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Dispatches from True/False 2020 (Part 1)

Three days before leaving for True/False, I sent a dumb joke to the Bijou group chat. “A reminder that with coronavirus spreading everyone at True/False should take sensible precautions such as not licking strangers unless you are pretty sure they've washed their hands first.” Less than a month later, and it feels as if it might as well be a decade instead. In my mind, my time at True/False sits like a final celebration before the apocalypse. This odd perspective is reflected, looking back, in some films more obviously than others…

still/here - Christopher Harris

I think I may be the only member of Bijou who is not majoring in film or the arts. As a result, when I attended the screening of still/here with the rest of the board, I had no idea what to expect from the film and only the foggiest notion who Christopher Harris—the head of the film and video production at the University—even was. 

Harris’ film is made up of scenes from abandoned areas in North St Louis. A decrepit movie theater. Empty lots. Old housing, soon to be destroyed. Accompanying many of these scenes are the sounds of airplanes flying in the distance, water dripping, and footsteps. In the post-screening discussion Harris described the film as being about the African American relationship with time and place. However, while I watched and in looking back, I feel still/here is as much about choices. Watching the abandoned theater, the homes, ancient billboards over empty lots, one gets a sense of the life that once pervaded these areas. In watching these places and thinking about the life that once filled these neighborhoods, it’s impossible not to think of the choices parts of society have made to literally drive the life out of these predominantly black neighborhoods in North St Louis. Harris also mentioned that he had not returned to any of the places portrayed since filming still/here twenty years ago. He said that it is his understanding that almost everywhere he filmed has been torn down in the intervening years. 

Talking About Trees - Souhaib Gasmelbari

  A group of elderly filmmakers living under a despotic state attempt to reopen a movie theater decades after it had been shut down by the ruling dictator. After months of effort and on the cusp of success, they discover they will not be allowed to open the theater. To read this description you would think Talking About Trees is a sad film, and it is, but you would have no idea how lively and pleasant a film it is. 

The film follows the Sudanese Film Group, four elderly filmmakers whose work had been banned by the ruling dictatorship, as the quartet faces the difficulties of reopening the theater with a surprising amount of good nature. The tone of the film is set early on in a sequence in which one member of the group is shown clearly having the time of his life imitating the “Ready for my closeup” moment from Sunset Boulevard while in the middle of a power outage. Later on, when the group is considering how to schedule films, one jokes about the risk of a love scene being interrupted by calls of ‘God is great’ if the film runs at the same time as the call to prayer. Even in the end, after they are denied permission to reopen the theater, the film ends with three members of the group surprising the fourth for their birthday, all appreciating one another’s company.  

My only real complaint with Talking About Trees is the sense that the ending of the story has been left out. The very fact that this documentary exists with all of its criticism of the dictatorship makes it clear that something outside of film had changed. The film itself hints at these changes. Early on, one of the filmmakers expresses his desire to recover his first film, which he fears has been lost forever. Towards the end of the film he is shown sleeping, the film promptly cuts to portray his dreams, shows us a clip of his first film, clearly recovered at some point. As it turned out last year, the dictatorship in Sudan was overthrown in a coup with a transitional government put in place. It seems likely these changes were what allowed the film to be made in the first place. I can understand why this development was not included. The film is not about the political situation in Sudan, it is about the Sudanese Film Group and the bond they formed that helped them persist amid a dictatorship that banned movie theaters. At the same time, I do wish we had gotten a chance to see the happy ending for the group implied by the existence of the film.

Collective - Alexander Nanau

In the future, when COVID-19 and its aftermath are just an unhappy memory for Hollywood to mine for Oscarbait, I hope Collective is remembered as the first great film to come out of the outbreak. The documentary, about the aftermath of the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, predates the outbreak. However, while I watched, I had the most unnerving feeling that I might as well have been watching a real-time documentary about COVID-19 in the United States. 

Much of the first half of the film plays out like a journalistic thriller following the Gazeta Sporturilor, as the paper investigates why so many people survived the fire only to die in the hospital in the following months. They quickly discover that the victims were dying of in-hospital infections. The source of the infections is traced to a scheme run by both the primary manufacturer of medical supplies in Romania and the hospitals themselves. Together they had been watering down disinfectants to the point of uselessness, concealing the embezzlement of medical funds. Subsequent investigations reveal the pervasive corruption at all levels of the Romanian public health system. The resulting outrage causes the downfall of the Social Democratic government with a caretaker cabinet taking office for a year leading up to the election. 

From here, the focus of the film shifts to patients’ rights activist turned newly appointed health minister Vlad Voiculescu and his efforts to reform Romania’s health system. His reforms are hampered by xenophobic attacks from the Social Democratic party about his time spent working outside of Romania. The film ends with the election, which sees the election of the Social Democratic party back to power, all of Voiculescu’s reforms reversed, and journalists from the Gazeta Sporturilor receiving threats from the Romanian intelligence service. 

Collective is a devastating film, but I feel that is what gives it its power. Unlike many political documentaries focused upon a losing side, there is no effort to suggest a moral victory or nobility in the loss. Instead, the final shot drives home what took place. Family members of one of the victims visiting a grave on the first anniversary of the fire. They do not get any sort of justice for what took place. Those trying to fix a corrupt system that has taken countless lives have failed. Those responsible for that very same system have returned to power with no punishment beyond a short exile from the government. The consequences of this failure continue to this very day, with Romania having the lowest test rate for COVID-19 of any European Union nation. 

In the discussion that followed the film, Alexander Nanau was asked if he saw any parallels between the events in Romania and the American response to COVID-19. Without hesitation, he answered yes, laying out how he felt what was taking place in the United States mirrored what happened in Romania: populist governments led by individuals more interested in self-enrichment than governing, public health leadership positions appointed out of loyalty rather than qualifications, with even the most qualified individuals having to tiptoe to avoid alienating a government they know doesn’t want them. An early sequence in the film featured a member of the Romanian government attacking the press for inciting panic about the situation in hospitals. At the time of True/False, the President was calling COVID-19 a hoax. The Social Democratic party first refused to send burn patients abroad for treatment, and then launched a campaign of xenophobic insinuations when the caretaker government did the same. Meanwhile, the United States government refused COVID-19 tests from abroad while at the same time attempting to give the virus xenophobic names that put Asian Americans under threat.

When the pandemic is over and life starts to return to normal, I hope Collective will be the first film many theaters choose to show. Collective is a film about the failures of a corrupt form of populism that can pervade many different ideologies, and which brings about disaster and threatens countless lives. I feel it is crucial for understanding the moment in history we are living through. 

Tagged: festival

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