True/False 2023 Dispatch: “R 21,” “Feet in Water, Head on Fire,” “Paradise”

As this nourishing few days of documentary cinema at the 2023 True/False Film Festival approaches its conclusion, I’ve got mini reviews of 3 more films I’ve watched this weekend. R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity presents rare and recently restored films created in solidarity with the Palestinian fight for freedom, while Feet in Water, Head on Fire and Paradise are both beautifully photographed portraits of landscapes and the people who inhabit them. Find my reviews of each of those films below.

“R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity”


An encounter at a screening of his 2016 film Off Frame led director Mohanad Yaqubi to procuring a collection of 20 rare films whose production dates range from the 1960s into the 80s, documenting the Palestinian struggle for freedom— a fight that the Japanese left, stewards of the footage for decades, identify with. Yaqubi has experimented with ways to screen the Tokyo Reels project, from the initial restoration and creation of trailers for each individual film, to screening them as their own film festival, to exhibiting them as one long museum piece. Here, the title R 21 infers that this film is reel 21, a continuation of the initial 20 films.

Shots of the film reels being gathered, unpacked, and scanned break up the archival footage that the bulk of R 21 consists of. Otherwise, Yaqubi rightly doesn’t attempt to embellish the footage, allowing the films to speak for themselves. At the same time, more context outside of the brief explainers that open and close the movie could be helpful in framing the films within the context of Palestine’s history, and how Japan relates to that. But the fact that such footage exists in and of itself, and is being preserved and brought to audiences’ awareness, is a vital act of solidarity.

Runtime: 71 minutes.

“Feet in Water, Head on Fire”


The arid climate of California’s Coachella Valley, situated along the San Andreas fault line, provides the ideal conditions for growing date palm trees, a plant whose origins stretch across the world to the Middle East and Africa. In her first feature, Feet in Water, Head on Fire, director Terra Long surveys the landscape, shooting on lovingly textured 16 mm film that was hand-processed using native plants of the area. Long uses that footage to explore the tension between nature and the people who work the land and the portions of the area that are being developed into gated communities and country clubs, dotting the landscape with neatly-manicured golf courses and swimming pools. And within those scenes, she finds the people: those whose livelihood depends on the prosperity that the crops being in season brings, those who celebrate the date with an annual parade and festival, those who curate museums on its history, and those who merely live in the ritzy developments that have sprung up around it. Feet in Water, Head on Fire (the title a reference to the date palms themselves, from their roots to their tops) is a vérité portrait of a community that perhaps slips too slowly between scenes to always be fully engaging, but it’s an exciting project from a new filmmaker nonetheless.

Runtime: 93 minutes.


PARADISE dir. Alexander Abaturov

The villagers call it “The Dragon.” In the summer of 2021, a heat wave in Siberia led to wildfires spreading throughout the region. In Russia, many “control zones” are in place in sparsely-populated regions; essentially, if the cost of fighting the fire outweighs the cost of the damage, officials will just let it burn. Alexander Abaturov’s Paradise zooms in on the tiny village of Shologon, which is situated on the fringes of the fires. Left to fend for themselves, the townsfolk ban together to keep the fires at bay until the rains come.

In Paradise, the fire itself is established as a character early on. A voiceover in the film’s opening minutes recites a local fable. The villagers refer to the fire raging at their doorstep as “the dragon,” granting it a life of its own and turning their mission into an almost mythic quest. Abaturov’s film boasts some of the most staggering gorgeous cinematography you’ll ever see, the shots do the flames licking the sky rendering them into a creature of both horror and beauty (and it’s incredible that Abaturov and his team were able to get so close). Interestingly, Paradise is more abstract than concrete in its presentation of the conflict. The film is bookended by scenes of the townsfolk confronting the nature of existing in a control zone and the government’s refusal to assist them, but their relationship to the conflict becomes more tenuous for the bulk of the middle of the film, which unfolds a bit too slowly to be as engrossing as it ought to be. But the humanity of the story—the focus being less on destruction and more on these people who care so much for their homeland—is moving regardless.

Runtime: 88 minutes.

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