True/False Day 1: ”Mija,” ”Riotsville, USA,” ”2nd Chance”

Greetings from the 2022 True/False Film Festival! I’m in Columbia, Missouri this weekend as the festival, which focuses on documentary filmmaking, returns to in-person screenings for this year’s edition. For the first day of the festival, I was able to catch three feature documentaries, all of which coincidentally premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival this last January. You can read my reviews of ”Mija,” ”Riotsville, USA,” and ”2nd Chance” below.

“Mija”

MIJA

There aren’t many female managers in the music industry– that alone makes Doris Muñoz unique. The daughter of undocumented immigrants, at the age of 23 she launched a career seeking out rising Latinx talent, and achieved the success of her dreams when Cuco, an indie artist she worked with, skyrocketed to fame. But Doris, who spends her free time working to get her parents their green cards and traveling to Mexico to bring supplies to her brother, who was deported, faces an uncertain future when she’s hit with the double whammy of the sudden onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing her to cancel all of Cuco’s upcoming shows, and Cuco’s decision to no longer work with her.

That’s when director Isabel Castro’s film introduces another immigrant story that runs parallel to Doris’s: that of up-and-coming Dallas singer-songwriter Jacks Haupt, who Doris discovers online and believes has potential to be her next big thing. The expectations of parents versus the dreams of their children are compared and contrasted through these two young women. Doris’s parents at least appear accepting of the unconventional career she’s chosen and the success she’s had. Meanwhile, a phone call home after she’s traveled to LA to work on her EP quickly turns heart-breaking for Jacks, as we hear her parents berate her for what they view as her selfishness in pursuing her music career.

Even though it’s clear that Castro and team had to shift gears in the middle of filming due to covid, the film still feel rather unfocused, centering a little on Jacks, more on Doris, occasionally on the music business, and more on the immigrant story. This likely wouldn’t seem as glaring if so many of the sequences didn’t feel like meetings or conversations staged for the camera. But when the focus swings back to Doris and her family in the film’s final minutes, that is a genuinely affecting, beautiful sequence that perfectly encompasses all the trials and joys that come from realizing the dream of a better life, and from being with family. The effect is bolstered by the usage of footage from birthday parties throughout the film to mark the passage of time and the gathering of friends and family, as well as some dreamy cinematography, effectively used, for instance, in a scene where Jacks rides down Hollywood Boulevard, head poking out the sunroof, the lights of the city glittering around her.

Runtime: 85 minutes.

“Riotsville, USA”

RIOTSVILLE, USA

As civil unrest intensified across America in the late 1960s, the U.S. military responded by building model towns called “Riotsvilles,” where soldiers and police could train on techniques for confronting rioters– often using whatever force they deemed necessary. Director Sierra Pettengill’s “Riotsville, USA” is crafted solely out of newly unearthed military footage of these training endeavors, as well as news broadcasts. The film most notably uses a lot of clips from PBL (Public Broadcast Laboratory), a precursor to PBS where hosts and guests engaged in reasoned debates on topics like race relations and police brutality. These conversations are reflections of a lot of discussions that we’re still having about the same subjects today, and through this over 50-year-old footage, Pettengill draws a line from then to now, portraying the beginnings of the militarization of police forces that we are reckoning with in the present day.

The footage is exceptionally restored and edited, with title cards providing context when needed. There is also occasional voice narration by Charlene Modeste, although its poetic nature comes off as a little unnecessary and heavy-handed. The events of the film culminate with the riot that broke out at the Republican National Convention in Miami, the same year as the much more notorious riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There are many moments in the film where we see Black people trying to make a point, to make reasonable demands for change, only to fall on deaf ears. We see, in footage from a news broadcast, a white reporter ask his Black colleague what he thinks about the riot and what the protesters want. The Black man gives a very clear and thoughtful answer; the white reporter, in response, turns to the camera and states matter-of-factly, “Well, I guess we’ll never know the reason.”

Runtime: 91 minutes.

Richard Davis in “2nd Chance”

“2ND CHANCE”

Director Ramin Bahrani has used his narrative feature work, such as “99 Homes” and “The White Tiger,” to explore social issues like class and race. He turns a similar lens on his first documentary feature, “2nd Chance,” the wild true story of Richard Davis. Davis, after being allegedly shot at during a robbery attempt, goes from being a pizzeria owner to the inventor of the modern day bullet-proof vest. He put his own life at risk to save others, shooting himself point-blank 192 times on camera to prove the vest works, but as Bahrani points out at the beginning of the movie, Richard is a man full of contradictions, and as much as he purported to be helping others, he brought a lot of other people down with him.

But Bahrani doesn’t really carry his thesis of Davis’ contradictory nature through to the end in a movie that is entertaining but fairly inconsistent. Some of that may be due to the personality of Davis himself, an unreliable narrator who’s quirky and amusing but also obviously dancing around giving straight answers to certain queries. The first half of the film focuses primarily on Davis and his life and career, from his building of his invention into Second Chance, one of the biggest body armor companies in the world, to his creation of films sensationalizing cop and crook encounters as a marketing technique. His confidence made him a celebrity among gun owners and police, but also gave police a false sense of security.

The second half of the film transitions more into a look at how other individuals were affected by Davis’ actions, such as his former right-hand-man Aaron Westrick. There are plenty of talking head interviews with not just Davis but his family, friends, ex-wives, and former co-workers. But some of their struggles feel a little glossed over by the time we get to them, with Bahrani clearly trying to wring out as big an emotional payoff as possible with scenes like the meeting between Aaron and Clifford Washington, the man who shot him in an encounter many years ago, and the film misses the opportunity to comment on the larger issue of gun control and policing. Bahrani was apparently initially approached to direct a narrative feature about Davis, and as worthwhile an endeavor as “2nd Chance” is, I can’t help but wonder if Bahrani would have been better suited to the former project as opposed to a documentary.

Runtime: 89 minutes. “2nd Chance” has been acquired by Showtime for network premiere later this year.

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