Reports from True/False 2018 (Part 1)
by Molly Bagnall
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (directed by Stephen Loveridge)
A much-anticipated film of the festival, this was the first movie I reserved my tickets for weeks in advance, it was the only movie that most of the Bijou Film Board went to, and the large auditorium where it was played was almost completely full. The film tells the story, from childhood to present day, of the popular hip-hop artist M.I.A. It starts with her family’s hurried escape from Sri Lanka, continues with her coming of age as an immigrant in the United Kingdom, and follows her rise to critical acclaim and superstardom. The story the film tells is simultaneously maddening and empowering. M.I.A. grew up in the midst of a bitter civil war in Sri Lanka, one that persecuted the Tamil people (M.I.A. herself being Tamil), and led to her family’s escape, taking a mental and emotional toll. From the very beginning of this struggle to the end, she never backs down. She uses her celebrity to try and tell the Western public of what is happening in Sri Lanka to her people, cries which only meet deaf ears and are responded to with jeers and snide comments about her British accent (Bill Maher should not have his own TV show). As a story, the film depicts the life of a fearless and amazing woman. One who performed at the Grammys 9 months pregnant, one who flipped her middle finger to the entire American public at the Super Bowl, and one who was never afraid to be political.
The film itself, however, lacks the same spunk and fearlessness that makes M.I.A. so unforgettable. It follows a conventional documentary style and partial directing credit should be given to M.I.A. since much of the material was shot by the artist herself. The early archival footage taken in Sri Lanka is clearly the work of an amateur filmmaker, which she was at the time, but these sections are revealing and make the film that much more personal. Fans of M.I.A.’s music, who are expecting to be immersed in that world, will be sorely disappointed by this film, which plays only the hooks of her most recognizable songs. It's a strategy that seems counterintuitive for an artist that seems to express so much of herself and her message through her songs, cutting out the most important part of her work and life. The audience, therefore, must take the film’s word that M.I.A. makes political songs because we never hear a single song in its entirety. It's enticing to imagine a more playful approach, marrying her story to her songs, diverging from a conventional structure and expressing the fun, fearless personality of the M.I.A. herself. The film is undoubtedly interesting and fun to watch, but it's more of a tribute to the artist in front of the camera than an interesting work of cinema in and of itself, an entertaining footnote to her legacy.
Primas (directed by Laura Bari)
prima (Spanish): a child of an aunt or uncle...a cousin
At the end of this screening, Laura Bari asked an audience of 150+ people in Columbia, MO to make a heart shape with their hands so she could take a picture of it. This is a perfect representation of the enormous amount of love that is captured in this film, in a devastating story of recovery after extreme sexual violence, a portrait that revolves around personal bonds and finding strength in one another. Her film artfully depicts the bond between cousins, victims of a shared experience, bonds between friends, bonds between lovers, and the bond one has to their self.
The documentary revolves around cousins Rocio and Aldana who live towns apart from each other in Argentina. But despite their distance, they are united by a close friendship and trauma. In a heartbreaking scene that had most of the audience (including myself in the front row) in tears, they each describe their experience with sexual violence. Aldana having been sexually abused by her father as a young girl, and Rocio, the victim of a horrific rape and attempted murder which left her nearly dead with second and third-degree burns covering 60% of her body. They are united by this shared experience, but importantly, it is not the primary means of their relationship. They each have so much more to offer to this film, to the world, and to each other than the awful events of the past.
An antidote to the typical narrative on stories of sexual violence which often characterize the survivors solely by their victimhood and moments of near death (MFA by Natalie Leite being a particularly egregious recent example), Primas focuses instead on the lives of its subjects, showing them dancing and laughing and eating and swimming and living life to the fullest. They are alive and, as this film points out, not everything involved with living is defined by your worst experience. Rocio has a fiancé, Aldana and her boyfriend travel across the country and go to concerts together. Rocio and Aldana are not victims, as Laura Bari pointed out before the film, they are strong women whose stories are still being written. This was made even more apparent when, during the Q+A after the film, not only did Laura Bari come out for the panel, but Rocio and Aldana did as well. Met with a standing ovation and tears from the audience, both women shined onstage, clearly proud of their aunt and her work. Bari embraced both women and said that, even though there was so much hate, ugliness, and sadness in Primas, the film she made is about love above all.
