Piers Marchant at True/False, Day Four

March 9, 2020

True/False 2020: Day 4

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Number of Films: 3
Film of the Day: Dick Johnson is Dead

Welcome to Chechnya: Imagine the anxiety-filled ending of Argo, but played over and over, and unadorned by Hollywood screenwriters. David France‘s riveting film follows the members of a loose LBGT collective in Russia, as they attempt to smuggle out and relocate victims of the Chechen purge of gay and lesbian citizens through intimidation, torture, and murder. From a safehouse somewhere in Moscow, the dedicated team work to secure international visas for their charges (needless to say, while Canada has accepted almost a third of the 150 victims they have currently helped escape, the U.S., under Trump’s draconian immigration policies, have accepted exactly none), moving them from location to location, and in temporary stays in other countries, to avoid brutal Chechen reprisal. France peppers the film with intercepted videos of beatings, torture, and, in one case, attempted murder, to illustrate just how savage and brutal the “gay purge” has been under Putin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and how much danger they are in. Along the way, we meet various escapees, including one young woman, the daughter of a well-placed Chechen official, who was told by her uncle she had to have sex with him or he would reveal her secret; and Maxim, a gay man detained in Chechnya and tortured before finally being allowed to leave, who has to move his entire family abroad to keep them safe, and who later eventually files for a criminal investigation (that Putin’s puppet justice department denies), bravely exposing his name and identity to become a symbol of the victims. Powerful and depressing, it’s yet another painful reminder of where we are politically, as a rush of oligarchs and dictators have filled vacuums of power with their horrific, self-serving regimes. 

Down a Dark Stairwell: On a November night in 2014, Akai Gurley, a young, unarmed black man was fatally shot by a cop in the stairwell of a Brooklyn apartment building. The cop, a Chinese American named Peter Liang, claimed it was an accident due to an “accidental discharge,” but he was still indicted for manslaughter by the Brooklyn D.A. And here is where things get complicated in Ursula Liang’s film: With a fiery contingent of Black New Yorkers supporting the victim’s family, an equal force of Asian New Yorkers rally around Liang, viewing the D.A.’s office as scapegoating him because of his Chinese background (noting that while more than 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in 2014, Liang was the only cop indicted for such). Thus ensues a messy, jarring legal battle  —  after Liang is convicted, the D.A. recommends probation over incarceration, enraging the Black protestors  —  that leaves both minority groups feeling aggrieved. Liang (no relation) has carefully constructed her film to show both sides of the dispute, and some of the Asian American organizations who sided with Gurley’s family, in all its complexity. Easily the most hopeful moment occurs after both sides appear in competing rallies across the street from one another, and one Asian leader crosses the street in order to have an actual conversation with one of the black leaders. As they truly take the time to listen to each other, it is pointed out how much more constructive it is to discuss the issues rather than give in to blind anger. 

Dick Johnson is Dead: Kirsten Johnson, the legendary documentary DP whose credits include Darfur Now, The Oath, A Place at the Table, 1971, and Citizenfour, made her solo directorial feature debut in 2016, with the excellent Cameraperson. Her latest film, a slightly twisted love letter to her father, suffering from dementia, is filled with her signature empathy, even as she plots ways she can cinematically “kill” him on-screen. It’s an idea hatched by the two of them  —  Dick, a retired psychiatrist, has a wry sense of humor himself, and is more than game for his daughter’s off-beat project  —  as he closes his Seattle practice, packs up his things, and moves in with his daughter in New York to be close with her and her two kids. Johnson crafts a sort of fantasia, in which her father gets to visit “heaven,” a place filled with colorful baubles and an eclectic mix of dining companions, while also recreating a terrifying moment for him where he was left behind at a house he suddenly didn’t recognize. Along the way, she also takes him to visit an old high school crush, films him interacting with his grandkids, and records some of their discussions of mortality, even as they scheme intriguing and unexpected ways for him to meet his demise. Utilizing stuntpeople and special effects, Johnson kills her father off a number of different gruesome ways, as a means of softening the blow of actually losing him as his mind slowly slips away. This eventually culminates in a final gambit, both acutely painful and deeply moving, in which our sense of things gets seriously upended. As Johnson put it during the post-screening Q&A, the film serves as a “doomed experiment trying to keep my father alive forever.” This film won’t make him immortal, alas, but it does make him indelible. 

Tomorrow: Back to Philly on a wing and a prayer.


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