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Note to Documentary Distributors: These 5 True/False Film Festival Titles Deserve a Home Now

At the True/False Film Festival, packed with an array of nonfiction films from around the globe, there’s an overarching sense of connection and familiarity that emerges by the end of the four-day documentary showcase. True/False has held court in the charming college town of Columbia, Missouri as a haven for documentary film lovers for 21 years. IndieWire was particularly taken with the conversations that ensued throughout the festival — from Q&As to post-screening chit-chat — as we streamed out of the city’s historic theaters. Subtler conversations arose between the films themselves.

While the settings of the films were varied — Michigan to Mumbai, Armenia to Alphabet City — the best films touched on universal ideas: the connection between art and selfhood, changing political landscapes, and preparations for death and departure from this world. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s festival, all of which are still looking for U.S. distributors.

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“Flying Lessons”

When filmmaker Elizabeth Nichols found herself facing an eviction notice after her rent-controlled Lower East Side apartment was bought by Steve Croman (known colloquially as the “Bernie Madoff of Landlords”), she serendipitously happened upon her film’s subject at a tenants’ meeting. After meeting Philly Abe — her neighbor, and a muse and performance artist hailing from the underground New York scene of the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts — the film shapeshifts into a biographical study of this idiosyncratic and enigmatic woman. Nichols sensitively captures Abe in both present and past tense, spending countless hours with her as she protests eviction, packs up her art-filled apartment and ultimately, as she describes it, “prepares for departure” after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Meanwhile, she reflects on her past, when artists could still afford to live in New York, and “the city pulsed like a dead animal animated by maggots.” It’s an ideal meeting between filmmaker and subject, where the latter manages to have as much a hand in making the film as the director herself. As the two grow closer, Abe playfully teases Nichols with lines like, “Are you getting what you want, bitch?” “Flying Lessons” is wholly unique, hilarious, and moving.

“A Photographic Memory”

Rachel Elizabeth Seed’s “A Photographic Memory” is an exercise in absence. A patchwork portrait of the artist’s prolific writer-photographer mother Sheila Turner Seed, who died when the filmmaker was only 18 months old, Seed’s film, too, jumps between the present and the past to try and build a relationship with someone of whom she has no memory. Through Turner Seed’s extensive archive of interviews with some of the most iconic photographers of the 20th century, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Gordon Parks, Seed pieces together an image of her sharp, vibrant mother, forming a retroactive understanding of someone who’s no longer alive. This one-sided conversation becomes a bittersweet project, as Seed comes to realize that perhaps it was easier to bear her mother’s loss before she knew what she was missing. The film evolves into a simultaneous look at two women in search of themselves, and as Seed reads her mother’s journal entries aloud over exhaustive photo and video footage from throughout her life, the voices of the two women merge into one.

‘Obsolete’
‘Obsolete’

“Obsolete”

Once you learn that the aging Mumbai couple at the center of Sumira Roy’s “Obsolete” has been lobbying to receive euthanasia for years, every move they make takes on an added weight. Mundane tasks like cooking, eating, and shaving move slowly, a waste of energy for Ira and Narayan, two people ready to die with dignity. Now in their 80s, the two live a lonely life in a 12 x 12 foot chawl, where their days are drawn out and lack purpose. Roy deftly captures the claustrophobia of the space and impending death, as Mumbai seems to be moving ahead without them, building high-rise apartment buildings whose construction cuts off access to their own. Still, the two manage to find humor in their daily interactions, and even a bit of affection. In a post-screening Q&A, Roy explained one way of looking at her film, saying, “One didn’t want to leave the other behind, so in a way, it’s a love story.”

’23 Mile’
’23 Mile’

“23 Mile”

Mitch McCabe’s hyperlocal, verité look at the complex, often contradictory political views that make up their home state of Michigan leading up to and following the 2020 election may feel too soon for some. But you shouldn’t look away from their detailed film diary, in which they capture the distinct voices who make up the electorate of the consequential swing state. McCabe takes the temperature from an objective standpoint, engaging representatives from lesser-known groups like “Michigan Militia of Love” and “Black Guns Matter” to explain their nuanced, often baffling philosophies. The film continuously catches you off guard, offering an unfiltered look at a state as it navigates COVID, threats to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Stop the Steal rallies in the wake of Biden’s win.

‘There Was, There Was Not’<cite>Karen Mirzoyan</cite>
‘There Was, There Was Not’Karen Mirzoyan

“There Was, There Was Not”

The title of Armenian-American filmmaker Emily Mkrtichian’s documentary is drawn from the traditional opening line of Armenian fairy tales and fables, and the words become a fitting mantra throughout this poetically constructed film. Mkrtichian initially set out to document the lives of four women in the contested Republic of Artsakh, which sits between Armenia and Azerbaijan. What begins as an intimate look at these women as they pursue their dreams, from competing in the Olympic Judo championships to being the only woman to win a political office in her local election, becomes a depiction of the devastating effects of war on each of their lives. “There Was, There Was Not” emphasizes bravery and resilience in the face of the war while also serving as a time capsule of their lost, beloved homeland.

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