This film is what you might call creative non-fiction. It's a documentary that tells the true story of two real women, but is continually intercut with more experimental images of Rocio crawling through sand and covered in driftwood, in sequences that evoke Maya Deren’s At Land in their parallel framings of a crawling woman. These scenes are narrated by Rocio whispering to her diary about a dream she had of a crocodile girl going to Paris. It's unclear whether this dream was real, or if it was manufactured for the sake of the film to push it creatively. The film has an unusual structure and pacing as well, the audience not always privy to information in the way one would expect from a film like this. We do not meet Aldana, the second main character until almost halfway through the film, and we see Rocio’s burns and hear about her hospital stay before we know what happened to her. In this fashion, Bari has created a film that truly feels as though it's for the survivors it depicts rather than the audience watching it. Bari is interested telling her nieces' story as a testament to their recovery for their own sake, not for ours. Bari does not exploit their trauma to make an 'inspiring' film, but rather lets Rocio and Aldana shape the film itself, progressing only as they let it progress, healing as they heal—taking us on the journey of life after sexual trauma, respectfully, in all its pain, complexity, and humanity.
Twilight City (directed by Reece Auguiste) [The Black Audio Film Collective]
True/False usually showcases new works just starting the festival circuit, but Twilight City from 1989 was included as a part of the festival's "Neither/Nor" series. This year, the series featured repertory screenings of work by the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of seven black artists working in England that made films and other works focusing on the identities of creative black people. The director of this film, Reece Auguiste, was one of the seven original members of the Black Audio Film Collective and attended the screening in person as well as a Q+A led by esteemed film critic Ashley Clark afterward.
Twilight City is mostly an essay film. The majority of the film consists of 16mm footage being from a car’s dashboard accompanied by a voiceover narration reading a daughter’s letter to her mother. The letter being read is in response to the mother’s desire to move back to London after spending 10 years in the Dominican Republic. These scenes provide a heartfelt and meditative tone that asks the audience to reckon with forces of racism and homophobia that so thoroughly affect the daughter. The daughter warns her mother that the London she left 10 years ago is gone, and has been quite replaced with a different one in her absence.
Intercut with these essayistic and meditative night driving scenes, are interviews with activists who provide something of the exposition for the film. Issues that are only implied or hinted at in the letter-reading are explained in exhaustive detail, making clear the filmmakers' message and intent. While these explanatory interjections enhanced my understanding of the deeper ideas on the political climate of London in the 1980’s, I'm skeptical of their relevance to the film overall. My knowledge of the racially-motivated gentrification of London neighborhoods under Thatcher is lacking, but these sections are at odds with the emotional power of the letter-reading scenes, which communicate the characters' pain in a way that's more powerful and instantly recognizable.
Racial gentrification is not an issue unique to 1980’s London, so at some point, the filmmaker could assume some understanding on the part of the audience and allow the text speak for itself. Auguiste, rather, overexplains the points of the film by drawing attention away from what I saw as its main purpose, by adding this investigative journalist approach. Rather than a film that combines essay filmmaking and journalistic exposition, it would be better to produce one essay film that focuses mainly on the emotions of characters caught in the throughs of the moment, and another that exposes the racist ulterior motives of the government.
Despite the jarring marriage of these two modes of filmmaking, Twilight City effectively uncovers the hurt and oppression of black British citizens under Thatcherism and the further suffering that queer people of color endured in this situation. The film focuses not just on the oppressive political regime, but also highlights issues of family, religion, and inherited stereotypes, showing the many ways that queer black people are kept under the thumb of the white hetero-patriarchy.