Wednesday, February 27, 2013

True/False 2013, Day Zero: Bring Up the Lights

I'm doing the True/False Film Festival again this year. This is the tenth year of True/False. I've attended all ten festivals in one degree or another. Last year was intense for me. I saw fifteen movies over four days last year. This year will be even more so. This year, for a change, I'm  involved with the festival. I was on the screening committee this year, a process that is as fun as it is frustrating. Fun, because I saw a TON of movies. This is the reason my blogging tailed off so drastically toward the end of last year. Festival screeners were squeezing out my ordinary movie viewing and I couldn't write about what I was seeing. I still can't legally or ethically write about most of what I saw, which is where the frustration comes in. The other piece of frustration comes from the fact that T/F had something like a thousand submissions this year and only forty something slots. I saw a bunch of films that would be terrific selections for somebody's film festival. They'd be terrific films for True/False in an alternate dimension. I've seen big name docs in past editions of  T/F that weren't as good as some of the films I saw. At the top level of films, it's almost random chance that gets you into the festival. There are too many worthy films and not enough slots. The guys making the final selections based on the films forwarded to them by the screeners surely had to kill a lot of their darlings. I don't envy them.

The upside for me is that I've seen several of the films playing the festival beforehand. Theoretically, this should have made scheduling the festival easier for me because there are blocks of films that I can ignore. In practice, that turned out not to be true, but that's fine. I'm sure what I'm signed up to see will be terrific. Meanwhile, I can tell you about three of the films at this year's fest as the curtain rises.

Northern Light (2013, directed Nick Bentgen) is an austere and chilly movie that looks at the lives of snowmobile racers in rural Michigan. The central event of the film is a five hundred mile snowmobile race, but that's almost beside the point. The movie's central theme is what we do to live and what we live for, two very different things. Both of its central characters, Walt Komarnizki and Isaac Wolfgang, make a marginal living in their day jobs. They live in Michigan, after all, where late capitalism has wrought extraordinary wreckage among the blue collared. Their daily lives are ordinary, even a little bit desperate, and in the scenes where they are shown enduring their quotidian burdens, they seem to be living a kind of half life. They only come alive when there's a race. The film gains steam through its second act as both men and their racing teams gear up for the big race, a grueling test of endurance and machinery.

Most of Northern Light is artfully composed. You can frame most of its individual shots and hang them on a gallery wall. This has a distancing effect on its narrative. The big race is thrilling, sure, and the film is tense during these scenes almost in spite of the filmmakers, but the distance they've built into the film lets them get away with droll formal jokes while puncturing the meaning of the race itself. The outcome of the race doesn't really matter, so much as the abstract image of the race matters. There's not an uplift here, per se. Instead, there's a portrait of two men going in different directions in a wrecked economy, where their competitive drive doesn't translate into success in the real world.

The big race would ordinarily provide the film with a natural ending, but this has a different game in mind. There's a third act after the big race that follows Isaac's wife, Emily, into the world of professional bodybuilding. This almost comes out of left field, even though Emily is introduced fairly early on as a point of view, particularly at the big race, but it's of a piece with the rest of the film. Her competitive drive is a distaff version of the almost pathological need to race among the men in this film. There's a hint that the only genuine escape from the trap of contemporary economic realities is to ignore it all and do what you love. Maybe there's an uplift here after all. In any event, this is a beautiful film, even when it's groping its way to an ending.

These Birds Walk (2013, directed by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq) is a film that was screened at last year's True/False in an unfinished form, as a kind of workshop showing. The film returns to this year's festival in finished form. This is a portrait of Abdul Sattar Edhi's Pakistani charities through the eyes of a runaway on the streets of Karachi and the ambulance driver who takes an interest in him. This is partly a portrait of childhood in rough circumstances and partly a portrait of a world-weary man who is trying to do good in his own small way. The boy, Omar, suffers the cruelties of childhood, and inflicts them. Boys will be boys, it seems. Edhi, a national saint in Pakistan, is the bottom of the safety net, and the children his charity cares for and the services they offer to the poor often seems like shoveling sand against the tide (this version of the film opens with a gorgeous shot on a beach). Omar, possibly like the other boys at the Edhi orphanage, is taking advantage of this. Not really an orphan, he finds life at the orphanage preferable to life with his family (who are shown at the end of the film as squatters on the outskirts of the city). I can't say I blame him.

There's a traveling shot that follows Omar through a busy market that makes me question how much of this film was allowed to unfold naturally and how much of it was performed for the camera. Certainly, the central characters in the film show an awareness of the camera, even when they're doing less than admirable things. The fights among the boys occasionally seem like posturing to me. Still, that shot is amazing. This is a film of startling images. The shot near the beginning of the film of Edhi himself bathing a small child is lovely, as is the shot near the end of Assad, our ostensible hero, bedding down to sleep in the back of his ambulance.

I didn't see the film when it screened last year, but I'm told that this version is considerably different.

The Moo Man (2013, directed by Andy Heathcote) was the last film I saw as a screener and it's one that was an unlooked-for mercy after a run of films that were profound downers. This film isn't exactly happy--not really--but it's humane. After a long run of dire films about the collapsing environment, the depredations of late capitalism, and the general horror of the state of the world, I found that I needed what this film offered.

The subject of The Moo Man is one Stephen Hook, who runs a dairy farm in Sussex, England. Hook's is one of the few remaining family dairy farms in the UK. He has 55 cows, who he raises to be healthy and to provide organic raw milk. Hook's primary market is farmer's markets where there's a demand for organic, cruelty free dairy. We see Hook interact with his cows as if they're his family, particularly his prize cow, Ida, who Hook uses as his poster cow. He even takes her into the city for a photo shoot. This could all be insufferably cute, but this has a clear eye when it comes to the pressures on small farmers in a world that is increasingly corporate. There's a real unease in the part of the film where Hooks cattle are tested for disease, which could result in the entire herd being destroyed. The filmmakers can't help but take Hook's relationship with his cows onto themselves in some ways, because by the time the fear of a pandemic rears its head, the cows are already fairly defined as individuals.

This also has a clear eye when it comes to the realities of dairy farming, which in some ways can't help but indulge in cruelty. In order to promote lactation, cows are kept pregnant or nursing. Male calves are no use to a diary farmer, so they are usually destroyed at birth. Hook doesn't do that. He lets them live for a couple of years, but he does send them off to be butchered eventually. Even here, Hook feels a meaning in the lives of his cows. It's strange to see a man get misty-eyed at the delivery of a shipment of beef, but that happens here. Hook is a kind man in a business that can be brutally cruel. This is exacerbated by the fact that hooks cows are shown to have personalities, to care about their fellow cows. There's a scene early in the film when Hook returns with Ida when the other cows swamp them as if they were friends returning from abroad, or as if they were celebrities.

There's an inherent fascination with process in this movie, too, from the nuts and bolts of animal husbandry to the delight Hook and his family take in a new bottling apparatus that arrives late in the movie. I like movies about work, and this is a good one, even if some of that work is the icky business of delivering calves or squeegy-ing the shit out of the barn. Mostly, though, The Moo Man acts as an antidote to films like Food, Inc, in which the horror of factory farming is liable to put one off eating anything at all. It's still a harsh business, but if there's a capacity for kindness, I feel less guilty about eating meat and dairy than I might otherwise.

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