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Dispatches from True/False 2020 (Part 2)

It was around this point—after watching Collective, but before going to bed—that I heard South by Southwest had been canceled as a result of the pandemic. I went to bed, suspecting I was at one of the last mass public gatherings to be held in the United States for some time…

City So Real - Steve James

To use a distinction brought up by Bijou Finance Director Grant Cooper in the Q&A following the film, City So Real is a documentary about politics rather than a political documentary. Split into four parts of an hour each, the film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James is a portrait of Chicago over the nine months leading up to the February 2019 mayoral primary. James uses the length of the film to drift across seemingly every neighborhood in the city to capture life in a city at a crossroads. As a result, it addresses not only the election, but the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald, and the debate over the five billion dollar Lincoln Yards development and what it would mean for the future of the city. Similarly, the film follows an equally wide array of candidates across multiple offices over the election: teacher Neal Sales-Griffin as he makes a longshot run for mayor; Edward Burke, the extraordinarily corrupt Alderman of fifty years, seeking reelection to a fourteenth term while facing a federal indictment for extortion; wealthy eccentric and de facto Republican candidate Willie Wilson; outsider and eventual winner Lori Lightfoot.

What I appreciate most about City So Real is its emphasis on politics, not at some sort of clash of personalities or an abstract set of processes, but instead as something that shapes people's lives. The film opens with an account of owners of a performing space who are concerned about what Lincoln Yards means for their livelihood. The contrast between civil rights activists working for reform in Chicago and the racist comments made by supporters of the fired police superintendent and mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy shows the important, though vastly different role the Chicago Police department plays in such lives. A sequence that particularly sticks out to me is of a dog walker who comes to work in a wealthy neighborhood. The residents of the neighborhood are never home, leaving him to walk and take care of the dogs. While the dog's official owners treat them more as accessories than pets, he’s the one who cares for the dogs during the day. The entire sequence is a striking demonstration of the disconnect between powerholders, who are seemingly absent from lived experience in Chicago, and those without power, who seem to know the city much better.

I also appreciate how the film makes explicit the role of random chance in politics. One candidate for mayor, Amara Enyia, has a promising run right up until a campaign event with Kanye West where West praises Donald Trump. Lori Lightfoot's eventual win comes off as a matter of last moment favorable news coverage pushing her into a narrow first place at the exact right moment. For all the discussion endemic in coverage of political campaigns of what candidates must and must not do if they want to win, City So Real does a good job making clear the importance of dumb luck in this process which, like it or not, shapes our lives.

Dick Johnson is Dead - Kirsten Johnson

For the second time at True/False, I was sitting with the rest of the Bijou Film Board, awaiting a recommended film with no idea what to expect. The description of Dick Johnson is Dead on the True/False website made me expect something like a cross between Jackass and Final Destination. We ended up in the balcony with over six hundred others as the auditorium filled to the brim, and the True/False speaker came on stage to introduce the film. “I'm glad you've all come here to watch a movie about death and dying.” While that statement is true, it is also true Dick Johnson is Dead was among the funniest and most thoughtful films I saw.

Dick Johnson is Dead begins with director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, considering her fears about the death of her father, Dick Johnson, and asking him if he, a psychologist, would be willing to help make a film about his own death. The film then follows the pair as they celebrate his life, stage scenes of his own death, visit heaven, and document his struggle with dementia. The film concludes with a death far more real than the comic scenes earlier on, Johnson's funeral, and finally the revelation that Dick Johnson is alive. The film is an all too relatable exercise in control over something that can't be controlled. It's striking how the participants in the film react to the scenarios, even knowing they’re fake. During the mock funeral, one of Johnson's friends is overcome at the thought of losing him while delivering the eulogy. 

I was struck by the intensity of my own reaction to the film. Last year an elderly family member went through a health crisis that saw them spend several days in the hospital. Fortunately, they recovered and are back home doing well, but I continue to worry about them. Now, like several billion other people, I'm worried about them and so many others being exposed to COVID-19. When I returned home after the closure of the University, I spent two weeks quarantined in the attic at my family's home, not only to keep my elderly relative safe but also to ensure the safety of a younger family member with asthma. All around the world, people are developing elaborate measures to ensure the safety of themselves and their loved ones. It's all an effort to control our lives and, by extension, our deaths on an unprecedented scale. And sometime soon, into the middle of all this, Dick Johnson is Dead will be released on Netflix. I hope this will be an opportunity to discuss these issues, both in the context of the pandemic and also as we think about what sort of world we want when life eventually returns to normal. Everyone dies, but rather than this fact being used to justify reopening the economy in the face of deadly disease, I hope Dick Johnson is Dead lets us think about what sort of world we want to live in. 

Crazy World - Nabwana I.G.G.

Appropriately enough, the last film I saw at True/False was Nabwana I.G.G.'s latest masterpiece Crazy World. Crazy World was a screening quite unlike any other at True/False. Opening with a special message from the Ugandan anti-piracy patrol, filled with an audience of Nabwana and VJ Emmie fans, including special jokes for the True/False audience, interrupted by the Ugandan anti-piracy patrol, and concluding with a live video interview with Nabwana in Uganda. Crazy World is not a film that would benefit from me describing it in any detail. Like Nabwana's other films Who Killed Captain Alex and Bad Black, it is an ultra-low budget action comedy featuring VJ Emmie's fantastic, fourth-wall bending narration.

Nabwana is a genuinely great director who manages to consistently make extraordinarily entertaining films on a budget of less than two hundred dollars per film and I would love to see what he could do with greater resources. What's more, despite the subject matter, his movies have a greater realism than many comparable films from the United States. Part of this is setting. Rather than a studio, Nabwana films in the streets of Kampala. But even beyond this, his films contain a striking level of emotional realism. In the real world, you do not find clean divisions between humor, fear, celebration, stress, sanity, or insanity, and the same is true of Nabwana's films. Looking back from this crazy world, I'm glad that Crazy World was the last film I saw, not only at True/False but in any theater before the great shutdown.

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On Sunday, March 6th, we left Columbia, Missouri, and returned to Iowa City. On the drive back, the first reported cases of COVID-19 were reported in Iowa. Over the weekend, posters had been put up all over the University. Within days the University shutdown was announced. Looking back from just a few weeks later, True/False 2020 now sits in my mind as the last celebration before the end of the world. 

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