Beer and Pavement

Celebrating Voyeurs

Posted in Film, Live by SM on March 4, 2010

There’s a documentary film festival in this town. The people here love it. Folks either attend or they volunteer1.

True/False is that festival. It’s an eclectic gathering of filmmakers, musicians2, and film-lovers for one weekend near the end of February. Featured are some of the best and brightest of independent, nonfiction film3. Despite the global essence of the films, the feel of the festival is completely local as the citizens of Columbia, Missouri come out and do their part to make a pretty spectacular festival happen.

Documentary/nonfiction films are stories which reveal some truths about the subjects they cover, but what do they reveal about the audience who flock to central Missouri every year? What’s the motivation to see ten or so films historically reserved for PBS or the classroom over the course of a weekend? Why all the fuss?

Nonfiction films take the audience to places they’ve never been, in the company of people they may never know. Not only do they take us to another place, but these films connect us through commonalities only apparent after 90 minutes of film4. Plus, the artistic expression from the filmmakers can be breathtaking5, humorous6, or horrifically disturbing7; all touching our inner-most emotions.

Nonfiction film does all of that and it satisfies the voyeur8 in all of us. The filmmaker is the lead voyeur who takes us in with her camera. We willingly follow just to gain a peak into an existence we might not otherwise witness. Documentaries are a vehicle for voyeurism to flourish.

True/False celebrates the voyeur in all of us. The filmmakers are our vehicles and they receive heroes’ welcomes in the form of parades9 and standing ovations. Bravo! You widened that keyhole and took a snap shot so that my voyeuristic needs could be met! Thank you, filmmakers and festival organizers. I needed to know about that man and his inventions or those boys at their snooty private school.

Whenever truth is revealed through voyeuristic or other means, various perspectives of a subject or argument are revealed. Nonfiction films are rarely all good or all bad. There is a little of both spread throughout the films at T/F. Just like the festival itself.

After living in Columbia for a few years and getting to know how the community conducts itself, I have learned of some of the ugliness associated with the fest not usually apparent to many festival goers10. There are grudges and political maneuvers. A select few opinions are considered in piecing together the festival lineup, limiting the scope of films represented. Folks scream and yell and quit over passes, perks, etc. Of course, the organizers put on a pretty amazing event despite these bruises and black eyes. The festival represents both the best and worst of our Midwestern college town, much the same way the films do for their subjects.

And what do we voyeurs see in these films?

We see the odd11, the strange12, the unimaginable13. We also see a mirror. Nonfiction films reveal the connections we have with people in completely different circumstances. These films are real. They have heart14.

Speaking of mirrors, The Mirror was the first film I saw over the weekend. It told the story of an ambitious mayor of an Italian village located between mountain ranges in the Alps. Viganella goes without sunlight for 83 days a year until an architect comes up with an idea to construct a giant mirror on the face of a mountain overlooking the village15. As mentioned before, there is the mayor who is the optimist, trying to improve life in his town and its residents. Through conversations in taverns, following local hermits through mountainous trails, and sitting with local clergy, the viewer is exposed to the doubt and beliefs of the town’s people. Is man-made progress always good? What does it mean to live in isolation? Can one ever enjoy peace with the ever-encroaching modern world? What are the consequences of man playing God?

The festival’s opening night film was Smash His Camera. The doc follows one Ron Galella, the godfather of modern paparazzi, and his never-ending quest to take the most revealing photos of celebrities at their most vulnerable16. If ever there was an example of our obsession with the lives of others, it can be found in the pages of the tabloids who pay handsomely for Galella’s photographs. Ethical or not, the fruits of voyeurism fills some sort of void in our lives. If we can’t be rich and famous, we can at least know how the rich and famous live. Galella’s photos and the legacy he’s shaped allows us to do that.

Colony gave the festival audience an insider’s perspective of beekeeping, including the disappearance of bees all over the country. Of course, as voyeurs, we the audience focused on the characters featured, not so much the issues surrounding disappearing bee colonies. One particular family of small-time beekeepers drew additional attention. They were a conservative Christian family, trying to get by in tough economic times as their colony of bees suffered17.

