True/False Film Festival 2019 | Day One

Although this will be my first year attending True/False, it will not be the first time I’ve made the two hour trip to Columbia, MO to catch a screening. A few years ago I took a day off work and crashed at an old high school acquaintance’s apartment to see The Tribe, a Ukrainian film told entirely in sign language and featuring non-professional, deaf actors. So in its essence, I somewhat consider Columbia a sort of landmark for cinephile staycationers, where hard-to-see art house, documentary/fiction hybrids play on a network of trendy Mizzou campus screens. I begin these daily reports almost two weeks before actually attending the festival, resorting to unprecedented time management techniques in my writing so as to fit in the sixteen films I’m making an effort to see.

I’m the kind of person that likes to order things by how they jive and the mood they set. So the film I chose to see first held a lot of significance, setting the tone for the whole weekend. Amazing Grace, the late Sydney Pollack’s long unreleased concert film of Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at New Temple Baptist Church (which she fought continually to keep from being released during her lifetime) seemed like the best possible choice, using music as a kind of jumping off point, like the song you use to pump yourself up for a particularly ambitious undertaking. Both the film and musical genres matter significantly, as well. While I don’t consider myself an audiophile, I am particularly fond of old-school, artfully done concert films (Gimme Shelter being the gold standard). The moving, melodic gospel music gave me the much needed serenity to endure the large number of intense, harrowing screenings to come.

Knowing next to nothing about Franklin’s work aside from the hits, I still got goosebumps multiple times throughout the film. The magnitude of her voice, which needs no description, and her solemn but powerful presence reach beyond the screen so that the act of watching makes you a worshiper, immersed in the ecstatic and transcendental music and moved by the religious and historical weight vibrating in the room. The location of the church being the Watts neighborhood in L.A. lent a particular sense of importance to the service, and the crew’s intimate, spirited filming beautifully captured the atmosphere.

From the concealed footage of Aretha Franklin, I transitioned into the concealed world of Scientology with Jeffrey Piexoto’s Over the Rainbow, a profile of several active church members, which was years in the making. The result ended up being far less incendiary than I could have imagined, as Piexoto treats his characters without a hint of irony or judgement, and takes a sometimes bewilderingly oblique stance on the church’s practices. Not an indictment or an endorsement, nor very explanatory or comprehensive, Piexoto’s aim more concerns how people discover the meaning of existence, and how they reassure themselves in regard to their purpose in said existence. An original approach, to be sure, but not as revelatory as I had hoped it to be.

I ended the night on Ben Berman’s The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a tricky, reflexive film that probes the much examined filmmaker/subject relationship. The alternative magical comic, The Amazing Johnathan, has confounded audiences via dark and absurdist bits while battling an ongoing, anomalous health struggle (he’s long been terminally ill, yet still alive). He exercises an inexplicable control over his surroundings, turning Berman’s observational approach on its head with psychological games. Johnathan hires a second film crew with supposedly higher credentials to compete with Berman’s. This other crew refuses to be filmed and, as Berman revealed during the Q&A, have attempted to stop the film from being released. As Jonathan’s obstinate behavior challenges the original aim of the documentary, Berman goes to unorthodox (really unorthodox) lengths to set his film apart, and soon comes to question his motives as a filmmaker in chronicling another’s decline. By far the most entertaining film of the night, the ethical questions are compelling and the humor truly extraordinary. In the end, though, I do wonder if the reflexiveness was merely opportunistic. The filmmaker’s involvement both self-deprecates but, as most self-deprecation inadvertently does, self serves. Nevertheless, the film at least provides an engaging and hilarious journey for an hour and a half.

The night is over and I’m thoroughly exhausted, and yet this is only the beginning. Until next time! | Nic Champion

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