Truth or Consequences

 

“The Ghosts of History and the Blinding Consequence of the Future”

Greg Cohen (UCLA)

On March 31, 1950, the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico changed its name to Truth or Consequences (TorC), a fact we learn roughly twenty minutes into Hannah Jayanti’s eponymous documentary. Before a gaggle of grade schoolers on a field trip to the town’s historical museum, the docent divulges the origin of this historical curiosity with a kind of weary bemusement: the popular game show Truth or Consequences held a contest… and Hot Springs, the first town to officially adopt the show’s name, won. As reward, the newly rechristened town earned an annual visit from the show’s host, Ralph Edwards, who “for fifty years, fifty years”—so the docent underscores, eliciting murmurs of wonder from her rapt child audience—rode on horseback at the yearly Fiesta. The museum guide speaks while gesturing towards a poster on the wall behind her, which features a photograph of Edwards astride a white horse, with large, serifed letters announcing, “Sierra County, NM, Spirit of the PAST, Eye on the FUTURE.” With that, the children proceed to ogle old portraits, fondle fossils, ponder clay pottery, and mock immovable mannequins resembling indigenous men dressed in anachronistic denim jeans and Western shirts.

Spirit of the past, eye on the future: human history itself often resembles that phrase, particularly if we qualify the eye with a perennial blindness that renders the future, when it arrives, always as an unanticipated calamity of our own making. Better to resign ourselves to the relentless but predictable spirit of the past, its haunting litany of misguided ambitions, inconsequential triumphs, and colossal failures. This, perhaps, is why the relabeling of Hot Springs, New Mexico as Truth or Consequences seems at once familiar and trivial. After all, there may be nothing more quintessentially human than our will to reinvention, erasure, and oblivion; than our desire to vault headlong into the unknowable future. In the case of Hot Springs, the leap meant swapping its namesake—rooted in the geological phenomenon which first drew humans to the town—for an abstract reference to a game show that concerned itself neither with the truth nor anything of much consequence.

Like the wide eyes in the museum, which seem to behold the shabby artifacts and dilapidated displays with a mixture of wonder, ennui, and yes, even a hint of precocious cynicism, Jayanti’s film blends discretion with a nervous prying as it searches for the past that haunts the denizens of TorC. In hand-held observational footage that often frames gnarled hands and wizened faces in extreme close-up, the documentary’s subjects gradually divulge the contours of their despair. We meet George, the hoarder hemmed in by the endless piles of unremarkable detritus he dredges from a forsaken landfill. There’s Olin, the silver-haired, tattooed painter and poet who long ago fled his native Wyoming to transform a dilapidated desert shack into a semi-urban oasis, yet who now seems to relish the likelihood that it will all revert to desolation when he dies. And thirty-year-old Katie, TorC native, youngest member (by decades) of the local “Rock Club,” who regrets returning to her birthplace after failing to make her future elsewhere, and who confesses in tears that she is now too poor and too fearful to pick up and leave again. And Yvonne, octogenarian circus veteran, survivor of a tiger attack, widow to a man who saved her from a childhood of sexual abuse, enduring in defiant solitude in a trailer moored on a scruffy corner of an industrial lot surrounded by desert. And Philip, the cipher with heavy brow and graying hair slicked back, hunkered down in his 1970s motor home (long immobile), who dispenses oracular wisdom about the ominous “Spaceport Authority,” a hub for commercial space travel on the outskirts of town that promises to save humanity by spearheading the colonization of other planets.

Indeed, what Jayanti’s tender, reverent interviews reveal about her subjects is the damaged, jaded dignity with which they suffer the consequential truth of an ecosystem in its death throes. While none ever suggests as much explicitly, they all seem to recognize that humanity itself is to blame for having defiled its earthly abode and wrought its own destruction.

Even so, the film seems only slightly less averse than they to contemplating the ruinous future to which they are resolutely blind. To the last, the subjects seem oppressed by their inexorable self-annihilation yet unable to imagine a future that diverges from the desolate present. This sensation is reinforced by the alternating sequences of archival footage in the film, which brood over the town’s history of colonization and resource extraction, along with its role in the nation’s space program. On several occasions, we watch footage shot from the side of a rocket as it abandons the Earth, the camera always trained back towards the receding planet. Halfway through the film, another archival sequence about various forms of destruction—the dropping of bombs, the felling of a giant conifer—even runs in reverse, as though to grasp at once the whole irreversible history of human blunder.

The website for the film classifies Truth or Consequences as a “speculative documentary.” With its loose, aleatory narrative and experimental mix of audiovisual media, the film is certainly speculative in its form. When it comes to projecting possible futures, it is more elusive, preferring to dwell obsessively on the inescapable past. What future the film does imagine is also already a ruin of sorts. Here, according to the website, the “creative misuse” of photogrammetry generates a series of virtual reality sequences that join the rotating succession of archival and observational footage. In each, we move in first-person through spaces both identifiable and disorienting: although derived from the film’s own documentary footage (Yvonne’s trailer, George’s junk museum), these recognizable locations seem to dissolve into blackness before our eyes. At first blush, they could seem to represent some extraterrestrial realm. Over time, however, the virtual realities reveal their speculative function: what we witness—what Truth or Consequences compels us to imagine—is not so much a future human settlement thriving beyond our galaxy, but rather a place, a people, an entire planet we already know, as it literally disintegrates into the void of outer space.

