Greetings from the 20th True/False Film Festival! I’m excited to be back in Columbia, Missouri this weekend celebrating thrilling new works of documentary filmmaking. For my first batch of capsule reviews from this year’s festival, I’m looking at two feature debuts (one a world premiere) and a doc about a well-known subject that recently premiered at Sundance. Find my reviews of Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, Red Herring, and Dogwatch below.
GOING TO MARS: THE NIKKI GIOVANNI PROJECT dirs. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
Nikki Giovanni believes Black women should go to Mars. Black people have already had to traverse an environment not welcoming to them on Earth— why shouldn’t they be the best people to send to explore an alien world? Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s documentary Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project uses this idea to tie together the pieces of their loose portrait of legendary poet Giovanni’s life and work, Afro-futurist imagery and creative editing techniques complementing Giovanni’s recitation of her own words (Taraji P. Henson steps in when Giovanni’s voiceover isn’t available). Approaching 80, having had cancer a couple of times and finding it harder and harder to remember things from her past, the film finds Giovanni stepping out on a book tour for her new poetry collection titled “A Good Cry,” a shift from the famously stoic activist toward exposing more vulnerability and more about her troubled personal history growing up with an abusive father.
Giovanni also lets the directors into her life—into her eclectic home which she shares with her partner Virginia Fowler, where they film the first interaction her granddaughter who she’s only just getting to know with the space where her grandmother resides— but only as much as she wants to. She’s an enigmatic personality, and while that’s part of her charm, the film has to match that in a way that’s somewhat frustrating. Going to Mars glosses over meeting her Fowler, or her relationship with her son Thomas, which is said to have been estranged until recently. When asked about the latter part during the Q&A that followed the film’s Thursday night True/False screening, Stephenson proclaimed that what we see in the film is also all they know about it. The facts may not be necessary to understanding Giovanni—and Going to Mars, in a manner that befits its subject, neatly sidesteps those usual biopic tropes—but they aren’t woven into the film in the most elegant way either.
But when we watch Giovanni speak, whether it’s in a lively conversation with James Baldwin on the 70s talk show Soul! that the film occasionally cuts to, or at a talk through which her bracing intellect, impish humor, and love of Blackness is infectious. Maybe the thesis statement of Going to Mars is a little murky, but if it inspires viewers who weren’t familiar with Giovanni before to seek out her work, it has accomplished something wonderful.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project True/False screenings:
Friday, Mar. 3- 7:30 pm @ The Globe
Runtime: 102 minutes.
RED HERRING dir. Kit Vincent
In the opening minutes of his first film Red Herring, director Kit Vincent recounts a time when his father had a heart attack. In that moment, he says that his reaction was, “I should be filming this.” Filmmaking as a method of therapy is the overarching goal of Red Herring, which derives its title from the curveball Vincent was suddenly thrown in life. At the age of 24, he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Experiencing seizures every day and unsure of how much time he has left, Vincent’s film is concerned not quite so much with his personal reaction to his situation, but moreso with how those around him are dealing with it—namely, his parents. Vincent struggles to connect with his mother, a nurse who can’t cope with the idea of losing her son despite working with dying patients every day, on the level of a parent/child relationship. His father Lawrence, meanwhile, throws himself into all manner of unique activities as a coping mechanism, from secretly growing cannabis to devoting himself to Judaism and participating in a local synagogue.
On paper, Red Herring admittedly sounds like a downer, but while Vincent never pulls his camera away from the heaviest, most intimate family moments (at one point, we watch the family receive the news of Vincent’s latest brain scan, and while the camera remains stationary the pent of emotions that precede it and the release that follows it is palpable), the film also never gets wrapped up in wallowing or deep, existential questions. Vincent approaches documenting his illness and his family with a sense of humor, albeit a sometimes dark sense of humor. It helps that his family, particularly Lawrence, are such fascinating characters in and of themselves, although the film’s most effective scenes are when Vincent catches them in more off-the-cuff moments, as opposed to sitting down for conversations that feel staged specifically for the film. And the act of filmmaking plays an active, integral role in the documentary itself. While at the start we watch scenes of Vincent’s girlfriend playfully swatting away the camera as he films everyday, mundane moments, there are times when Vincent is more seriously questioned why he needs to film everything, or asked to put the camera away. While the footage he assembles doesn’t culminate in any concrete resolutions (not that it needed to), he captures some life-affirming moments—from quiet afternoons sitting on the beach eating fish and chips with his dad, to raucous community gatherings—that allow Red Herring to end on a hopeful note, and on the sense that Vincent knows his parents a little better than before.
Red Herring True/False screenings:
Friday, 3/3 – 2:00PM @ Missouri Theatre
Sat, 3/4 – 5:45PM @ The Globe
Runtime: 94 minutes.
DOGWATCH dir. Gregoris Rentis
Mercenaries watching over vessels traversing the Somali coastline, protecting them from potential attacks from pirates? Sounds like seriously thrilling stuff. And yet, Dogwatch opens with a slapstick scene more akin to something out of The Three Stooges, three of those guards engaging in a training exercise on board ship that ends in them arguing which direction 9:00 is. The film that follows is about as opposite from an action movie as one can get, but it isn’t any less compelling. Director Gregoris Rentis’ first feature, inspired by the life of his uncle who served as one such privately-hired mercenary in what’s referred to as the High Risk Area, is more than anything about the boredom associated with the job, the initial excitement at the thrill of adventure eventually replaced by waiting for an enemy who never comes.
Dogwatch is divided into three parts, each part focused on a different man at a different stage of his career as merc. Yorgos is an eager new recruit, biding his time in Sri Lanka while he waits to ship out. Costa is the seasoned guard who we spend time with on board, witnessing both the camaraderie he shares with the other guards but also the monotony of life on the ship, as they spend most of their time rehearsing scenarios that may never actually come to fruition. And Victor is at the tail end of his career, trying to move into a more stationary position that would allow him to spend more time with his family. They’re all entirely separate characters, but together they form a portrait of the entirety of one man’s life and career in this business.
Rentis’ camera captures it all sans any talking heads, and while many of his and director of photography Thomas Tsiftelis’ shots feel too carefully composed to be improvised, they’re staggeringly gorgeous to look at nonetheless, from placing us right the middle of a crowded club dance floor to long-shots emphasizing the vastness of the vessel and the isolation created by being surrounded by nothing but water. Rentis also effectively subverts the masculine expectations associated with the position, both through humor and through concentrating on images of the men’s bodies, how they attempt to strengthen them as well as how they change and require more, shall we say, upkeep as the years wear on.
Dogwatch True/False screenings:
Sat, 3/4- 6 pm @ Big Ragtag
Runtime: 78 minutes.