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The Ebert Fellows Go to True/False

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, the 2023-24 University of Illinois College of Media Roger Ebert Fellows attended the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO. It’s an ideal first festival for any moviegoer, its documentary focus allowing for a wide range of stylistic and thematic encounters and venues of all sizes. Here are their reports.

HANNA BRAZAS-MATA

After nearly four hours of tears steadily streaming down my face, my last day at True/False festival concluded as I tried to gather my things, and my composure, with a fistful of tissues in one hand and my fingers texting my parents “I love you” in the other.

Watching the powerful documentaries “Look Into My Eyes” and “Daughters” back-to-back, admittedly, was a lot (and I cry at movies even if they’re minimally touching). Directed by Lana Wilson, “Look Into My Eyes” follows New York City psychics and their clients through a series of emotional readings. The film also examines the lives and feelings of the clairvoyants themselves, following them outside their client sessions and into their homes. It's a rewarding strategy. As one psychic says, “Sometimes healers need the most healing.”

Wilson’s film doesn’t aim to make the audience believers. Instead, she’s interested in the importance of human connection and how these psychic readings, stemming from the supernatural or not, provide a therapeutic experience for both parties.

“Daughters,” directed by Natalie Rae and Angela Patton, follows four young girls through their preparation, experience, and aftermath of a daddy/daughter dance with their incarcerated fathers. It’s a powerful critique of “no-touch” prison visitation policy and mass incarceration, while also paying close attention to the complex feelings underneath the event.

The post-screening conversations between filmmakers and audience members engaged on another level entirely. One Missouri resident, in tears after “Daughters,” described her frustration with her home state’s regressive policy regarding the no-touch visits. Missouri is one of many states that has now banned snail-mail letters addressed to inmates. At True/False, moments like this showed how documentaries function beyond the role of giving voice to topics that otherwise may go unheard, or unfilmed. With audiences this engaged, the films create space for connection and self-reflection, after the lights come up.

Across 36 hours and six films, stories of aging and mortality appeared on screen again and again. “I Like It Here,” directed by Ralph Arlyck, approaches the passing of time with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, acknowledging our collective fear of growing old, while asserting that to grow old is a privilege. In his film, Arlyck reflects on his own life and the lives of those around him, sharing memories, stories, and laughs with friends, family, and neighbors. The director takes the audience with him along this journey of making peace with whatever lies ahead.

Throughout “I Like It Here,” Arlyck scatters younger photos of himself and friends. The filmmaker offers blunt commentary on one such photo, wondering, “What happened?” in a voiceover mourning a past version of himself. Growing old, as one of Arlyck’s friends describes it, is like living life “in the slow lane,” which in the film’s view, may explain why kids and seniors often get along so well.

Moments like this capture the tenderness of the movie’s approach to the overarching anxieties so many have about transitioning into the final stages of life, and the inevitable end. Arlyck effectively diffuses these intense discussions of mortality and loss by capturing the joy of being alive.

Another True/False title, “Flying Lessons” directed by Elizabeth Nichols, begins as a story about tenants' rights in New York City but quickly becomes a story about a specific tenant, Philly Abe. This woman represents a fleeting part of the city’s artistic history, as creatives have been pushed out by sky-high rent prices or have passed away. A New York resident since 1983, Philly Abe’s story echoes that of Arlyck’s in “I Like It Here.” At one point, feeling the effects of growing older, she says, “I look like myself. But I’ve become this creature.”

“Flying Lessons” mixes director Nichols’ footage with older experimental films featuring Philly Abe. She and Nichols met as neighbors and as they grew closer during the filming of the documentary, her anxieties about death and legacy emerged on camera, often uncomfortably. Nichols’ questioning leads to some tense exchanges. Tough topics such as Philly Abe’s memories of artists and friends who died during the AIDS crisis prove hard for her to revisit.

At one point “Flying Lessons” shows Philly and a friend at a deceased artist’s exhibit. In between touching moments of the two friends bonding over their memories of the late artist, one of Nichols’ crew members asks them to both tell “one serious and one funny story” to which Philly replies, “Do I have to bitch-slap you?” revealing her clear distress at the intrusive request. Such moments are included throughout the film in what appears to be a conscious critique of documentary ethics. Are such prompts inherently manipulative? Does the inclusion of these moments make the film more ethical or just more transparently unethical?

When Philly is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she’s clearly frightened about what will happen to her body and what legacy she will leave behind. By the end of the film, the friendship between the filmmaker and subject provides the only real solace. Philly’s exuberant life lives on in “Flying Lessons,” and while human connection may not solve all our problems and conquer all our fears, it makes living through them a whole lot easier.

Daughters

STEPHANIE WAYDA

In stellar fashion, both on screen and behind the camera, the stories of women in deeply complex relationships proved both emotional and, at their best, revolutionary. Three of those stories: “Daughters,” directed by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae; “Girls State,” directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss; and director Rachel Elizabeth Seed’s “A Photographic Memory.” In different ways, these films explore intimate relationships within a family and within a society.

“Daughters” concentrates on four young girls and their incarcerated Washington D.C. area fathers, participating in a 12-week “date with Dad” program in prison. We watch as these girls, over the course of eight years, go through life's milestones and responding to the circumstances in their lives, for better or worse.

Directors Patton and Rae mix angelic, nostalgic images with harder, sharper-edged footage of the girls’ shared reality. The Daddy-Daughter Dance, shot on film, captures light blues and purples; elsewhere, the color goes deeper and darker. The cinematographer’s work blends with the directors’, seamlessly.

