Every film festival has its own niche, its special vibe, its thing. Toronto overwhelms you with volume, volume, volume. Sundance operates as a hype machine. Telluride prides itself on offering the North American premiere for most of its screenings, and the isolation means almost no media which means you can exist with celebrities with no hassles. Ken Burns had to wait for popcorn just like me, and I got a table for dinner before Greg Kinnear. Ty Burrell chatted everyone up after a screening like a pastor greeting his parishioners. My wife remains grateful, and I think she is prepared to leave me for Ty at a moment’s notice.
True/False in Columbia, Missouri has transformed itself into the best documentary film festival in the nation. We can argue about that, but when you watch any director step onto to the stage at the Missouri Theater, the enormous anchor venue for the festival, and feel the adulation of 1,200 fans, the debate is over. I have seen directors burst into tears. They marvel at the crowd and admit that at most festivals thirty is a good draw for a documentary.
True/False is a dozen years old and had the good fortune of catching the wave that propelled documentaries to a golden shore. The founders, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, also discovered a genre that allowed them to bring world-class films and talent to the Midwest; I have seen nearly every Oscar nominated documentary there over the last five years. The True/False approach also allows them to embrace the blurry line between fact and fiction: last year they welcomed Richard Linklater’s Boyhood before it had really appeared on anyone’s radar to celebrate’s Linklater’s real-time narrative approach to a fictional film.
I always arrive at a festival ready to judge the buzzy movies and to see what all the chatter is about. This year the two buzziest were Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s remarkable look at the Church of Scientology, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the family-sanctioned documentary about Nirvana’s tragic hero.
Working with the author Lawrence Wright, Gibney meticulously charts the rise of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology, and the terrifying system of control that keeps members in the church and Scientology enormously wealthy. Wright and Gibney have my respect for tackling an institution that is merciless in its efforts to protect its assets and hold on to their converts. Family members are isolated and cut off from anyone that questions the church, and using a doctrine known as “fair game,” Scientology stops at nothing to destroy critics, including employing phone taps, surveillance, and harassment. The church has spent a fortune on Google ads that appear when you search for the movie and then direct you to fraudulent sites that try to undermine Gibney and those appearing in the film. The entire organization projects the aura of a religion invented by Kafka with the Hollywood sheen of Tom Cruise. The creep factor of Cruise saluting the portrait of Hubbard that hangs at their gatherings is off the charts.
The human center of the film is Paul Haggis, best known for directing Crash and writing Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale (Google his name, and you get one of those insidious smear sites). Haggis spent over thirty years in the church, reaching the highest levels of Scientology enlightenment, an enlightenment he paid the church a fortune to receive. After hearing horror stories about those that had tried to leave Scientology, he realized the extent his life had been manipulated and left himself. In telling his story, Haggis does not come across as angry or vindictive, but rather embarrassed and humbled, wondering how he allowed himself to become so deluded. That’s the haunting question of the movie: how do we all delude ourselves in our search for meaning and give up our freedom for order and “salvation.” Scientology is like the Inquisitor’s Tale come to life, preying on people’s need for security and certainty and destroying all dissent.
Montage of Heck enjoyed the full support of both Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife, and Frances Bean, his daughter and a producer on the film. I will write about Love in another post, but this endorsement meant director Brett Morgen had unfettered access to Cobain’s staggering output of writing, drawings, sculpture, video, and other creations. Morgen uses animation to let Cobain’s words and pictures tell their own story, and I was constantly struck by how ambitious Cobain was and yet how utterly unprepared for that ambition to yield the enormous success that followed. Cobain keeps detailed accounts of expenses and gigs, draws the iconic cover of Nevermind in his notebook, scripts the video to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Simultaneously he laments the intrusions into his personal life and berates his addiction and pain.
Dave Grohl, drummer of Nirvana, leader of Foo Fighters, curator of analog sound, and all-around rock god, remains glaringly absent in Montage. Morgen told audiences at Sundance that he had interviewed Grohl but not had time to include him in the current cut. That was in January, and Grohl still remained missing in the version of the movie I saw in March. But that omission seems appropriate for a movie all about loneliness and isolation. No one in Montage has any real insight into Cobain except that he longed for something he never obtained. Everyone seems to have accepted the narrative that Cobain was brilliant but doomed, from his childhood to his untimely death at 27. A strange sense of resignation pervades Montage, and Cobain becomes the Romantic ideal of the tortured genius martyred by a culture that wants not only his talent but his soul.
