By Ezra Haber Glenn
This is a thoughtful, surprisingly moving, and extremely ambitious film, one that employs an innovative style and some unconventional pacing to explore an unusually complex philosophical and emotional landscape.
Truth or Consequences, directed by Hannah Jayanti. The film will be available online via the Brattle Theatre’s “Brattlite” platform, starting tomorrow.
This month, all of Hollywood is talking about Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. It’s a revolutionary new film that blends fiction and documentary to tell the very real and emotional story of some very real and stoic people eking out an existence at the (increasingly wide) margins of society, living from day to day and moving from town to town in camper vans and mobile homes through the epic scenery of the Great American West. The film has already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and it’s short-listed by nearly everyone for the Best Picture Oscar as well. It’s a great film, and deserves all this praise. (See here for this reviewer’s take.)
But somewhere, in another universe, there is a corresponding film, a lesser-known complement to the celebrated Nomadland. This effort also examines the same themes and settings, but — in that strange way of alternate universes — every aspect is explored aslant, with a slightly divergent set of tools and approaches. The two films are not quite opposite, exactly — there are eerie echoes and coincidental harmonic resonances despite their different lineages. Perhaps it is best to think of this project as tangential to the movie de jour. Those willing to venture into this alternative space will find an equally thoughtful, surprisingly moving, and extremely ambitious film, one that employs an innovative style and some unconventional pacing to explore (and, at times, simply dwell in) an unusually complex philosophical and emotional landscape.
This alternate universe has collided with our own in a place — and a film — called Truth or Consequences, Hannah Jayanti’s new “speculative documentary.” Whereas Nomadland followed the folk on the road, this film settles down and rests in place, seeking to understand what happens to those who remain (or return) when everyone else has gone. (These people, for the most part, are also living in vans and mobile homes and just scraping by.)
Encomiums established, this is a hard film to review: it’s definitely imaginative and thought-provoking, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It’s a challenging film to watch because you need to work at figuring out what you can get out of it. (Hint: you get out of it what you bring to it.) You are asked to engage with the filmmaker’s process. To some, this will be exciting and lead to some fulfilling connections. But others may think Jayanti’s strategy smacks of overindulgence or lack of clarity. Think of Truth or Consequences as the steel-cut oats of films: it’s a choice, not a challenge.
As a setting for her inquiry into the lives of those living on the margins, the director chose the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The location benefits from name-recognition far beyond what you would expect for its size alone, thanks to its quirky name, which was officially changed in 1950 in order to win a contest sponsored by the famous radio game show. This history is mentioned in passing and it is obvious that the phrase serves as a touchstone for discerning “the meaning” of this enigmatic film. But the location is far more relevant — for Jayanti’s purposes — because outside of the town sits “Spaceport America,” the world’s first facility for launching commercial spacecraft. The spaceport and visitor center opened in 2019. The film takes place some years in the future beyond that. (For those good at math: yes, you are correct, that means the film is supposed to be taking place sometime after 2021 — it’s “subtly set in a near future when space travel has begun,” as described in the liner notes. This is one aspect of the “speculative documentary” framing.)
But, unexpectedly, the movie shies away from the major headline here: the spaceport may be a launch pad for the story, but our destination is Truth or Consequences, not some off-world colony. The narrative implies that most of the population is long gone; we are watching the fledgling years of a ghost town. (Or perhaps it’s a whole ghost planet, the back-story for what will eventually become the start of Wall-E — we never do see how many people have left, or what’s beyond the horizon…) This place — this barren scrap of land between the mountains and the White Sands Missile Range — is home to five (real) people who we will get to know over the next 100 minutes, all of whom, for one reason or another — loyalty, loss, gravity, defeat, or just plain ornery stubbornness — have chosen to stay and make this town home.
In order to chronicle these left-behind lives, Jayanti settled in as well for over three years via an embedded documentary technique. She gathered footage, yes, but also stories, reflections, old photographs, memories, new perspectives, and insights. In addition to drawing on the value of very unhurried observation, Jayanti’s process is deeply collaborative. As she explains: “The film is borne out of a commitment to listening, co-creation, and shifting the conversation around how documentaries relate to the people and places they represent.” She applies this same collaborative approach to her production crew too: despite the fact that she wrote, directed, co-produced, shot, and edited the film, it is clearly shaped by the considerable contributions of visual effects artist Alexander Porter, musician Bill Frisell, and other members of the production team. (And to her credit, despite demonstrating the strong vision of an auteur director, Jayanti freely shares the stage with these others, both in the finished product and in the accessory materials on the film’s website.)
