True/False 2023 Dispatch: “Milisuthando,” “Ramona,” “Anhell69”

One of the most interesting and fun things about watching so many movies in quick succession is spotting some of their similarities and shared themes. Both Milisuthando, which recently premiered at Sundance, and Anhell69, which also screens at SXSW this weekend, are powerful personal essays, and Anhell69 and Ramona (my favorite film from the fest) both began as fiction projects before morphing into the documentary we now see. You can read my reviews of those three films from this year’s True/False Film Festival below.


MILISUTHANDO dir. Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela grew up in South Africa during apartheid, but she didn’t really realize what was happening at the time. Growing up in Transkei, an unrecognized but independent Black region of South Africa established by the apartheid regime that created the illusion that separate was equal, Bongela didn’t suffer or feel oppressed. It wasn’t until she got older that she began to unpack her experience and its lasting effects. Milisuthando is a powerful personal essay that moves lucidly between past, present, and future, in which the filmmaker connects her own experiences with the experiences of other Black people who lived under apartheid. For the first two thirds, it’s utterly engrossing. Divided into chapters, Milisuthando thoughtfully merges interviews, archival photos and videos, footage of herself and her friends and family, and voiceover narration, commenting on Blackness and history and identity; her experience as a writer and poet lends a lyrical quality to the structure and narration. The visual language that stems from all this is beautiful, which is why when Milisuthando shifts away from that in its final act, opting for mostly audio of conversations played out over a black screen (in which she frankly confronts her perception of race in a dialogue with her white friend and this film’s producer Marion), the film loses some steam. Nonetheless, it establishes Bongela as possessing a distinct voice, with a vision and thoughts that demand to be heard.

Runtime: 115 minutes.


RAMONA dir. Victoria Linares Villegas

In 2016, documentary filmmaker Victoria Linares Villegas started developing her first fiction feature film. Titled “Ramona,” the film would follow a 15-year-old pregnant girl who’s in denial of her pregnancy, and runs away from home to try to star in a telenovela. Lead actress and casting director Camila Santana interviews pregnant teens from around the Dominican Republic—the country with the highest teen pregnancy rate across Latin America and the Caribbean— to try to get a sense of their lives to help her give a more authentic performance.

What begins as a straightforward series of conversations soon shifts and changes into something else entirely. Every direction Ramona ventures off in is an unexpected but wonderful surprise. Camila hails from a more affluent background than the girls she speaks to; they come from low-income families, they don’t see a career for themselves outside of being a homemaker, and they are pushed around by the men in their community. Villegas—the recipient of this year’s True/False True Vision Award—opens the film with Camila trying on fake bellies, and it’s clear that she feels something is off, but that unease becomes more prevalent the more she talks with these women. Eventually, the women take a more active role in the film production, first as advisors, and later playing the parts themselves. What’s so remarkable is how Ramona accomplishes so much simultaneously. It is all at once a unflinching deep dive into teen pregnancy and life for a young woman in the Dominican Republic, and a chronicle of the filmmaking process itself, from throwing around ideas to putting them all together. Beyond that—which the last shot Villegas leaves us with confirms—seeing the community this group of young women, with all their fears and dreams, forms around each other because of this project really feels like we are witnessing something special.

Runtime: 90 minutes.


ANHELL69 dir. Theo Montoya

Similar to Ramona, Anhell69 opens with director Theo Montoya conducting interviews with young queer people of Medellín, Colombia as an audition for a fictional feature he plans to shoot. But his planned protagonist, Camilo—whose instagram handle Montoya took for the title of his film, and who tells Montoya in his conversation with him that he doesn’t fear death— suddenly dies of a heroin overdose. It’s at that point that Anhell69 (an expansion of the director’s 2020 short The Son of Sodom)morphs into a document of many different ideas that are clearly at the forefront of Montoya’s mind.

During the Q&A that followed one of the film’s True/False screenings, Montoya referred to Anhell69 as being akin to a DJ mix, and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. Conversations and vibrantly photographed, intimate moment shine a light on Medellín’s queer community, who fight to get by in a country whose government won’t protect them; Montoya uses the film to remember and pay tribute to the many friends he’s lost to drugs, disease, and violence. At times, the film takes on the shades of a personal essay, with Montoya’s voiceover narrating his own thoughts and feelings about what’s unfolding on screen. Still other times, Anhell69 serves as a reflection on Colombian film, past, present, and future; Montoya even employs influential Colombian filmmaker Victor Gaviria, whose own movies emphasize naturalism and social issues, to play the driver of a hearse, an image the film opens with and returns to frequently. All of these tracks are layered over each other in a way that doesn’t always feel coherent, but the heart-wrenching impact of the participants’ struggles, the idea that went Montoya goes around his town now, he mostly sees ghosts, that he has lost so many friends but forever carries their memory with him. For all the sadness boxed up therein, as the camera pulls back from its warm final shot, we are left with some hope. No matter what else happens, this community will always have each other.

Runtime: 74 minutes.

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