“The parade is coming,” I could hear a man yell from just outside the cafe I was sitting in on 9th Street in downtown Columbia, trying to finish an article on the Friday afternoon of the True/False Festival. Of course, a steady drumbeat preceded his call to others in the cafe to come out onto the street, but neither sound could prepare one for the explosion of sound that was waiting outside the door, with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” reverberating in the air as only they could with the trumpet and tuba treatment. Large puppets sat on the shoulders of some of the revelers who eventually coalesced in front of the Missouri Theater as a teenage step team pop-and-locked right behind them before getting subsumed into the larger crowd.
For at least 20 minutes, it was the happiest place on earth and reinforced the fact that there is a tangible fear of missing out at True/False that doesn’t exist at other festivals I’ve been to since missing a screening doesn’t just mean your missing a movie. While the festival’s programmers have culled international films and domestic oddities that may never get proper distribution in the U.S., the festival’s ability to mix live happenings in addition to turning each screening into an event makes every choice even more difficult. For instance, had I skipped “Stranger In Paradise” on Saturday morning, I would’ve missed authoritarianism scholar Sarah Kendzior’s rousing call to arms before the screening regarding life in “President Bannon’s America,” and by choosing to go, it meant I wouldn’t get to a surely one-time only conversation between “Strong Island” director Yance Ford and “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” director Travis Wilkerson about their brilliant and bruising ruminations on race and the criminal justice system.
If Kendzior’s five-minute address was officially labeled provocation by the festival, “Stranger in Paradise,” which came after, was the match for the powder keg she set up, repositioning a dialogue on immigration in incendiary fashion. Though most nonfiction films have taken the tact of following the plight of migrants in granular detail as they face considerable obstacles in their trek to another country or assimilating once they get there, “Stranger in Paradise” conjures the feeling of an equally arduous trek even if it never strays from a classroom in the Netherlands where groups of migrants are detained. They are then subject to speechifying by an unnamed man with chiseled Nordic features whose whiteness is immediately in stark contrast to the blackness of the majority of those sitting in front of him, his privilege wafting through the room as he speaks of the welfare state these migrants surely will be taking advantage of if they’re allowed to live in the country. Cheeky chapter titles interrupt his lectures, featuring titles like “In Which He Tells Them How It Is” and “In Which He Tells Them How It Is (Again),” set against barren landscapes that suggest there’s more than enough room for everyone.
However, “Stranger in Paradise” is more interested in challenging liberal attitudes towards immigration rather than feeding into them and while the film stirs drama with the dismissal of one migrant after another who the man reasons will not be allowed into the country, its tension derives from becoming a litmus test between humanity and economic reality. Although “Stranger in Paradise” vehemently avoids giving audiences an easy way out of confronting that question, director Guido Hendrikx still manages to find an ending that stings no matter which side of the fence you’re on with a curveball that at once is surprising and perfectly aligns with the rest of the film.
“Communion” should have no problem traveling, though being a low-key gem from Poland, it’s a matter of keen-eyed programmers and potential distributors looking out for it in the first place. Director Anna Zamecka was at a train station years ago when she met the father of Ola and Nikodem, a teenage girl and her younger autistic brother and eventually asked if she could film them. Shot over a year in which Nikodem prepares for the religious ceremony reluctantly, the film gravitates more towards Ola, who has taken the mantel of raising the hyperactive Nikodem since her mother Magda fled, tired of her husband’s drunkenness. More often wearing the defeated glare of a 40-year-old mother of five trying to wrangle her kids at a playground rather than the high schooler she is, Ola may dress in T-shirts emblazoned with youthful rebellion slogans such as “Never Finish Anything,” but stoically carries responsibility well beyond her years, making the few moments where she’s allowed to be a kid rapturous.
