“Why did you let me film this?” filmmaker Josh Kriegman incredulously asks Anthony Weiner late in Weiner, a documentary about the former New York congressman’s failed 2013 mayoral run. The disgraced candidate doesn’t have a good answer, but the question hangs over this fascinating film, which plays as if it started out as an attempt at image rehabilitation only to become something else entirely. Early scenes show the dogged Weiner leading the polls in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race less than two years after the sexting scandal that brought down his congressional career; it’s not hard to imagine why Weiner initially let Kriegman (his former chief of staff) and co-director Elyse Steinberg into his world.
But then new sexting allegations derail Weiner’s campaign — he eventually placed a measly fifth in the primary — and the film transforms before our eyes from a campaign document into a psychological portrait of a man whose ambition is matched only by his capacity for self-destruction. It also increasingly becomes about Weiner’s marriage to Huma Abedin, whose calm veneer cracks as more allegations emerge, and whose loyalty is complicated by her own position as a top aide to Hillary Clinton, soon to be a candidate herself.
I saw Weiner at the 13th annual True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. True/False is not a particularly huge festival — held over four days, it screens around 40 features — but its profile has risen substantially over the past few years. It may not be quite as comprehensive as Doc NYC, AFI Docs in Washington, D.C., or HotDocs in Toronto, but the small-town setting, unorthodox screening venues and “thousand-plus” army of cheerful volunteers give it personality.
True/False endeavors to turn each screening into an event unto itself. Creatively attired volunteers help manage and direct the lines (which, believe it or not, are often huge). Before each show, buskers perform onstage as a hat is passed around for donations. This year, the festival introduced “provocations” — playful mini-presentations quickly delivered before select screenings. The one I saw had humorist and critic David Rees playing back digitally manipulated voice recordings of presidential candidates and asking the audience to identify them; it turns out that Donald Trump sounds like Donald Duck when you send his voice two octaves higher and Hillary Clinton sounds like Jabba the Hut when you slow hers down.
Despite the festive mood, True/False’s programmers take the nonfiction form very seriously. As their event’s name suggests, they like movies that transform, that push at the boundaries of what is real and what is artifice. The high-profile Weiner — which won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance — might not seem at first like the kind of formally adventurous work that True/False tends to highlight, but its transformative quality proved very much in keeping with the festival's spirit.
Another Sundance title, Robert Greene’s mesmerizing Kate Plays Christine, shows us the actress Kate Lyn Sheil deep in preparations to play the part of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, TV newscaster who in 1974 shot herself on camera to protest her station’s growing obsession with violence and sensationalism. Greene focuses on Sheil as she explores Chubbuck’s life and strives to inhabit this woman’s troubled psychology: researching suicide, retracing Chubbuck’s steps and physically becoming more like her. But the fiction Sheil is preparing for turns out to be literally nothing — just a series of self-consciously fake vignettes that Greene has created solely for the purpose of his own film. In other words, Kate Plays Christine looks like a typical behind-the-scenes doc until we realize that it’s a making-of movie about itself.
Meanwhile, in O Futebol (On Football), director Sergio Oksman presents at first what seems like a highly rigorous, cerebral approach to the personal documentary. Over the course of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Oksman reconnects in São Paulo with the father he hasn't seen in years. Much of the film consists of static, observational shots, often filmed from a distance; what (little) movement we get comes courtesy of a camera placed in the backseat of his dad’s car as the two men drive through the streets, rarely saying anything at all. But this ostensible portrait of alienation takes a startling turn near the end, shifting what might have been a dry, tidy essay film into something emotionally overwhelming as the distance and austerity become less an academic conceit and more an attempt to hold the pain of the world at bay.
Similarly, Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa starts off resembling another slick, beautifully shot and entertaining mountain-climbing documentary — this time from the point of view of the oft-neglected Nepalese ethnic group who for decades have done the heavy lifting as various Westerners summited Mount Everest. Introducing her movie, the high-altitude-shooting specialist admitted that, on previous mountaineering films she had worked on, footage of the Sherpas often wound up on the cutting-room floor. As a result, she was prompted to make this movie, which starts off following the 2014 climbing season from the perspective of those doing the majority of the actual, often deadly work. But when an accident on Everest kills 16 people, most of them Sherpas, the film effectively becomes about a labor-rights dispute. On one side are the foreign tour companies and climbers for whom scaling Everest remains some kind of expensive, pseudo-existential personal goal; on the other, the grieving, angry Sherpas who need the work but have been taken advantage of for years. For the latter, the mountain is sacred — not a peak to be conquered but a deity to be respected.
