TRUE/FALSE Film Festival 2023 Wrap – Diane Carson reports

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True/False Film Festival 2023 offers stimulating content on diverse topics.

Celebrating its twentieth year, the True/False Film Festival, March 1 to 5 in Columbia, Missouri, offered an impressive, international group of documentary films as well as those that sometimes straddle the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction. The thirty-five feature films on offer, plus three shorts programs, exhibited a wide variety of topics and, to be honest, of differing levels of sophistication.

Therefore, while it is challenging to generalize about such diverse selections, one clear trend is toward more personal immersion in subjects’ lives and identification with their daily experiences as opposed to interpretive, analytical presentations. Films focused in this way rely on a level of involvement or interest in the selected individuals for a compelling work to emerge. Frankly, without more substantial depth of content and context and/or character arc, I found several films this year did not rise to a level of compelling appeal. However, of the sixteen films I saw, most presented excellent insights on serious topics, and three were truly spellbinding.

First, co-directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s Bad Press received a standing ovation, bringing twelve hundred viewers to their feet in the gorgeous Missouri Theatre, built in 1928 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Bad Press confirms the impact one incredibly courageous individual can have. That heroic woman, Mvskoke Media journalist Angel Ellis, refused to accept the Muscogee Nation Tribal Council’s repeal of their 2015 Free Press Bill. Before that, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was one of only five of the 574 nationally recognized Native American tribes with a freedom of the press guarantee. As Angel explained, since the Nations govern themselves in most legal respects, Native American tribal journalists are not covered by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection.

Along with only a few equally committed individuals, a determined Angel Ellis’ fought for over three years to reinstate the Muscogee free press guarantee (what would be the first Native American tribe to pass such a Constitutional amendment). The high-stakes campaign included four elections, numerous council votes, and an exhausting, at times risky, all-in fight with daunting twists and turns, including intimidation and deception by tribal leaders. As Angel said in a lively discussion after the Bad Press screening, she operates from an ethical commitment to love and responsibility. Charismatic and energetic, Angel is a dynamic and enthralling subject with a mission to save responsible media, an absolutely essential aspect of all democracies to hold power brokers accountable.

The second film that had the audience laughing, applauding, and cheering is co-directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. Stitching together archival footage with performances and interviews, Stephenson and Brewster bring Nikki Giovanni to feisty, fabulous life in an immensely entertaining profile. This imaginative biopic reinvents storytelling. In the post-screening Q&A, both directors endorsed broadening and complicating storytelling, as they do in Going to Mars, always clearly communicating with parallel stories in conversation. What they have created is a cinematic poem itself to a great American poet.

The third irresistible film is codirectors Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo’s Bobi Wine: The People’s President. Another tribute to a fearless advocate for democracy, the celebrated Afrobeats musician Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, runs for office and is elected to Parliament. When he subsequently declares his candidacy for president of Uganda, he, his security team, and his supporters become the targets, literally and figuratively, of current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In office for thirty-five years, Museveni has the Constitution changed so he can run for another term, extending his thirty-five-year-long regime. The violence visited on Bobi Wine and others is brutal, shocking, and supported by the current rulers, enacted by their soldiers and police. Through the filmmakers’ personal and public access, this documentary thrusts viewers into the highly charged, distressing situation as Wine’s heroic, daring, life-threatening candidacy advances.

By contrast, but with serious lifetime consequences for all the high school students involved, Going Varsity in Mariachi reinterprets the quest for a state title for the musicians of the Edinburg North High School, located in southern Texas. While the basic framework for the film sounds familiar—an upcoming state competition for a group that has a long way to go to succeed—this film has charm, discerning profiles of mariachi band members Abby, Marlena, Bella, and others, and a great leader of the band in Abel Acuña. The music itself would give this film extraordinary appeal, but the complexity of the personalities communicated so perfectly in well-chosen, ordinary moments adds more under the masterful direction of Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn. Best of all, Acuña guides these wonderful teenagers with tough love and honesty, always challenging them when they mess up and supporting them in their maturation process. He’s the mentor we all need.

