Notes from the 2017 True/False Festival
“There can be no adequate form of redress before an adequate form of address,” was the shared call of three essential films at this year’s True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. In each of their distinct approaches, Yance Ford’s Strong Island, Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?, and Theo Anthony’s Rat Film seek to understand the overlapping set of forms—a better word might be fictions—of relation that have produced the historical conditions of white supremacy. These films reverse a historicist approach to documentary interpretation, one that would emphasize history as form’s backstory. Where a historicist approach might chart an analytical course, connecting a film’s concerns with the particular social and political context in which it is located, here each film invites a reading of social conditions as an impression of form, a pattern of incriminating networks rather than as a stable background.
It’s a move that marks the continued potential of the festival as it mirrors its larger ambitions. True/False is one of many institutions in a wider documentary ecosystem, whose profile has grown alongside its embrace of a recent so-called subjective turn in documentary. And while this has produced at times an uncritical enthusiasm about the value of formal experimentation as an end in and of itself—one in which form can become a cover for historical context—Ford, Wilkerson, and Anthony’s films demonstrate a shared goal of making the problems each addresses look different. Each proposes new ways of visualizing social projects whose formal conventions constitute the bedrock of a violent American racial politics. In short, each proposes new ways to reveal form as history’s backstory.
Yance Ford’s Strong Island is propelled by a realist documentary approach, but it is one that is interrupted in its latter half by an image of a young black man, back to camera, one arm propping him up against the concrete underneath. The image is quiet and still, such that it is hard to tell whether it’s a photograph or video. It returns us for a second time to the scene of violence that centers Ford’s film—the 1992 after-hours murder of William Ford, Jr., the filmmaker’s older brother, by a white auto mechanic in Central Islip, Long Island. By this stage, Ford has already recounted the events of that night in detail, and thus when we return, it is to index not the real but the unreal. Framing a state of suspension—one that seems able to open onto a different world where the figure stands rather than collapses—the image evokes the possibility that it could have been otherwise. Doubling back on this moment extends the scene beyond its immediacy, to a reflection of how it came to be: of how that it, the many forms through which the murder came to pass, wasn’t otherwise. What we discover is the life of the Ford family located within what they perceived to be overlapping forms of safety and familiarity: the suburbs, friendships, and a strong family form anchored by Ford Sr.’s job as a motorman with the MTA. Yet as that scene of violence cuts across each, each adds gravity and weight to the original scene of violence. The myth of the Long Island suburb as a place outside of time, outside of the crumbling infrastructure of 1980’s New York, is revealed as one more tool of racial segregation and aggression. Another: we see how the masculine form, the optimistic image of strength and confidence and sustainer of so much national identity, is shaped around perceived threats to that form, and there has been no more enduring trans-historical symbol of that threat than a large black man. Finally, the scene extends to the site of legal representation, where it is discovered that a grand jury, comprised of twenty-three white people, failed to indict Ford’s shooter, and where one is led to believe William Ford Jr. was always already the one on trial. The film comprises primarily personal testimony by the filmmaker, interviews with family and friends, and footage shot in and around the Central Islip area. In many ways, it is a formally conventional documentary. Yet, its elegance, and its horror, grows from the realization that the more the film works to piece together a narrative, the more it collapses in the absence of a logical ground at its center. In one of the film’s more powerful gestures, Ford addresses viewers, directly stating that in the absence of closure around his brother’s death, he imagines his brother’s killer everywhere. Describing what that figure looks like, Ford explains that he looks like every white person he encounters. It is a necessary move, one that connects the on-screen world to, in this screening, the 1,200-strong room of the almost exclusively white audience, upsetting the relationship between the figure of the film and the theater’s ground in Central Missouri.