“Once a town goes ghost,” George remarks near the outset of the film, “there’s nobody left that knows… that all this came and went. Then there’s nobody left to transmit.” This holds equally for the fate of the planet and its current inhabitants. Truth or Consequences senses the urgency of that admonition and strains to transmit it to us from the fast-disintegrating edges of human life.

 

“The Political Risks of Listening”

Xiaolu Wang (Filmmaker)

This is my third time viewing Truth or Consequences, and it took me three sittings to part with it. Perhaps, I don’t want to stop getting acquainted with George, Olin, Yvonne, Katie, and Philip (the residents of Truth or Consequences, NM, in order of appearance in the film). Within the film’s 103 minutes, the cabinets of their seemingly mundane lives unlock. I am a listless traveler intersecting with them on desert roads or taking a smoke break with them as they gaze back, become self-conscious, or narrate their lives for the hundredth time. Only this time, they do so in the presence of filmmaker Hannah Jayanti’s camera. And, through Jayanti’s filming, they are spared from being reduced to symbols.

Truth or Consequences is a political film made from the inside out. An inside-out political film is one that critically engages with the form and the ethics of filmmaking. The political significance lies beyond the content of the film and is instead located within the process. It flexes the listening muscles of makers and viewers to inquire further: what kinds of stories are we placing higher values on? What kinds of characters get the spotlight over others? Which films are perpetuating the narrative arc of a hero’s journey and thus deemed legible by the industry for distribution deals? While there are many opportunities that support filmmakers, how many of them actually nourish a process that is honest and authentic, even if the production process is all the more time-consuming as a result? Inside-out political filmmaking offers a chance to listen for what has been overlooked. For Truth or Consequences to be made at all, Jayanti took creative and political risks against a filmmaking culture that prioritizes storytelling over the ethics of listening. This approach is a political stance. 

I am writing this inside my own journey of rebelling against conventional documentary filmmaking, a course correction towards listening deeply, hungrily, and using different senses and perspectives in the process. My encounter with Truth or Consequences has been about more than just a film I admire; it has prompted a new curiosity about filmmaking as a practice. That practice, beyond “securing the access to a story” or “following a narrative arc,” includes a constant conversation with form, uncertainty, time, mortality, capitalism, careerism, and with the documentary film industry and the socio-political landscape surrounding it. Jayanti’s process-driven values inspire me to rethink my own filmmaking practice.

In an interview with programmer Inney Prakash and Sentient Art Film, director Jayanti and her co-writer Alexander Porter explained the principles that guided the making of this film. The first principle on their list is listening, which for them is something that occurs at the time of both production and editing. After assembling an initial rough cut, Jayanti thought she had committed an injustice toward the people in the film. One of these people, George, who collects and hosts countless found and abandoned objects, is a memory-holder for the town. She had cut out George showing his objects to the camera in favor of his verbal explanations about why he collects objects, as if knowing the whys would help us know more about George. But this wasn’t the film Jayanti set out to make. So, she shifted “knowing” from holding the place of power towards reclaiming “not knowing.” Instead of imposing, she began to actually listen to what she had recorded, the content of each scene as well as the moments in between spoken words. In the final film, there are more lingering moments showing George’s eclectic collections and him greeting the moon while discovering a one-of-a-kind marble. Rather than trying to explain George’s behavior, Jayanti allows the important moments to reveal themselves.

The process of choosing which moments would make it into the film were not at all straightforward. On the Docs in Orbit podcast, Jayanti describes her own grappling with extractive practices and the dominance of “the right way of making documentaries.” She talks about this constant battle between what is required and what feels important. For example, Jayanti doesn’t like to see people as “characters,” but all the grant applications ask makers to articulate their films in a way that distills people as characters and constructs their stories as narrative arcs. This process can be incredibly extractive and reductive in its lack of care for the complexity of human identities and experiences. But what happens if makers are asked different questions by funding agencies, or begin to ask different questions of themselves? For Truth or Consequences, Jayanti asked herself questions about form that allowed her to contemplate some of the other ways of being or making that are possible.

Near Truth or Consequences, space-travel tourism looms over the economics of the region by Spaceport America. In the film, the spaceport could easily have become a character, a villain, or a context. But as a part of Jayanti’s practice, she chose to challenge her own preconceived notions. Instead of falling into the trap of the conventional narrative, one about a small town and its struggling residents, Jayanti and Porter examined and listened to the underlying complexities. They shifted the premise to a speculative future where people are leaving Earth as commercial space travel has begun. This shift is precisely the result of taking risks and listening to the footage. Jayanti says that she was encouraged by consulting editor Mary Lampson to sit with her 150 hours of raw footage over and over, instead of a selection of clips narrowed down early on. Doing so helped reframe Jayanti’s “crisis of faith” in documentary into a more creative process, away from the language of problems into a time of growth. The insistence on listening to people and then also to the footage with a generative curiosity resists an industry that is established around listening only for the “exceptional” and the “compelling.”

Documentary filmmaking requires a curious beginner’s mind that embraces failing or the unknown. The language that Jayanti uses to describe her practice and process empowers me to ask different questions about my own practice. Where are the silences, the contraband spaces, or the long-lost resonances that I can listen for? What about perspectives beyond the human, beyond the living, and beyond the conceivable? If the act of listening is respected and prioritized as the key driver of the filmmaking process, what opportunities for co-creation are possible?

One thought on “Truth or Consequences

  1. A fan of Xiaolu’s works here! Very insightful commentary on the politics of listening through Truth And Consequences (now I have to watch it!) and the seeming contradictions in practice. Reminded me of Chloe Zhao’s immersive approach to filmmaking and creating what many call “docs-fiction.”

    Like

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