I came into my fourth True/False Film Festival eager to see a film from a director I was introduced to a couple festivals back. Mads Brügger is a truly Gonzo filmmaker. Think of him like Sasha Baron Cohen with a sharper underlying social/political agenda. In The Red Chapel, he travelled with two Koreans into North Korea under the guise of being a "performance troupe" to expose the insanity on the inside of that state.
For his new film, The Ambassador, the mad Dane goes through underground channels to get himself Liberian diplomatic credentials and travels to the lawless Central African Republic. Striking the pose of a European Colonialist in riding boots and cigarette holder, he bribes government officials and buys blood diamonds. It's equal parts hilarious and horrifying - often at the same moment. At the Q&A following the screening, Brügger said The Ambassador may be the last film where he goes undercover and puts himself at risk. I hope that's not true, but even if it is, he's already carved out a niche with his distinctive voice.
Another distinctive documentary voice, Morgan Spurlock, surprised by not appearing in his new film Comic Con, Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. It was no surprise that the film was funny, fast-paced and engaging. What impressed me the most was the emotional arc of the ensemble of characters Spurlock follows - illustrators seeking approval, a young "geek" looking to propose to the woman he met at the Con, a veteran comic dealer, and a talented amateur costume designer.
Whereas so many documentaries rely in part on the compelling nature of their subjects, or put demands on the audience with a more art-film aesthetic, Comic Con was a reminder of the engaging power of a more traditional narrative - even in documentary.
Another brilliantly structured film was the closing night's Searching for Sugar Man, about the mysterious Detroit musician Rodriguez, who recorded two critically acclaimed but commercially failed albums in the early '70s. While ignored in the the US, the records became enormous hits in South Africa, on the order of Elvis or The Rolling Stones. Rodriguez vanished, and stories swirled that he had killed himself on stage. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul allows the story to unfold as a mystery, and the ending is truly revelatory.
While Sugar Man offers a glimpse into life in impoverished, increasingly abandoned Detroit, that's the sole focus of Detropia, from Jesus Camp Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. It's a stark portrait of life inside a vanishing city.
Recurring images of Detroit are the kind of connections that inevitably pop up at a festival as well programmed as True/False. Another striking contrast came from the timeshare billionaires trying to build the largest home in America in Queen of Versailles, and the prisoner in solitary imagining and designing his dream home in Herman's House.
As always happens, filmmaker after filmmaker praised the festival and vowed to come back even without a film to show - and many keep that promise. I know of no other festival where the enthusiasm of being a film fan so unites directors and audience. After four years as a festival attendee, it was nice to see I've been remembered in Vox Magazine… even if it was for kinda-sorta-accidentally blowing the cover on some Secret Screenings a few years ago.
For another take on this year's fest, check out fellow DSM resident Brianne Sanchez blog. As a better journalist than I ever was, she even has the sense not to disclose the titles of Secret Screenings.