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18 provocative documentaries to look for this year

These thoughtful nonfiction films that played at the True/False Film Festival challenge our notions of reality, truth, and fiction.

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Mayor is among the thoughtful and challenging documentaries that played at the 2020 True/False Film Festival.
True/False Film Festival
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every year, a handful of nonfiction films are selected to play at the annual True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, which is one of the most respected all-documentary festivals in the world. In three days, the festival pulls together some of the most exciting filmmaking in the country and packs out theaters to celebrate and explore what nonfiction film can do. For the most part, the festival skips the talking-head, issue-driven docs that dominate other festivals; instead, it’s a showcase for movies that challenge the audience in both form and content.

The 2020 edition of the festival — its 17th — featured films from the US and abroad, with political, cultural, and social aims. Filmmakers discussed their work with festival attendees, the majority of whom hailed from mid-Missouri. The event, as always, was a confounding and delightful experience.

Every movie that plays at True/False is worth seeing. But here are 18 of the most interesting films from the 2020 festival, and how you’ll be able to watch them in the months ahead.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

A man sits at a bar, bathed in low light. Sundance Institute

In the extraordinary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross chronicle the last night of service at a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring ’20s — as regulars come and go, fight and kiss, and try to face the fact that the place that felt most like it was theirs will no longer exist. For them, it’s the end of the world.

But there’s a catch: The Ross brothers used a real bar in New Orleans as a set and asked people to play characters much like themselves. Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it “real”? Absolutely.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reminds us that we’re constantly reinventing and performing ourselves, even in our most comfortable, cherished settings — and cinema does, too.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is currently awaiting distribution.

Boys State

Steven Garza in Boys State.
Thorsten Thielow/Sundance Institute

Boys State was one of the biggest success stories at Sundance, where it won the festival’s top documentary prize and broke the record for the highest acquisition price paid for a documentary, with A24 and Apple buying the film for $12 million. And no wonder: Not only is Boys State timely, but it’s also extremely entertaining. Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) travel to Texas to follow the state’s 2018 summer session of a program called Boys State. Administered by the American Legion, Boys State is a gathering of more than 1,000 17-year-old boys who form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns, to learn about how the American system of government works.

In a sea of documentaries seeking to make sense of the divided and confusing political present, Boys State succeeds partly by setting itself one step removed from the “real world.” The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to form consensus and win. And their experiences are both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.

Boys State will be released theatrically by A24 and on AppleTV+’s streaming service.


Catskin is an eerie documentary that’s not really about cats.
True/False Film Festival

Catskin opens with images of rotting fruit on a forest floor, shot with a texture and color that makes them look a bit like Renaissance still-life paintings. They’re both beautiful and repulsive, familiar and eerie, which matches the rest of the film. In Catskin, director Ina Luchsperger crafts a portrait of a Germany haunted by its past and its future by way of three generations, and it’s at once pastoral and frightening.

To make the film, Luchsperger lived with a family in Bavaria for two years: a 13-year-old boy named Ludwig, his father Gunter, and his grandmother, who is also Luchsperger’s father’s first wife. (Luchsperger met the woman at her father’s funeral.) The film unfolds as a series of vignettes and conversations that slowly reveal a larger point. The grandmother, who lived through the war, loves her cats and worries for her son and grandson, who seem to be more and more enamored of the white nationalist ideology that’s growing in popularity in Bavaria. Meanwhile, Ludwig and Gunter both talk about their views, which are revealing about the ways that Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past have, and haven’t, influenced its future. It’s a chilling, creepy, and often stunningly gorgeous film — a haunting look at the rot at the core of countries far beyond Germany.

Catskin is currently awaiting distribution.

City So Real

A scene from a mayoral debate in City So Real, about Chicago’s hotly contested and groundbreaking 2019 mayoral election.
Kartemquin Films

Steve James knows Chicago; in several of his films, from the Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams to 2011’s The Interrupters to the 2018 docuseries America to Me, he’s explored the third-largest city in the US through the stories of its residents, often illuminating the complexities of bigger national issues by showing how ideas actually play out in individual lives.

