Piers Marchant at True/False, Day Four

March 5, 2018

True/False 2018: Day 4


Number of Films: 3
Best Movie of the Day: Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers: Just about anyone living on the East Coast in the early ‘80s would be able to at least vaguely recall something about a inexplicable, heart-warming story about three young men living in the NY area, discovering by total fluke that they were, in fact, separated at birth as triplets, growing up in wildly different circumstances in the NYC area. Reunited, the then 19-year-old threesome made the media/party circuit, their big, goofy grins dominating every photo of them taken at the time. If you’re lucky enough to not know the rest of the increasingly alarming story, then watching Tim Wardle‘s film will absolutely astound you. Suffice it to say not everything the initial story suggests is quite as highly coincidental as the world – and the many media outlets covering the story – might have immediately assumed. Much like 2016’s Tickled, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve‘s film begins with a seemingly simple conception, suggesting we’re headed into something purely enjoyable, before unexpectedly taking a much darker turn. As was suggested to me before I saw it, it’s much better to go into the film knowing as little about it as possible, so I won’t belabor its stunning twists. It’s the kind of story that stays with you: There’s an excellent chance that you won’t forget this version of the NY triplets story nearly as easily as you might have the initial wave nearly four decades ago.

Taming the Horse: Initially, at least, the mammal in question in Chinese director GU Tao’s sprawling documentary isn’t an equine, it’s his good friend, the affable-but-lost Tong, a childhood chum who now at the tender age of 30, seems no closer to happy actuality than he was as a rebellious, rock ‘n rolling high schooler. Originally hailing from Hailar, a northern Mongolian province nearly 3000 thousand miles from the city of Kunming, where his family moved and settled two decades before, Tao and Tong had made a pact that they would someday return to Tong’s home village together, and as the film begins, Tao finally takes him up on the opportunity. As they travel, the film jumps around Tong’s chronology. We see him as an impetuous youth, his bangs crossing over his eyes, laconically chain smoking like one of his rock idols; we see him in the throws of one depression or other; hanging out with his off/on girlfriend, a woman who had a pair of abortions in their time together, an occurrence that seems to have contributed mightily to Tong’s arrested development. We also see him with his mother, forever worrying about his aimlessness, and vastly more successful older brother, and watch him sway in and out of other job prospects, rejecting the system that demands that he cheats innocent people out of their hard-earned savings. Tong is out of place in the world of capitalism, and it’s easy to assume he’s just acting out of lazy indolence (in fact, he says as much himself at various times), but Tao suspects it has more to do with the fractured nature of his childhood and being forced to live in a world that utterly doesn’t suit him. Watching him thrash about in his tiny, utterly depressing studio apartment, without even a proper toilet, it’s hard to imagine that’s not the case.

Of Fathers and Sons: One of the more challenging films to watch at this years True/False festival, Syrian director Talal Derki’s film about a militant Islamist family fighting with al-Qaeda in the war against the Syrian government, proves a fascinating, if harrowing sense of the mindset of those living in an Islamist Caliphate. Posing as a sympathizer, Derki embedded deep with one family for more than two years, capturing both the ideologies of the radicals, and their methodologies for achieving it. We focus on one proud patriarch, father to eight sons – some of whom named after “martyrs” who were part of the successful 9/11 initiative, including a son named Osama – as he spends his days defending his town from Syrian army soldiers, and identifying/defusing landmines placed by the enemy. We watch his tumble of boys, in ages ranging from infant to roughly adolescence, gradually become indoctrinated in the ways of war and gladly condemning infidels to death. About the only other living creature we see in the film, beyond the soldiers and their families, is a bird one of the boys captures who got stuck inside their house. Needless to say, the bird is soon slaughtered (off camera, thank the gods) and beheaded, a turn of events that seems all too symbolically potent. The film challenges our ability to identify with others of a different disposition – as much as we may disagree with many of the militant’s ideas and methods, it is clear he truly loves his children, just that he’s willing to sacrifice all of them for what he considers the greater good of the Caliphate – even as clearly revels in our national pain. You can’t help but notice how similar his mindset and protocols are to militants in our own country, who see everything in terms of a coming war to fight for survival.

Photo from Three Identical Strangers

Escaping the miserable ice and slain of Philadelphia this March weekend, I am down in Columbia, MO, home of the 15-year-old True/False Film Festival, a collection of (mostly) documentary films, entertaining buskers, and outrageously dressed Q queens.

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