The music transcends all the gloom, however. Home movies of early Nirvana are stunning; the band sounds polished and ready to conquer the world even in the basement. Nirvana literally came out of nowhere, no creation myth required. Morgen lets Cobain’s words and images sprawl across the screen while the music reminds you how startlingly raw and powerful Nirvana remains. There’s simply no band currently in existence that can match Nirvana’s energy and importance, and I say that as someone that didn’t think that before seeing Montage. That revelation is the movie’s greatest achievement.
After the obvious choices, you begin searching for the Hidden Gem of every festival. This year that film was Finders Keepers, a Southern morality tale that went from farce to absurdist theater, to tragedy, to redemption story. The simple facts are these: Shannon Whisnant, good-natured hustler buys a smoker at a storage facility auction; he opens the smoker to discover a human leg inside; the owner of the leg, John Wood, wants it back. Whisnant sees an opportunity for stardom and riches and mayhem ensues. The film does a marvelous job of never allowing the subjects to become caricatures, digs deep for both the personal and cultural meaning of all that happens, and slyly confronts our narcissistic culture and insatiable need for our lives to be validated by a camera.
Cobain is not the only musician featured in a documentary. Liz Garbus traces the life of Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? I have always admired Simone’s singing, but I had no idea she had been trained to become a concert pianist and wrote searing political songs, including the remarkable “Mississippi Goddam.” Simone risked her career to support the more militant wing of the Civil Rights Movement, survived an abusive marriage, and finally received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder that helped her achieve some peace at the end of her life. The movie could use some tighter editing, some of Simone’s performance footage drags on too long, but Garbus honors a figure more people, especially Americans, should know about.
The international documentaries at True/False shed light on people surviving in ways we cannot even fathom. Hana Polak follows a Russian girl named Yula for an astounding fourteen years as she lives in a Moscow landfill in Something Better to Come. You read that correctly. An entire subculture of people in Russia struggle to exist in landfills because of the difficulty of finding housing and no social safety net. I kept hoping the title of the movie would deliver, and thankfully it did. Yula at last finds a way out to a new world of opportunity.
Spartacus & Cassandra, directed by Ioanis Nuguet, follows the lives of two Roma children in France looking for stability in a world that simply wants to shuttle them to the next destination. Deftly showing the maze Roma have to navigate in their search for a place to call home, the brother and sister find that home in an unlikely place: a French circus performer named Camille. Both children are talented, but Spartacus displays an amazing ability to narrate the rootlessness of being Roma in poetry and rap. The screening just got better when Camille stepped on stage, having flown from France to attend the festival. Tears were shed; we won’t divulge who did the crying.
Other highlights included Best of Enemies, an account of the William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debates at the 1968 political conventions, a precursor of today’s endless talking heads. A secret screening (the titles hadn’t even been inserted yet) provided a window into the work and lives of New Yorker cartoonists that is going to garner a truckload of awards. Abner Benaim revisits the Invasion of Panama by U.S. troops and a deplorable chain of events I had no idea ever occurred. Rules of the Game demonstrates that Millennials are the same everywhere, following a group of French youth looking for employment with an amusing “whatever” attitude. Unless they’re your French youth.
Nick Broomfield’s brilliant Tales of the Grim Sleeper explores how accused serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr. managed to evade arrest for years in L.a. as he allegedly murdered dozens of women. Broomfield exposes a culture that devalued the lives of the slain women because they were drug addicts and sex workers. Questions of race permeate the film (both Franklin and his alleged victims are black) and in the most chilling moment of the festival, we learn the missing and murdered women’s cases were deemed NHI–No Human Involved–by the L.A. Police Department.
“No one cares about a missing black woman,” muses Pam Brooks, a local that helps Broomfield navigate the neighborhood and discover both witnesses and victims. Documentaries make you care about people you never knew existed before filmmakers insist you acknowledge their stories. True/False never fails to present the most compelling of those stories each year.