The most important movie of the 2016 True/False Film Festival may turn out to be a 30-minute short produced by three students from the University of Missouri. "Concerned Student 1950," which was only completed on Wednesday, debuted at 11:30 on a Saturday night, but the audience of a thousand-plus viewers who filled the Missouri Theater in downtown Columbia was electric, cheering the heroes and booing the villains as the film chronicled the protests that erupted after Mizzou’s administration turned a blind eye t0 racist incidents on campus. (The "1950" in the film’s, and the group’s, name comes from the year the university’s first black student was admitted.) The movement, which successfully pressed for the removal of university president Tim Wolfe, made national news, and the screening of "Concerned Student," which was directed by Varun Bajaj and Adam Dietrich and produced by Kellan Marvin, did too, not least because Spike Lee, who’s working on a "30 for 30" about the Mizzou football team’s involvement in the protests, was spotted in the audience. (He also turned up at a student house party afterwards, and commenced conducting his own interviews on Monday.) But it also grew out of True/False’s profound connection to the local community, and its alliance with the university’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, which recently installed True/False veteran Robert Greene as its first filmmaker in residence.
An opening title informs us that "Concerned Student," which will be available on the Field of Vision website in a week or two — update: here it is — documents the protest movement from the inside, and the film has the strengths, and some of the weaknesses, of embedded reportage. It opens with the rehearsal for a protest in which black students detail their direct encounters with racism, and it’s at its best when showing us how these burgeoning activists coordinate their collective message with the precision of a guerrilla theater troupe. (One student paraphrases "Hamilton" when she declares "This is not a moment. This is a movement.") The moments that went viral — a student demanding Wolfe define "systematic oppression"; teacher Melissa Click, who was fired by Mizzou’s Board of Curators last week, calling for "muscle" to block journalists from shooting the victory celebration — appear here, but they’re placed in context rather than strewn across the net. The protestors’ antagonism towards national media makes a lot more sense when you see a Fox News journalist conclude an interview by sneering, "Go out there and start earning a living."
The issue of when and how to film was central to many of True/False’s movies, in which the negotiation between filmmaker and subject frequently took place on-camera. In "Sonita," an aspiring Afghan rapper asks director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami to shut off the camera so she can remove her headscarf and go to sleep, prefiguring the film’s central dilemma of whether and when a documentary filmmaker has the obligation to stop filming and start helping. In "Peter and the Farm," a Vermont organic farmer expresses regret over having told one of his apparently endless supply of stories in the wrong setting, simultaneously acting as subject and stage manager. And in "Weiner," the scandal-plagued New York congressman snaps at the filmmakers for asking him a question at a tense moment, asking what species of fly-on-the-wall it is that talks. (While we’re pulling back the veil: The festival paid for my travel and lodging, as they have for the last three years.)
No movie negotiated those exchanges better, or more thoughtfully, than Kirsten Johnson’s "Cameraperson." A veteran documentary D.P. whose credits include "Citizenfour" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," Johnson went back to the raw footage of the more than two dozen films she’s shot to look for "moments that marked me." From the opening sequence, in which we see Johnson’s hands reach into frame to pluck at a stray blade of grass encroaching on a low-angle shot, the movie reminds us that every image in a documentary is constructed, and that the decisions behind it have consequences. In a panel discussion with critic Eric Hynes, Johnson recalled balking at a director’s request to film a tracking shot of a group of Sudanese refugees, which she felt would have turned them from individuals into an undifferentiated mass. (As Jean-Luc Godard put it: "A tracking shot is a moral affair.") In "Cameraperson," she’s asked to place two women in the background, and she asks, "Why don’t we get them in the foreground?"