If Sherpa was inspired by what was left on the cutting-room floor, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is composed of nothing but. Johnson, a veteran cinematographer and camera operator on such films as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, constructed her film out of footage cut from others she had worked on. We see discarded interviews with Bosnian farmers; vast Wyoming landscapes; empty amusement parks in Afghanistan; the outside of a prison in Yemen; a courtroom in Texas. We also see the filmmakers inserting themselves into the story: They help save the life of a baby in a Nigerian hospital. They tell an overwhelmed single mother in an Alabama health clinic that she can never consider herself a bad person for what’s happened to her. We see Michael Moore offering to help pay for one of his subjects’ legal fees. Cameraperson is a cinematic memoir in which we not only see the ways that documentary “reality” is constructed but also begin to get a sense of the consciousness hovering behind the camera. It seems practically made for True/False: In revealing the artifice behind nonfiction filmmaking, it both interrogates the form and gives you renewed respect for those who work in it.
Even the celebrity documentaries at True/False are something else. You might expect Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor to be a dishy look at the aging Austrian heartthrob who once graced films by Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. But Berger, who now lives in a run-down, cluttered apartment, turns out to be a moody, cantankerous subject. He spends much of his time discussing what to watch on TV or fighting with his director, only vaguely reflecting on his once-fabulous life. Oh, and jerking off: The film opens with Berger simulating masturbation and ends with the real thing, as the actor pleasures himself on camera and insists that Horvath also expose himself to help things along. (“Aristocratic!” Berger observes after getting a glimpse of the director’s package.)
The film’s hothouse claustrophobia at first feels like a failure: an attempt at a full-blooded portrait that wound up lost amid the recesses of the subject’s own confused mind. But in truth this documentary shares that sense of stifling enclosure with many of the films in which Berger starred. Visconti’s sprawling Ludwig might be the most claustrophobic film ever made about a man who owned half a dozen castles, and Conversation Piece is all about a wheelchair-bound Burt Lancaster sputtering around his Rome apartment, lost among his memories, desires and fears. (Even one of Berger’s more recent appearances, in Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, has him as the aging Yves Saint Laurent, confined to his estate, adrift amid the beautiful clutter.) The decadence this time is more emotional than material, but no less corrosive.
Perhaps the biggest discovery at the festival was Starless Dreams, Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary about a prison for teenage girls in Iran. In a setting that’s more rehab center than jailhouse, the girls — most of whom are there for drug-related offenses — gossip, pray, goof off and argue. But the real emotional dynamite comes in Oskouei’s individual interviews with the young inmates, who reveal unfathomable depths of shame and self-loathing. The director doesn’t pretend to any kind of objectivity or remove: We hear his patient voice and see his interactions with the kids; he even buys things for them on occasion. By not hiding his empathy and concern, Oskouei subtly draws attention to the inherent imbalance of the viewer-subject exchange. Suddenly, we’re not just watching a movie but reflecting on our own helplessness.
Oskouei was being given the True Vision award by the festival, which also screened his 2012 film, Last Days of Winter, part of a trilogy with Starless Dreams. That documentary, set in a detention center for boys 15 and under, makes for a dramatic contrast with this new film. The patriarchal nature of Iranian society suggests that the boys will, upon their return home, be welcomed back and given another chance; for them, this period of confinement is a shame that they’ll be allowed to live down. The girls, however, are often shunned and refused; we get the terrifying sense that for many of them, this might be the end of the line. Oskouei dedicated his screenings to the boys and girls, he said, “for whom nobody speaks.” And nobody in these movies — not the kids on camera, not the filmmaker himself — would ever dare ask why he’s filming them. Somewhere along the way, these documentaries stop being mere films and become lifelines instead.