Piers Marchant at True/False 2019: Day 2March 2, 2019
Number of Films: 3
Best Movie of the Day: Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Dark Suns: Forewarned that Julien Elie’s far-reaching screed on the state of Mexico’s hopelessly corrupted and completely ruined societal system of justice was a “dark film” (by the director himself before the screening), I was still unprepared for just how deep the film cuts, dredging the systemic failure of the government to adequately protect its citizens. It begins as an examination of the scores of missing women that have plagued Mexico’s cities since the early ‘90s (rumors allude to the idea that some of the more notorious gang cartels require the killing of a woman as an initiation rite), but Elie hardly stops there. Working his way methodically across the country in six thoroughly dismal chapters, the director moves from missing women, to the anguished mothers (and, in some cases, fathers) left to their own devices by a thoroughly corrupted police institution largely connected to the cartels themselves. We watch in mounting horror as the parents form coalitions dedicated not to capturing the killers and putting them to justice – a thought that sadly seems beyond the possibility of happening, under the circumstances – but simply to locate and dig up the remains of their murdered children so they can at least put their blanched bones to rest. Things get to the point where the best we can hope is one woman’s child won’t be found in a mass burial after the other victims were clearly tortured. Hoping for help from the military is worse yet: Many of the soldiers assigned to the most crime-infested cities quickly become worse than the original drug traffickers, kidnapping women and installing them into their own system of brothels. To his credit, Elie doesn’t attempt to soften the ending, offering up any kind of hold out for hope. It’s bleak to its core. Just the same, it’s clear the love he has for his native country, giving the film to feel more like a eulogy than a screed.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld: Belgian journalist/filmmaker Mads Brügger, known for his gonzo journalism stunts – his last film, The Ambassador, saw him impersonate a high-ranking diplomat in order to prove how easy it was to infiltrate Africa’s precious gem trade with absolutely no credentials but plenty of cash – takes on what starts as a murder mystery that goes nowhere, before stumbling into something potentially world-shattering in his circuitous pursuit of the mysterious death of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld back in 1961. Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed suddenly en route to his meeting with Congo leaders, attempting to broker a ceasefire in their civil war. A proponent of African independence, speculation has always had it that he was assassinated by various political forces – and the massive consortium of mining companies – who stood to lose money and power in the region if he had gotten his way. Brügger starts with some of the tendrils in this story, but quickly runs into a series of roadblocks. Forlorn and in danger of running aground on his project, along with a dedicated and thorough private investigator, he instead moves the film in a slightly different direction, and ends up meeting with an operative of a former clandestine mercenary organization, who has absolutely stunning information on what he claims happened not just with Hammarskjöld, but for the continent as a whole. Through it all, Brügger, self-consciously tweaking the story by injecting himself into the narrative and his efforts to spice things up, runs a fine line between his brand of humorous self-reflection, and the absolute horror he has potentially found along the way. It’s a peculiar film, to be certain (slightly reminiscent of a previous T/F film, Tickled), but duly loaded.
Midnight in Paris: After two long and deeply depressing films, Roni Moore and James Blagden’s 75-minute, lighthearted film, about the week leading up to prom night for a group of Flint, Michigan seniors in 2012, was a very welcome change of pace. Watching the kids in giddy anticipation of what many feel is their night to shine, worrying about the details of their outfits, making plans for their ride, promising their parents they won’t do anything stupid (while rolling their eyes), the teens become surprisingly well-rounded characters given their limited screen time. Refreshing as well, to see a group of predominantly African American kids from a much maligned city that has already been the subject of numerous more sobering documentaries, allowed to just be kids, enjoying their time on this Earth, and manifesting their own self-possession. There’s little controversy involved (about the most strident the film gets is when one of the young women accuses her date of being incredibly cheap, a charge he seems to happily accept), and the bubbly excitement of the seniors powers the film along amusingly. The only time things slow down, in fact, is when, at one of the afterparties in a hotel room, one of the kids’ dads shows up with his girlfriend, who won’t stop holding forth about the significance of it all. Still, it’s merely a blip in what is otherwise a sweet, encouraging ride. X`
Tomorrow: A full slate of intriguing sounding docs, including Midnight Traveler, American Factory, and Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary.
Photo from Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Leaving the warmer confines of Philadelphia for the frigid climbs of the midwest this March weekend, I am down in Columbia, MO, home of the 16-year-old True/False Film Festival, a collection of (mostly) documentary films, entertaining buskers, and outrageously dressed Q queens.