The program at the True/False Film Festival has always been a winner. That’s because organizers of this six year-old Columbia, MO event are less concerned about premieres and politics, and more concerned with compiling the best in this season’s crop of documentaries. That’s why we have a program of “greatest hits” from Toronto, Sundance, and Berlin as well as sneak previews of films slated to debut officially at SXSW and Tribeca in coming months (which means I can’t blog about them here). Plus, True/False is willing to roll the dice on the kind of left-of-center nonfiction filmmaking that deserves a slow burn.
Among the highlights from that last segment, was Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s October Country, a mesmerizing and hypnotic look at Mosher’s eccentric family in upstate New York. The film, which bears similarities with Jennifer Venditti’s Billy The Kid, allows the viewer to digest and absorb the not-so-unusual but not-so-ordinary daily life of Daneal, Don, Denise, and Desi. Another family member compelled to follow his younger brother on a road to redemption, is Justin Donais and his film, glastonburykids. Donais follows his teenage brother, Lucas, as he and a group of immature friends wreak havoc upon a small Connecticut town. Inspired by Jackass, the kids pull pranks and stunts with little regard for the law. They don’t try to hurt anyone, except themselves, as the stunts become increasingly harmful and soon threaten the “gang” to implode. The film has the potential of becoming a cult classic, both for its shock value as well as its heartfelt portrait of small-town kids gone astray.
It may not be small-town America, but Mercedes Stahlenhoef’s Carmen Meets Borat depicts small-town Romania, as it becomes transformed by Hollywood attention. In the weary village of Glod, the crew behind Borat decide to use the depressing landscape as a substitute for Kazakhstan, in the studio film’s opening segment. For those who have seen Borat, you may recall that star Sasha Baron Cohen makes cruel fun of the village, imposing his own storyline. Only problem is, the villagers didn’t understand a word of English, and had no idea how they were portrayed until the film was released and became a blockbuster. The documentary chronicles a group of villagers who decide to file a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox, and how the entire episode creates conflict and scandal in post-Communist Romania. In the middle of it all is young Carmen, a girl wise beyond her environment who grapples with her family’s role in the whole mess. Stahlenhoef, who was making a film about Carmen and her village when Borat came to town, manages terrific access to a world many of us don’t see. The events are entertaining, and the results are moving.
The festival also hosted the U.S. Premiere of Robert Kenner’s Food Inc., a comprehensive and educational look at the plight of the American farmer in today’s world of mass consumption and corporate consolidation. The film has a textbook style, even broken into chapters, but Kenner’s coverage of the players makes for involved viewing. The documentary covers subject matter that we’ve seen in recent features, from King Corn to We Feed The World, but Kenner’s economy of story and characters keeps it fresh. Meanwhile, it was the ideal location for the film’s U.S. Premiere (following successful screenings at Toronto and Berlin), given True/False’s location in the middle of the Heartland. Even the documentary’s biggest villain – agricultural company Monsanto – has its headquarters in nearby St. Louis. However, like many college towns around the nation, audiences in Columbia are always prepared for some shocking and controversial content. Good thing there’s a documentary festival here.