Johnson’s conscientiousness stuck with me through True/False, as did the questions "Cameraperson" poses. Brett Story’s "The Prison in Twelve Landscapes," the strongest of the festival’s three world premieres, assembles a composite portrait of a nation (ours) in which mass incarceration has infected every aspect of public life. In Appalachia, prisons fill the spaces left by vanished coal companies, one of few recession-proof industries whose jobs can’t be shipped overseas. In Queens, an ex-convict starts a business assembling care packages that meet the prisons’ strict and often arbitrary restrictions: CDs are contraband, but cassettes are allowed, although they have to held together with glue, not screws, and must come in clear plastic cases. (Kanye West may be forsaking physical media, but you can still get "Yeezus" on tape, as long as you’re locked up.) Outside traffic court in Missouri’s St. Louis county, Story films a long line of largely African-American citizens waiting to pay off fines, obliquely referencing the post-Ferguson revelation that the region’s police were overwhelmingly targeting people of color for minor offenses. (There’s your definition of "systematic oppression.") The way Story shoots them en masse immediately called Johnson’s hesitation to mind, but the film cannily selects moments where her fleeting subjects eye the camera with curiosity, and sometimes distrust. We’re forced to question why she’s filming, and why (and how) we’re watching.
David Farrier, the co-director and onscreen center of "Tickled," turned out to be the anti-Johnson; I had to watch "Cameraperson" again just to wash the taste of "Tickled" out of my mouth. We’re in trouble from the opening moments, which show Farrier, whom we’re helpfully informed is "New Zealand’s favorite pop-culture reporter," sitting thoughtfully at his computer in carefully lit shots that establish him as our unequivocal hero. Although the movie starts as a lighthearted investigation into the world of "competitive endurance tickling," in which buff, restrained young men are tickled to the point where laughter turns into pain, it turns prosecutorial when Farrier discovers a trail of payoffs and recrimination going back decades. (Spoilers follow.) The movie leads Farrier to a wealthy tickle fetishist with a long history of retaliating against anyone who’s dared to slip from his grasp, a serial abuser against whom any tactic would seem justified — or at least, that’s how "Tickled" presents him. But the way Farrier and Reeve, who are themselves not without significant resources, deploy the apparatus of documentary against their target reeks of self-righteous zeal: Farrier more than once explains he’s locked onto his subject because he hates "bullies," never stopping to consider, at least on screen, that he might have crossed that line himself. Farrier claimed in the post-screening Q&A that the movie’s not about targeting fetishists, and he does include a segment in which he visits with a genial maker of tickle porn. But he also makes sure to throw in a shot of his own bemused face as he’s watching a tickle video being shot, reassuring the audience that he’s not like those freaks, and it’s fine for them to watch from a distance. At least "Tickled" provided True/False 2016 with its second shot of national news: Two of the figures who feature in the movie were kicked out of a screening for attempting to bootleg the film, and Farrier was greeted outside the festival’s Filmmaker Fete with a subpoena informing him he’s being sued for defamation.
The young Tehran women and men in Mehrdad Oskouei’s "Starless Dreams" and "The Last Days of Winter" have, in some cases, committed more serious crimes than anything alleged in "Tickled." But Oskouei, who received the festival’s career-spanning "True Vision" award, approaches them with an open heart, even when he’s talking to a girl who killed her own father. Oskouei’s films, based on this too-small sampling, are penetrating but gentle: When he asks the women in a Tehran juvenile detention center about their crimes, his questions are direct but his voice has the warm understanding of a genial psychotherapist. Some of the children relate horrific backstories — he often asks if adults bothered them, with the word "bother" ominously in quotes — but there’s an elusive serenity to the movies as well; he’d sooner provide his young subjects a moment of peace than squeeze them dry and toss them away. Although "Starless Dreams" and "The Last Days of Winter" are quite distinct, especially in the degrees of hope they hold out for young Iranian men and young women, they each contain a moment where a subject Oskouei is interviewing draws attention to the boom mic hanging just above the frame. The girls in "Starless Dreams" even take turns interviewing each other, using a pale green mug as microphone. Their lives may be out of control, but Oskouei returns to them some degree of agency, even if it only lasts until the lights come up.