The seventh annual True/False Film Fest wrapped up yesterday in Columbia, MO after presenting four days and nights packed with documentaries. While the popularity of the event among the locals pleasantly surprised some guest directors, it's easy to see why the college town is so supportive of the non-fiction focused festival headed by David Wilson and Paul Sturtz which has consistently drawn rave reviews from filmmakers, industry, and audiences alike in its relatively brief existence on the festival circuit.
The festival, like the town itself, has an easy-going and fun atmosphere. Films are screened in traditional movie theatres as well as in makeshift screening rooms. Musicians AKA "buskers" perform for the audience before each screening begins and pass a hat to accept donations. One of the most popular events during T/F is the annual "March March," an anarchic, colorful parade through the main strip, named for the month during which the festival traditionally ends.
The festival's freewheeling attitude was evident almost immediately – during the introduction of one of my first screenings, Wilson invited a long-time festival attendee, a young woman named Sarah, to say a few words. The audience looked on quizzically as she expressed her love for T/F, introduced her parents who were attending for the first time and her fellow T/F booster, boyfriend Brad, sitting in the audience... and then brought Brad on stage and proposed to him! As Wilson rightly stated, "That doesn't happen at most festivals!" to the applause of the crowd. When Pippa Robinson, the director of the film being screened, took to the stage, she jokingly added, "This is a bit of an anti-climax," and worried that the film, "The British in Bed," which features conversations with couples discussing their relationships, "might put Sarah and Brad off the whole thing..."
A labor of love with a huge volunteer base, the festival boasts audiences as eager to view a film about the fantasy life of a blind five-year-old (“Antoine”) as they are to see the behind-the-scenes story of the 1980s-'90s revitalization of Disney animation (“Waking Sleeping Beauty”). T/F also recruits volunteer "ringleaders" and "swamis" from the larger film industry to, respectively, assist festival staff in introducing screenings/handling Q&As and to advise participating filmmakers on festival strategy, distribution, and other areas.
While True/False is a non-competitive festival, it presents two special awards. Laura Poitras ("The Oath") received the True Vision Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of a filmmaker who has "has creatively advanced the art of nonfiction filmmaking," while "Enemies of the People" was the recipient of the True Life Fund, which aims to raise more than $10,000 to support the ongoing humanitarian work of the filmmakers.
True/False's slogan, "there are no small stories," was evident in the diversity of the programming, which smartly eschews a concern for premieres to instead offer a combination of new discoveries and a selection of some of the best documentaries that have been on the circuit in recent months. Highlights from Sundance, Toronto, IDFA, Tribeca, and elsewhere that I'd already seen but were well-received here included, among others: "Colony," "GasLand," "The Inventions of Dr NakaMats," "Kick in Iran," "Last Train Home," "Racing Dreams," "The Red Chapel," "Restrepo," "Waste Land," and "When We Were Boys."
Among the films I watched at T/F, here are seven highlights from the festival's seventh edition:
"Familia" (Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits)
The story of a poor Peruvian family that must contend with its matriarch's departure to earn money in Spain, "Familia" captures an incredible intimacy between documentary subject and its filmmaker's camera. Wiström explained during the film's Q&A that he has been part of his subjects' lives for over 30 years, and this is his third documentary involving them. He also explained that he has written a book about their relationship and its socioeconomic complexities and disparities, but has not found a North American publishing outlet.
"Holy Wars" (Stephen Marshall)
Marshall set out to explore religious fundamentalism, focusing on an evangelical conservative Christian and a radicalized Irish convert to Islam, both believing in the impending end of the world. Following the men as they proselytize around the world and fight against secularization, the film really takes off when, breaking the conventional boundaries of the filmmaker/subject relationship, Marshall suggests the two men meet to debate their opposing viewpoints – a meeting which has a surprisingly profound effect on one, causing a paradigmatic shift in his beliefs.
"Cowboys in India" (Simon Chambers)
Another film that puts the filmmaker/subject relationship in sharp relief, Chambers' intended exposé of the environmental and human rights abuses of a Western company in India instead becomes a humorous exploration of his own relationship with his local guides. Though he initially suspects that his guide and driver may be both literally and figuratively taking him for a ride, he comes to recognize the impact his presence has on them, their safety, and their livelihood. Their cross-cultural exchange calls into question documentary intent and the relationship between the developed and developing world.
"The Mirror" (David Christensen)
Another humorous film, Christensen makes a portrait of the denizens of a small Alpine village who try to reinvigorate their community in the cold, dark winter months by installing a large mirror in a mountain to reflect the sun onto its central square. Structured as a fairy tale, accompanied by introductory title cards that amusingly and suggestively summarize the "chapter" contents, Christensen mines the inherent absurdist and situational comedy, especially from the village's mayor, and discovers a range of charismatic and eclectic subjects.
"As Lilith" (Eytan Harris)
Perhaps one of the most eccentric subjects in T/F's line-up is the title figure from Harris' film, a distinctly unorthodox (in both the religious and secular sense of the word) Israeli woman who must contend with the infuriating invasive actions of an Orthodox group that tries to force her to give her recently deceased daughter a “proper” Jewish burial rather than the cremation already decided upon. As the group goes to absurd lengths to determine the fate of the daughter's remains, the film reveals the extremes of religious dogmatism and patriarchal control.
"Kati with an I" (Robert Greene)
In many ways both a universal and a singular portrait of an adolescent woman's life, director Greene deftly reveals a handful of ordinary yet pivotal days at the end of his half-sister's high school senior year. While on the surface, there doesn't immediately appear to be much that distinguishes Kati from your typical teenager, that's partially the point - she stands in as an everywoman, or everygirl, as she begins, naively at times, to make the transition from late childhood to early adulthood, not fully foreseeing the consequences of her decisions.
"The British in Bed" (Pippa Robinson)
A high concept documentary done simply, economically, and effectively, Robinson's film joins eight couples, varying in age, race, religion, and sexuality, in their bedrooms, and asks them to talk about their relationship. The camera becomes a de facto couples counselor, coaxing revelations for some that are at times funny, endearing, and poignant. Ultimately, the film wonderfully transcends the specificity of its title by conveying the universality of the subject.
[Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker/festival consultant, and a Co-Producer on “The Canal Street Madam,” premiering in the documentary competition this month at SXSW. Follow him on Twitter: @1basil1]