True/False Retrospective

The one-of-a-kind documentary film festival begins today in Columbia. Can't make it? Check out some of the biggest names from last year's fest from the comfort of home

True/False Retrospective

True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, starts today. My slate of slate of screenings begins tomorrow, so I won’t be sending out a newsletter. For those of you not in Columbia this weekend, or who’ve never heard of True/False at all, here’s a primer on the event. Beyond that, to give you a taste of what you’re missing, I’m rounding up some of my favorites from last year’s festival that you can watch right now on various streaming services.

One Child Nation: Amazon

The film is eye-opening and, I dare say, necessary viewing. But it’s hard to watch with your eyes wide open, as the urge to shield them or turn away at times is real. The film looks at China’s One-Child Policy, a 35-year program of population control measures implemented by the government. Population control is a bit euphemistic, as the policy actually resulted in forced sterilizations, abortions, human trafficking, and babies being left abandoned on roadsides. What may surprise viewers is the level of acceptance the policy still has in China. There’s certainly a generational component to such acceptance, and the generational differences in many ways establishes a central conflict of the film. The director/narrator of the film, Nanfu, was born in 1985, in the midst of the policy, and she speaks with those closest to her — mother, brother, grandfather, aunt, uncle — and each has his or her own story that feels ugly and sad, but ultimately, it’s just a recollection of a certain period of their lives, seemingly nothing more, nothing less. But that acceptance comes through in a way that none could begrudge; the stories they tell, the lives they lived, the heartbreak they must feel — of course they’ve had to put up defenses, not question it too closely, and find a way to move on. If they didn’t, the guilt of their stories would drive them mad or kill them. It’s a horrifying story on so many levels, but the disconnect between the horror and the perception of the horror feels vast at times, and it caused me to sit stunned, mouth agape, as I took it all in. When a film can engross you to such a degree, it deserves a hardy recommendation.


Mike Wallace is Here: Hulu

I missed this film at last year’s T/F, so I was thrilled when it moved to Hulu. Owing my presence in Columbia, MO, during the festival completely to journalism, this film was one that felt like it should be viewed in the hometown of the world’s first journalism school.

Mike Wallace was a reputation more than a fully formed figure in my mind; I was much more familiar with his son Chris as one of the few lending the occasional legitimacy to the “news” portion of Fox News. At the very beginning of the film, Wallace interviews the blowhard Bill O’Reilly, and tells him plainly that he considers him not a journalist but an op-ed columnist. O’Reilly tells Wallace he’s a dinosaur, essentially out of touch with how “journalism” has to be practiced this day and age. Then he -humble-outright-brags that people say “O’Reilly is the most feared interviewer since Mike Wallace” and that he tells people that Wallace made him who he is, so if they have a problem with him, they really have a problem with Wallace. And in the brief moment between the end of O’Reilly’s blathering and the opening credits of the film, you can see Wallace, staring off into a sort of middle space, processing O’Reilly’s words and wondering, “What hell hath I wrought?”

The film does a lot to remind people that Wallace was such a brilliant presence. The voice, the cadence, the attitude, somewhere north of snark but never approaching belligerent; it was all so perfectly performative. I don’t mean to say Wallace was being disingenuous, because he seems anything but that. What I mean is that it felt so perfectly calibrated for his chosen medium of television. He was so polished, and some of his various interviewers raised the issue of his background not as a newsman but an actor. Whether a feeling of inadequacy at that fact drove him or not, Wallace certainly thrived as a newsman on television. He fought criticisms that what he did wasn’t journalism but rather was simply drama. What he did for the art and presentation of the interview cannot be overstated, and we’re still celebrating it today. Take, for instance, Anderson Cooper eviscerating the hairdo known as Rob Blogovich. Mike Wallace would be proud.


Apollo 11: Hulu

This film was must-see viewing for me last year. My girlfriend and I left the screening of Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary early (despite being engrossed in the increasingly outrageous series of events in that film) to make sure we got a good seat for Apollo 11. And it did not disappoint.

While seeing this video in any format is gratifying, let me suggest watching it on the largest format possible. The size and majesty of the images in the film loses some effect as the screen size shrinks. To me, the reaffirming message of the film is the same every time I watch it: Look at what we can do. Not just the other-worldly engineering feat of building and launching a rocket to deliver three men to the Moon, or the mathematics and physics required to do so safely, but also the quality of the film that recorded every aspect of the launch using 1960s technology. The film is unique in how it includes no talking heads; the audio accompanying the images was recorded during the mission as well. It feels like stepping back in time and taking up a front-row seat in Mission Control.


Amazing Grace: Hulu

This isn’t so much a documentary as it is a live concert. There’s a meta quality to the film, as it’s the behind-the-scenes recording process of a live gospel album that Franklin insisted on doing inside a church instead of a studio. And it is breath-taking. There’s something about watching her sing it live that elevates her already heavenly voice. It carries with it the power of a concert of a truly gifted vocalist or musician where one simply marvels at the fact that that’s what he or she sounds like, absent sound-mixing and tampering; she’s just THAT gifted. There’s something so touching in a small gesture of one man coming up to dab the sweat off her brow and cheeks and neck as she plays the piano and starts singing another song; it’s so subservient, like the story in the Gospel of Luke where the woman washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipes them dry with her hair. There is something powerful and uplifting about watching a congregation unite in worship, and listening to a voice like hers, believers and nonbelievers could all find something to lift up in Franklin’s performance.


American Factory: Netflix

Such a human documentary. Until today, I hadn’t rewatched American Factory since it won an Academy Award last month, but what a great film. It greatly captures the complications of such a reality where a Chinese billionaire opens a auto glass factory in the hull of an old General Motors factory which, when it closed, gutted the working class city of Dayton, Ohio.  There are moments of genuine trying on both sides of the relationship, but even more moments of genuine differences of cultural. Wrapped up in these cultural growing pains is the very American push for union representation in the factory, and it adds another level of complications for the marriage of East and West. But the greatest strength of the film is it's humanizing power; it serves as a reminder that every decision, even those seemingly impersonal ones of the business world, are deeply personal and multi-faceted. Its embrace of the complications is American Factory’s greatest strength.


If you liked what you read, please sign up, follow me on Twitter (@CaryLiljohn06) and then forward to friends to help spread the word.