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George, one of the people portrayed in Truth or Consequences, a film about the New Mexico town of the same name.

The Arts

Existential questions arise from a semi-abandoned desert town

Through unique storytelling, ‘Truth or Consequences’ explores our past, present, and future

Shanta Lee Gander, a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and poet, has submitted this review on behalf of Epsilon Spires, a Brattleboro-based arts venue through which Truth or Consequences can be streamed through Friday, March 26. For more information and to request access to the film, visit epsilonspires.org.

BRATTLEBORO—Take the last 14 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and National Geographic’s dramatic docu-series Year Million, which tries to imagine the advanced future of humans post-Earth, and what would you get?

Maybe, just maybe, these two projects, plus other elements, would become the visual manifestation of the 103-minute film Truth or Consequences.

Hannah Jayanti’s film, described as a “speculative documentary,” is set in the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The film simultaneously brings the audience into the past, present, and future through camera angles, narrative intimacy, and other techniques.

Truth or Consequences, which debuted in 2020 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, opens with what initially appears to be a subjective camera, or first-person camera — a.k.a. point-of-view-of-the-viewer shots — on an open, flat road in a car. As we are driving along, a voice says the following,

“I was there when it happened, I was there....

“You had the horse, that was the first mode of transportation for people.

“And then the horse and the carriage. And then you had the railroad. And then the car.

“And then the plane. And then you had commercial space. A way to move the planet for the longevity of the human race. And I was there when it happened.”

After this unnamed speaker finishes, it immediately becomes clear that we are in something that is beyond the feeling of a first-person camera angle, as the viewer is shot into space.

Our orientation changes in non-dizzying but stomach-flipping and adrenaline-inducing ways (which also include altered states of being) that lend themselves to the excitement of what we are seeing on the screen. Along the way, the film will often inspire the questions “What am I looking at?” and “Where am I going?”

* * *

The lines within the opening scenes of the film offer a short history of human travel interwoven with technology, and they are repeated when the scene shifts from a road we recognize to a space that appears to be no longer Earth. It feels like a trippy reality simulation.

“I was there when they built the spaceport,” the voiceover says. “Looking back, I wonder when did we actually leave, and why do I keep coming back here?”

The question implies that something has happened and that we are at a distance in space and/or in time from “here,” involving the viewer in figuring out what has taken place, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that unzips through a series of audio and video and experiences from your point of view.

The “here” in question first looks like a junkyard distorted through the lens of virtual reality. We then sit in Yvonne’s trailer and learn about how she got bit in the face by a lion. We walk through the junkyard with George. We return to work with Katie and see her challenge to find purpose as she struggles to make a living in the town. We bear witness to Olin’s art. We go on a grocery run with Philip.

The way the film is shot brings both a narrative distance and intimacy that are not easily untangled.

On one hand, we become the ones holding the camera as we gain unexpected epiphanies from each of these individuals.

At the same time, these characters and their surroundings are at some level of narrative distance that reminds us of our goal on our archaeological dig: Where is “here,” and where are we going?

* * *

The balance between the distance and intimacy also brings the viewer into a unique conversation with each individual they meet.

That was Jayanti’s intention.

“Through making this film, we’ve come to articulate that sometimes it takes an act of breaking form to get back to the foundations of documentary filmmaking, which for us are about listening, bearing witness, finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary, and using the camera to elevate parts of our lives and worlds that are often overlooked or considered unworthy of being recorded,” Jayanti said.

“In a similar vein, we started thinking of the film as part of a larger social practice. In line with the principles of listening which had guided the film, we started having year-long conversations with people in Truth or Consequences and in the film about what they wanted for themselves and their community.

“Through these, we co-created Meteoric, a free and public arts and film festival in the town, with screenings, workshops, art installations, performances, facilitated conversations, public forums, and collective meals.”

In other words, as you meet Yvonne, George, Katie, Olin, and Philip, they are integral to the way we are seeing them in their environment, but it becomes even more key to listen to their story. In some ways, their stories become a part of the artifacts of figuring out the “return to here,” along with their immediate surround of their everyday lives.

* * *

The additional element — and the other “here” that we are reminded of — is Spaceport America, a nearby facility that Wired described as “the world’s first public launching and landing site for space vehicles.”

According to an article on Astronomy magazine’s website, “Six ways to buy a ticket to space in 2021,” $250,000 would have gotten you an early seat on Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Unity a few years ago.

One person working at the spaceport pulls no punches in justifying the existence of the port as he basically tells the viewer that Earth is dying and needs to be vacated. This character’s blunt statement, alongside the ways that we see the other individuals live their lives within Truth or Consequence, hovers above the dystopian with some identifiable humanity at the center of it.

In short, one can’t watch this feature without thinking about other manifestations of a “here” like what is explored within Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 book Parable of the Sower, which prominently features the destruction of society due to ongoing financial greed and climate change.

And if, like me, you love taking breaks from the present moment, watching Truth or Consequences might invite you to explore the docu-series Year Million, which extends the conversation of what our future could look like post-Earth.

We have always been a species obsessed with telling stories about what was, what is, and what could possibly be. Truth or Consequences not only pierces the divide of time with another angle of telling — as the past, present, and future co-exist — but Jayante’s directorial approach evaporates the wall between audience and characters.

The visual landscape also forces other questions as we are invited to reckon with asking ourselves questions that play upon the title of the film and name of the town.

The film invites a range of questions on themes that range from how a semi-abandoned town can exist to our own existence as a species.

What is the truth and the consequence of our now in terms of our planet? How do our various systems create an environment that might ultimately lead to our vacating our planet? What have we built with our histories and with our now that we will be forced to keep returning to?

From the beginning to the end, Truth or Consequences allows an exploration of these and many other questions.

And do not be surprised if it leaves you thinking about how we can listen to this current moment, when it feels like we are doing very little of that.

Perhaps like the film’s director, we will be encouraged to take a nontraditional route in how we approach one another and our work in the world.

Jayanti told me that her taking this path as an artist has been “often quite painful.”

“It takes putting something at stake and risking delving into a world that is not yet there,” she said. “You have to build a type of trust that is rare — trust in yourself, in the process, in the people, in the materials that you’re working with.

“It takes time; it’s a practice in and of itself.”

And as this film demands, we will need to trust in what it is showing us — trust how we are seeing what we see in Truth or Consequences while also leaving with an even bigger message about patience and approach.

We had better figure things out with and within ourselves, one another, and this environment before trying to journey to other places.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #604 (Wednesday, March 17, 2021). This story appeared on page B3.

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