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Reality bites again

Getting a jump on the year in documentaries at True/False
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  March 31, 2010

 FILM040210_1main
INTOTHE DARKNESS The Red Chapel.

READ: "Ghosts of upstate New York"
At the tail end of February, for the second consecutive year, I (barely) escaped a late-winter hurricane to enter a Midwestern oasis of grass-fed beef, cheap cigarettes, Johnny Depp impersonators, and some of the finest documentaries you might just see this year. The True/False Film Festival, which Paul Sturtz and David Wilson modestly debuted seven years ago, has become a premiere doc fest with an original, heartening vision. Instead of being swarmed by glad-handing industry types and eager filmmakers looking to score distribution, T/F presents itself as a respite from that bustle, a weekend-long social mixer for filmmakers and fans both avid and amateur. Included in all of these groups is the increasingly notorious “Maine contingent,” which grows annually.

This year, I accompanied a couple of Maine filmmakers (Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann, of Rockland’s Pull-Start Pictures), Nat May and Jon Courtney (the trip’s commander-in-chief) of SPACE Gallery, Camden International Film Festival director Ben Fowlie, local roots ragers the Toughcats (who played near-constant “busking” gigs before screenings all weekend), and others to Columbia, Missouri, for the long weekend. While some of us ventured to see as many films as logistically possible over three days, others, like Courtney and Fowlie, squeezed in some face time with directors in hopes of landing Maine screenings of their favorite films from the festival.

It’s an effort that pays dividends. Of last year’s slate, seven films (including two recent Oscar nominees) have or are about to have their Maine premieres through SPACE or CIFF (read more about the latest, October Country, below); both men made some solid headway this year, with Courtney reporting he’s looking at about a half-dozen films for future showings and Fowlie taking home a stack of screeners. One of the best T/F efforts this year, in fact, has already had a private screening at SPACE with the director’s permission. (The film, BBC journalist Adam Curtis’s It Felt Like a Kiss, will likely never screen in the US for copyright reasons; see the capsule review below.) Of the 13 works I saw in Columbia this year, these seven were the best. Look forward to seeing some at SPACE or elsewhere in the coming year.

AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, The Girlfriend Experience) takes his achronological editing shears to the performances and television interviews of author-actor Spalding Gray, providing both a study in non-fiction dramatic monologue and an unadorned look at the mind of a man who molded his life experience into performance art.

IT FELT LIKE A KISS Conceived as the culmination of an audacious art installation in England, Adam Curtis’s latest film is a forward-thinking audio-visual mashup that attempts to expose a fundamental lie behind the American perspective of the world in the years leading up to Vietnam, which was promoted through cultural osmosis and the misguided use of power. (A 53-minute version of this film can be found on the Internet with a modicum of effort.)

KATI WITH AN I Taking place in the three days leading up to an Alabama teenager’s high school graduation, Robert Greene’s lingering, lyrical film is an indelibly pure portrayal of contemporary young love that could have been made by Gus Van Sant (Milk, Paranoid Park).

THE OATH True Vision Award winner Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) continues her scrutiny of the War on Terror with this almost overwhelmingly dense film about Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard. As Jandal unravels his thoughts on Al Qaeda, Islam, and American foreign policy, we also learn about his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who remained imprisoned at Guantanamo long after a favorable decision in the landmark Hamdan v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court case. Poitras’s intellectually ambitious study rolls out like a meaty psychological thriller.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE Two teenagers in a Cape Town shantytown teeming with shacks, vibrancy, and crime stand accused of murder. Stefanie Brockhaus and Andy Wolf follow the boys from prison to an ancient rite of passage into manhood as they try to determine how to remain both proud and secure on unpredictable, dangerous terrain. The protagonists, sympathetic yet street smart, are unforgettable.

THE RED CHAPEL Danish journalist, filmmaker, and prankster Mads Brugger earns a cultural exchange grant to North Korea, where he brings two young Danish-Korean “comedians” (one a irreverently called a “spastic”) to Pyongyang to perform their act in front of a room of schoolchildren. In the meantime, Brugger both succeeds and fails in the true intent of his trip: exposing the cruelty and misdeeds of the evil empire. The tactics he uses and the roadblocks that present themselves (including a Ministry of Culture liaison who takes too kindly to one of the comics) are both telling and irreverent, and mostly hilarious.

RESTREPO One film you’ll surely be hearing more of is this harrowing and immersive doc by Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington, the result of their being embedded for 10 months with a company of soldiers in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, It’s an unblinking glimpse at an anarchic war zone and the soldiers trying to make order of it.

Christopher Gray can be reached at cgray@phx.com.

  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Entertainment, True/False Film Festival,  More more >
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