Here’s my recap of the films I watched on my fourth and final day covering the 2022 True/False Film Festival, which saw what ended up being my favorites of the fest (“The Territory” and “Gods of Mexico”), as well as “The Delights,” “Açucena,” and “After Sherman.” Read my reviews of all those movies below.
In rural Argentina, around 120 children live and learn together at the agrotechnical boarding school Las Delicias. In addition to regular class subjects, they also learn farm work, tending to the land around the school. With “The Delights,” director Eduardo Crespo quietly observes the students and the ways they interact with each other and the world around them, fully immersing the viewer in their world. Despite a runtime that stretches to only just over an hour, Crespo never rushes things, choosing to linger on scenes such as one showing the boys, one after another, visiting the school nurse for help with their various ailments, or following one of the boys as he cares for an injured bird he found. Crespo particularly seems interested in focusing on the boys’ nurturing nature; they are frequently surrounded by animals, such as stray dogs that have been forsaken by other humans but are watched after by the children.
But as pleasant as “The Delights” is to watch, it’s missing a lot of context that could have made it more impactful. We never really learn, within the film, what this school or its mission is. We occasionally see female students show up, and how the boys’ behavior changes around them, without understanding that while this is a co-ed school, Crespo chose to center his film around the boys because the boys actually live at the school, while the girls go home at the end of each day. There’s a cultural divide between the male students that is interesting but not explicitly explored in the film either: that half of the boys are from farm backgrounds and are attending the school because they will be going into agriculture as a career, while the other half are from urban areas, sent to Las Delicias as a last resort. While Crespo’s approach to exploring this environment isn’t concerned with those details, it feels like something is missing that could have elevated the film further.
“The Delights,” however, successfully makes use of a unique structure, dropping us in the middle of the action at the start and ending the film where other documentaries likely would have started it, following the next year’s group of new students as they are dropped off at the school by their parents. This final act is the strongest, and most affecting, part of the movie: watching parents and children letting go of each other, and the kids getting their first real taste of independence as they take the next big step forward in their lives.
Runtime: 65 minutes.
Director Alex Pritz’s “The Territory” begins with shots of destruction: trees being felled by chainsaws, the loudness of the chainsaws dominating the scenery. A graphic shown soon after shows how invaders and deforestation are destroying the land belonging to Brazil’s Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people, a tribe native to the Amazon, leaving the population of roughly 200 Indigenous people to reside in a circle of land that is closing ever more tightly by the day.
There’s little that’s conventional about “The Territory,” both in its story and craft. Later in the film, Pritz contrasts the barren landscapes seen in the film’s opening with lush shots of nature in areas still cared for by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, including some breath-taking close-ups of insects and animals that pull us farther into their world. Set over the course of a few years’ time, Pritz also cedes some control of his film to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people themselves. Following the election of Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing leader for whom genocide of Brazil’s Indigenous population of seizure of their ancestral lands is an essential piece of his policy—as the country’s president in 2018, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, resigned to receiving no aid from the government, take matters into their own hands, tracking down and ejecting foreign invaders from their land themselves. With events getting increasingly dangerous, not to mention the potentially disastrous effect the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the tribe’s already dwindling numbers, tribe members begin to take over camera duties themselves. The relatively reclusive Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau already allowed Pritz unprecedented access to their community, and Pritz—while he does also include the perspectives of other groups in the film, such as those leading the deforestation efforts—is respectful of their space, but “The Territory” is taken to another, more powerful level when the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are able to take control not just in the telling of their story, but in the making of it.
There are a few central figures in “The Territory,” namely Bitaté, a remarkably young Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau member who takes charge of protecting his people, and Neidinh Bandeira, an environmental activist who has worked closely with the tribe for years, and whose efforts to stop invaders and raise awareness for their plight from the outside has put her on the receiving end of countless threats against her life. There are scenes in “The Territory” where the film takes on shades of a thriller, such as when Neidinh receives a threatening phone call from someone pretending to be her daughter and frantically tries to track down her daughter’s whereabouts, and when the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau charge on an invader camping on their land. But the film never loses sight of its urgent message, which at times borders on hopeless; the movie leaves us with a title card informing the audience that in 2021, invasions on Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau lands reached an all-time high. But with the perseverance of leaders like Neidinh and Bitaté working tirelessly on their behalf, the fight rages on.
The True/False Film Festival selected “The Territory” as its 2022 True Life Fund film, allowing individuals to make donations to help the cause of the film’s participants by texting TLF to 53555 from now until April 30. The money raised will go to a college fund for the children of Ari, an Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe member killed in his efforts to protect their land.
Runtime: 83 minutes.
