Netflix binges and mobile devices may be devouring ticket sales these days, but if you’re lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to Columbia, Missouri, in late February you’ll find ample evidence that film-going is more alive than ever — it’s just moved west.
Now in its 11th year, the True/False Film Festival — which concluded Sunday in this sleepless Mid-western college town — is the ultimate rejoinder to winter doldrums and existential concerns about the state of film culture. It's hard to find more a more enthusiastic and intrepid audience than the locals — a mix of eager college students and gray-haired locals — who regularly pack the sold-out screenings of this four-day non-fiction showcase.
Lead by co-creators/co-conspirators David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, True/False has evolved in just over a decade from a rough-hewn upstart into a destination festival and arguably one of the most vital and exciting platforms for documentaries in North America. And it's achieved this precisely by sticking to what it does best: making it all fun. I may be echoing many a critic before me, whose inherent skepticism about this festival's reputation melted upon contact with the infectious enthusiasm, but so be it.
Indeed, True/False hits a kind of festival sweet spot, and gives filmmakers, critics and industry professionals a real reason to get excited about documentaries. From its inception, its mission has been to create filmmaker-focused festival steeped in local color that offers world-class programming, innovative live events, and a vibe akin to a raucous music festival.
Back in 2004 when the festival debuted, documentary was still a relatively ghettoized genre. (Coincidentally, it was also the year that "Fahrenheit 9/11" walked off with the Palm d’Or.) For most audiences, documentary still meant either verité or PBS-style talking head narratives. In the decade since, we've witnessed the effects of reality television, social media, video games and YouTube on the practice of documentary filmmaking, and on the idea of "reality" itself in the popular imagination. We're all more sophisticated viewers today, and much more conscious of the apparatus behind image-making and storytelling. True/False, as the name implies, was founded on the belief that we live in a grey zone, and that much of what we see onscreen is, in one way or another, a collusion of fact and faction. It’s a simple enough proposition, but one the feels ever more vital.
While True/False is generally more showcase than premiere festival, its stellar reputation nonetheless attracts the top documentaries in any given year. This year's line-up of 43 features was particularly strong, and included titles fresh from Sundance including "Concerning Violence," "Happy Valley," "Rich Hill," and the four top award winners: "The Green Prince," "20,000 Days on Earth," "E-Team," and "The Overnighters."
Also playing was "Sacro GRA," which took top honors at Venice last year, as well as notable titles from Toronto, including "Manakamana," "Jodorowsky's Dune," and "The Unknown Known." Among the films premiering at the festival were Robert Greene's formally playful hybrid "Actress," Amanda Rose Wilder's "Approaching an Elephant" (an engrossing, immersive portrait of a New Jersey "free school"), and Jessica Oreck's singular "The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga," a 16mm essay film about Eastern Europe that combines hand-drawn animation, slavic folklore, and mushroom picking. Two fiction films also made the cut this year: Sam Fleichner's "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" and the closing night film, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."
The festival continued its tradition of pushing against received notions of documentary by celebrating illusion in filmmaking. The theme of this year’s edition was "Magic Realism," which Sturtz and Wilson said was inspired by a half-remembered cryptic sign in the Missouri countryside and a mid-19th century watchmaker who built a mechanical orange tree that flowered. As they explained it, film — fiction and nonfiction alike — is itself a kind of magic trick: its ability in the hands of a gifted filmmaker to effortlessly convey a sense of palpable reality is alluring, uncanny and worthy of healthy skepticism. All are welcome in documentary.
It was therefore appropriate that the festival's opening night selection was "Jodorowsky's Dune." If ever there was a filmmaker under the spell of magical thinking and capable of conjuring the most elaborate spectacles, it's visionary cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky. This highly entertaining, if didactic, film brings to life the story of his failed attempt to realize an outrageously oversized adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic. His was a case of blind ambition writ cosmically large. Introducing the screening, Sturtz said, "The movie you’re about to see is about an enormous dreamer, and watching this film made me think about all the people who came together to create this big dream in Columbia," which now boasts some 43,000 attendees (nearly half the town's population) and is made possible by an 800-person network of staff and volunteers.