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Curating a Gem of a Fest: True/False Reflects on First Six Years

Curating a Gem of a Fest: True/False Reflects on First Six Years

Quickly becoming a favorite among the U.S. and even international documentary community, the True/False Film Festival, gets underway tonight here in Columbia, MO with a slate of just over 40 titles screening through the weekend. And becoming a destination for both filmmakers and industry is quite a feat for a still relatively small event, which has, nevertheless, attracted A-list docs and their directors (2009 Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire” by James Marsh closed the fest last year) to Columbia, a town of around 100,000 people in the middle of the state.

Among this year’s T/F line up are international Sundance winners “Afghan Star” and “Rough Aunties” as well as IDFA winner “Burma VJ,” in addition to an eclectic list of films – many of which will surely come to the forefront of this year’s crop of non-fiction films.

indieWIRE pinned down the T/F Film Festival founders David Wilson and Paul Sturtz for an email chat about this year’s festival, why they find it important to make a doc event “fun,” and just how they see the state of non-fiction now. They decided to respond to our questions jointly. The sixth T/F takes place today, February 26 through Sunday, March 1.

indieWIRE: For a relatively young festival that isn’t the easiest place to travel > to, you’ve managed to gain a lot of traction within the doc community and even the larger film festival world, to what do you tribute the T/F Film Festival’s model in attracting films, filmmakers, industry and fans?

Paul Sturtz & David Wilson: We see ourselves as serving two audiences. One is the international doc community. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to create an event that would attract filmmakers and make them feel honored and appreciated. I think that above all else, directors appreciate the community spirit of True/False. It’s noncompetitive, it’s intimate, and it’s relaxing. You never find yourself at a party wondering where the other, better, party is, or frantically texting all of your friends for directions to some obscure restaurant. And filmmakers that come to T/F get to watch movies! Which they love.

The other group we serve, equally important in our eyes, is our local audience. Their enthusiasm to volunteer, to come out for films, to ask questions and engage with the films is our secret weapon. Columbia is a great town, and though there’s not as much going on here as in a big city, when something does happen, the community can get behind it in a major way. I’d put our crowds up against any festival in the world. They’re a HUGE part of why True/False has succeeded.

iW: It seems that you’ve made “fun” and “entertainment” a central part of the festival between bands and the parade, did that evolve on itself or was that a conscious decision on your part?

Paul & David: I think this was definitely a clear decision on our part. Both Paul and I love to throw a good party, and we both love balancing the serious with the unserious. Just because our minds are being fed all day with big ideas and grand filmmaking doesn’t mean we can’t party all night. The bands that play here (before every screening) were an idea that dates back to the early days of our film series, when our friend Jordan would show up with his accordion and serenade the audiences as they filed in.

We felt like it brought another whole level of spectacle to the screenings and that’s a big part of what I love about True/False. People have plenty of reasons to stay home and watch TV or movies or whatever these days – getting them into a theater is about building an unmissable event. Hopefully all of the “non-movie” elements of True/False add to that unmissability.

iW: Why do you think T/F is a good event for filmmakers to screen their work?

Paul & David: First off, our six theaters are all unique venues perfect for enjoying films. They include two 1920s-era movie palaces (one of which is now a nightclub), an elegant old ballroom in an old hotel, and our headquarter theaters at the Ragtag Cinema, a converted Coca Cola bottling plant that’s attached to a bakery and bar-lounge. All these theaters are within walking distance of each other, and our sidewalks tend to be remarkably slush-free. Mostly though, it’s the audiences in Columbia. In all our travels, we haven’t seen anything like them. Large, voracious groups of people completely jazzed about non-fiction films. They’re why Alex Gibney calls Columbia “nirvana for documentary filmmakers,” and it’s why James Marsh says, “The whole town is alive with passionate debate about documentaries.”

iW: What are highlights of this year’s 6th edition you’re looking forward to?

Paul & David: We feel like 2009 is a really well-rounded lineup – probably one of our strongest overall lineups ever. We’re also proud of the number of films (and filmmakers) coming from outside of the U.S. We’ve put work into scouting and building our relationships with the doc community of other countries and we think it’s really paying off.

iW: How do you both go about programming the festival?

Paul & David: We’re basically scavengers, with a look of desperation in our eyes. Always clamoring for titles. It’s a lengthy process, starting with talking to people we trust around the world. People like [“A Walk into the Sea” director] Esther Robinson, who when she says, “Oh you’ve gotta check out “Loot,” we heed her word. Or [“Imelda” director] Ramona Diaz, who also has impeccable taste. And we have created a 19-year-old doc-finding cyborg named Chris Boeckmann, who does the most outrageously inventive Web searches to find new films that may only be an inkling in their creator’s eyes at the time.

We fly to other festivals too, although ecologically we endorse what IDFA did this year of posting most of their selections online. This was a godsend. We all need to figure out ways to cut down on air travel. Then of course there are submissions. We received around 550 films, and they were each watched by at least one person on our committee. Every week we’d have a viewing party and this was a great way to calibrate our collective tastes. Sometimes we’d all really fall in line, but oftentimes there’d be some healthy arguments.

iW: How do you hope T/F will evolve going forward?

