Tuesday, March 06, 2012

True/False 2012, Day Four: Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

The movies I saw on the last day of True/False continued to intersect with the other movies I've seen this weekend. The festival taken as a whole functions as a kind of mosaic, in which the individual pieces add up to a larger whole. This is the first year I've really noticed this, even though I'm sure that past festivals have been similarly constructed. I just never saw enough movies in past years to get the full effect. I saw thirteen movies this year, counting Secret Screenings. My second favorite film of the festival was secret. So was the lone film I didn't really like. It's probably just as well that I don't get to write about that one.

The three films I saw on Sunday were Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 1/2 Revolution, and The Imposter. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry circles around the same issues of art one finds in Maria Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, the same activism as 1/2 Revolution and How to Survive a Plague, and the same daredevil tweaking of corrupt power structures as The Ambassador. 1/2 Revolution has the same humanizing impulse toward Islam as Building Babel, the same sense of the subject as the creators of the film as How to Survive a Plague, and the same opposition to corrupt power as Ai Weiwei and The Ambassador. The Imposter has the same fuzzy relationship with "truth" as any number of films in the festival. It's appropriate, then, that The Imposter was the last film I saw before they started gathering up the chairs and rolling up the carpets.

Ai Weiwei is arguably the most influential living artist anywhere in the world. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (directed by Alison Klayman) is a catalog of why this is so. Ai is the artist who designed the "birds nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics then disavowed it when he saw the average people of Beijing driven from their homes to make room for the games. Following the Sichuan Earthquake, Ai made a project of finding the names of all of the schoolchildren who had died in the disaster. The authorities, he suspected, were under-reporting the numbers. At a show in Munich, he arranged hundreds of backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst to spell out "She lived happily for seven years in this world." These kinds of challenges to the state have not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. Since 2008, Ai has been under constant threat as a dissident. It's a miracle, really, that he's gotten away with as much as he has, but there's a reason for that. Through the viral spread of social media--and Ai is a master at using social media--he's become the highest profile artist in China. To simply get rid of him would be sticky for the government, not that they wouldn't do it.

The first narrative of the film is art. This narrative culminates in the sunflowers installation at the Tate Modern consisting of a hundred million mass produced porcelain sunflowers each individually painted by Chinese workers. It says something about China's role in the global economy at the same time that it celebrates the individuals who work in the system. There's a shot late in the film that would be an ideal end to any other film, in which Ai and his son stand facing each other on the bed of sunflower seeds at opposite sides of the screen. Unfortunately, the film's second narrative supercedes this. It would be a deceitful film if it had ended there.

The second narrative chronicles Ai's relationship with The State, and this is unhappy. He's under constant surveillance, he's cut off from most means of communication outside of China (except, significantly, for Twitter), and he was subjected to a beating by the Chengdu police. This last resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage while he was in Munich. Ai's attempts to redress this form a core part of his activism. It seems incredible to an American eye that Ai would have no redress for wrongs done by the state, but that very invulnerability is something that his work seeks to undo. When the film's screen goes black and a title card appears describing the artist's disappearance, there's a real sense of dread. Ai's arrest lasted 81 days, perhaps prompted by the Arab Spring.

There's a third narrative here, too, one beginning at least as far back as Ai's Black, Gray, and White Cover books. These were the precursors to viral information. You couldn't shop for them. You had to know someone to get them. Ai's online activities are at least as significant as his art and his activism, because it's what has spread his fame. There's a kernel of what political action against entrenched power is going to increasingly look like here, assuming that those forces don't succeed in cutting it all off at the ankles with things like SOPA. If the future isn't going to be a boot to the throat forever, as Orwell once speculated, then social media will be why.

Speaking of the Arab Spring, 1/2 Revolution (directed by Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi) throws the viewer into the middle of it. This is a film made by the participants, which means that their film is a ground level view of the events in Cairo in early February, 2011. This film watches the stages unfold, from zeal to optimism to fear to despair. The Egyptians managed to force Hosni Mubarak from office, but they didn't shrug off the structures that kept him in place. Once the military seized absolute power, it became clear that they may have gotten rid of the dictator, but the dictatorship remained. It's a pessimistic film.

