As locals, filmmakers, journalists and sundry industry professionals streamed into the college town of Columbia, Missouri for the 12th edition of nonfiction film festival True/False — which concluded last Sunday — they were met with the sad news of the passing, at age 88, of legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles. In a long career, Maysles (alongside his brother David) was responsible, through pioneering films like "Salesman" and "Grey Gardens," for reshaping conventional notions around documentary filmmaking, in the process forging an American spin on cinéma vérité.
The brothers’ playful, interrogative — and often ethically tricky — spirit was palpable across a program clearly based on the freeing premise that ambiguity is not just inherent in, but essential to, compelling nonfiction filmmaking. Tightly curated by founders and self-described "co-conspirators" David Wilson and Paul Sturtz (along with recent addition Chris Boeckmann), True/False’s impressive variety acts as a corrective to the notion — still fairly prevalent outside cinephile circles, one suspects — that the prime purpose of documentary filmmaking is to "educate" the viewer by promulgating an objective truth, usually via some or other combination of talking head interviews, voiceovers and archive footage. While there is no doubt space in the culture for conventional issue docs and openly activist fare — even if you’re not a fan of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s "Blackfish", for example, it’s hard to disavow its positive social impact — T/F’s vital presence hammers home the point that the form has so much more to offer.
There was plenty to chew over in a diverse slate. This included meditations upon the nature of truth as refracted through who happens to be telling it, and how powerful they are (Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing "The Look of Silence"; Zhou Hao’s wry "The Chinese Mayor"); kaleidoscopic journalistic enquiry (Brit filmmaker Adam Curtis’ "Bitter Lake", a messy, terrifying treatise on international relations); a retrospective collection of pioneering Polish curios curated by critic Ela Bittencourt; unpredictable Afrofuturistic docu-sci-fi (Adirley Queirós’ outstanding "White Out, Black In"); and a bracing, brutal blurring of film and photojournalism in the form of Harlem filmmaker Khalik Allah’s Bruce Davidson-inspired debut "Field Niggas" (my favorite film of the festival.)
Echoing last year’s inclusion of Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood" (which could be read as a meta-documentary on the fiction filmmaking process), there was also work that would traditionally be labeled as fiction. The Safdie brothers’ "Heaven Knows What" is a case in point. Based upon star Arielle Holmes’ diaristic record of her time as a heroin addict in New York, it’s a grimy mesh of "My Own Private Idaho"’s oneiric fantasia and the intimate savagery of Larry Clark’s "Kids". It might be rooted in recorded fact, but its overt stylization and fantastical flourishes elevate it to a more powerful realm of emotional truth.
Then there were the highly enjoyable and carefully-selected shorts packages, in which hilariously awkward snippets from Ronald Reagan’s official archive (c/o "Manakamana" co-director Pacho Velez) could happily rub shoulders with bizarre vlog footage of country singer Garth Brooks attempting to "connect" with his audience, or an innovative "desktop documentary" by film critic Kevin B. Lee about the astonishing financial chicanery and audience manipulation behind Michael Bay’s "Transformers: Age of Extinction".
The general standard was so high — and the films’ boundary-pushing qualities so ubiquitous — that anything vaguely conventional became more conspicuous than it might ordinarily have appeared. For example, the last film I saw was Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s "Best of Enemies," a rollicking, tightly-edited record of the series of 10 televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in the 1960s. The film includes so much wickedly amusing shade being thrown by the two men it’s a wonder the screen doesn’t end up fully in shadow. Ultimately its argument is convincing: these volatile clashes between egotistical public intellectuals paved the way for today’s chronically polarized news culture. At the same time, the film left this viewer gasping for some ambiguity or formal innovation. I must have been spoiled by this point in the festival.
Festivals, of course, aren’t entirely about the films, and T/F was notable for its gorgeous setting (many of the screenings take place on the University of Missouri’s sprawling, leafy campus), slick organization, and relentlessly upbeat atmosphere. This particular vibe was most abundantly present in social gatherings, lively panels, and the raucous Gimme Truth! gameshow (an annual staple, whose in-joke-heavy fervor was slightly lost on this first-timer.) Also striking was the near-evangelical tones in which the festival was spoken of by locals, who beam with pride for the institution, and not without reason. On more than one occasion I became engaged in conversations with enthusiastic (often older, presumably moneyed) attendees who had parted with hundreds of dollars for the all-access weekend ticket, and were keen to hear recommendations as well as dispense their own tips.
With impressive attendance levels, near-unanimously positive feedback, and a growing public awareness of the radical possibilities offered by nonfiction filmmaking, it appears that T/F’s star is well-placed to rise further. The chief challenge its organizers face will lie in retaining its signature regional, intimate atmosphere. But for now it remains happily intact.