"20,000 Days on Earth."
"20,000 Days on Earth."

Whether by trick or association, magic seemed to be everywhere present, even in the most disparate films. Illusion and self-invention, not to mention the desire to escape oneself, are the subject of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's portrait of singer/song-writer Nick Cave. "20,000 Days on Earth," which plays like a noir, explores Cave's self-styled persona through a creative mixture of unscripted, partially fictive scenes and intimate recording sessions that evoke Cave's literary world of misfits, outsiders, and darkly comic fatalism.

At the first screening, the filmmakers laughed, saying they had no idea they were making a "documentary," which only furthered the case that their film had landed at the right festival. Themes of self-creation and identity were also integral to Robert Greene's "Actress," a film that resonated with many festivalgoers this year. Once upon a time, Brandy Burre was an actress with a recurring role "The Wire," and gave it all up to raise a family in upstate New York. Greene's film, which documents Burre's return to acting, employs a mix of verité and scripted scenes to suggest that role-playing of one kind or another is always at play in life.

A wholly different but no less compelling idea of magic was on display in Amir Bar-Lev's "Happy Valley," the director's thorough and even-handed examination of the Joe Paterno-Jerry Sandusky cover-up at Penn State. Bar-Lev was the recipient of this year’s True/Vision Award (the festival's only award), and the film played to a packed house in one of its largest venues on the University of Missouri campus (incidentally, the home of Michael Sam, college football’s first openly gay athlete).

"Happy Valley"
Music Box "Happy Valley"

"Happy Valley" is ultimately about the subjectivity of historical memory. A potent metaphor running throughout the film is the continual editing of a downtown mural depicting the university's icons. Sandusky is quickly painted out, but Paterno remains a conundrum. The question of  whether to preserve a halo painted above the disgraced Paterno reveals the absurdity of America's hero worship and its politics of shame. Bar-Lev brilliantly sums it up in the final aerial shot of the university's sacred stadium, sitting empty, like a clean slate. After showing us the partial restoration of the school's glory, Bar-Lev suggests it may simply be history repeating itself — that all "spectacles are like a conjurer’s trick." We’re all under a spell of one kind or another.

This was especially true — though for very different reasons — for the audience attending the sold-out hometown premiere of "Rich Hill" in the 1,700-seat Missouri Theater. Tacy Droz Trago and Andrew Droz Palermo's exquisitely rendered portrait of three teenage boys living amidst poverty and mental illness in rural Missouri was the closest thing to a consensus film at the festival, and it earned the talented directors and cast members a rousing standing ovation. The film's charismatic subjects possess self-awareness well beyond their years and the filmmakers' smartest move was to simply be there to watch and listen. The intimacy is startling, as are the physical and emotional conditions of boys' lives, which are never treated in a manner that is anything less than compassionate.

The screening was also a reminder of what makes True/False so special — its conviction that film is above all a social art best experienced together. Every aspect of the festival's production testifies to a community ethos that is as scrappy as it is professional. But True/False would not be what it is today without the wildly imaginative events that happen around the screenings: the art installations, the buskers playing at screening, the opening night Jubilee masquerade gala, the March March parade which features handmade costumes (including oversized puppets of Sturtz and Wilson, much to their surprise), and the numerous late-night dance parties. One of the most popular and raucous is "Gimme Truth," a “documentary game show” held in the Vimeo Theater in which non-professional local filmmakers attempt to stump the festival's filmmaker guests.

True/False has managed to build its reputation without resorting to typical branding.

True/False matters in today's overstuffed festival landscape precisely because its success runs counter to the conventional wisdom about what constitutes a film festival’s relevance. Festivals typically become players by courting industry, building a brand and wielding power as cultural gatekeepers. True/False has managed to build its reputation without resorting to typical branding. There are identifiable Sundance and Tribeca docs, but it would be hard to pin down a True/False doc.

If the festival has a brand, it’s expressed in th experience itself. Its allure for filmmakers and industry professionals is that they’ll actually have a good time, which is why people who are not presenting a film also attend. It's not a festival where distribution deals are made, which frees it to focus on cultivating industry connections that actually benefit filmmakers, such as the well-curated SWAMI mentoring program.

The success of True/False is dependent on its location far from film's traditional centers of power, where the organizers have been able to rally the energy and resources of a vibrant college town. The model probably wouldn't work in other places, which is why it's so unique: True/False has established a new locus for film culture, and in the age of the laptop, this is no small feat.