For City So Real, James focused on the groundbreaking 2019 Chicago mayoral election. The race featured a crowded field of candidates seeking to distinguish themselves and gain constituents’ trust against the backdrop of protests over the impending Lincoln Yards development project and the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. It’s an engrossing portrait of a city — and a country — at an inflection point, and a love letter to Chicago, too.

City So Real is currently awaiting distribution.


A burn victim in the film Collective.
A scene from Collective.
Courtesy of TIFF

In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub killed 27 people — and 37 more in the weeks that followed, due to shockingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in the survivors. Collective — named in part for the nightclub, Colectiv, and in part for the film’s theme of systemic failure — is an observational documentary that traces the conditions and exposes huge deficiencies in the Romanian health care system as a whole.

Documentarian Alexander Nanau captures the lies told by government officials during the fallout from the fire; eventually, their actions led to the government’s (short-lived) downfall. Collective plays out like a chilling, slow-moving train wreck, a study in how a government gaslights its citizens into accepting conditions that would be avoidable but for greed and corruption.

Collective will be released by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media on May 15.


A young man holds up his hands against the backdrop of a mountain.
A scene from Crestone.
True/False Film Festival

In a world where everything feels a little apocalyptic, Crestone comes off like a rhapsody for the end, a lullaby for a fading world. Director Marnie Ellen Hertzler sets out to visit a group of her old high school friends, stoners who moved to remote Crestone, Colorado, to grow weed and become Soundcloud rappers. They’re a band of merry dropouts, with dreams of a commune in the desert where everyone can live in peace and happiness.

But they’re not off the grid — in fact, their constant construction of internet personas, mostly via Instagram, shapes their IRL personas, blurring what’s performance and what’s authentic. But is there even a difference? As fiction and nonfiction start to slip together, Hertzler captures the dreamy, mushy state of reality in their world, and in the world at large. In so doing, she suggests that this might be the end of reality as we know it, with life in their hazy world going on as the world outside Crestone burns.

Crestone is currently awaiting distribution.

Crip Camp

Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place. But then it becomes a chronicle of a movement, one sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their experience in that place.

The place is Camp Jened, a “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as former Jened camper James Lebrecht (and the film’s co-director, with Nicole Newnham) explains early in the film. Located in the Catskills a few hours north of New York City, Camp Jened was a place for teens with all kinds of disabilities (including those caused by polio and cerebral palsy) to spend time together and experience what it might be like to live in a world that was welcoming to them.

Crip Camp focuses on a specific group of teens who attended the camp in the early 1970s (it closed due to financial difficulties in 1977) and later joined the radical disability rights movement. Many of them ended up in Berkeley as young adults, advocating for legislation that would require public places to be accessible to everyone, and that would prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The film shows how the vision the young people experienced at camp, of a world that was open to everyone, led them to become activists and community organizers. Crip Camp is buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.

Crip Camp will stream on Netflix on March 25.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson appears in Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead,
John Wakayama Carey/Sundance Institute

In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) zooms in on her aging father and her relationship with him as they both begin to come to terms with his inevitable passing. The result is as playful as it is painful; in some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something imagined.

Some scenes are shot in cinema vérité style, as Dick plays with his grandchildren, packs up his office after retiring, and talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s and died several years ago. The film — which won a prize for innovative filmmaking at Sundance — is an exercise in imagination and an inquiry into whether imagining the death of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes.

Dick Johnson Is Dead will stream on Netflix later this year.

Down a Dark Stairwell

Down a Dark Stairwell chronicles the tumult around the death of Akai Gurley.
True/False Film Festival

In 2014, Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, was shot in a Brooklyn housing project by Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang. Two years later, Liang became the first NYPD officer to be convicted in an officer-involved shooting since 2005; his conviction was eventually downgraded by a judge from manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide.

Gurley’s death and Liang’s conviction became a flashpoint of conflict in New York, bringing to the fore a range of issues, from historic discrimination against Asian American communities to the ongoing history of black men shot by police to the way police interact with communities of color in the city. In Down a Dark Stairwell, director Ursula Liang (no relation) chronicles the case as it’s happening, exploring community discussions and protests, mobilization efforts, anger and cries for justice, and the results, which satisfied no one. It’s a vital picture of a tumultuous time and a gripping reminder that anyone promising to solve systemic racial issues probably needs a reality check.

