There’s a strange sense of connectedness between the films I’m seeing at this year’s True/False festival. Whether that’s accidental or because of the way True/False is curated, I can’t say, but some of the movies I’m seeing seem to be rhymes of other movies. Sometimes it’s visual. Sometimes it’s thematic. Often, it’s both. This year’s films seem to be grouped around intersections of race, healthcare, art, queerness, and activism. Having said this, I can’t actually support this observation as well as I’d like, because the keystone film that ties all of this together in my own mind is one of those secret screenings I can’t talk about. Listening to the buzz around the fest, I get the feeling that more than one of those secret films would supply the glue for this feeling of intersectionality.
I couldn’t help but hear Perry White in my head telling Lois Lane that “A good reporter doesn’t just report the news, she makes the news while watching The Ambassador, in which director/provocateur Mads Brugger goes undercover as a Liberian diplomat to the Central African Republic. As the film demonstrates, it’s relatively easy to get accredited as a diplomat if you have the right shady connections–you can even find these connections on the internet–and there’s money to be made from the endeavor. The CAR is a lawless country the size of Texas where the land is rich in natural resources and where the government is so riddled with corruption that it might just as well not exist at all. Brugger himself reminds me of another pop culture figure, too. With his riding boots, sunglasses, and cigarette holder always clenched in his teeth, he does a passable Hunter S. Thompson. An alternate title for this movie might be Fear and Loathing in Bengui.
Brugger’s cover has him looking to build a match factory in Bengui (the capital of the CAR), though that’s only a ruse. Nobody involved has any illusions that a factory will actually be built, but pretenses must be kept up. The real aim is to get to the trade of conflict diamonds, and this proves deceptively easy. With his hinky documents, Brugger is able to move about in high circles of government in both Liberia and the CAF. The distribution of “envelopes of happiness” containing cash turns out to be a social lubricant of the first order in sub-Saharan Africa, a fact that isn’t even a secret. Corruption is like air here. You can’t help but breathe it. It’s so absurd that when Brugger decides to hire Pygmies for his match factor so he can market their supposed powers as wizards, it’s just one more thing.
Brugger’s business partner is a man who owns a diamond mine in the disputed “Triangle of Death.” He knows a sucker when he sees one, and his first contract with Brugger stipulates that Brugger will pay all of his expenses and upkeep forever. That’s some cheek, right there. Brugger also encounters the minister of security, a former Legionnaire turned mercenary who lays out who is behind the CAR’s miseries. France, he says, views the CAR as a savings account, and through its proxies it continues to put stones in the CAR’s shoes. Resources allocated to put down unrest cannot be used to build infrastructure. This guy is assassinated during the course of the movie. There’s an ever present feeling that things could head south for Brugger at any time, and during the second part of the movie, it appears that that’s exactly what’s happening. His diplomatic papers never show up, his business partner vanishes, and the only friends he appears to have are the Pygmy assistants.
This is as much a movie about Brugger as it is about Africa and corruption, and I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Brugger himself provides a veneer of absurdity that makes the whole thing watchable. Unvarnished, the corruption and misery on display in this movie might be unbearable. On the other, this is the Heart of Darkness dilemma. By building the movie around a white European and his persona, it runs the risk of using Africa as a backdrop for the problems of white men. I’m all for pointing the finger at Europe and America for the disaster of Africa, but I’d feel more comfortable with The Ambassador wasn’t so dependent on its director’s personality and ego.
Performance art is as much about the viewer as it is about the artist. Really good performance art engages the viewer in a way that encourages or even forces them to think about their own relationship to art. The audience, as the saying goes, completes the picture. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (directed by Matthew Akers) gets around to this point of view eventually, but it dawdles a little in the process. Abramović is reckoned The Grandmother of Performance art. This movie is centered around the creation of a new piece called “The Artist is Present”, to premiere at the Museum of Modern Art during a retrospective of her work in which a cadre of younger performance artists recreate the signature pieces from her career. This is a pretty standard arts documentary in which the first part is spent defending the art, the second chronicles the artist’s troubled personal life (particularly her relationship with her ex-husband), and the third celebrates whatever new piece the artist is working on at the time. Frankly, the middle part of The Artist is Present sags under this weight.
The Artist is Present is most engaging when it is chronicling the creation and exhibition of Abramović’s new piece and when it is showing her work with the younger artists who will recreate her old work. The preparation consists of workshops to train them in the stillness and self-discipline required to perform Abramović’s pieces. This is a little New Age-y for my tastes, but the end result on display in the last third of the film is worth the effort. Best of all is watching what “The Artist is Present” does to both Abramović and the participant audience. The premise of “The Artist is Present” is simplicity itself: the artist herself is on display. She sits in a chair for the entire time the museum is open and anyone can sit down opposite her. Abramović then gazes into the eyes of the viewer for as long as the viewer is there. This is a variant of an older piece in which she stood naked before the audience and provided the viewer with a selection of implements (including a revolver) and invited them to do anything to her body they wanted. The newer variant is less hazardous to the artist, but is no less confrontational. There’s a famous apocryphal quote by John Ford to the effect that the human face is the most interesting landscape in the world, and The Artist is Present, film and performance both, mines this to devastating effect. The scenes of Abramović gazing into the eyes of her audience are shocking in their intimacy, an effect heightened when the person in the other chair has a some kind of personal relationship to Abramović. One of the sitters is her ex-husband.