Several other films deserve mention. Terra Long’s Feet in Water, Head on Fire captures the beauty of the Coachella Valley of Southern California through her love of the date palms that grace and sustain the landscape. Moreover, Long hand processed her footage with plant materials, using no artificial chemicals, a lovely tribute to her ecological topic. As Long noted in the discussion, her expressive film translates the language of the land, folding in sounds and associative echoes from the historical settling of the area to its current iteration.

Also threading historical details into a very personal story, Milisuthando Bongela’s Milisuthando traces the history of Transkei, the pro-apartheid territory where she grew up. Bongela sensitively and directly interrogates her English and Xhosa ancestral legacy, its impact on her friendships, especially with her best white friend, and the political as well as psychological, intellectual, and spiritual elements. Her insightful, analytical approach with voiceover narration works effectively to bring her world to vivid life as it also invites us to consider our own.

Similarly illuminating a complex community he filmed over two years, Maksym Melnyk’s Three Women immerses viewers in the Ukrainian village of Stuzhytsya in the Carpathian Mountains. As Melnyk explained, because it is located near the border with Poland and Slovakia, the village is not a direct target of Russian shelling for fear that rockets would land in NATO territory. This doesn’t mean that the impact of the Ukrainian war has not impacted the three women of the title: the village postmistress, a biologist, and elderly farmer Hanna whose personality overwhelms every scene. Melnyk began as a relatively objective recorder of this compassionate community, but he soon found himself involved in their interactions, to his and viewers’ delight.

In Ramona, blurring the lines between objective and subjective involvement even more, Dominican director Victoria Linares Villegas began documenting her casting for lead actress Ramona for a film she planned to pursue on teenage pregnancy. Soon, however, interviews with the area’s young women, intended to help with the project’s accuracy, led her down a different path: a stimulating examination of the separation between the real and scripted world.

Director Leslie Tai’s How to Have an American Baby observes other pregnancies, those of Chinese citizens visiting and only temporarily (sometimes) living in the U.S. in order to accomplish exactly what the title states. Maternity hotels in Southern California provide access for, most often, cash payment. This baby business/industry serves a group of women on whom Tai trains her fly-on-the-wall camera, with a couple brief scenes exposing China-based sales promotions for this ‘birthing vacation,’ as it is described. One explicit birth delivery, several shopping trips, and some local citizens’ objections round out the profiles.

My rather lengthy, albeit incomplete, descriptions of the films I most admired comes from my appreciation of the disparate, fascinating world views curated for this fine festival. Exceptional and memorable, the films encourage a profound and critical awareness that we do inhabit one world in all its glorious beauty and with its challenging problems. I also note that this is a unique festival for several elements. Live music greets viewers as they enter every venue, individuals or groups playing on stage, often too loudly, but always with passion and considerable talent. The university town of Columbia, Missouri, turns out and supports the festival with outdoor music, sculptures at various areas, and venue captains dressed in flamboyant costumes, with everyone’s participation encouraged.

As welcome as all of this is, the programs always start on time, a much appreciated aspect of any fest for attendees with full schedules, many of us dashing from one film to another, so eager to see as much as possible. A quick comment from the director, producer, or editor (sometimes by Zoom when individuals can not make the trip to Columbia, as was this case this year with Bobi Wine) introduces the film, and the screening commences. Another unique and wonderful bonus of True/False is the Q&A/discussion after every feature, first with knowledgeable True/False representatives interviewing those involved with the film and then with questions from the audience. This additional information gleans special insights that enrich every event. I also must applaud the five hundred plus energetic, invariably friendly volunteers who always answered numerous questions with patience and accuracy.

It is also worth noting with praise the numerous women directors represented this year, the superior quality of their films testifying to the importance of their perspectives on our political and personal environments. I’m already eager for next year’s True/False Festival.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.