Just days before the opening night of the fifth annual True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO, fest organizers made good on a plan to launch a new permanent home for their event. The annual festival, described by many fans as a sort of Telluride for documentaries, was born at the eight year-old storefront Ragtag Cinema in downtown Columbia. This year the event moved into the brand new Ragtag, housed in a 10,000 square foot former soda bottling facility that now contains two movie theaters, a bar, bakery, offices, soon a video store. The site was an immediate hub of activity for the increasingly popular festival and sent a signal that the fest is settling in for the long haul.
In just a few years, riding a wave of increased attention for non-fiction films, T/F has become an important stop on the fest circuit. Just as Matt Dentler at this week’s SXSW and Tom Hall at next month’s Sarasota Film Festival have personally worked to build strong bonds with filmmakers and industry for their fests, True/False’s Paul Sturtz and David Wilson are developing loyalty from a vocal host of supporters. The ultimate proof of their success can be found not only in the strong advocacy coming from filmmakers themselves, but among local audiences who again showed up in record numbers for the distinctive event. In fact, the duo have done so well in Columbia that Sturtz is even on the ballot for city council this year.
A deeply personal exploration of a young filmmaker’s own life stirred audiences early in the week, at a special showing for some of the many students who live in the mid-Missouri college town. Owen Lowery‘s “An Alternative to Slitting Your Wrist” was a hit with the younger folks, many of whom seemed to connect with the filmmaker’s moving and entertaining look at a “quarterlife crisis” that nearly lead him to suicide. In a sort of “Jackass” meets “The Bucket List” doc, Lowery sets 52 goals, one for each week of a year, accomplishing such tasks as going hang gliding, getting tazered, making someone’s personal wish come true, and even confronting some of the deepest, darkest parts of his life. By the end of the fest, the director had attended a number of warm screenings and was saying his first fest showings of his debut feature comprised the best week of his life, so far.
Lowery’s doc was one of a number of films that screened for the first time at True/False, many shown as sneak previews apparently to protect their premiere status for future fests. Other sneaks (some of which have already been seen at other recent fests) included Stefan Schwietert’s “Echoes of Home,” Ian Cheney’s “The Greening of Southie,” Kim Longinotto’s “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go,” Ingrid Demetz and Caroline Leitner’s “How I Am,” Grant Gee’s “Joy Division,” Eric Metzgar’s “Life. Support. Music,” Daniel Vernon’s “The Man Who Ate Badgers (and other tales from the British Isles),” Elina Hirvonen’s “Paradise – Three Journeys In This World,” Rivkah Beth Medow and Gregory O’Toole’s “Sons of a Gun,” Hugo Perez’s “Summer Son Winter Moon,” and David Schisgall’s “Very Young Girls.” (Check out the complete lineup on the festival website.)
A sneak that explores the tension between true and false seemed to garner the most buzz throughout the weekend in Missouri. Anna Broinowski‘s “Forbidden Lies,” about author Norma Kouri, didn’t catch fire after fest screenings at Hot Docs and Adelaide last year, but within the bubble of T/F in recent days, many insiders were saying the doc deserves wider awarness and should be seen by buyers.
Inside a small conference room on the top floor of the Tiger Hotel in Columbia, MO this weekend, Women Make Movies head Debbie Zimmerman stood in front of a an easel, drawing a pyramid on a large sheet of paper. Repeating a pitch she has made countless times over many years, Zimmerman sought to explain the distribution process to Owen Lowery, Anna Broinowski, as well as a few emerging doc filmmakers and intrigued industry insiders as part of the event’s valuable SWAMI mentorship program for new films and filmmakers. Theatrical distribution is a very small part of her pyramid, making up just the top point of the triangle, but it can fuel other outlets, moving down the diagram she discussed non-theatrical releases, festivals, DVD, the educational market and emerging outlets. After the brief presentation, a light bulb went off for many in the room, who buzzed about Zimmmerman’s distribution pyramid all weekend. At dinner a couple of nights later, she gave a highlighted version of the presentation to an enthusiastic Michael Jacobs, whose “Audience of One” remains without a deal despite critical acclaim and a stellar festival run.
Later that day, a Fellini-esque parade marched through downtown Columbia at rush hour, spilling out into a park area at Stevens College. Fire-breathers, a brass band, belly dancers, and the eclectic punk marching band Mucca Pazza entertained college students, locals and even a young kid with a T/F logo painted on her face. The event was just one of the many eclectic celebrations, that took place alongside the almost entirely sold out film screenings. As a local reporter summarized in the Columbia Tribune, “Those who’ve attended T/F call it a 79-hour event where radical, often guerrilla-style documentary journalism spills over and cross-pollinates with radical, experimental forms of music and partying.”
About 36 hours after parade, festival co-founder David Wilson stood on the sidewalk outside an empty storefront that had been temporarily adopted for the festival’s late-night “super secret party.” While festival organizers, volunteers, guests and locals celebrated raucously inside well after 2 a.m., Wilson was chatting with a few local uniformed police officers who had arrived on the scene. He could be heard pitching them to drop by on Sunday night to check out the anticipated sold out screening of “Man on Wire,” fresh from its award-winning premiere at Sundance.
A late addition to the fest, “Wire,” Chistopher Bell‘s “Bigger, Faster, Stronger*,” and Nanette Burstein‘s “American Teen” were among the Sundance hits that made the trek to Missouri. Also scheduled were a few low-profile secret showings that gave attendees a preview of work coming soon to other festivals.
Wrapping up T/F ’08, locals are calling this year’s fest another resouding success, but they are already laying the foundation for improvements. “Five years seems like we know a little about what we’re doing, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” the fest’s David Wilson told the local Columbia Tribune yesterday. “We’re feeling really good about the weekend. In two weeks, I’m sure we’ll have things we want to improve.”
EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE modified this article to comply with a T/F agreement to keep its three secret screenings under embargo in order to preserve the premiere status of titles officially debuting at other upcoming festivals.