Down a Dark Stairwell is currently awaiting distribution.

IWOW: I Walk on Water

A man’s face, with a tear running down his cheek.
An image from Khalik Allah’s film IWOW: I Walk on Water.
True/False Film Festival

Director Khalik Allah’s first film, Field Ni**as, a vision of Harlem’s streets, sent shock waves through the documentary community when he dropped it on YouTube without warning in 2015, and it announced the arrival of a profound new filmmaking talent; his 2019 film Black Mother was among the year’s most-lauded documentaries. Allah has also worked as a photographer and a cinematographer (including on Beyoncé’s 2016 “visual album” for Lemonade, one of the best films of the 2010s).

All of that has in some ways built to IWOW: I Walk on Water. The film is an expansive portrait of Harlem, mostly the people who populate the corners at night and, in particular, a man everyone calls Frenchy. It’s a sprawling, messy, and at times painfully personal work — it runs nearly three and a half hours — that weaves in Allah’s relationships with Frenchy, Allah’s mother, his girlfriend Camilla, and the people he encounters. Thanks to the director’s arresting, entrancing visual sense, watching IWOW is like entering a dreamscape inside Allah’s head, and being taken entirely out of yourself. It’s not for everyone, but it’s undeniably bold and fascinating.

IWOW: I Walk on Water is currently awaiting distribution.


A woman looks out the window of an RV.
A scene from Lovemobil.
True/False Film Festival

In Germany, along the rural highways that lead to manufacturing plants, small RVs dot the roadside, sporting strings of colored lights in the windows and a woman in the front seat, waiting for customers. They’re the mobile vehicles that sex workers rent by the day, trying to earn a living by fulfilling the desires of the men who work nearby.

Lovemobil, from director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss, is an intimate look at two of the women who work in the vehicles — and a nuanced exploration of both how they began the work and why they’ve stayed in it. It’s unusually complex; the two women, one from Bulgaria and one from Nigeria, both have agency in choosing to do the work. But they want to get out of it, partly because of the abuse they encounter from some of their customers. Lehrenkrauss spent over a year with them, chronicling their conversations and recording their thoughts, and creating a vital, careful film that paints them as neither helpless victims nor empowered victors, but simply as women.

Lovemobil is currently awaiting distribution.


Mayor follows Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid through an extraordinary — and ordinary — time for his city.
True/False Film Festival

The city of Ramallah — Palestine’s de facto capital — sits near Jerusalem, surrounded by Israeli settlements and dependent on Israeli approval for public projects like constructing a cemetery. Mayor is a gripping portrait of Ramallah’s beloved mayor, Musa Hadid, whose job consists of the mundane tasks of running a local government mixed with the extraordinary circumstances of navigating the repercussions of a geopolitical conflict.

That conflict came to the fore during the 2017 holiday season. Director David Osit was filming a fly-on-the-wall look at Hadid’s life when the Trump administration announced that it would be moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby essentially declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. The controversial move sparked protests and violence across the country and in Ramallah, and Osit stayed with Hadid as he did his job. There are whiffs of Veep-like humor throughout Mayor (particularly with regard to a fountain outside the government building), but it’s also a sincere tale of a public servant who’s seeking to lead in a world that’s stacked against him.

Mayor is currently awaiting distribution.

The Mole Agent

A still from The Mole Agent by Maite Alberdi.
Alvaro Reyes/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

You could call The Mole Agent a spy movie, but it’s an unusual one — and unusually poignant, too. Documentarian Maite Alberdi lets us in on a bit of subterfuge as Sergio, an elderly Chilean man, is “cast” as a new nursing home resident by Detective Romulo, who’s been hired to investigate the facility. Sergio’s job is to infiltrate the home on behalf of Romulo’s client and look into whether the client’s mother is being abused; meanwhile, the documentarians both follow Sergio and observe the home’s residents, who don’t know the whole truth about why Sergio is there. And what Sergio discovers is much bigger than one patient’s story and more insightful about love, loneliness, and growing old.

The Mole Agent is currently awaiting distribution.