Zamecka’s keen sense of observation leads to strikingly composed images and a wicked streak of subtle humor throughout, highlighting the contradictions of a young girl acting with more maturity than the adults in any given room. And the filmmaker often lets the emotions linger in those spaces, watching as Ola desperately stares into her phone as she can hear her father in the other room being told he should put his children up for adoption and Nikodem fumbles around with his belt in frustration before attending school. Like the quiet persistence that keeps Ola going, there’s a drive to “Communion” that rarely announces itself but nonetheless builds a palpable tension, particularly as Magda considers a return home. While such a move might be physically possible, Zamecka illustrates with considerable gravitas how it never will be emotionally, resulting in a bittersweet coming-of-age story that transcends borders, including the screen it’s projected onto.
You also rarely see adults around in “Miss Kiet’s Children,” with the exception of the titular teacher who presides over a class of refugees in Holland, though even she takes a backseat to the kids. Directing duo Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster have crafted a gentle film diametrically opposed to the worldview presented in “Stranger in Paradise,” centering on an instructor who is seemingly more concerned with teaching equity and compassion than reading and arithmetic and three of her Syrian students making an adjustment to their new surroundings.
The kids act out in their own ways, but what’s largely unspoken but ever-present is how the traumas of growing up in war-torn areas continue to haunt them, even if they were shielded from the violence. There’s Haya, a young girl introduced in tears during a vulnerable moment after getting her pants dirty yet emerges as an aggressive bully, especially upon the arrival of the younger and more diminutive Leanne, since she feels their shared heritage is reason to show her the ropes. Later, Jorj, an opinionated young man with a thicket of black hair, joins the class with his younger brother Maksim, but like Haya isn’t who he seems at first, crumbling into tears when refusing to take off his shoes in order to participate in an exercise with the rest of the students. Although Miss Kiet can occasionally be seen coaxing out of the children the root reasons for their behavior, you largely get to witness it with your own eyes as the school year wears on and while at times, “Miss Kiet’s Children” can feel a little too leisurely in coming to its unforced conclusions, it gracefully succeeds at its aim of showing the incremental gains made over time with education that puts the lesson of being humane above all else.
In booking Viktor Jakovleski’s “Brimstone & Glory” to play the first round of films on opening night and the last round of films on closing night, True/False essentially gave audiences the choice of deciding whether they liked their dessert before dinner or after. A visceral experience as opposed to an intellectual one, to steal the director’s description, the film set in Tultepec, Mexico where an annual fireworks festival consumes the entire city is one of the most exhilarating cinematic affairs I’ve been privy to. Thoughts of “Tree of Life” and seeing “The Raid” blind at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 swirled in my head directly after staggering out of what Jakovleski has achieved with drones, GoPros and the high-speed Phantom camera, not to mention the ridiculously talented collaborators operating those cameras including Bill Ross (“Contemporary Color”) and Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).
But “Brimstone & Glory” is its own ferocious beast, eschewing the traditionally passive experience of admiring the beauty of bursts of lights in the air in favor of making it feel as if you’re inside of the explosion, with energy crackling all around you as it moves relentlessly through time and space as preparations for the festival quickly escalate into the execution of two separate events, “Dia de los Castillos,” in which towers are set aflame, and “Dias de los Toros,” when thousands run with intricately constructed paper bulls that launch fireworks into the crowd. (You read that right – 200 to 500 people get injured every year.)
A young boy named Santi, who is reluctant to follow his father into the family business of helping put together these events, is ostensibly the central figure of the film, but that would be discounting how Jakovleski so skillfully places the viewer in the center of the action, at one point building a truly breathtaking sequence out of an unbroken POV shot of a man running around the grounds of the “Dia de los Castillos” event, using the tip of the lit cigarette dangling from his mouth to set off the most grandiose fireworks displays. With a score from Zeitlin and Dan Romer that boasts the same rousing, earthy musical blend that made their work on “Beasts of the Southern Wild” so invigorating, the film feels immediate while paying respect to the longheld traditions that have kept generations of locals coming back despite the more than a few missing fingers or even hands from past mishaps.
Alive with the constant possibility that anything can happen in Tultepec, Jakovleski has taken advantage of new technology and good old fashioned curiosity to push cinema to places it’s never been before, and at just over an hour, “Brimstone and Glory” never loses its luster, its brilliance staying with you long after you’ve left the theater.