A Few Takeaways from the True/False Film Fest

In the wake of another True/False Film Fest I’m left, as usual, still thinking and talking with others about several of the films I saw over the extended weekend.

Having been alternately intrigued, frustrated, encouraged, captivated, saddened, and flat struck with wonder, I’ve cobbled together brief notes on some things I gleaned from a few of the films I was able to see. No doubt in some cases, my takeaways might be something altogether different from what the filmmakers and/or documentary subjects intended. And I’m sure there are any number of other worthwhile comments to make about these and other selections.

(For those of you who might see some of these films in the future, there may be potential spoilers.)

The Actress raises a question that I’m convinced each one of us must face on a regular basis: is my happiness best achieved primarily through self-love and giving priority to my own interests, or is it found on the other side of the often difficult, mundane, and even painful work of serving and loving others? In my view, The Actress qualifies as a tragedy in that it portrays the fruit of embracing the first of those two choices. At the same time, it makes me ask how often I do the same.

Rich Hill exemplified one of the great benefits of documentary films: they allow us to see with different eyes, to experience situations we might otherwise never know much about. Like many docs, Rich Hill gives us a picture of those living more toward the margins of modern life. Its particular contribution, in my judgment, is that it finds its stories in a setting that’s alternately idealized or dismissed: small town, Middle America. As someone who grew up in another small Missouri town very much like Rich Hill, I thought it was a valuable work.

Jodorowsky’s Dune offers a wild ride leaving you with plenty to ponder—from “what did I just see?” to “what did it all mean?” Imagine reframing a brooding Captain Ahab into the much more charismatic craziness of an avant-garde filmmaker and the white whale into a sprawling science fiction epic meant to change the consciousness of an entire generation. Mix in disarming humor, eye-brow raising stories, and a unique look into the process of making a movie. Finish with a spectacular yet creatively redeeming failure. The result is a film that speaks to ambition and hubris, the power and limitations of art, and the inherent and often misdirected spirituality of human beings.

My favorite film of the weekend proved to be Tim’s Vermeer. Is it possible for anyone to paint like a celebrated Dutch Renaissance master? Uncovering what he believes to be forgotten technology, Tim Jenison sets out to prove that question isn’t so absurd. What follows is a labor of love, a study in perseverance, and a multi-faceted display of creativity and ingenuity from a self-described inventor who knows nothing about painting. Seeking to shed light (literally) on a historical mystery while raising questions about the relationship of technology and art, the film struck me as one of the more amazing things I’ve ever seen.

I detected a preoccupation with discovery and design in Particle Fever as well. But here the canvas is the universe, and the brush strokes are revealed by math equations and experiments of the widest scope. The film examines whether everything we see around us possesses a foundational order, an underlying symmetry. And even though it leaves the question somewhat unanswered, I was struck by two things: (1) how much of what we’ve discovered up to now points toward that symmetry and (2) how many scientists—regardless of their views about a Creator—speak and act as if the universe demonstrates a brilliant design.

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