In the early 19th century, in western Ohio, the younger brother of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh changed his name from Lalawethika to Tenskwatawa and began having visions. He started talking about them and gained a following, eventually forming a settlement called Prophetstown near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. Tecumseh joined him there and started working on building a pan-Native American alliance with the goal of defeating the ever-growing and encroaching white settlers and armies. At a critical juncture, with William Henry Harrison’s army threatening attack, Tecumseh had to leave in order to recruit more tribes to the alliance. He told Tenskwatawa that should Harrison attack, they must abandon the settlement. A major loss would dismantle his diplomatic work and the alliance would fail. Tecumseh left but Tenskwatawa did not heed his brother’s commands, instead dramatically telling of a dream he had wherein no Native Americans died in battle. This led to Tenskatawa not only defying his brother’s orders but to actually attacking Harrison first. The great and violent loss that resulted caused many Native American tribes to lose faith in the alliance that Tecumseh had desperately been trying to build, an alliance that could have changed the course of history.
On the second day of the 2020 edition of the True/False Film Festival, the festival trailer (there was a new one presented each day) that played before the films opened with a quote from William Henry Harrison questioning Tenskwatawa’s validity as a prophet. It went on to show animated suggestive imagery (a snake, a wolf) and two Native Americans sitting at a fire pointing at the moon before quoting Tenskwatawa as he seemingly predicted a coming eclipse. It ended by displaying the theme for all of the bumpers for the festival: “FORESIGHT.”
It’s not hard to imagine that the well-intentioned creators of this trailer googled “Native American Prophet” (Tenskwatawa is the first thing that comes up on this search), found a quote that fit their needs, and made the trailer, not feeling it necessary to research his history and the consequence of his prophecies. Devoid of context, it comes across as a potentially earnest attempt to pay respect to the spiritual practices of Native Americans. But when connected to the reality of what happened, it is devastating in its failure to account for actual historical and physical outcomes.
If I’ve given you a negative picture of my experience at True/False, it certainly wasn’t my intention. Underneath the utopic sheen of the Columbia, Missouri-set festival I was able to witness some of the most exciting programming I’ve seen of late, with many of the films digging deep in their quest to illustrate the world on anything but the simplest or cleanest terms.
Inês Gil’s Unskinned (2019) shows life in a Portuguese tannery, with older workers going through the stages and processes involved in their work. The film is imbibed with natural light, pouring into every room in the old tannery building, and the textures of the various materials and washes the workers are dealing with. In turn, the work itself feels idyllic, viscerally different from the hard, shiny, and cheap automation that creates so many of the products that we consume today. Slowly but surely though, the film starts to subvert its appearance by showcasing monologues from the workers about the harsh realities of their beautifully filmed work and working conditions. The outdated machines that looked so quaint also put them at risk of losing limbs and even their lives. The tension between what the film shows, its undeniable beauty, and the workers’ actual experiences builds into a strong critique of art’s purpose in relation to the working class.
Early on in the film there are scenes of the workers sitting together and eating their lunches and I couldn’t help but think about Richard Serra’s 1979 commissioned Tilted Arc project, a massive sculpture that Serra created to appear in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building. Almost immediately, the 120 ft. long and 12 ft. high rust-covered plate was despised by the building’s workers, whose views it blocked as they ate their lunches in front of it each day. The disagreement between the workers and Serra ended up going to court, where Serra maintained that the work was site specific, a statement against class conflict and the evils of Capitalism, and couldn’t be moved. But the statue, paid for with tax-payer money, only made the lives of the workers, day in and day out, more miserable, regardless of what it may have symbolized or how it may have appeared to an art-curious visitor passing by.
City spaces and the people who occupy them are at the forefront of Steve James’s impressive and incredibly vital four-hour examination of the 2019 Chicago mayoral race, City So Real. Told in episodes, each an hour long, the film organizes its massive topic through the neighborhoods of Chicago, highlighting the divisive conditions, residents, and candidates that go on to define the contentious political contest. The duration of the project allows James to take his time, sitting with people in barbershops and diners, as they work out their feelings about the upcoming race and recent events, including the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the shooting serving as a charged entry point to the issues that define the race, with James expanding out to focus on the candidates.
The very human underpinning of the film comes into great and baffling contrast with the political process itself. James diligently documents the procedure that every candidate must go through when turning in their signatures in order to appear on the ballot. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions, with candidates challenging the validity of other candidates’ signatures and then working through those challenges with an objective city worker. But it doesn’t end there, and each party is allowed to veto the research and ruling of the city worker, essentially making the entire painstaking process pointless. The juxtaposition of real people in need, working through their problems and political positions despite an inane system of electoral procedures creates a giant and necessary pit in the stomach.
It’s also very much a film about the process of organizing, of sharing spaces, things that are no doubt on everyone’s minds as I write this, quarantined in my Sunset Park, Brooklyn apartment. In my favorite film of the festival, Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019), the middle section of her three-screen installation of the same name, Gary (in a disguise of sorts) spends much of the film standing on a street corner in Harlem, asking Black women of all ages whether or not they feel safe in their bodies. The question sometimes deviates in form, but for the most part she asks the women very specifically about their bodies, and how they feel in them. The answers vary, and it’s incredibly moving and informative to watch the women work through their thoughts, making their feelings a physical proposition. It has crossed my mind more than once during the quarantine that this new reality, wherein everyone is wary of anyone that approaches them, has at least somewhat leveled the playing field when it comes to feelings of physical safety. Privileges of class, race, and gender are still terrifyingly at play in our COVID-19 world—even more so, in many ways—but for once it isn’t just women who are scared of the strangers walking toward or behind them; suddenly, no bodies are safe.
In this moment, it’s hard to believe I saw The Giverny Document (Single Channel) just one month ago, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in a large group, in a public space. As True/False wore on and more and more news poured in, it seemed everyone was making the nervous joke that it might be the last film festival. Hopefully, this very much won’t be the case, but the pause does allow us the unique position of being able to stop and consider just how the festival system works, how we find and present new work, and how resources are allocated. As millions and millions of Americans lose their jobs and health insurance, will it continue to make sense for truly independent filmmakers to foot large parts of the bill for festivals, paying submission fee after submission fee in hopes of having their work screened? And how often will people and film institutions really be able to afford travel to festivals in other cities and other countries?
When True/False asked me to come this year and offered to pay my way I was intrigued, so many people I trust have talked and written about what a special festival it is, but I was excited because I knew I could attend firm in the knowledge that the festival pays a screening fee to each and every filmmaker whose work they screen. In other words, my free trip there to write about the festival wasn’t at the expense of an artist. It’s an all too rare thing. And as we all begin to grapple with our new economic reality, as well as an upcoming political race devoid of a candidate with any intention of trying to change things, I can only hope that the festival system starts to reconsider resource procurement and allocation and material support systems. The prestige of a festival screening, and the fun of the experience, should not continue to be enough. We need to ensure that we have access to films from people of all economic backgrounds, of all genders, and all colors. In other words, the stories we see and hear should not just emanate from the people who are privileged enough to ignore the realities of our current moment. It’s more than possible, as True/False has proven.