So Late So Soon

Two people face one another.
Jackie and Don Seiden in So Late So Soon.
True/False Film Festival

So Late So Soon sneaks up on you. At first it’s a loving if quirky story about an aging couple: Jackie Seiden, an eccentric artist with a penchant for collecting detritus and discarded items, and Don Seiden, her husband, who makes giant sculptures from wire and foil. They clearly irritate one another and love one another, and their interactions make for a very funny film.

But So Late So Soon (directed by Jackie’s former student Daniel Hymanson) evolves into something more heartbreaking, as the effects of aging on the couple’s health and relationship come into view. Jackie mourns that she, a “whirling dervish” obsessed with making art from decaying things, is herself decaying; Don struggles with newfound health problems that make living in their beloved home increasingly difficult. The result is moving and quietly devastating; it’s one of the best documentaries that played at this year’s True/False.

So Late So Soon is currently awaiting distribution.

Sunless Shadows

A group of five young women sit in a large prison cell, with bunk beds.
A scene from Sunless Shadows.
True/False Film Festival

In several previous films (including 2016’s critically acclaimed Starless Dreams), Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei has explored the world inside Iran’s prisons for teenage girls convicted of serious crimes, including murder. He returns to that world for Sunless Shadows, in which he spends time with the girls as they live together, occupy themselves in the courtyard, laugh, eat, and try to live some kind of life behind thick walls.

But the real subject of Sunless Shadows is the collection of circumstances that drove these teenagers — and often their mothers and older sisters, some of whom are living on death row, with sons pursuing their execution — to kill. Most often, they tell stories of years of serious physical and mental abuse at the hands of fathers, brothers, and brothers-in-law, experiences that finally drove them to the brink. Yet murder clearly wasn’t an act of “empowerment” for them; we bear witness as they beg for forgiveness and argue over whether they deserve any leniency. Humanist and sobering and enraging, Sunless Shadows is a vital portrait of young women in a society that has no room for them as people.

Sunless Shadows is currently awaiting distribution.


A still from Time by Ursula Garrett Bradley
A scene from Time.
Sundance Institute

Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the life that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley won the directing prize at Sundance for her documentary, which follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob from prison. Rob is serving a 60-year sentence for a crime he committed as a young man, in which they were both involved.

Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. And all along, Fox has filmed videos at home, which together feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates black families in America as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives about crime and justice conceal the truth and pain of those separations.

Time will be released by Amazon.

The Viewing Booth

Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has focused his films (like 2011’s The Law in These Parts) on questions about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, but to explore the topic for The Viewing Booth, he focused his camera on the act of viewing itself. Alexandrowicz set up a lab-like room in which he invited American students interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to view videos uploaded by activists and verbalize their thoughts.

He ended up centering the film on the reactions of one young woman, Maia Levy, an American of Israeli descent, whose views of videos originating in the West Bank city of Hebron stand in opposition to Alexandrowicz’s. Through their conversations, the ways our preconceived ideas shape and dictate the way we view the same images are explored and exposed, largely through Maia’s self-awareness of where her beliefs come from and why they won’t change.

Even more extraordinarily, The Viewing Booth forces the audience into confrontation with their viewing biases. At one point we are watching Alexandrowicz watch Maia as she watches a video of herself watching another video; those levels of remove suddenly make us wonder how our own biases and beliefs shape what we’re looking at, too. The Viewing Booth is an outstanding probe into not just how people think about a conflict in the Middle East, but the limits of nonfiction films regarding their ability to persuade and explore reality as it is — and whether such a thing is even possible.

The Waiting Booth is currently awaiting distribution.

Welcome to Chechnya

A still from Welcome to Chechnya.
Sundance Institute

People who identify as LGBTQ+ experience opposition and difficulty all over the world. But in the Russian republic of Chechnya — and the Vladimir Putin-backed regime led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — the state is abducting and killing them with impunity. Welcome to Chechnya, which won a prize for editing at Sundance, carefully follows a number of Chechens fleeing for their lives and others who try to shelter them and provide passage to countries where they might be safe.

Directed by investigative journalist and award-winning documentarian David France, the film digitally obscures the faces of people who are on the run for their lives — a technique to obscure the “truth” that becomes all the more powerful when it suddenly becomes part of the story.

Welcome to Chechnya will be released by HBO in June.

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