Last weekend Ming Donkey and I headed eight hours north, to Columbia, Missouri, for the best kept secret in filmlandia. I’ve worked with two film festivals and attended a dozen others (including Sundance and Slamdance, twice), and True/False may have topped them all.
Oh Love, let me count the reasons why:
1) True/False shows all the best docs from Sundance, with much less hassle. (Less competitive queues, much cheaper rent, no such nightmare as ticket lottery. Plus, $6 tickets for students.)
2) It TRULY debuts films that are programmed to “debut” at other big festivals, such as Toronto and Tribeca. These are called “secret showings,” so you go in blind, with no idea what movie is in store, even as the lights dim. These films are obviously barred from press coverage.
3) The music is amazing. And it’s just as much a part of things as the films. In the (at other festivals) interminal 20 minutes while everyone is filing in, and queues are being counted, and then more people come in, and then you’re all asked to move center and even more people come in, someone is up front playing — either a full band, a one-man band (Donk!!) or a girl and her harp. Plus, each night there’s at least one (usually two) venues with unbelievable line-ups. Highlights from this year included Dark Dark Dark (who first captured my fancy in 2009, backing Swoon’s theatrical masterpiece, Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea, at the LIC Deitch space — R.I.P.), Why are we building such a big ship (New Orleans gypsy pirate music), Le Trois Coups (a French musical-comedy troupe that a festival director snagged on a Parisian street corner — for real), Pearl and the Beard and a host of bands with Mississippi connections: Dubb Nubb, Ming Donkey’s One Man Band, Lizzie Wright Super Space Ship, Jerusalem and the Star Baskets and Bass Drum of Death (featured in this month’s Oxford American).
4) There was a robot parade, among other sundry, awesomeness.
5) Except for James Franco (who was spotted, I heard), there’s no Hollywood presence. No publicists. No V.I.P. parties. No V.I.P. seating. And yet, all the directors come, even the ones who just won awards at Sundance, and they all do the Q&A, and they don’t seem to mind that they won’t be pictured in Vanity Fair.
6) Columbia is perfect for a film festival. It’s a progressive, adorable, walkable town, with plenty of vintage, coffee and books shops in which to linger ‘tween films. And everyone is super-enthused and supportive and accommodating to the flood of outsiders. Bonus points for the amazing veggie food everywhere. (Even the sports bar serves a delish handmade black bean burger.)
7) The festival organizers and volunteers are all-around great. They’re great to the musicians (I know — hotels for five days and gift baskets with enough coupons to eat free local fare all weekend) and to the filmmakers (I assume), and everything seemed smooth and on schedule.
8) Best films I saw (that weren’t secret showings): Detropia, Queen of Versailles, The Argentinian Lesson.
Detropia (which won an editing award at Sundance) is a gorgeous expanse of white and ruin that explores the surreality of Detroit’s post-industrial hopelessness — things like, the mayor’s only solution, since the city is nearing bankruptcy and can’t afford public services for its geographic spread, is to force people to move out of blighted neighborhoods and into cushier areas, without offering any financial incentive; that, in the past fifty years, Detroit has lost half it’s population — at this rate, it could be the first major American city to become a ghostown; and the scariest part, that Detriot is merely a concentrated microcosm of America as a whole — it’s the American dream turned nightmare, it’s escapism and motown, decadence and rotted luxury. This movie is like a poetic funeral for America’s middle class.
Queen of Versailles, another Sundance award-winner, is equally surreal and eery. Lauren Greenfield (best known for photographing pop-culture for the past decade) set out to make a movie about a family building the biggest house in America. But halfway through, the housing bubble bursts, and the family’s time share company collapses. These people were billionaires, but like many middle class Americans, they found themselves ladened with mortgages they couldn’t pay. They couldn’t afford to finish their new house (now on the Orlando real estate market, unfinished, at $75 million), nor could they pay the mortgages on some of the time shares they owned. So Greenfield ended up with a riches-to-rags story, chronicling the family’s change fortunes as they laid off 6,000 employees, put all their valuables on auction, sold the limos and transferred their eight kids into public schools. Geenfield does an excellent job of letting the story unfold on it’s own. She respects her characters and doesn’t judge their excesses or their failings. As with Detropia, I found myself relating to something that at first didn’t seem to have anything to do with me — and I found myself relating to it as an American, as part of a larger narrative, bigger than a city or a family — my own or any other.
The Argentinian Lesson was an entirely different and exquisite kind of thing, unlike any film I’ve ever seen before. It’s a cross between Terrence Malik and mumblecore (seems scripted, but it’s not), only the mumbling is visual. It’s whispered intimacies — beautiful, airy, tickly. It’s too perfect and dreamy to be real. Except that the behaviors and reactions are too genuine to be acted, and that’s because they’re not. The main characters are kids, an 8 and and an 11 year-old — and they’re not privileged techie kids, so they’re missing even the performative element that savvy documentary characters often have. This is a film about innocence, courage, camaraderie, love, determination and watery daydreams. If I were writing a tagline, it go something like: a young Polish boy and his family moves to a small village in Argentina for two years, and he makes friends with an village girl. (And his father captures it all on camera.)
But it’s absolutely unfair to reduce it to that. Maybe it’s better to say that he falls in love with a village girl. Or that she falls in love with his family, or that they both fall in love with how each shows the other his or her self.
Everything is pretty and fleeting, but moments are lingering here. Argentina is pretty, the rain is pretty, these children are pretty, even poverty is pretty — but nothing is glorified or moralized. I loved, loved, loved this film.