Moss-laden trees. The sun glimmering on the water. Church steeples towering high against the sky, and portraits of multiple generations of a family, gathered together and staring straight into the camera. These beautiful images—snapshots of Georgetown, South Carolina—make up just a portion of director Jon-Sesrie Goff’s poetic documentary “After Sherman,” which had its world premiere at True/False. Goff may not have been born in Georgetown, but it’s where his family calls home, despite its complex history—a history that Goff uses his film to interrogate in both broad and personal terms. Goff’s family has roots in the Gullah Geechee people, slaves who largely came from West Africa and populated the coastal regions of the South, and the question of how a place where Africans were enslaved and separated from their families and homeland can still be considered home to them one question he attempts to answer.
“After Sherman” is very loosely structured and even occasionally experimental in the way it uses footage from the past, while conversations held in the present day, in particular a long-running discussion Goff has with his father Reverend Norvel Goff, comment on that history. Goff assembles a mesmerizing compilation of images and ideas, commenting on the history of white supremacy in the U.S. as a whole (a casual conversation with a group of friends briefly digs into the ideas they hold about being a Black person living in the North versus the South), while Georgetown serves as the backdrop to exploring specific issues, like the efforts of the Gullah Geechee to preserve their lands.
“After Sherman” also comments on the present as well as the past, although not as effectively. This comes about in the second half of the film, which pivots a bit to address the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, a hate crime committed by a white man. Goff’s parents were members of the church, and his father was tasked with stepping in as the temporary pastor in the wake of the tragedy, as well as organize the funerals of the nine victims. The assumption is that a line is being drawn from the racial violence that defined the area almost from the time it was first settled to the way that violence has been inherited in the present day, but ultimately “After Sherman” is too fragmented for many of Goff’s intentions to land. Even though “After Sherman” doesn’t end on as strong a note as it opens on, the pain and pride of Goff and his community, still there despite all they’ve been through, is evident above it all.
Runtime: 88 minutes.
We never see the Açucena of the title of director Isaac Donato’s film. That’s because she’s a spirit, one who Guiomar Monteiro, now an elderly woman, claims visited her as a child. Now, every year, the inhabitants of her rural Brazil community come together to help her celebrate Açucena’s seventh birthday. In a house with pink walls that lend the film not only its girlishness but also a sense of fantasy, friends and neighbors dress dolls for Açucena, prepare food, and arrange decorations.
Donato builds up the mystique surrounding Açucena by spending much of the film observing the party preparations and listening in on others’ conversations and speculations about the spiritual figure they’re working so hard to celebrate. We don’t even spend much time with Monteiro herself—the link between Açucena and everyone else—by comparison, which may be the reason why “Açucena” fails to really intrigue despite its unique subject matter. There is a powerful scene that centers around her toward the end of the film, however, one that Donato watches from a distance, the camera almost appearing to be nestled between the many dolls placed around the room. We watch, at length, as Monteiro plays with one doll in particular, a doll that can talk back to you. As Monteiro repeatedly utters words for the doll to reiterate, she smiles and giggles, and for all the questions we’ve heard others pose about her throughout the film, it’s suddenly clear that the joy linked with childhood is what makes Açucena such an important figure to Monteiro. We may not actually see Açucena in the film, but as the final shot fades to black, the audio that plays over the closing credits ends it on a perfect note.
Runtime: 71 minutes.
“GODS OF MEXICO”
“Gods of Mexico” is about the most stunningly gorgeous documentary you could ever hope to see, even if that beauty is derived from scenes deliberately staged to highlight the Indigenous people of Mexico in a particular light. The title of director Helmut Dosantos’ film may refer to gods, but it is grounded in the down-to-earth daily lives of people and the landscape surrounding them, and their traditions and cultural identity.
Throughout the film, we frequently bear witness to the relationship Mexican natives have with the land. “Gods of Mexico” is bookended by two extended sequences, the first portraying workers gathering salt from the land, the second following a group of miners deeper underground. There’s no narration anywhere in the film; Dosantos lets the images speak for themselves. The scenes on the salt flats at times feel choreographed like a dance, the workers raking the ground back-and-forth in unison. The scenes in the mine are louder, emphasizing the sound of the miners’ tools, and riddled with more tension. In a scene where a miner lays down dynamite, Dosantos cuts quickly between close-ups of the miners’ faces, ratcheting up the suspense in the lead-up to the explosion.
The middle segment of “Gods of Mexico” is comprised of black-and-white portraits of people, divided by region. It’s this interlude that truly transforms the film into a jaw-dropping experience. The soundscape, which emphasizes the noises of their surroundings, from chirping insects to instruments to galloping horses, completely envelopes the viewer to create an immersive experience. The black-and-white images are incredibly crisp. The portraits are staged so that the subjects in the foreground stay frozen, gazing straight into the camera, but pieces of the background move around them. Each portrait lasts approximately 30 seconds, giving the viewer time to absorb the peoples’ faces and environment. Carefully arranged though it is, it still feels like Dosantos took into account the manner in which his subjects wanted to be seen as opposed to projecting his perspective onto them, and the end result is an unconventional but powerful portrayal of an often forgotten people’s identity and culture, one that pulls the incredible beauty out of the mundane.
Runtime: 97 minutes.