Throughout this process — which is, admittedly, a bit wandering at times, unresolved in ways that will test viewers — more themes are uncovered than can be processed during the film itself. Those leaving the theater will no doubt compare notes and try to puzzle it out. (Oh, for the days of late-night bars and cafés after seeing a movie!) Nearly every interaction begs for later contemplation or supplies bits of wisdom that stick. There’s a meditation on the properties of local rocks, which glow with hidden colors — but only under the proper conditions; an exposition on how you can learn to see worth in small discarded things; an aging widow makes peace with a troubled and painful life, reflecting that “the past reminds me of things I have released from my youth, my now is appreciate the now.” One of the characters observes, while digging in an old landfill for abandoned treasures, that we just scratch at the ground around us: real understanding takes time, real meaning derives from patience plus work.
Visually these elements are highlighted, dramatized, and explored in a variety of ways. Archival footage, old photos, extremely long takes, and time-lapse animations (some played in reverse) generate a rich — at times amusing — vision of shifting, layered, almost geological time. As an added technological flourish, the team pioneered intermittent sequences that make use of computer-generated photogrammetry — essentially, filming inside a 3D virtual world mapped from actual footage. The result conveys an uncanny sense of abandonment and decay. (This is presumably another aspect of the “speculative documentary.”) The images are striking, an eerie, hollow blend of The Matrix and the floating dust-mote “Upside Down” dimension from Stranger Things. This technique will appeal to some viewers and alienate others. (I struggled, but I fear I’m in the latter camp: I missed the actual human element I was becoming so attached to in the other footage — but I guess in some ways that was the point.)
Accompanying all of these carefully curated images, Frisell’s improvised soundtrack sets a moody, meditative tone, lulling you into the proper mindset needed to grapple with the film’s meditation on the search for meaning. (The team has also produced a fascinating video describing the process used to score the documentary.)
As the themes emerge, they revolve around two related concepts: the passage of time, and the ineffable qualities of life that make our existence meaningful. Truth or Consequences seems to be positing itself as an archaeology of an unwritten future. (An obvious subtitle for the film — were it not already taken and associated with Nazi overtones — might have been “Being and Time.” But I think “Truth or Consequences” does the trick, simultaneously rooting the film in this place and establishing a playful tone that will carry you through the film’s experimental facets.) Other minor motifs flit by as well, flirting with Jayanti’s central concerns: birth, growth, change, and death; nature and technology; entrapment and flight; truth, or consequences.
Of course, the Big Issues are left unresolved. But these real (not speculative) individuals (and others, off camera) will remain in Truth or Consequences, continuing to make sense of life. Jayanti is committed to working with the community and deepening her investigations. Beyond the completion of the film, the team has collaborated with local organizations to establish an art and film festival known as Meteoric, “dedicated to re-envisioning what a community led festival could be.” The goal is to help build a sustainable future for this place. There’s an admirable equity-first stance taken here, and it is worth emulating elsewhere: if a film, an artist, a scholar — or hey: even for-profit company — benefits from its use of a place, it should give back. But aside from its lesson in ethical filmmaking, the Meteoric project dovetails with the film’s raison d’etre: when the rockets — or the cameras — leave, who remains to care for this place and tell the stories of these people? I’m sure Jayanti — and her new friends in Truth or Consequences — will be happy to tell us where life progresses.
Note: On March 7, curator/programmer Inney Prakash will lead a conversation with the film’s co-collaborators, Hannah Jayanti and Alexander Porter, to discuss “the politics of process and form, and the set of guiding principles they used to undergird all aspects of the film’s creation … and the important role of ‘not knowing’ in documentary filmmaking.” Click here for info and to register.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in the New York Observer, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, the Journal of Statistical Software, Experience Magazine, the Arts Fuse, and Next City, and he is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine. Follow him on UrbanFilm and @UrbanFilmOrg.