Truth To Power: Review. By Trent Neely
Can music change the world? This is the question at the heart of this documentary following System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian. Specifically, the film follows Tankian as he discusses the formation and rise of System Of A Down and the evolution of his artistic career, as well as his passion as an activist for a variety of complex social and political causes including: the consequences of the Armenian genocide for both his own family as well as the Armenian people as a whole, the struggle to have the genocide recognized as such by the U.S. and other world governments, and his desire to help the people of Armenia have a voice in governmental proceedings while standing against government and corporate corruption.
The film also examines how these issues have influenced the music Tankian and System Of A Down have made, and in turn how that art has impacted public conversations on these issues. The film also serves as a meditation on what the role of art should and can be. Can art be a tool in bringing awareness and change to social and political issues, or is it meant to purely be an entertaining and creative expression? These are the ideas that Truth to Power grapples with.
One striking thing that writer/director Garin Hovannisian and the entire crew accomplish in this film is how natural and seamless the observation and recording of Tankian feels. To the extent that in some ways Tankian feels like a co-director and driving force in the film as much as he does a subject. For instance, there is an early section of the film where Tankian discusses growing up in the Armenian neighborhood of Los Angeles. The film does not cut to to archival footage of immigrants arriving in LA during this section, but instead allows him to speak on his memories and show footage of him interacting with locals, highlighting the respect people in the Armenian community have for him and vice versa, while also allowing the audience to feel like Tankian himself is imparting information to the audience rather than the filmmakers themselves doing it.
When the film does use b-roll, it serves to highlight and add context to things that Tankian and others are discussing that a pure testimonial cannot fully capture, such as footage from when System Of A Down played in Armenia for the first time in 2015. Much of the film details Tankian passion for Armenian issues and how he wants the art he makes to also contribute to bringing awareness and action about. We see footage of Tankian on stage over the years calling for people to bring attention to the Armenian genocide, we see clips from music videos containing controversial imagrey on war and violence as Tankian and others talk about the importance in engaging in cultural conversations when making art.
So when it is time to discuss the System Of A Down concert in Armenia, the filmmakers have established the importance of that moment for Tankian himself as well as the band as a whole. Consequently, rather than purely relying on testimonials on the atmosphere and reaction by the crowd, Hovannisian and editor Michael T. Vollmann chose instead to show footage of the concert and the reaction to the band by those in attendance. Meaning, we the audience can clearly see and understand how much the band and its activism have meant to the people of Armenia because we are seeing the audience’s genuine reactions and combining it with the context given to us by the film earlier.
Viewers expecting a film that broadly touches on System Of A Down’s music, formation, and the opinions of the other band members on social and and political issues, or interviews with other artists regarding how they view the ability and need for art to engage in broader conversations may be disappointed by the film’s emphasis on Tankian and his views as an individual.
However, if you are looking for a documentary that truly helps you understand and empathize with the views and passions of its subject and ask interesting questions on what drives people to create art, how that art can take on a life of its own, and the ability or responsibility artists have to impact and engage in the public discourse, watch this film if given the chance.
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