“WHERE IS YOUR COUNTRY GOING? It’s headed to an abyss, and it could bring the whole world with it,” Vytautas Landsbergis warned Soviet leadership in 1990, as it tried to strangle a newly independent Lithuania in the crib with bluster, blockades, and tanks. Watching this goateed music-professor-turned-leader steer the ship of state through the storm in Sergei Loznitsa’s Mr Landsbergis, it was impossible not to think of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even within the warmhearted Midwestern haven for documentary art that is the True/False Film Fest, where guests basked in the good vibes of being back after last year’s outdoors edition (remote for nonlocals). But the richly realized 246-minute epic of Mr Landsbergis made the festivities of a sunny Saturday afternoon seem a distant memory. Loznitsa orchestrates stunning archival footage (in color and black-and-white) to create you-are-there storytelling about the Lithuanians’ fight to free themselves from the USSR, and to body forth a sense of historical forces, all recalling Guzman’s The Battle of Chile and his own maiden. (One director in attendance compared the film to a mural.) Departing from his sometimes durational eye for space, Loznitsa punctuates tense dramas on the streets (vigils, protests, melees) and in government offices with an analytical sit-down interview with Landsbergis. The ninetysomething precisely recounts behind-the-scenes negotiations, the political calculus, and the fervent national mood with the same patient fortitude that stymied his opponents. Being a hero without playing the hero, Landsbergis clearly inspires the Ukrainian Loznitsa, who presses for confirmation that a glad-handing Gorbachev ordered the military clampdown after the pressure valve of perestroika failed. “Welcome to the leader of the friendly neighboring state,” he reads one cheeky sign when the Soviet premier visits.
The scope of detail in Mr Landsbergis underlines the granular effort that democracy requires, even as Russia’s current war on Ukraine attempted to undo in two weeks the freedom of another former Soviet state. (Anticipating criticism, at least one Russian movie screened with an opening card listing Russian directors who oppose the invasion; meanwhile, online, citizen journalism out of Ukraine has yielded a flood of raw imagery to evaluate.) All alone, the selection of Mr Landsbergis showed that True/False, under new management in its nineteenth edition and still a darling of critics and filmmakers, is holding the line on prizing the craft of nonfiction moviemaking in its many forms. This four-day community-beloved event at Columbia, Missouri, has gone from being dubbed “a small but significant corrective step” to the doc exhibition landscape in these pages eleven years ago to “the preeminent nonfiction festival” today, per Variety.
This year’s edition found several directors excavating and grappling with the experiences of family members, sometimes drawing inspiration from identifying with them, other times seeking out new designs for living. In After Sherman—polyphonic in its use of archival headlines, old-school video superimposition, stop-motion collage, and more—Jon-Sesrie Goff infuses a tribute to Gullah culture with ruminations on how his approach to race and the world diverges from that of his father , a North Carolina minister whose church suffered a mass shooting but who embraces forgiveness. Victoria Linares Villegas’s similarly restless It Runs in the Family unravels the public and private lives of her queer Dominican cousin, Oscar Torres, a filmmaker (and critic), piecing out his persecuted path and trying on his words by staging his screenplays. Aliona van der Horst’s Turn Your Body to the Sun also channels the ghost of a thwarted artistic spirit (in this case related not to the director but to a woman whose father was imprisoned in a gulag) with the help of colorized footage. These works felt like explorations not just of the subjects, but of how their experiences could or could not be shaped and conjured into a film.
That said, the episodic pageant of The Balcony Movie felt like a more immediately successful experiment, as Poland’s Pawel Lozinski turns his camera on the pavement below the window of his second-floor apartment. Essentially asking people “What’s your story,” Lozinski tweaks the age-old vox-pop formula: He speaks from his home, fostering a neighborly intimacy with strangers and an appealing absurdity, while the downward angle creates a contemplative spotlight as passersby cock their heads to answer his unexpected questioning. Some reflect, others turn the tables and dissect his motives from him. There’s a feminist undertow to these interactions, which keep returning to women’s stories of newfound independence or of being held back by the men in their lives; that strand, and crude homophobic nationalism, remind us that some legacies die hard. Stories emerge, evolve, or don’t: An elderly woman says, improbably, that she has nothing to share; a self-proclaimed young fashionista boasts of endless social media plans; a panhandling ex-con, one of Lozinski’s repeat visitors, finds a tiling job but can’t shake a malaise.
Where Are We Headed presented an equally fine pageant (featuring Russian Victory Day celebrations) in its gorgeously photographed tour of Moscow subwaygoers (one of a number of titles plucked from last year’s strong IDFA line-up, including Mr Landsbergis and a heart-stopping Vietnamese debut feature about wife-kidnapping, Children of the Mist). Another highlight of True/False’s curation is its shorts programs, where I saw a haunting series of audio-driven recollections of the Yugoslav Tribunal by traumatized interpreters (Eliane Esther Bots’s In Flow of Words), an apocalyptic dispatch on the simulacrum that gives “digital first” an ominous new ring (Deniz Tortum and Kathryn Hamilton’s Our Ark), and the woebegone, semi-slo-mo ballad of a Manitoba beast and the trash dump that won’t love him back (Nuisance Bear, from Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden). There was also the requisite problematic film, Helmut Dosantos’s Gods of Mexico, whose spectacular tableaux of Indigenous people feel inextricable from century-old traditions of ethnographic gazes. Finally, Srđan Kovacević’s Factory to the Workers presented a perfect slice of anguished verité as a collective-run machine tool plant struggles to escape the twin death spirals of a mismanaging executive clinging to power and moribund cash flow. Next to that fading dream of communal endeavor, the pleasures of gathering at True/False felt that much more sweet and vital.
The nineteenth True/False Film Fest ran from March 3 to March 6.