Equally concerned with activating the space of the theater, Travis Wilkerson’s live performance Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? invites viewers to seriously consider that the world on screen cannot be separated from the theater in which it is projected—and it further extends that sentiment to the larger funding structures of the documentary world. The performance features Wilkerson stationed at a sparse desk off to one side of the screen offering live narration and (what appears to be) live cues of the various QuickTime files that comprise the film. Its departure point is the filmmaker’s return to Dothan, Alabama, to investigate a rumor that his great grandfather S.E. Branch shot and killed Bill Spann, a black man who entered his small store in 1946 looking for help. Like other Wilkerson films, Did You Wonder brings to bear a strong compositional eye, graphic overlays, a voice-over suffused with skeptical anger, and muscular music choices on the excavation of a buried legacy of violence executed in the name of power—but Wilkerson’s live presence/performance also distinguishes this project from previous ones in a number of essential ways. Taking his investigation across Southern Alabama with the sparest of clues, Wilkerson’s project is both speculative and revisionist, not incoherent but un-coherent. This is most evident in the rare moments when he trips on a word or when a segue between two clips feels slightly mistimed. The novelty of his intervention is precisely in the insertion and bracketing of his own body as the site of multiple and contradictory histories and counter-histories in the present. It is a project of self-incrimination rather than redemption or heroism. In an extended sequence, the filmmaker visits a Confederate reenactment at which he suspects his aunt might be in attendance. By all appearances she’s not, but it provides a backdrop for Wilkerson to reflect on his own family ties as he cues archival video from a prominent white nationalist who insists that “culture is biology.” Like nationalism itself, the promise of this view is that of a completed and self-contained narrative that all who belong are expected to share. That narrative, of course, is not history, but the very absence of history. Or as Ernst Bloch wrote: “nationhood drives time, indeed history, out of history.” Wilkerson implicates himself as a part of a dominant national narrative of misremembrance, one that he wishes to un-work. The same goes for a series of extended moments that invoke digital activism with the recitation of #SayHerName, a chant and a hashtag meant to highlight the fatal encounters between African-American women and the police. Black text against a white screen scrolls through a series of victims of anti-black violence over the past century. This extreme formal reduction of violence to a repeated phrase works through accumulation rather than context. It also prompts a serious engagement with a central premise of the film. History is not a place, but a process that, in concert with direct action, can change how we imagine our world. The medium of the body is the message, a notion not lost on Wilkerson when he observes that S.E. Branch killed a man and never saw punishment for his crime. His great-grandson is now in the position to appropriate that murder, receive arts funding to make a film about it, maybe even a career out of it.
With Rat Film, Theo Anthony also expresses concern with who gets to model the worlds we inhabit. The world in question is Baltimore—a locale described by Animal Planet as one of the ten worst “rat cities” in the world. Anthony finds in the figure of the rat a durable allegorical device, one that allows the filmmaker to trace through a series of frames alternately interested in the cosmological, the socio-economic, the racial, and the geographic, an all too human urge to control the environments in which we are immersed. The film threads together scenes that express an ethnographic, if lighthearted, interest in the various ways that local residents hunt rats for sport with GoPro “rat’s eye view” footage and an examination of mid-century Johns Hopkins University researchers’ scientific pursuits to solve the city’s rat problem. It adds up to a compelling case study of a city that believes it can modify an environment without modifying the moorings of all of the individuals who live by means of that environment. This alone is a fine conceit, but what really gives Rat Film its charge is its interest in mapping, and in the ways that maps intervene on the world by representing them. The rat provides a convenient metaphor for the social, or at least the social envisioned as a disease-spreading mass—intellectual, economic, racial or microbial—that must be contained. It’s convenient precisely because the literary construction can easily be re-inscribed as a natural one, erasing the old binary between language and reality, between map and territory. The rat becomes a way to envision the social reduced to the environmental, an external entity upon which the social can act. The devastating effects of this technique are revealed in an extended sequence that charts correlations between early 20th-century redlining practices (the discriminatory process by which cities and banks actively disinvested in minority neighborhoods by deeming them too risky), segregation maps, and contemporary arrest, poverty, unemployment, and life expectancy statistics in the city of Baltimore. Maps, in other words, should seldom be read as formal models of pre-existing realities. So when Rat Film engages a number of actual maps, from those redlining diagrams, to 3D urban real estate models and VR platforms, it does so in order to stretch them to their pre-programmed limits, revealing those spots where they fray at the seams. What is left at the end is a world of precarity, one of predominantly African-American people made precarious by these instruments of social engineering, and of a world in need of new models for living. Who, the film wants to ask, will create them? It’s a question that returns us to the scene of the festival. As we all know by now, the regime of truth, like the true/false binary, is one more social form employed to stabilize proper relationships between social facts and political arrangements. The True/False Festival is at its most successful when it acknowledges that the contemporary potential for documentary is not in its ability to combat distortions with sober truths, but rather in its ambition to allow new kinds of histories to be visualized, especially from and by those who have historically been excluded from the disciplines of history making. We can envision new social forms, ones through which we can articulate common worlds, without resorting to the old maps that brought us here.