Columbia, Missouri's increasingly popular documentary film festival, True/False, wrapped up its 2011 edition March 6 with a screening of Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald's "Life in a Day," which premiered in January simultaneously at Sundance and on YouTube. Following the screening, guests gathered for the "Buskers Last Stand," an annual closing event that gives the local and visiting musicians who open each program a final chance to perform, and finally, an impromptu gathering in the fest's main sponsor hotel's lobby.
David Wilson and Paul Sturtz launched the festival in 2003, but it's already become a haven for nonfiction filmmakers, programmers and industry. Multiple directors began their introductions at True/False this past weekend with some variation of "this is the best festival I've ever been to" or "filmmakers who've come here before urged me to attend." Drawing from the college town's community, the event attracts a loyal crowd that takes its documentaries very seriously. Polled at a late-night Friday screening, when the festival was just 24 hours old, attendees indicated they'd already seen more than five films.
A non-competitive festival (Wilson has stated he doesn't believe in pitting films against one another), T/F showcases its lineup on an even playing field. Freed from concerns about awards and premieres, filmmakers watch each others' films and mingle at the festival's eclectic venues, all within easy walking distance of each other.
Full disclosure: This is the second year I've attended the festival as a "ringleader," assisting staff with introductions and Q&As with the many visiting filmmakers. T/F brings in a number of industry representatives to serve in this role -- or alternately, as "swamis" who offer filmmakers professional advice in one-on-one meetings. Beyond this, other industryites came to Columbia to scout for or support particular films or to otherwise just experience the event, including representatives from Sundance, Cinereach, IFC Films, A&E IndieFilms, the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, the New Orleans Film Society, New Left Media, Chicken and Egg Pictures, and Shooting People. For an event outside of the New York/Los Angeles nexus and of a relatively contained size - four days and just over forty films - this industry and filmmaker presence speaks to its impressive programming and planning.
I was able to watch quite a few films during the course of T/F - catching up on a couple that slipped by me at other festivals, but largely seeing new work, most of which was quite good. Of special note were a couple of themes that emerged, including a continued focus on hybrid docs (as the festival's name suggests, this is regular point of investigation) in films like "The Arbor," "La Bocca del Lupo," "North From Calabria," as well as the fictional doc, "Troll Hunter." There was also a curious exploration of the world of men as seen in varying degrees in films like "Armadillo," "At the Edge of Russia," "Buck," "Fake It So Real," "Hula & Natan," "Knuckle," "Shut Up Little Man," and even "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" -- films that focused almost exclusively on male protagonists and/or masculinity, largely or completely separated from considerations about women.
What follows are brief capsules of a selection of documentaries screened at T/F that you should be on the lookout for at a festival near you:
"North From Calabria" (Marcin Sauter)
Though unseen, Sauter and his crew infiltrate the quaint Polish village of Chelmsko Slaskie to observe and, in some cases, apparently to instigate a series of events leading up to an annual festival - from rehearsals for a bizarre community theatre play to the comically slow building of the stage on which it's supposed to be performed. Meanwhile, the poetry-writing mayor starts a courtship with a widow, and a group of layabouts start their own film about a hallucinating astronaut. What emerges is at once a charming snapshot of a place, and of the artifice the villagers and the filmmaker are building around it - whether for the festival or for the documentary is not always immediately apparent.
"The Arbor" (Clio Barnard)
The artifice is immediately apparent in the deeply affecting "The Arbor" - the film's opening explains that actors lipsynch actual documentary recordings throughout the film. During the Q&A, Barnard, who picked up the "Best New Documentary Filmmaker" award at last year's Tribeca, explained that this innovative technique was inspired by a play that incorporated the verbatim interviews of residents of the titular housing project where her subjects, playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine, lived. This practice, together with staged re-enactments from Dunbar's writing, serves to distance the viewer and highlight rather than elide the manipulations that go into non-fiction filmmaking.
"Fake It So Real" (Robert Greene)
As suggested by its title, "Fake It So Real" also confronts artifice, in the form of its subject. In his third feature-length doc in as many years ("Owning the Weather" premiered at Full Frame 2009, while "Kati With An I" screened at T/F last year), Greene profiles a group of would-be professional wrestlers - they haven't quite been able to make money yet - during the lead up to one of their shows in North Carolina. Exploring what goes into the sport/spectacle - from character development to physical training - the film also brilliantly captures a unique men-only world. Veteran performers haze rookie pretty boy Gabriel, curiously obsessed with playfully questioning his heterosexuality - a recurring theme for the group which also includes another wrestler who portrays a flamboyant gay character.
"At the Edge of Russia" (Michael Marczak)
Like "Fake It," a newcomer plays a central role in Polish director Marczak's stunningly shot debut doc feature. The fresh-faced Alexei arrives in remote Siberia to serve as a border guard and is put through his paces by the grizzled and more experienced older soldiers already stationed there. With no women in sight - aside from fatigue-clad girls on calendars - the men act like boys when they're not practicing drills or digging ice shelters: singing songs, arm-wrestling, and cracking jokes to pass the time in a region that the closing titles reveal has never even had any border encroachment. Like Greene's film and fellow soldier-focused T/F title "Armadillo," "Russia" provides a fascinating portrait of a fraternity of men, passing on wisdom despite being stuck in an absurd situation.
"Hula & Natan" (Robby Elmaliah)
An absurdist streak also runs through this year-long portrait of two car mechanics, fittingly described by T/F as "Samuel Beckett meets Sanford & Son in southern Israel." The brothers, based in Sderot, which seems to be under constant bombing, spend their days arguing with one another non-stop, surrounded by an apparently infinite number of stray cats and the carcasses of abandoned customers' cars that they aren't particularly inclined to repair. As they face eviction and family problems, the only constants seem to be their contentious relationship - similar to fellow T/F film, "Shut Up Little Man!" - and the certainty that this too shall pass. In the Q&A, filmmaker Elmaliah revealed that he knew his subjects as a boy and they haven't ever changed, and that his film has made them local superstars, with audiences clamoring for a sequel.
"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" (Gereon Wetzel)
Wetzel's film, which premiered at IDFA, offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how Spanish chef Ferran Adria, a leader in molecular gastronomy, developed and executed the seasonal menu of his exclusive Catalan restaurant, El Bulli, which is slated to shut down permanently in December. The audience becomes privy to the months-long process his cadre of chefs and he go through over the course of a year - extensive and meticulous food experimentation, menu refinement, and implementation when the restaurant reopens for the new season. The documentary captures the joy of surprise and invention while simultaneously providing a window into the working relationship of a group of professional chefs.
"Subway Preacher" (Dennis W Ho)
Ho spent three years following the members of a tiny NYC subway-based born-again Christian ministry. Beyond being bizarrely pre-occupied by the King James Bible and willfully slothful and sexist, its leader, Brian, further demonstrates a remarkable ability to rationalize infidelity and divorce when he abandons his wife Rose for a younger woman. Fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way, "Subway Preacher" might be accused of not being wholly respectful of its subjects, but, at the same time, certain characters, if given enough rope, will hang themselves.
"Habana Muda" (Eric Brach)
A love triangle of another kind is at the core of Brach's Cuban-set film. Chino and Anaylis are a loving deaf-mute heterosexual couple with two adorable kids, and Jose is the Mexican gay man who's started a sexual relationship with Chino and wants to marry him and bring him to Mexico. But there are no secrets or lies here - the savvy Anaylis knows about Jose, and recognizes her husband's relationship has the potential to provide her family with resources they otherwise would never have. What emerges is a complex relationship involving love and affection but also economics and, perhaps, exploitation from multiple directions.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).