For my sixth and final dispatch from this year’s True/False Film Festival, I’m reviewing the final three documentaries I saw: Tavuri, the wild story of a con artist; the tender slice of life Three Women; and the powerful story of NYC’s trans sex workers, The Stroll, which is coming to HBO later this year. Read my reviews of those films below.
TAVURI dir. Denis Zaim
The lines between fact and fiction are blurred in Tavuri, director Denis Zaim’s portrait of his childhood friend Mustafa Serttas who he reconnects with later in life. That’s kind of appropriate, because Serttas—nicknamed Tavuri or, “the devil”—himself is an infamous con artist, having spent the majority of his life behind bars for scamming people, seeming without any remorse or care for how many times it lands him in jail.
Tavuri opens with scenes of Serttas in jail and the kind of tense camaraderie he’s formed with his fellow inmates, but he’s soon released back into the world, after promising the warden he’ll make good. Of course he immediately slides back into his old ways as soon as he’s free, making phone calls in which he effortlessly tricks people into giving him money. There’s a touch of humor about these scenes, given that Serttas never resorted to violent crime; he’s even known for having scammed prison officials on two different occasions from inside the prison, the officials of course knowing why he was in prison in the first place. Honestly, it’s pretty impressive.
But this is where the lines between what is naturally unfolding through the lens of Zaim’s camera and what is staged for the film become muddy. Any phone calls that Serttas makes to scam someone else are acted out, just as he would do them in reality, without making Zaim and his crew participants in a crime. There are other things too, like the daughter Serttas has but never really got to see grow up. As much as the film follows him hanging around his closer family members and con artist pals, attempts to call his daughter are cut into the action, some real, some imagined. For a man who we otherwise see as so stoic, these scenes are integral, adding a layer of depth—of love, of regret— who has spent his life and career dodging emotional confrontations.
Serttas is a fascinating character, and even though he’s the one making these decisions to run himself into the ground, it’s hard not to weirdly root for him to break the cycle. Zaim (who has previous helmed fiction features) blends staged and unstaged scenes in a way that’s too indistinct for my personal taste when it comes to documentary filmmaking, but the intimate and compelling nature of the storytelling and its exceptional pacing make it well worth treading through those muddy waters.
THREE WOMEN dir. Maksym Melnik
On the far western edge of Ukraine, situated among the Carpathians, sits the tiny village of Stuzhytsia. It’s there that filmmaker Maksym Melnik stumbles upon the three women he ends up making the subject of his documentary: Maria, the postwoman whose essential duties in this town so far removed from other cities stretch far beyond handling the mail; Nelya, a biologist who traverses the landscape searching for information about bats in her car that is constantly breaking down; and Hanna, an older farmer who initially rebuffs Melnik’s attempts to film her. Three Women is a tender slice of life, gorgeously photographed; the landscape, with its distant snowy mountains peaking out through the milky-thick fog and its rolling green hills takes on an almost otherworldly quality.
Three Women begins as strictly observational, but shifts gears some as Melnik becomes more actively involved in the women’s lives, eventually appearing some in front of the camera, assisting Hanna with tasks around the farm. Each woman is so distinct, united by the community they live in, and given a lovely, well-rounded arc, but it’s the relationship Melnik forms with Hanna that is the film’s emotional force, as she warms to him and he becomes like a son to her.
Runtime: 85 minutes.
THE STROLL dirs. Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker
There’s a stretch of 14th Street in the Meatpacking District of Lower Manhattan known as “The Stroll.” From the mid-80s into the 2000s, Black trans women engaged in sex work there, often their only method to survive at the time. It’s where Kristen Lovell worked when she was fired from her New York City job in the 90s after she began to transition, and it’s where she formed a sisterhood with other trans women of color who banded together to protect themselves from the harassment and violence they experienced on the streets, from both clients and the police.
Lovell is an active player in front of the camera as well as behind it, reuniting with other former sex workers who worked The Stroll. Their appearances are more than just talking head interviews; Lovell engages them in conversations in which they remember their time on The Stroll with both humor and heartache. There are other talking heads throughout the film as well, however, along with plenty of archival photos and videos to help illustrate the history of The Stroll, how it fit into New York City, how gentrification, 9/11, and “quality of life” policies passed under then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani led to increased policing and the women being repeatedly thrown in jail changed the landscape, and how the murder of one worker on The Stroll led to a massive civil rights movement demanding more protections for trans people. It’s a lot of information, and aside from some animated interludes, it’s rather conventionally presented. But that doesn’t diminish the power of these women’s stories; they are fiercely funny and resilient, and have channeled their past struggles into efforts to help trans people at large. With The Stroll, they reclaim their history that so many over the years have tried to diminish or take away from them.
Runtime: 84 minutes.