Dispatches | March 08, 2007

This year I made the decision to forego the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference (the panels, the book fair, the reunions with far-flung friends) in order to stay home and attend the True/False Film Festival.  The festival, in its fourth year, brings over forty documentary films and scores of filmmakers to Columbia for four days of screenings, concerts, discussions, parties, and general revelry.  I can’t tell you about everything I saw (some of these films have yet to have their “official” premiers), but I’m happy to give thumbs up to these five outstanding docs:

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet): Prior to his film’s screening at the festival’s largest venue, first-time director Jason Kohn expressed surprise at finding a thriving film festival “in the middle of nowhere.”  Thus prepared to dislike both him and his work, I was disappointed in my aims.  Manda Bala is a complex portrait of corruption, fear, exploitation and invention in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  Focusing mainly on the culture arising from the city’s epidemic of kidnappings, Manda Bala profiles (among others) a well-off kidnapping victim, a kidnapper (and father of 9), a frog farmer, an intensely-paranoid young American ex-patriot, and a plastic surgeon specializing in ear reconstructions.  Sao Paolo’s kidnappers commonly remove their victims’ ears to coerce ransom payments; the film illustrates in gory detail the fashioning of convincing new ears from rib cartilage. The film’s humor, style, and jubilant use of light and color suggest Kohn’s affinities with (my favorite) documentarian Errol Morris.

The King of Kong: Despite initial misgivings about its subject matter — the classic video game Donkey Kong — I was quickly won over by this story of David and Goliath at the arcade.  The film’s remake rights have been acquired by Picturehouse, and it’s easy to imagine Ben Stiller playing Billy Mitchell, a cult of personality and long-time high score holder for Kong.  Challenger Steve Wiebe, the star of the film, is subjected to accusations and outright hostility when he submits his own higher score to Twin Galaxies, the recognized score authenticator.  This story has a compelling cast of “characters” and a happy ending — which True/False attendees applauded boisterously, before closely questioning Wiebe and co-star Steve Sanders at a late-night Q&A.  Picturehouse faces a challenge in capturing the appeal of the real-life cast.

Souvenirs:  When Israeli director Shahar Cohen accompanied his 82-year-old father, Sleiman, to a reunion of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, he didn’t expect to find a compelling documentary subject.  But a chance comment made by one of Sleiman’s buddies — about the “souvenirs” that the company gave Dutch girls during their post-liberation stay in Holland — ignites Shahar’s curiosity.  Does he have half-siblings; somewhere, might his father actually have the grandchildren he longs for?  The film that results chronicles the Cohens’ trip from Israel through Italy and Holland, Sleiman constantly complicating the idea his son has held of his father as a war hero and boxing champ — and Shahar covertly searching for his father’s former girlfriends.  This loving and complicated film was my favorite of the festival.

Super Amigos: Director Arturo Perez Torres remarked, prior to the film’s screening at True/False, that a French audience had questioned the authenticity of his footage.  Their skepticism is easy to understand: Super Amigos profiles five social activists in Mexico City who work in the disguises of Lucha Libre wrestlers.  The five unaffiliated men promote animal welfare (Super Animal), gay rights (Super Gay), environmental protection (Ecologista Universal), tenants’ rights (Super Barrio) and provisions for street children (Fray Tormenta).  The film suggests the inspirational power of super-heroism, augmenting live footage with vibrant cartoons illustrating the five heroes’ fabulous origins.

The Ghosts of Cité Soleil: This was the last film I saw at the festival, and the most emotionally stunning.  Shot in 2004 in Cité Soleil (a slum of Port au Prince, Haiti), the film closely follows the lives of two brothers.  2Pac and Bily are leaders of the Chimères — heavily-armed gangs that then-president Jean Bertrand Aristede employed to suppress opposition demonstrators.  But 2Pac and Bily are also leaders within Cité Soleil, maintaining order alternately through coercion and charm, and purporting to represent the interests of their impoverished community.  The influence of American rap culture upon the gangster culture of the slums is startling and ever-apparent: 2Pac has musical aspirations, and is not alone in adopting the name of an American rapper.  Along with the incredible violence and volatility of the brothers’ lives, the film also captures their incredible charisma — and the tragedy of their fates.

Missouri Review readers near and far should consider visiting Columbia for next year’s True/False Film Festival — even if it means skipping a major trade conference (sorry, AWP!).  Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting in line at the video store for the 29 films I didn’t get to see last weekend.