My second day of screenings at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri saw a wide range of documentary features, from crowd-pleasers like the inspiring “Let the Little Light Shine” (its world premiere) to raw portraits of minority groups, like the young Hmong women of “Children of the Mist.” You can find my reviews of those films, as well as “Sirens,” “Days and Nights of Demetra K.,” and “We Met in Virtual Reality,” below.
Slave to Sirens stands out. After all, an all-female, Lebanese thrash metal band isn’t a common sight. But there are more to these ladies than their music, as director Rita Baghdadi shows with her film “Sirens.” Baghdadi trains her camera on two of the band’s members in particular: Lilas and Shery, whose friendship is undergoing a bit of a rough patch. Lilas in particular has a lot going on: she wants to move out on her own, to the chagrin of her traditional mother, and is in a secret relationship with a Syrian woman (a sequence in which her girlfriend comes to visit her home finds Lilas almost frantically trying to control the situation so her mother won’t discern the true nature of their relationship).
“Sirens” is less about the music than it is about the personal struggles of Lilas and Shery and the bond between these women, although we do witness some of the hurdles they face, most notably when they travel to Glastonbury to play a gig and barely anyone shows up. The choice to also only really focus on one or two members of the band is one that perhaps ought to have been established earlier in the film. Despite the film’s quick runtime, it feels a little unfocused, and the inclusion of the explosion in Beirut and the rising revolution aren’t given much context. Baghdadi, however, includes a great shot of Lilas and Shery giggling, bent over a phone as Lilas shows her pictures of her date and gushes about her night out, while a protest quickly emerges and moves around them. It is great to see a story that centers on Middle Eastern women and authentically presents their dreams and heartbreaks, both specific to them and universal. Lilas, Shery, and everyone else are almost immediately likeable, and it’s hard not to walk out of “Sirens” rooting for their success.
Runtime: 78 minutes.
“CHILDREN OF THE MIST“
The Hmong are an Asian minority who live across South China, Laos, and Vietnam. In a small, mist-covered North Vietnamese village, education for young girls is viewed skeptically, while the society still widely accepts the practice of bride-kidnapping. This tradition allows boys to organize the kidnapping of girls they like, even enlisting the help of friends and family to do so. Technically, the girl is permitted to reject the boy’s advances and return home within three days. In reality, the kidnapping sometimes takes a darker turn, with the girl ending up raped or sold. And these girls are all young, hovering around the ages of 12 to 15.
In her first feature documentary, director Hà Lệ Diễm draws on her own experiences growing up in a small North Vietnam town where she witnessed her friends get married and start families when they’d barely hit puberty, unable to continue their education or have their own career. She focuses specifically on Di, a young girl who, over the course of a few years, we witness turn from a carefree child to a headstrong 12-year-old. Di wants an education but she also likes to flirt, despite her mother’s warnings, not fully grasping the serious consequences her behavior may have.
“Children of the Mist” occasionally feels like it circles around the same situations multiple times, but despite its repetitive nature failing to make it a consistently interesting watch, Hà Lệ Diễm and her team deliver some intense, on-the-ground filmmaking that puts us right in the middle of the action– even when it feels like they may be putting themselves at risk. The raw finale caps this eye-opening look at a part of the world where women still must fight to maintain their independence.
Runtime: 90 minutes.
“DAYS AND NIGHTS OF DEMETRA K.“
Eva Stefani directs this intimate portrait of Athens sex worker Demetra that spans a 12 year period. Over time, we see the neighborhood around her brothel change, as well as changes in Demetra’s personal and professional life. Demetra is quite the character, and it’s never not entertaining to listen to her talk, whether it’s about the ins and outs of her job, replete with both amusements and frustrations, or the heartbreak she endures when her beloved mother passes away. She also has amusing back-and-forths with Stefani, an outsider to Demetra’s world; we frequently hear Stefani, off-camera, asking for more light, to which Demetra responds they’re in a brothel, that’s about as much light as she’s going to get.
But Stefani’s film feels like it’s lacking in some areas, touching on interesting topics but not delving into them deeper. This is particularly evident when it comes to Demetra’s activism on behalf of sex worker’s rights and in her long-held role as the head of their committee. The passage of time (again, this was filmed over a 12 year span) also feels incredibly unspecific. Demetra is a fascinating character, but “Days and Nights of Demetra K.” despite containing some impactful, insightful moments, only feels like it just scratches her surface.
Runtime: 75 minutes.
National Teachers Academy (NTA) is a top-ranked elementary school south of downtown Chicago, its students consisting primarily of low-income, Black children. Despite its stellar reputation for student achievement, gentrification and the desire accomodate families at a nearby, over-crowded, predominantly white elementary school prompts Chicago Public Schools to announce the closure of NTA so it can be replaced by a high school. Director Kevin Shaw’s “Let the Little Light Shine” follows a group of NTA’s teachers, parents, principal, and students as they fight the school board to keep their school– an integral part of their community– open.
“Let the Little Light Shine” is about as crowd-pleasing as a documentary can get, but I mean that in the best way possible. We really get a sense that the people Shaw turns his camera on care deeply about NTA’s students and helping them succeed, and that the students feel a sense of confidence and belonging as a result. It’s an inspiring, triumphant film filled with plenty of cute kid moments, but never feels saccharine, and also explores the larger issue at hand: the role that racism plays in what schools stay open and get funding, and the ways the system is stacked against minority groups. Both joyous and eye-opening, “Let the Little Light Shine” is a reminder that anything is possible when you have big dreams and a little perseverance.
Runtime: 86 minutes. “Let the Little Light Shine” has been picked up for distribution by PBS.
Ever since the inception of the internet, people have used it to form relationships with other people from around the world. From forums and message boards to social media and apps to now, virtual reality, a medium that, unlike social media, most people likely haven’t touched, but those who have have been pushing the boundaries of the ways they can use it to connect with others. Director Joe Hunting explores several of these relationships with “We Met in Virtual Reality,” which he filmed entirely within the program VRChat.
VRChat utilizes full-body tracking to allow users to move freely within the worlds they create, through avatars they create. Among the users Hunting profiles are Jenny, a member of the Helping Hands program who uses the technology to teach American Sign Language; DustBunny, a dance instructor who also met her partner Toaster through VRChat, their ability to meet in person hindered by pandemic restrictions; and DragonHeart and IsYourBoi, a couple who haven’t met physically yet but have developed a strong relationship through VRChat. For those who aren’t familiar with the program at all, the community really goes deeper than expected.
The technical aspect of “We Met in Virtual Reality” is its most unique factor. The humorous glitches inherent in burgeoning technology like this create some disconnect in the tone of some scenes, when more serious moments are made laughable by unnaturally moving body parts and the like. A documentary about the making of this movie, and the ways Hunting had to navigate the virtually touched territory of filming in VR, would probably be at least as interesting as the film itself. Hunting manages to find quiet moments amidst the chaos (and even has coverage for many of his scenes, somehow) that help remind the audience that even though we are only seeing digital characters on screen, there are real people behind them. Ultimately, “We Met in Virtual Reality” isn’t about the ground-breaking technology it makes use of, but rather an ode to the relationships we form with others through digital spaces, which are integral pieces of our social lives whether we continue them offline or never meet in the real world.
Runtime: 91 minutes.