The dark side of voyeurism happens when we judge our subjects. One audience member not only judged this family rather harshly, but she threw the filmmaker under the bus as well. The audience member, who may or may not be an art history professor at the University of Missouri, caused the audience to groan as she berated the filmmaker for including the Christian conservatives and even caused one Twitter user to proclaim her “question” to be the worst in True/False history18.

That is not good voyeurism, Ma’am. A good voyeur simply watches19. She never participates or interferes.

I sort of think the audience member was taken aback by the things one of the “characters” had said. She was then nervous to stand in front of so many people and proceeded to spew way more verbal diarrhea than originally intended. It’s OK, she’s gathered her thoughts and has responded to her critics.

Of course, the weekend was primarily filled with the good kind of voyeurism. We were all lost in the moment as we sat in dark theaters while winter finally relented to the oncoming spring outside20. I saw mostly good-to-great films and heard mostly thoughtful commentary from festival audiences.

For a weekend, 10,000 or so folks got to catch a glimpse into the lives of others while safely sitting in theaters, chapels, and rock clubs of their Midwestern college town.

Were we really voyeurs21? Well, technically no. Voyeurism has more to do with watching sexual acts or naked bodies or even everyday things and gaining some sort of arousal from the act. Most of the films don’t exactly titillate on the levels of true voyeurism, but we do arrive at some level of excitement due to the reality and heart these films demonstrate. For some of us, this is the best thing that happens in Middle Missouri every year. So, that alone causes some excitement.

Even if it’s not voyeurism that I’m describing, it’s still rather enthralling to be a part of such an event. There’s a community built around this festival. Intellectual discussions over difficult issues is commonplace for three or four days. There’s an energy in the air. Is it as much a turn-on to watch a good documentary film as it is for a voyeur to watch a woman change her clothes through a peephole? Doubtful, but it’s close.

(Forgot to mention that my review of The Red Chapel is up at MyMissourian’s T/F blog.)

1Well, not everyone. There are those that don’t even know there’s a film festival going on, which is hard to believe considering that Columbia, MO has more journalists per capita than any other city in the country. Others who do not attend do not like the pretentiousness of documentary film nor hipsters.
2Although, I have never really gotten into the music aspect. Sure, I love the acts serenading us between films and that Brody Douglas comes back every year, but I’m not shelling out money for a pass to see bands. I come for the stories.
3Sans my friends over at Carnivalesque Films who have done some amazing work since their last T/F appearances. Seriously, check out their docs.
4Which was more the rule, not the exception this year. The one thing I hate about the film festival is the number of unedited, 250-minute documentaries about some dude (usually the filmmaker himself) on heroin while he tries to save his dying father’s pig farm from bankruptcy despite a long history of incest and veganism.
5See Manufactured Landscapes.
6See The Third Monday in October.
7See Food, Inc.
8Don’t worry. I will address this misuse of the word later.
9Seriously. There’s a March March held every year to open the fest.
10None of which I will go into here. I am not interested in spreading rumors. I’m just making a point that no matter how wonderful I or others think the festival is, it still has its faults. While bothersome, these problems won’t keep me from attending.
11See The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
12See I Think We’re Alone Now.
13See Forbidden Lies.
14See Heart of the Game.
15An idea I thought I would work on the buildings running along Ninth Street that would have kept me warm while walking in the shade. No one else thought this was a good idea.
16He was famously or infamously sued by Jaquelin Onassis for getting a bit too close to his subject. She was the one who suggested the secret service smash his camera.
17They rank somewhere in my top-5 characters at True/Fasle ever.
18And that’s saying something. Right before that, at the screening for Kick in Iran, an audience member asked why there was English written below the Arabic on the uniforms and street signs. Really? Are a you third grader on a field trip to an exhibit on Iran? Nope. You’re an old white guy who asks dumb questions of a really phenomenal filmmaker.
19Well, a good voyeur does a lot of things not worth mentioning here. I realize this, but bear with me. I’ll get to that.
20Really. Spring comes to Middle Missouri around the end of February. It was chilly, but the sun made it almost spring-like.
21Here it is.

Tagged with: , ,