The film's directors, Karim and Omar are part of a circle of friends who live in downtown Cairo, and in addition to participating in the marches and demonstrations, they also provide a glimpse of their family lives. This is something that puts a human face on the broader social movement, and they're canny in the way they translate their own personal concerns into a broader context. Their circle isn't a lot different than a boho circle of friends in New York or San Francisco. They're smart, likeable people, and the movie ratchets up the dread because we like them. They're engaging in something profoundly dangerous. The film communicates this with the street level footage of marches that turn into riots. These scenes have a visceral impact. For pure, white-knuckle suspense, this is better than most action films.

Of course, the film is incomplete. The "1/2" in the title should tell you that. The filmmakers ultimately fled for their own safety, and I can't blame them for that. The events in Egypt are still roiling. For that matter, there's precious little context provided for the events on screen, but that's okay. That's the job of another kind of documentary, one with talking heads. But that's not this movie. Extrapolating where this film leads is murky at best, and the future is unwritten anyway, so what the hell, eh?

This was my favorite film of this year's True/False.

The Imposter (directed by Bart Layton) is so utterly absurd that if someone ever decides to adapt it into a fictional feature, no one will believe it. The Imposter tells the unlikely story of a 23 year old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin who successfully impersonated a missing teen from San Antonio, Texas. The teen, Nicolas Barclay, disappeared three years prior. Bourdin, it turns out, is a pathological liar whose personal quirks lead him to impersonate minors as a way of putting himself in touch with a childhood he never had. That he got away with it for any length of time, though, well, that's where this story lies. This is a film that indulges in the Rashomon effect.

The film is up front with Bourdin's deception. Narrating the film's flashback reconstructions of the events, Bourdin himself tells the audience exactly what happened. There's no rug-pulling involved along those lines. What isn't so clear is why Nicolas Barclay's family accepted the deception. Bourdin obviously wasn't Nicolas. The boy had blue eyes, while Bourdin's eyes were brown. Bourdin was dark-haired. Nicolas had blonde. Bourdin spoke with a French accent. Did the Barclays so desperately need to be reunited with Nicolas that they could deceive themselves to that extent? Maybe. Two other characters muddy things. Charlie Parker, a private investigator for Hard Copy, sees through Bourdin at once, and suspects him of being some kind of a spy, then begins to wonder at the Barclays motives for not realizing who he is. He decides that something untoward happened to the real Nicolas. FBI Agent Nancy Fisher gets caught up in this idea, too. Nothing concerning Nicolas's disappearance has been resolved. The homicide case opened on the word of Bourdin and Parker remains open a decade later. We're left with a multiplicity of viewpoints, and no firm grasp on what really happened. It's a disturbing movie.

This is a hybrid documentary, in which great whacks of the movie are filmed recreations with actors playing the parts of the principles involved. The real people give their own testimony in separate vignettes. The filmmakers have deliberately stylized the recreations, as if they want to sully the veracity of everything they put on screen. The film is remarkably forthcoming with its facts, too. It scrupulously avoids passing Bourdin off as anything other than a charlatan. It doesn't prejudice the audience toward one point of view or another. That's smart, because the audience might become attached to one or the other characters otherwise and it's important to the film's thesis that this not happen. It manages this well enough, though Charlie Parker is a character right out of the movies, the kind of character that Charles Durning would play in a Hollywood version.

The end of The Imposter is confrontational. Carey Gibson, Nicolas's sister, tells the audience directly what she thinks of Frédéric Bourdin, while Bourdin tells the audience what he thinks of everyone. This last, is a pure portrait of sociopathy. Parker, for his part, ends the film standing on the edge of an open hole where the body of Nicolas Barclay has conspicuously not been found.

And on that note, the True/False Festival came to a close.

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