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"Railway Sleepers," a Thai film shot over eight years on the Thai railways, is described by columnist Nick Corder as "soft-spoken and socially aware."

Courtesy of 15th World Film Festival of Bangkok

For the Love of Movies: A categorical guide to True/False films

Columnist Nick Corder zeroes in on this year’s most eye-catching films.

By Nick Corder | Feb. 24, 2017

Tags: True/False Film Fest

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The True/False Film Fest is in its 14th year, and as in prior years, the film festival has attracted work from some of the most celebrated documentary filmmakers in the world. More than 30 films make up this year’s lineup, meaning literally dozens of great films are going to be showing downtown during one magnificent weekend, March 2-5. How to choose between so many amazing films with so little time? Take a look below, and you will see some of the docs that caught my eye, categorically compartmentalized to help you in your search for the right choice.

Art House

Documentaries typically mean talking heads and handheld camerawork, but Sompot Chidgasornpongse is averse to conventions. Railway Sleepers, his debut film, was shot over eight years on Thai railways, but it is collapsed into a two-day journey. This train ride transcends the standard rules of time and space. As patrons look out of their train windows, we look through the windows at them. Soft-spoken and socially aware, Railway Sleepers fits right in with the other masterpieces of 21st-century Thai film.

Awards Buzz

Sundance doesn’t give the Grand Jury Award to just any film. Dina, this year’s recipient, follows recently engaged Dina Buno and Scott Levin as they work toward marriage. According to her mother, Dina has a “smorgasbord of issues,” with Asperger’s syndrome at the center of it all. Scott also deals with his fair share of mental disabilities. The tale of their complicated relationship emerges as an uproarious romantic comedy that ingeniously dissects modern romance and proves that mental disabilities don’t detract from libido.

Big-Name Director

Few documentarians have the name recognition of Steve James. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail marks the continuation of his career as an empathetic “fly-on-the-wall,” according to Variety. It is a look into the lives of the Sung family in New York City’s Chinatown. They own the only bank to have faced criminal repercussions after the Great Recession. Their fight for equal treatment turns the lens on a corrupt government that bails out companies that are ‘too big to fail’ but incriminates family businesses that are “small enough to jail.”

Inspirational

Nearly every review of Amanda Lipitz's Step included some variation on the word “inspire,” so it was no surprise when the film was awarded the Sundance award for “inspirational filmmaking.” The film documents a group of inner-city seniors on a step team. These girls prepare doggedly for the upcoming regional competition, while also working on college applications. Step is a coming-of-age documentary that highlights the challenges that underprivileged black youth face, but it is also a lovable portrait of young women who discuss the Freddie Gray verdict one moment and the Kardashian sisters the next.

Missouri-Based

The unrest in Ferguson is a subject of contentious debate. Whose Streets? takes the audience to ground zero. It lets the locals set the scene. By allowing entrance into the lives of those directly affected by the death of Michael Brown, the filmmakers seek to draw attention to political injustice within the city and around the nation. The protests in Ferguson and the emergence of Black Lives Matter represent a landmark event in civil rights history, and no matter your political orientation, Whose Streets? is unique for documenting a personal perspective.

Music

There’s nothing better than the Grateful Dead, the band that became a counterculture rock phenomenon and the subject of the longest documentary on the True/False program. Rolling the credits nearly four hours after the lights turn off, Long Strange Trip is Amir Bar-Lev’s bucket list project that took nearly 15 years to complete. The epic documentary features a 20-minute intermission that breaks the film into two disparate halves, which coalesce in a documentary that is a verifiable heaven for deadheads and music lovers everywhere.

Creative ‘Non-Fiction’

The True/False organizers make a daring statement about the very essence of documentary with their inclusion of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto. Originally released as a multiscreen art exhibition in Australia, the film dramatizes 13 different artistic manifestos in an anthology piece starring Cate Blanchett in each of the the 13 roles. Blanchett performs as everything from a homeless man babbling about situationism to a conservative mother praying for pop art. Manifesto doesn’t just blur the line between documentary and fiction; it ignores it altogether.

Social Issues

We live in a world full of problems, and documentaries have become one of the most accessible forms of activism. In Strong Island, Yance Ford steps up as an activist with a secret weapon: empathy. This touching exploration of the murder of Ford’s brother is a testament to all those lost in acts of senseless violence. It exposes the audience to racism on the most personal level possible. Tears are to be expected.

Women in Film

Filmmaker Zayne Akyol was sneered at when she announced her intentions to infiltrate an all-female regiment in the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, but infiltrate she did. The results are awe-inspiring. Gulîstan, Land of Roses is a beautiful film named after Akyol’s childhood friend who was killed in service for the PKK, and the material reflects the intimacy of their relationship. She captures these women in close-ups as they load ammunition and clean their guns. Suffice it to say that the intentions of these “roses” are quite thorny.

World Premiere

Sometimes it’s easiest to see problems from the outside. Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2 is French director Florent Vassault's second film concerning death sentencing in America. More than a decade ago, Lindy Lou Isonhood became close friends with a man on death row — the very man that she had sentenced to death. The film follows Isonhood on a statewide search to find the other jurors involved in the conviction. What she discovers are complicated human emotions, including regret and forgiveness, that are best expressed on the silver screen.

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