For my fifth dispatch from the 2023 True/False Film Festival, I’m spotlighting three documentaries that are all preoccupied with capturing a moment in time: the hilarious Art Talent Show and Time Bomb Y2K, and the gut-wrenching How to Have an American Baby. Read my capsule reviews of those films below.
ART TALENT SHOW dirs. Adéla Komrzý & Tomáš Bojar
The prestigious Academy of Arts (AVU) in Prague holds entrance exams every year. And every year, the professors of the school’s many departments are faced with the challenge of interviewing potential students and deciding who may be best poised to shape the future of the art world—certainly not an objective task. While most would assume that a documentary capturing the week of the exams would focus on the young people trying to get in—their backstories, their hopes and dreams, their artistic inspirations– Adéla Komrzý & Tomáš Bojar’s Art Talent Show—filmed at the AVU over the course of one week—instead depicts the event from the perspective of the teachers of three departments: Graphic Design 2, New Media 2, and Painting 4. The result is both thought-provoking and fiercely funny, as through written and visual tests and a series of one-on-one interviews the professors attempt to create a dialogue with the students, a lot of whom don’t really seem to know what they want to get out of this experience either.
Occasionally, Art Talent Show feels like it hews uncomfortably close to laughing at the students’ self-seriousness as opposed to laughing with them, and while the film’s main goal is observation, the subjects of the film pose a lot of questions but don’t answer them, or at least don’t delve into them with a lot of depth or nuance. And they are big questions too: Who do we make art for? What role does it play in our lives, and in the world at large? What about ethics? Where do you draw the line?
While Art Talent Show comes off as rather hollow and repetitive in the long run, it’s interesting to watch the professors and attempt to gauge what their criteria for great potential artists is (even if this isn’t made entirely clear by the film either, it does, at least, lack the pretentiousness we typically associate with fine art). The group of teachers is just as quirky as the group of potential students, who each have a unique method of creating and way of thinking. The scenes between the teachers and students are broken up by a middleman (or lady)—two elderly receptionists whose wisecracks as they watch the students come and go throughout the day lend an outsider’s perspective to the proceedings. It’s all very absurd, but anyone who has been in the arts or had to undergo some sort of entrance exam will find a lot to identify with in Art Talent Show.
Runtime: 102 minutes.
TIME BOMB Y2K dirs. Brian Becker and Marley McDonald
You really just had to be there. In the years leading up to the new millennium, a sense of panic took hold across the world, largely due to a glitch in computer codes that meant that went the year turned over from 1999 to 2000, the technology would actually register the date as 1900. It seems silly now, and Brian Becker and Marley McDonald’s film Time Bomb Y2K—constructed entirely out of archival footage—looks back on that time with humor and hindsight. The sheer depth of the cuts they unearth for this documentary is impressive (Matt Damon ruminating on Y2K from The Talented Mr. Ripley press tour, or then-President Bill Clinton engaging in an awkward late-90s equivalent of a Zoom call), and they are meticulously edited together (the dramatic cut of the ball finally dropping in Times Square to folks around the world celebrating and Kenny G hilariously rocking out to “Auld Lang Syne” on his sax).
Watching it now, it’s easy to draw comparisons between the mass hysteria erupting around Y2K in the late 90s and the concerns and confusion at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (remember the toilet paper shortage?). And it’s lovely that the conclusion that Becker and McDonald draw out of all the chaos is that not only did nothing drastic happen when the world turned the calendar to the year 2000, but it resulted in some of the most joyous celebrations, bringing people together across the world (this is where the directors’ solicitation of home movies from people from that time most effectively comes into play). That isn’t enough to prevent Time Bomb Y2K from feeling too slight, however, as if there is very little propping it up behind its onslaught of hilarious clips. But for those who lived through that time, it’s a delightful little time capsule; and for those who weren’t alive yet, it’s a fascinating historical document.
Runtime: 84 minutes.
HOW TO HAVE AN AMERICAN BABY dir. Leslie Tai
Not for the faint of heart, director Leslie Tai’s first feature is both an intimate and expansive portrait of Southern California maternity hotels, where expecting Chinese mothers travel to have their babies in America so they can obtain U.S. citizenship for their children. Tai, who became involved in the project after a pregnant friend staying at one of these maternity hotels—houses where multiple families are often living at a time—told her about them, gets incredibly close to a select group of the women, documenting their struggles with being in a strange country where they don’t speak the language, often without their husbands who are still back in China, cooped up except on days where their house mother takes them on excursions to the store. Tai also trains her camera on those who run the maternity hotels, allow viewers to better until the full scope of the operation, from those responsible for booking rooms for expecting parents, pointing them to hospitals and doctors and arranging for documents like birth certificates to be delivered to them, to those who drive around delivering food and supplies to the homes. Tai also drops in on a neighborhood meeting, where residents who reside in areas where there are a lot of these maternity hotels operating air their concerns about them, like noises that may indicate that children are being born in the home (they are not).
The film’s kaleidoscopic approach is a lot to absorb and is sometimes meandering in a way that tries the viewer’s patience, but Tai does pick out a few characters from the mix to spend more time with, and the film grants them full arcs, reveling in their joys and sympathizing with their sorrows. There’s a young woman trying to juggle running a maternity hotel with her husband while caring for a baby son herself, a woman who delivers early, inviting Tai to join her when her husband can’t get there in time, and a woman who loses her baby mere hours after its birth. The film’s nail-biting centerpiece is a hospital scene depicting a live birth; during the labor, Tai is called into the room to translate for the woman whose baby is sick. How to Have an American Baby isn’t always easy to watch, but it swells with so much humanity, going on this journey with these women is well worth it.
Runtime: 117 minutes.