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“Truth Or Consequences” finds emotional truths of character in a dwindling American town

Hannah Jayanti’s “speculative documentary” is less speculative and more assured in the news cycles of mid-2021, but it remains an enamoring experience as part of MMoCA’s Rooftop Cinema on August 20.

Photo Collage: Four stills are captured from the film in and around Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. Clockwise from top left: Yvonne Farley sits pensively and smokes a cigarette in her mobile home; Katie Renault looks through a library of DVDs behind the counter at the Bullocks Supermarket where she works; a shot slowly zooms through the stockpile of artifacts and scrap that make up George Henson IV’s home; a first-person point of view rolls down a marker of highway as blue skies and clouds stretch into the distance.

If you ever wanted to know the odd story behind the name of the sparsely populated Southwestern town of Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, Hannah Jayanti’s “speculative documentary” of the same name answers that. But her film is much more of a detour from that sort of bare trivia and the history of Ralph Edwards’ 1949 radio contest. It takes on a sweeping vision that seeks out perspectives from people on the margins of not only cinematic representation but modern American communities.

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Truth Or Consequences (2020) begins as a fragmented collage that entrenches itself in an echoing enigma of voiceover: “I was there when it happened.” It ends in pleas and self-affirmations that instill dignity in the quiet tragedies that have reverberated through the centuries in those who presently occupy New Mexico’s dusty horizons, as well as the indigenous Mescalero Apache and Tampachoa people. Jayanti’s curiously offbeat approach is rooted in the same narrative and documentary interests of Britni West (Tired Moonlight) and the Ross Brothers (Western); and her film, a moving distillation of disparate ideas, is perfectly suited for a meditative communal experience as part of MMoCA’s outdoor Rooftop Cinema series, which continues its late-summer run this Friday, August 20.

Five faces who are fifty years apart, between the ages of 30 and 80, are at the heart of the film. From scrap scavenger George Henson IV; shack-dweller, gardener, and unknowing poet Olin West; retiree, former circus trainer, and dog lover Yvonne Farley; houseless supermarket employee and hobby geologist Katie Renault; to townie historian Philip Girardi, the film unravels their stories in-between slow-tracking virtual reality footage created in reconstructed 3D models of the town that make it appear as if it were decaying and crumbling into cosmic debris. Jayanti’s juxtaposition of these present-day images and virtual reality with archival footage on celluloid is starkly moving, from the mirroring of topography itself, in parallels of a mining operation, to the fluttering of birds and howling of coyotes. Beyond the mesh of digital and analogue, these moments suggest an eternality and stagnation, an unchanging fate of the place in the face of a modernizing world, which is verbally articulated in the shifting attitudes of its residents, like the fraught backstories of Katie Renault and Yvonne Farley.

While Renault and Farley are the youngest and oldest people captured through Jayanti’s travels, there is a spiritual connection between their states of being and even in their fears (of heights and flying). One may imagine them as versions of one another in diverging timelines who are scouring for simple meaning along the same roads and trails. The most literally outlying destination in the town of less than 6,000 is the domed terminus of Spaceport America flight headquarters that seems like it dropped in from another planet to examine life on Earth, but is instead a horizontally colossal eyesore whose interests do not serve the everyday concerns of the residents it borders. The spaceport is directly linked to recent anti-news in which a few multi-billionaires like Richard Branson vaulted into the atmosphere with little regard for anyone beneath them. (One of the operating bases of Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the very Spaceport America in the film.)

Jayanti’s documentary is a unique effort to re-frame concerns of those struggling on the surface, as she is drawn into the lives of the men and women who’ve either chosen or found themselves stuck in the small town of Truth Or Consequences. The promotional synopsis claims its “speculative” dimension characterizes a “near-future when humans are leaving Earth for other planets, tell[ing] the story of the people who stayed.” There is a droll but dispiriting irony in actually viewing the film in August of 2021, because leaving the planet behind is obviously no longer quite the same speculative concept in the mind of Newt Gingrich or anyone else of obscene fortune.

Truly, those who walk the Earth have not stayed by choice. From Renault, we hear plainly of the failures of capitalism and resource allocation in addition to neglect of the common good. The hoarding ego sputters into the stratosphere, or in the case of Spaceport America, offers the impossible dream of doing so for a quarter of a million dollars. Jayanti acknowledges the fascination with individual narratives that are facing man-made ruination. She finds pride in the honest people who’ve helped build, scour, plant, and study the impoverished area rather than abandon the environment for a final frontier that would only be depleted and destroyed all over again by all-consuming greed.

What’s so compelling about Truth Or Consequences isn’t necessarily contained in any individual moment or revelation, or in the town once called “Hot Springs” before being ominously renamed after Edwards’ radio program over 70 years ago; it’s the overall mastery and ingenuity of visual storytelling and the unshaken commitment to observation of life on Earth as Sharon Van Etten’s folk pop version of “The End Of The World” descends upon us. From Farley’s mobile home shrine to her late husband Frank, to Renault digging her nails into the dirt for calcite in a dead excavation site, the emotional truths of Jayanti’s camera are abound.

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