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Wrapping Up True/False

Another True/False has come and gone – too soon, it seems to me. Each of the four years I have been here have been special in their own ways, with plenty of incredible films to watch and digest. As I hinted at in my preview piece, this year’s festival, for me at any rate, ended up having a very deep bench of films, making it hard to provide an exact ranking. There were two films that stood out above the rest for me (we’ll get to those in a minute), but then such a strong contingent of others that it became hard to order favorites. I went to 11 screenings and saw 9 films I would consider eligible for “awards” (one screening was a series of shorts, and one was for a film made in the 90’s airing as part of a retrospective). Rather than offer a ranked list, I thought I’d hand out some individual honors as a way of highlighting some of the films that made the festival so special.

Best Shot

This isn’t a category I’d normally think to include, but I wanted to highlight a great individual shot, one from the beginning of the film Railway Sleepers. Tracking shots have been making a comeback of late, with flashy long takes showing up in films like Birdman and La La Land. The excessive nature of some of these has led to justified pushback. Railway Sleepers opens with a bravura tracking shot, but this one is different – it’s track is quite permanent, being the rails on which the Thai railway system runs. As the train pulls away from the station, director Sompot Chidgasornpongse captures the departure from the back of the train, watching what the vehicle leaves behind as it heads out on its journey. He’s certainly not the first director to do this style of shot, but he remains committed to it for an excruciatingly long time, which builds the beauty and wonder of the train system from the beginning. This is a tracking shot that’s totally merited, and acts as an appropriate gateway to the wonder of the film that follows.

Best Scene

I’m going to cheat a little here, because my actual favorite scene comes in my favorite film of the fest (more on that later). But here’s an alternate choice, equally worthy, from the excellent Turkish documentary Distant Constellation. In a rare break from a fairly detached filming style, director Shevaun Mizrahi interacts with one of the residents of the retirement home whom she has been following over the course of the film. This man, a former lothario who fondly recalls his wild days, and even reads some of his erotic fiction to the camera at one point, has an air of easy charm throughout the film. About 2/3 of the way through, though, that façade cracks just a bit, and he confesses the loneliness he feels. That he does this through a joking marriage proposal to Mizrahi, then proceeds to justify the proposal, makes the sentiment all the more touching. He’s kidding, but not entirely, and the looks that pass over his face in rapid succession say it all. It’s a common trope for documentarians to interact with their subjects on film, but this is one of the best instances I’ve seen in a while.

Best Classic Film

Every year True/False honors a documentarian with their True Vision Award. Usually the director will have a new film playing at the festival, but True/False also holds a retrospective of their past work. After seeing the new film from this year’s True Vision winner, Claire Simon, the acerbic The Graduation (about the rigorous entrance exam for a prestigious French film school), I knew I wanted to see more of her work, so I carved out time to watch her 1992 film Récréations, which follows French schoolchildren on their playground over several days. The many scuffles that ensue make it easy to categorize the film as a mini Lord of the Flies, but there’s actually something much more complex going on. Patiently and astutely (often filming from the eye level of the children), Simon captures the interwoven nuances of child society. Yes, there are squabbles, and bullies, and many tears, but the kids also cooperate and encourage each other, and work together to imagine scenarios that would not be possible with individual play. The film testifies to the resiliency of children, and it’s one of the most fascinating ethnographic film projects I’ve ever watched.

Best Debut Film

I wanted to find a way to honor Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, my second favorite film of the festival. Given that Anthony is younger than I am, and Rat Film has the feel of a film made by a completely original, assured director, I thought it made sense to honor the film as the debut work of a filmmaker whose career prospects seem blindingly bright. Rat Film surprises at every turn, its brash narrative choices and pounding aestheticism rubbing up against its serious subject – race relations in Baltimore. By mapping out the ecosystems of rats in the city, Anthony presents a damning case that African Americans have been systematically discriminated against and even experimented on over the dark history of the town. Despite its heavy subject matter, Rat Film never feels weighed down by self importance or dourness; rather, Anthony channels righteous anger into a pounding, often funny take on systemic imbalance. Rat Film is exhilarating, a shot across the bow to typical issue documentaries.

Best of the Fest

With his film Safari, Ulrich Seidl has crafted a haunting, unforgettable look at big game hunting. I think Safari will prove very divisive among audiences, given both its unflinching presentation of the butchering of savannah animals and its dry, cynical take on the bizarre Austrian family who kill them for sport. This is a difficult film, in more ways than one, but a film that will richly reward a patient audience. Largely a process documentary, Safari follows the family out on multiple hunts, watching the set up, kill shot, and aftermath of their quest for big game. Seidl establishes rhythms patiently, only to undermine them in chilling ways in the film’s second half. The bravura filmmaking includes my absolute favorite scene of True/False 2017, as the hunters swarm around a giraffe that is almost – but not quite – dead. Questions of environmental responsibility and the legacy of colonialism hover around the edges of the film, but Seidl never shows his hand, instead letting the images do the work. The result is what Rebecca West would call a documentary burned to the bone, in more ways than one, and the best film that I saw at another excellent iteration of True/False.