At True/False, after the “Daughters” screening I attended, co-director Rae led a discussion and talked about the sense of disbelief some people had when she told them the filmmakers were determined to shoot the all-important dance sequence on film, not digitally. The decision was right: Visually it cast a spell, and the festival audience sobbed, audibly, during this extended scene, reuniting parents and children in a rare moment of physical contact.

A follow-up to the Texas-set 2020 documentary “Boys State,” “Girls State” (premiering on Apple TV+ on April 5th) spans a week in the lives of high school girls, competing for the governorship of Missouri Girls State. Sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary program, the competition becomes the setting for a wide variety of coming-of-age stories, anxieties and political beliefs.

Compared to “Daughters,” “Girls State” is less experimental and more basic in its storytelling approach. It’s also effective and deeply emotional, as the girls experience all sorts of archaic rules and expectations within the camp setting. At one point one of the girls, falling short of the goal she has been chasing, instead finds a different outlet and opportunity for her talents. Moments like these in “Girls State” remind us that life moves in unimagined directions. And sometimes the better fit is the one you didn’t know was even an option.

“A Photographic Memory” spans several years in the life of filmmaker Seed. Her mother, photojournalist Sheila Turner-Seed, died when the director was not yet two years old. Exploring her mother’s work, family, friends and artifacts, she searches for discoveries so she can know more about this woman.

The film documents a highly personal struggle, and more and more, documentaries today appear to be making room for the idea of showcasing the filmmaker in their own narrative. Seed, in “A Photographic Memory,” embarks on the project to get to know her mother. The result interlaces tradition with innovation, and while there are times you’d like to know more about Seed herself, is it even fair to ask a filmmaker to divulge more of their personal story when they’re already opening up so much?

As a first-timer to True/False, I couldn’t help but notice (and appreciate) the sense of community throughout the weekend. There’s no glitz and glam. People from all over the world gathered to show or watch films, to discuss them with one another as they queue up for the next screening, to cry, to laugh. And then to walk to one of the nearby food spots.

If you live in the Midwest, make the trek to Columbia, MO. and get to know this film community.

Ibelin

CAROLINE TADLA

True/False provides an overwhelming sense of belonging for any young writer. Being part of a community is essential. But what if you’ve spent most of your life perceived as an outsider?

Two of the films I saw, director Benjamin Ree’s “Ibelin” and director Lana Wilson’s “Look into My Eyes,” take a closer look at this question. The Netflix-backed “Ibelin” explores the life of Mats Steen, a young Norwegian man who suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive muscular weakness and a shortened lifespan. As his condition worsened, Mats’ parents became increasingly concerned about the amount of time he spent online gaming, leading to his presumed isolation.

When Mats passed away at 25, he left behind the passwords for his blog and “World of Warcraft” account. Mats’ parents discovered his rich online community, which granted him the freedom his body didn’t allow and the friends he always wanted. This documentary asks what it means to live a meaningful life, especially when it appears different from others’ idea of normal.

Director Ree was unable to attend the screening or the post-screening discussion. In a pre-recorded message, he shared that he grew up in Norway near his film’s subject, and that Mats’ story inspired him to start filming.

Innovative and accurate portrayals of online spaces have proven elusive for many filmmakers. Few things look dumber to moviegoers in their 20s than text boxes floating above a character’s head as they send and receive texts, or some other early 2000s visual gimmick. But in “Ibelin,” Ree’s use of animation to recreate in-game experiences and online interactions serves the film well.

Growing up surrounded by gaming communities, the social importance of online gaming never felt mysterious to me. At the True/False screening of “Ibelin,” however, I noticed several people in the theater getting to know that world for what seemed like the first time. Ree’s aversion to lecturing results in a film that increases understanding between different generations. The entirety of the audience seemed to tear up in unison, at the moment when a gamer hugged his mom via emote.

As I moseyed around downtown Columbia sampling treats between True/False screenings, I ran into several visiting directors, including Lana Wilson, maker of “Look Into My Eyes.” As we discussed the Letterboxd app, her energy mirrored that of her films. “Look Into My Eyes” follows a group of New York-based psychics as they give readings, navigate life and explain the profession. It reveals a hodgepodge of outsiders who find comfort in “joining the coven” and the importance of believing in something, starting with basic human contact. Throughout the film, the psychics’ credibility consistently wavers, but the audience was charmed beyond the point of caring.

The A24 release ranked as the funniest film I saw at True/False by far. Director Wilson employs a self-awareness that remains judgment-free, aided by subjects who clearly know their way around a joke and embrace the very idea of performance. Several of the on-camera psychics have backgrounds in theater, a coincidence Wilson questions throughout “Look Into My Eyes.”

When asked about the editing process during the film’s post-screening Q&A, Wilson said she hoped her movie was tense enough so that it becomes “one of those films where you can’t watch (it) alone.” She wanted a film with “an emotional cumulative effect.” Wilson plays with the viewer’s skepticism and trust so cleverly that I found my own views on psychic phenomena changing with each new scene.

The breezy 108 minutes of “Look Into My Eyes” sent me out of the theater energized, as opposed to the usual nighttime fatigue that comes with a long day at a film festival (especially when one spends as much time crying in a theater as I do). I left True/False with a newfound appreciation for the festival communities I got to know–and for the reminder that at places like this, and genres as far-flung as documentary, there’s room for everybody.

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