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Three Genre-Expanding Documentaries About Racist Crimes of t

For four days each March, Columbia, Missouri, is the epicenter of what might be called creative cinematic nonfiction—documentary films that probe, challenge, and expand the very nature of documentary filmmaking. The True/False Film Fest, which I’ve just had the privilege of attending, is the rarest of festivals—it’s governed by an idea, the essence of which is documentary filmmakers thinking about what they’re doing and making that thinking integral to their films.

The festival, which was founded by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, has become a major event on the year’s movie calendar because this idea is one that corresponds to reality. The trend that they perceived in its infancy, of documentary filmmakers engaging with ideas about the form, has become one of the central developments in the art; for instance, last year’s lineup included such films as “Kate Plays Christine,” “Cameraperson,” “Behemoth,” and “Weiner”; Robert Greene, the director of “Kate Plays Christine,” is perhaps the most original of today’s documentary-expanders, and he’s now a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, which hosts some True/False screenings and a range of joint programs with the festival.

I saw a dozen films at True/False (which ran from March 2nd through the 5th), and the best of them thrillingly blend observation and analysis, investigation and reflection; they uncover deep and decisive links between first-person experience and the wider contexts of politics, power, and history, while considering the ethical, aesthetic, and political implications of their own relationships with their participants and their subject matters.

Travis Wilkerson’s film “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” is a blend of a movie and a live performance—yet it’s an essentially cinematic experience. While the film plays, Wilkerson sits at a desk placed onstage, beside the screen, reading a text that might otherwise have served as a voice-over (and that Wilkerson may in fact put on the soundtrack, in order to make the film’s wider distribution possible). It’s a personal story in which he himself doesn’t appear: the filmmaker (who is a forty-eight-year-old white man) returns to his home town of Dothan, Alabama, to investigate a long-standing rumor about his great-grandfather S. E. Branch—that, in 1946, Branch, who owned a small convenience store, shot and killed Bill Spann, a black man who came into the store, but never faced trial for the killing.

Wilkerson films Dothan and other nearby places in a heat-hazy black-and-white palette inflamed with touches of color, adding a fuzz-guitar music track, which evokes a romantic Southern mythology that the movie exposes for its legacy of racist terror. Working with only the slightest threads of evidence—two brief 1946 clippings from the local newspaper and Spann’s death certificate—Wilkerson finds that his investigation is far from a mere footnote; it expands to touch on the historic while encountering history’s enduring force in the present day.

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