates them into animated clips, modeled on his own World of Warcraft character, and on the characters of the other players whose lives he’d touched. This approach gives the audience a window into Mats’s social life, recreating it the way it had happened for him as he was living it. Unfortunately, the film falls into the same trap as Mats’s parents, initially setting Mats up to be an object of extreme pity and then, upon discovery of his World of Warcraft chatlogs, an inspirational figure who “transcends” his disability. It’s a reevaluation of Mats’s life that the film signals by splicing in shots of home video unspooling on a reel and then winding back up, as though telling us to abandon every assumption we’ve been led to believe for the first 20 minutes of runtime. Mats’s story is a good one, but the film makes the mistake of never fully managing to treat him as a person. Its view of disability is the same retrograde attitude that it purports to challenge. We’re drawn to grieve Mats—and he should be mourned—but the film never gives us a reason to see him as a whole human being in his own right, beyond pity or extreme reverence.

This Is Going to Be Big (2024) | dir. Thomas Charles Hyland

Another movie that tackles similar subject matter with far greater sensitivity is This Is Going to Be Big (dir. Thomas Charles Hyland), which follows a group of neurodiverse high school students in Australia as they rehearse for a play at the end of the school year. Each of the students deals with some kind of disability: blindness, brain injury, anxiety, autism, chronic illness. They’re surrounded by supportive teachers who care just as much about nurturing them as they do about test scores and good grades. Where Ibelin sets its subject up to be defined primarily by his disability, This Is Going To Be Big grants its subjects the freedom to define themselves outside of an ableist lens. We only learn the details about each student that they themselves choose to share. When one student becomes incapacitated, the camera quickly reframes the shot so that we don’t see her helpless; we’ve been invited into the community, but we aren’t tourists who have come to gawk. The film presents a community that encourages its students to grow more fully into themselves without demanding that they conform to a model of existence that isn’t designed for them, specifically, to thrive.

Yintah (dirs. Jennifer Wickham, Brenda Michell, and Michael Toledano) had by far the sharpest viewpoint of any film I saw at the festival. The film—whose name translates to “land”—covers the work of the Wet’suwet’en people fighting the placement of an oil pipeline across their land, a fight they take up against Coastal GasLink and the Canadian government. Their land was never ceded, and yet the pipeline workers keep trespassing. It’s discouraging to see the continuation of the historic cycle of treaties broken just as soon as they’re made. It’s infuriating to watch the revolving door of people who claim to be “just doing their jobs” making bad-faith attempts to access land that they are not welcome to. Yintah is not a work that’s meant to be inspirational. It’s a documentation and a witness to the hard work of moral clarity, of refusing to lose dignity for an easy way out, of the ongoing fight to preserve the land and traditions of the people who belong to it against bad odds. The women who form the core of this documentary’s story are some of the bravest people I’ve ever seen, facing down a deck that they know is stacked against them. They’re tired. The fight is ongoing.

A Band of Dreamers and a Judge (2023) | dir. Hesam Eslami

One final film: my favorite of the festival. A Band of Dreamers and a Judge (dir. Hesam Eslami) is about treasure hunters in northern Iran. They call themselves “diggers”; the government calls them “looters,” and has declared all excavations without a permit to be illegal. The film is framed like a heist of sorts. The titular band of dreamers introduce themselves to the camera as though they’re the bank-robbing kind: the point man, the muscle, the guy who’s good with technology. When the filmmaker himself is drawn into the investigation as a suspect, we’re brought to question the nature of reality and presentation. The core group of diggers are inspired by videos of other diggers they find on Instagram, a platform notorious for setting up its users to inflate their own wealth and appearances while taking the posts of everyone else they see at face value. This is contrasted ironically against a justice system that’s concerned with maintaining purity. “It’s unholy to leave the bones exposed,” states one of the policemen chasing illegal excavations; these police will cover the open bones with rocks while they investigate, damaging the dig site further beyond the vandalism done by the diggers they pursue. As the investigation closes in, the film neatly twists the question of what is real on top of the question of what is true, in the grand Iranian cinematic tradition of messing with fiction and nonfiction in the same breadth. It’s unclear how much the diggers themselves know, and how much they’re playing a part. They’re somewhat inept, trying to find something experts cannot find, everyone gassing each other up on social media in an attempt to obscure where they’re digging so they can be first to the treasure. I loved them. I wanted to see them succeed, even as they break their own tools in their haste to uncover another promising site.

Keep digging, I wanted to tell them. You might just strike gold.