Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 Review: A Sunset Can Be Seen as a New Horizon in Hannah Jayanti’s “Truth or Consequences”

“You learn to cite value in minor things, even if they’re small and inconsequential,” says one of the subjects in “Truth or Consequences,” a scavenger who brings back objects of questionable worth to his enclave in New Mexico. “I can concentrate on 10,000 pieces of broken glass and find the marble in it.”

It’s an attitude that’s adopted by Hannah Jayanti in her first feature, climbing into the sky above shortly after it begins to take the perspective of a visitor to Earth before crashing back down to the surface, a voyeuristic premise that stems from the recent development of Spaceport America near the town once known as Hot Springs. The place that literally made a name for itself by winning a contest on Ralph Edwards’ quiz show “Truth or Consequences” has been rebranded again as a destination when it’s the first to offer private space travel, and as a clerk on the tourist attraction side of things says plainly, “This planet is dying. For the longevity, we need to move elsewhere,” a statement that in itself is loaded with commercial-bred cynicism and the desire for relentless progress that surely contributed to the planet’s present predicament, but is driven home by the fact that as one of the locals, he surely couldn’t afford the $250,000 ride to the stars himself.

While the economic anxiety will certainly be familiar to many watching “Truth or Consequences,”
the desert terrain is more likely to be another world to most, making Jayanti’s approach both apt and unique, measuring the end of the earth both in physical distance and as an epoch by settling in with four residents seemingly shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The pretense of an alien experience involves abstraction upfront of both in overexposing the surroundings, which take on color as the film wears on and taking its time to gradually introduce the quartet of characters, the most compelling of whom is Katie, a 30-year-old who grew up in Truth or Consequences and left at 23, only to return to work at the Shur-Save Market in town. Taking small pleasures where she can find them, she enjoys the authority over the store intercom and has joined the local rock club where she’s excited by the occasional gifts of calcite, which can temporarily give her a sense of connection in a place where everyone else is at least double her age.

Jayanti doesn’t identify the three senior citizens she also follows, but they have all come to Truth or Consequences not to be bothered, from a woman who still bears the scars of a tiger attack decades ago to the aforementioned collector of detritus who finds use for the things others have left behind, and while Katie stands out as the most easily identifiable of the group as she still has curiosity for what life may hold for her, the collector becomes the one the film itself takes to most when sifting through time to find how the world has passed this community by, taking a snapshot now to be held up to see where we all seem to be headed. Still, rather than letting a feeling of dread wash over it, Jayanti offers something more promising than running away into space despite “Truth or Consequences” initial ascent into the clouds to establish itself, showing what wonders the world continues to hold even after it starts to feel so small and the ability for people to still surprise themselves.

“Truth or Consequences” will screen physically later this year at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. It is streaming for free in America from July 16th through August 15th as part of the Maysles Documentary Center series “After Civilization.”

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