Director Matthew Akers comes to the director’s chair from the cinematography department and that’s all for the good. This is an attractive movie filled with modernist designer spaces. He knows how to film Abramović so that she appears to be a work of art herself, and this is the crux of it: does the artist matter more than the work? No one goes to the Chicago Art Institute just to see Water Lilies. They want to see a Monet. Part of the point of The Artist is Present is to literalize this idea, to put the artist into the space that would ordinarily be reserved for an object rather than an idea.
True/False’s annual True Vision Award was presented to Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. In addition to Kossakovsky’s first film, The Belovs, they were also showing his latest, ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, while lamenting that all of the director’s films are unavailable in the USA.
¡Vivan Las Antipodas! is a profoundly disorienting movie for one that is so quiet and so full of mundane life. This is an example of the documentary as tone poem rather than a message-laden agit prop. It’s beautifully filmed at eight different spots on the globe. The only thing each location has in common is that it’s an antipode to another spot. Antipodes are diametrically opposite spots on a sphere, hence each location is paired with another in the structure of the film. Patagonia is opposite Shanghai, Hawaii is opposite Botswana, Chile is opposite Lake Baikal, Spain is opposite New Zealand. The filmmakers do not give equal weight to these locations. Kossakovsky’s camera turns again and again to Patagonia, where he’s found an interesting human story rather than an epic landscape, as two bridge keepers offer a dry commentary as a flood wipes away their living. These two guys function as a kind of Greek chorus for the film. In contrast, the only heavily populated area in the film is Shanghai, and the scenes here are strangely impersonal in spite of the press of humanity. The other locations provide epic landscapes and minimal human stories, though the shepherd in Chile who greets all of his sheep by name and whose house is overrun by cats suggests such a story, as does the woman living with her daughter near Lake Baikal. These tend to be small concerns compared to the environments in which they live.
I mentioned that this is a disorienting movie, and so it is. Kossakovsky often turns his camera upside down for long periods, suggesting that the Earth has a bottom on its other side. This makes for strange imagery. It turns a highway in Shanghai at rush hour into an alien landscape that looks as if it were made in a computer. There are also long shots when the camera is on its side. It treats the planet as a shape where the concept of “up” in relation to gravity is only a matter of perception. Many of these shots are composited with reflections on water that turn out to be from their antipodes. It’s artfully composed. It takes some patience to sit through it, though, because it requires a perceptual adjustment, not unlike adjusting to 3-D. It’s a film that will lose a great deal of its impact on a small screen, unfortunately.
How to Survive a Plague (directed by David France) chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the point of view of ACT UP, whose activism forced dramatic changes in the way drugs are researched and in how medicine interacts with patients. It’s also an abject lesson in how putting a gun to someone’s head is an amazing motivation. ACT UP existed underneath a Sword of Damocles, and the movie shows the attrition of its members over time. It’s a tragic progression, but the film itself has a happy ending of sorts. ACT UP and it’s successor, TAG, did succeed in forcing a breakthrough in the end, but even in the midst of celebrating, there’s a cautionary note struck. The survivors place a lot of blame on Ronald Reagan and George Bush for foot-dragging. How many millions of people might have been saved had AIDS not been stigmatized as a “gay disease” and as a moral judgement? What can you do in the face of a government that regards your community as essentially disposable. It’s a bitter memory.
There’s another cautionary note, too, in so far as AIDS is still killing 2 million people a year, which is as many as it was killing at the height of the epidemic. Given that there are effective treatments, this is an appalling number. AIDS activism is no longer a matter of finding a “cure”, though that research is still ongoing, so much as it’s a matter of forcing access to those treatments.
As an emotional experience, How to Survive a Plague is heartbreaking. It’s all such a waste. It’s a particularly hard film to watch if one knows anyone who has died AIDS (I do), though this may amplify the catharsis at the end, but anyone can see the tragedy of the bright people on the screen getting sicker and sicker and then dying young.
The media largely ignored AIDS activism at the time this film is set, so the footage in How to Survive a Plague was largely shot by the people in the film. In any gathering shown in the film, you see cameras in the background. The AIDS epidemic was born at the same time as the camcorder, after all, so there’s a document where otherwise there wouldn’t be, and the task of making the film was a matter of finding this footage. There are more than 30 credited cinematographers. This is a minor theme with some of the films at this year’s True/False. Several films were shot by their subjects rather than by a traditional documentary crew, and these films have an immediacy that is absent from other entries at the fest.
Christiane Benedict is a writer and graphic artist who lives in Columbia, Missouri. She blogs at Krell Laboratories.