Paul & David: We believe that going forward is not synonymous with getting bigger in terms of number of days of the fest or venues or attendees or awards. We think that kind of chest-pounding is the downfall of many festivals. It really means getting deeper with what we’re doing. This translates into creating a more profound experience for those that come to our fest for the weekend and the way that weekend resonates in the world. So for our True Life Fund in which we raise money for the subjects of a film – this year it’s the underground journalists featured in “Burma VJ” – it means doing more outreach in our community over a longer period of time and linking issues with our local schools. For our SWAMI program in which industry veterans give unfiltered distribution advice to first-time filmmakers, it means broadening its reach so that mentoring can extend well beyond the short meetings that we set up.

On the curating side, we’re intensely interested in broadening our understanding of films being made outside our current grasp. And that will involve cultivating our spies in other countries, far from the non-fiction meccas like Copenhagen and London. We’re also interested in exploring with filmmakers, other festivals, and independent moviehouses the idea of a cohesive, integrated network for launching films in the world – we see festivals as a natural launching point for films and we need to work more cooperatively to transcend the premiere game and to pay filmmakers real money for their hard work.

iW: You both see a lot of docs throughout the year, what trends do you see happening now? Has the world financial crisis and years of war fatigue at home had any effect in the types of films being produced in the last year or now?

Paul & David: Doc trends are funny things. Most films take at least a year, if not three or five or ten, to complete. So while there are certainly films that feel very “of the moment,” it’s usually more complicated than the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines stuff we might see on TV. That said, we’ve been struck by the number of films that came our way this year about reporting. Docs that are not simply journalism themselves, but ones that question and discuss the theory and practice of what it means to actually be a reporter.

Eric Daniel Metzgar’s film about Nicholas Kristof (“Reporter”) is an obvious example here, but those same themes, with some variation, pop up in “Blood Trail,” “Burma VJ” and others. This feels like more than a coincidence. Perhaps it’s a commentary of sorts on how we experience journalism these days and the ways in which a longform doc can serve as counterpoint to the media barrage that defines our current age.

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Speaking as a Columbia native present for Ragtag Cinema’s inception and every True/False (in addition to acting as Submissions Director for the fest) I must say I’m dismayed at this unnecessary and vitriolic backlash. A small midwestern town just passed a four-day weekend viewing films they may never have had the chance to see, in lovely venues staffed by literally hundreds of eager and generous volunteers, and were able to question and congratulate filmmakers for each doc (and in some cases buy them a drink afterwards). Some of the filmmakers had not shown their film in the US before; others had, but enjoyed the low-key and appreciative surroundings. One in particular (Justin Donais, director of Glastonburykids) was showing his first film to some of its first audiences. I wouldn’t speak for him, but he seemed to be loving every minute.

With regards to the comment questioning the fest’s curatorial practices I can only say that I have viewed over 300 submissions and have written personalized notes to all films not accepted (which ended up at well over 500). We’ve delivered critiques to directors who have requested them, and engaged in rewarding correspondence with many filmmakers. I have been intimately connected with the process of choosing films, and found it thoughtful and engaging. Each film is taken very seriously, as the product of a great amount of time and effort, and I feel privileged to have viewed each one (including David Redmon’s).

In addition, while I didn’t get my cut of the alleged “oodles of corporate sponsorship,” several local businesses donated time, money and space to make this possible. At only six years old, this toddler of a fest is sustained by the embrace of the community that hosts it and the community of filmmakers that it celebrates, and I saw nothing that makes me think twice about its mission or its practices. Looking forward to next year,

David Friesen


David, your remarks are generous. The title of the article is the give-away – T/F is entirely “curated” from Sundance, Slamdance and Toronto, with a few sneak-looks at films that will officially “premiere” at SXSW next month. Filmmakers take note: do not waste your monty submitting to T/F. Their whole pretense of presenting films that challenge some distinction between fact and fiction, or push the documentary form is ridiculous nonsense. Please. I loved “Man on Wire” (except for that over-determined score ripped off from “Thin Blue Line”), but it’s not exactly breaking any formal or narrative ground. If Sundance is to independent film what Starbucks is to coffee, then T/F is a locally-operated branch with oodles of corporate sponsorship and the novelty of being in the midwest, with little original vision (or “flavor” to complete the metaphor) to add.

David W. Redmon

As someone who once enthusiastically endorsed, thoroughly admired, and eagerly recommended True/False to every filmmaker I met, I must admit that my views are no longer accurate. T/F isn’t what it appears according to the above interview, and that’s not to say that one must live in a nostalgic, unrecoverable past, especially since I don’t think it’s possible. I agree that change is important in order to progress and improve. However, the interview given by David and Paul is nowhere near the experience I had after staying there over the summer, participating in three festivals, spending time with David and Paul, and also interacting with them about how and why they choose films. Romanticizing one’s own film festival that basically cherry picks, constructs an image far from internal reality, talks behind people’s backs (programmers, filmmakers, and locals), and straight up lies about specific promises and duties can only last so long before cracks in the carefully constructed image begin to surface. The town, audiences, and film lovers who attend T/F will always be the most memorable and lovable experience of T/F. They are, after all, what makes T/F a fantastic experience. The downtown area of Columbia, I would argue, is probably the best location to screen a film, feel like a participant, and gain a real understanding of what it means to be part of a temporary loving, embracing, and caring community. Yet, the hype David and Paul create about the process and organizational choices to program certain films is without a doubt both dubious and questionable – at the least – and a lie at the most. And like all Rag Tags, the primary purpose and raw motivation is centered around instrumental utilitarianism: to use when convenient so one can wipe up a mess, get where one wants to be, and then toss it in the garbage when no longer needed before moving on to the next, higher location. David W. Redmon

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