It’s 10 AM on a Saturday morning with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, but that didn’t stop a full house of people filing into The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri for a screening of Marco Williams‘ newest film “Banished.” Fresh from the Sundance premiere, Williams announced that he was actually more nervous for this particular screening because several of the film’s subjects were in the audience and seeing it for the first time, and afterward they would take the stage and discuss it with Marco for the first time. The probing film looks at the modern ramifications of ethnic cleansing in American towns and reparations to descendants of African Americans who were forced from their land in the early part of the last century. Afterwards, witnessing their pride for participating in such an important film with a consummate professional like Williams was one of those rare festival moments that makes braving the obstacles to get to the theater well worthwhile.
Such seemed to be the case for each program at the True/False Film Festival held this weekend in Columbia. Co-founders and programmers David Wilson and Paul Sturtz have stewarded this 4-year-old fest to be a major post-Sundance destination for filmmakers, and the audiences turn out in droves for the continual stream of special screenings, quirky arts initiatives like the festival’s kick off parade, The March March, parties and even a panel discussion disguised as a game show called “Gimme Truth!,” where filmmakers try to guess whether locally produced shorts are fact or fiction.
The theme of True/False is the age old question about where truth in documentary lies, but rather than attempt any simple answers, the festival’s program provides fodder for discussion in the form of challenging films. “The Armstrongs” by Fergus O’Brien is crafted from outtakes of a popular BBC “The Office“-like reality show that seems too offbeat to be true, and indeed has been accused of being scripted. Awarded the festival’s True Vision Award, a mid-career award for filmmaker(s) “whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking,” Brett Morgan was a booming voice at the fest for creativity in documentary, between his speech following his award and later at “The Shock of the New: Fresh Directions in Documentary” panel discussion moderated by Toronto International Film Festival doc programmer, Thom Powers.
Other films such as Sundance Grand Jury prize winner “Manda Bala” by Jason Kohn, though employing traditional documentary technique such as talking head interviews and classic sweeping panoramas of Sao Paolo, Brazil, the city of the film’s critique, it also crafts its story from seemingly disconnected threads and quirky characters that eventually add up to an indictment of corruption among the upper socio-economic class of Brazil. “War Dance,” also a Sundance award winner, and “Buddha’s Lost Children” are examples of a trend in creating aesthetically beautiful cinematic experiences from the struggles of children.
“War Dance” has a particularly difficult sequence where one of the Acholi children from the Patongo refugee camp in Northern Uganda tells the filmmakers that he murdered farmers as a child soldier and that he hadn’t told anyone until that moment. During the Q&A, co-directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine told the capacity crowd that the boy had thought the film would be a good way to tell his family this unimaginable truth.
These highly crafted films fall on one end of the spectrum of finding truth in documentary form, and perhaps arguably, the other end of the spectrum would be the naked verite experience, also represented at True/False. “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa” by co-directors Jeremy & Randy Stulberg and “Kamp Katrina” by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon offer fairly uninterrupted views of life as it unfolds. Both films explore the lives of semi-homeless, possibly mentally ill people who try to maintain some semblance of normalcy under extraordinary circumstances. “Off the Grid” takes place in the Southeast in the plateaus of northern New Mexico, while “Kamp Katrina”‘s landscape is the destroyed 9th Ward in New Orleans.
Not to be ignored is the festival’s effort to create an atmosphere of a varied arts community with music performance before most screenings, and even a masterful re-imagining of an old classic. Produced by John Grierson, one of the fathers of documentary, the festival screened “Night Mail” with a new, live score composed and performed by New York jazzy band Gutbucket. The performance was highlighted by David Wilson’s father Willy Wilson, a Scotsman himself, stepping up to the mic as an inspired narrator for the last, grand moments of the short homage to the then-industrious miracle of the night mail trains of Britain. Again, a festival moment that won’t be duplicated anytime soon.
True/False is happily residing in its rather remote locale (2 hours from the St. Louis airport) as a homegrown fest that brings the best of the best into their charming college town. Wilson and Sturtz have also placed a high importance on filmmaker relations, making their festival a welcome respite from the pressure cooker business that higher profile festivals can become for independent makers. It is a stop on the documentary festival circuit not to be missed for its mix of grassroots idealism combined with the best independent documentary available.