Contractions / Brooklyn Rail / Dispatches from True/False

Celebrating international nonfiction in Columbia, Missouri.

By Edward Frumkin

“What is the responsibility for a film festival during the oppression of Palestinians in Israeli-controlled Gaza and the efforts of various liberation movements in countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Senegal? Should film festivals even occur? There are ever-evolving questions that cause me to be skeptical about the politics and rationale to cover influential fests like IDFA, Sundance, and Berlinale when they play both sides in their statements: remaining damn near silent or criminalizing artists stating their solidarity with Palestine and not abiding by the inimical IHRA definition of anti-semitism (meaning any critiques of Zionism) respectfully. On February 23, the True/False Film Festival in liberal Columbia, Missouri, demanded an immediate ceasefire with a pro-Palestinian stance and recognized Palestinians’s multi-generational fight for their emancipation. The demand offered many first time and veteran attendees a haven to form a political alliance with the fest’s ideology and use their playfulness in creative nonfiction as social activism, as the six-thousand-plus signatory coalition—Film Workers for Palestine—held the banner “Ceasefire Now” at the fest’s annual March March.

True/False puts their money in their mouth with their words as they amplified Yousef Srouji’s Three Promises (2023) as the True/Life Fund recipient. His hour-long documentary is an extension of his eponymous 2022 short. The director’s mother, Suha, captures home videos of her family life, her spouse Ramzi, Yousef, and his sibling Dima in Palestine during the early 2000s. The Second Intifada emerges at this time to combat the Nakba dispossession of Palestinians, and Suha’s intimate cinematography grounds us with the family at their several homes as we hear bombs and gunshots miles away. Yousef spreads his family’s archival catalog in non-chronological order, as the trauma caused by the violence prevents him from thinking linearly. Yet, the narrative choice evokes the ever-lasting feeling of belonging among his Christian family as they celebrate Christmas and he lives out his childhood. Three Promises is a cathartic, healful endurance against the ongoing genocide in Palestine. With True/Life’s attentive lens in recognizing the vividness of Suha’s DV footage, they will send the proceeds to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund and towards Yousef’s efforts in manufacturing a sustainable digital archive for home videos made in Palestine, thus preserving the country’s history, as the Israeli military has already destroyed many of Al Jazeera’s archives to date.

Deracination is a common theme that permeates this year’s six world premiere features (nearly all directorial debuts) at True/False, such as what it means to be an artist in gentrified NYC in Elizabeth Nichols’s lyrically punk Flying Lessons (2024), as well as filmmaker Rachel Elizabeth Seed finding her matriarchal lineage through her mothers’ images in her riveting A Photographic Memory (2024). The one that holds me dearly is Emily Mkrtichian’s There Was, There Was Not (2024). Named after an Armenian aphorism, it analyzes the makeup of the Republic of Artsakh through Judo champion Sose, minesweeper Sveta, politician Siranush, and women’s center owner Gayane. In 2018, the territory celebrated thirty years of peace following a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the homelands were demolished in 2023. To honor the characters’ joy and resistance, Mkrtichian negotiates how much outsiders should know about violence in the little-known Artsakh through text. However, the context felt out of place as most of the text happens in the second half with little room for character growth. Though she could have condensed some of the history, Mkritichian’s intimate compositions on holding onto her protagonists during griefful moments redirect the structure of There Was, There Was Not. Therefore, the film is an observational heart pounder that explores the acts of preservation, mourning, and displacement.

Another True/False selection that mirrors its philosophy of finding new visual grammar with political sensibilities is João Pedro Bim’s Behind Closed Doors (2023). The all-archival doc follows a revelation of a 1968 previously-obscured audio recording of Brazil’s National Security Council enacting the Institutional Act. No. 5. The act suspended many civil rights, including habeas corpus, and was written after the 1964 Brazil coup d’état. His tethering of archival, nationalist images, and sounds (predominantly a record scratch) elicits outrage, revolt, and power to the people. His overlay of clips theorizes the normality of propaganda and shows how media mediates the spread of totalitarianism to the public. The strength of the people is what feared the council and unspooled regression to ensure hierarchical control in today’s Brazil. It is a Godardian essay on the banality of evil and a catastrophic shutdown of democracy. The film’s structure also speaks to the daring spirit of its next festival appearance in NYC’s First Look Film Festival (along with the aforementioned Flying Lessons) at the Museum of the Moving Image for conveying a contemporary message from past media sources.

Shorts at True/False are never to be underestimated for their ingenious experimentations. They are provocations instead of proof of concepts for potential feature-length adaptations. The Pope of Trash, John Waters, will likely perceive Evan Gareth Hoffman as a disciple of garbage cinema with his archival short Nortel (2024). Hoffman shared with the crowd that he agglomerates the “trashiest options” available (silly promotional materials, reality TV clips, “shoplifting TikToks,” skincare social media enthusiasts, reverb voiceover, etc.) to examine the eponymous corporation and its CEO Frank Dunn’s rise and decimation after they constructed literal flying cars in the 1960s. Hoffman undercuts them with a hilarious soundtrack (consisting of songs like Black Eyed Peas’s “I Gotta Feeling” and Taylor Swift’s “You’re On Your Own, Kid”) juxtaposing with Dunn’s doom. In what one might consider a narrative Rick and Morty “Interdimensional Cable” episode, Hoffman goes outside the box with the concept of sponsored content by finding the incongruity and the goad in publicity campaigns. Commercials aren’t just documents in Hoffman’s palms but also a radicalization and a search for truth in the digitalized age.

Filmic poet Lynne Sachs cranks in a new short with Contractions (2024), surprisingly her first work at the twenty-one-year-old fest after her heavy output of films like the poetic short Swerve (2022) and personal feature Film About a Father Who (2020). Shot on the first anniversary of the reversal of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2023, in Sachs’s hometown, Memphis, a driver named Jane and gynecologist Dr. Kimberly Looney narrate the intense experiences of getting people abortions in states with legal facilities (Illinois, for example). We see opaque pairs of pregnant people and their escorts (all actors) line up and slowly enter the building. The cast’s gestures enact trauma, nerves, and capriciousness in doing something once legally acceptable that is now the opposite. They carry a history where their reproduction rights are currently in paralysis.

Motifs of open and closed spaces once liberating for pregnant people are refined into barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their wishes. Due to the fact they made the film in Tennessee, a place where they could get arrested, Sachs and her producers, Emily Berisso and Laura Goodman, said in their Q&A that they enlisted security to protect them from prosecution, which elevates Sach’s heedful balance of spreading enough sobbing information and protecting her sources simultaneously. Unbeknownst to the rest of the team, Berisso assembled thirteen additional volunteer marshals and a medic in this labor of love. Recalling the ending of BlacKKKlansman (2018), snippets of the blue sky become black and white as we head into the upside down.”