For the third year in a row, more than 50 documentary filmmakers, producers and their subjects converged upon a mid-Missouri college town for an intriguing young film festival aimed at embracing the changing face of documentary and cultivating an audience for the films. The True/False Film Festival — the brainchild of Columbia, MO locals Paul Sturtz and David Wilson — has, after just 3 installments, emerged as an enticing addition on the late winter festival calendar. It’s a carefully curated event that presents often serious, provocative films in a highly entertaining, unpretentious setting, all for a highly appreciative and supportive audience.
Once considered a boring and bland style of filmmaking, documentaries — fueled now by a fascination with reality TV and non-fiction stories — have reached wider audiences in recent years thanks to a bunch of penguins, ballroom dancers, fast food fans, spelling bee contestants, raunchy comedians and political activists. Of late, some in the film business have even blamed documentaries with causing the downturn in audience appreciation of foreign language films. Whatever the situation, documentaries — and a broader social discussion of fiction and non-fiction — have flourished in a time when even older Americans are increasingly suspicious of the mainstream media and younger generations favor comedy shows and an array of blogs for their regular fix of news, information and commentary.
Rather than try and create an industry event, Sturtz and Wilson — friends who, eight years ago, joined forces to launch a local film society that grew into the year-round Ragtag Cinema storefront movie — built their event around a core of filmmakers who they bring to Columbia for the weekend with their films. Sturtz and Wilson wrote about the filmmakers, in an opening message to fest attendees, “We are honored by the presence of the rare mix of filmmakers who have distilled the world outside with great passion and great craft.” They added in the statement, “Most share a restlessness, a contrariness, and a sense that it’s not enough to bemoan our planet’s present state, nor to find comfort in materialism or a cynical stance.” Filmmaker guests this year were met with a receptive audience for their work and a gracious hospitality that many said was noteworthy.
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While the visiting guests’ exploration of the tensions between the true and the false is the core of T/F, the four-day Missouri event is already expanding to a west coast fest this Spring in Bellingham, WA. And later this year, the Ragtag, will experience a major expansion when it moved around the corner to a 10,000 square foot former Coca-Cola bottling facility that will be outfitted with two movie theaters, a bar, organization offices, and include two local business, the Uprise Bakery and 9th Street Video. At a party for festival volunteers and guests this weekend, about 200 people hung out in the empty space, eating pizza, drinking and dancing below little signs hung up to mark the locations of future parts of the new venue: Theater 1, Theater 2, box office, bar, etc.
Ward Serrill‘s “The Heart of the Game” kicked off the festival with a rousing Friday night opening screening of his final cut of the film, including a new narration track by Ludacris. The story of seven years inside a women’s basketball program at a Seattle High School electrified a full house of some 1,200 attendees at the majestically aging Missouri Theater in Columbia. The crowd was on its feet, cheering when the moving story of a feisty coach and his talented team of young women came to an end. Two days later, locals were still buzzing about the movie. Miramax acquired the doc after its debut in Toronto; should the company cultivate an audience for the movie in towns that embrace basketball like Columbia, MO, the company would seem to have a real hit on its hands. Serrill beaming with pride on stage quipped that “this is the smallest town, the biggest theater and the most raucous audience” he has screened for.
A total of forty features were screened in the main program this weekend, each shown just once, in a festival environment reminiscent of elements of the annual Telluride Film Festival where both Sturtz and Wilson have worked as volunteers in recent years. Like Telluride, True/False has rejected a consideration of a film’s premiere status when creating a lineup. Most of the movies screened are new to the fest circuit, but some debuted more than a year ago. For their lineup, organizers struck deals to gain sneak preview screenings of a number of docs that will have world or U.S. premieres soon at domestic fests, including two sneaks from Marc Isaacs: “Philip & His Seven Wives,” the story of a former British rabbi who lives with seven women, and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” about young love. Also previewed were Mats Bigert and Lars Bergstrom‘s “The Last Supper,” about final meals for death row inmates; Frank Piasecki Poulsen‘s “Guerilla Girl,” about a young woman who trains to join the FARC in the jungles of Columbia; and a sneak of Bradley Beesley & Sarah Price‘s “Summercamp!” (promoted vaguely as “Untitled Camp Film”), a look at a group of kids going to camp will debut next week at the upcoming SXSW. Screened as a “work-in-progress” was Erik Daniel Metzgar‘s “The Chances of Changing the World,” about a New York man and his passion for turtles, which will debut at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April. This year’s program also included, fresh from Sundance, Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern‘s “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” Ian Inaba‘s “American Blackout,” and Marc Francis & Nick Francis‘ “Black Gold.”
Organizers said Monday that the event sold 10,600 tickets, surpassing expectations for this year’s event and topping by 40% the 6,600 tickets sold last year. The festival concluded with another full house at the Missouri Theater, this time for Rick Minnich‘s “Homemade Hillbilly Jam,” a doc that was perfectly suited for a Columbia, MO showcase. The story of a popular band of neo-Hillbilly musicians — which includes a heavy dose of live performances and spectacular shots of the Missouri Ozarks — was another big hit with locals, as was a post show concert by featured band Big Smith.
Music and musicians were an essential element throughout the weekend, with most screenings featuring an artist on stage entertaining the crowd prior to a showing. The roster of artists was an eclectic mix that ranged from Baby Dee, a transgender harpist who rides a tricycle and wears a bee costume, and a group of talented buskers from the Northwest known as Dandelion Junk Queens, to the outspoken, foot-stomping, banjo player Curtis Eller from NYC and a number of others. On Saturday night, Of Montreal headlined a show at the Blue Note with a their distinctive brand of music, a sort of hybrid of ’80s and ’60s rock and pop, that drew a rabid group of college students who sang and danced during the set.
On Sunday, at one of the fest’s most distinctive programs, organizers staged the Reel Gone Round-up event at the fest’s makeshift Bullpen Cinema, built in the old Columbia Livestock Auction site adjoining the Bullpen Cafe on the outskirts of town. Special fest guest Mark Lewis unveiled the upcoming doc, “Standard of Perfection: Show Cattle,” a sort of “Waiting for Guffman” set in the world of cow beauty contests. The Sunday afternoon event included a bus ride with live on board musicians, a sack lunch and an art auction benefiting the fest.
Among the more clever programming choices of T/F ’06 was the inclusion of filmmaker Lewis — a fixture all weekend — whose work embodies the spirit of the fest. Director of the cult classic, “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History” nearly twenty years ago, Lewis presented a master class with clips from his work at an event that was full of laughs.
The director detailed the ways that he sometimes uses re-creations, and in other cases actors, to present the inherent truth of some scenes in a particular story, whether it be an exploration of Cane Toads, chickens, cows, dogs or rats. Given that the filmmaker’s work typically involves the often strange relationships between humans and animals, his films can be completely hilarious. “Every so often we have to use fakery to create a reality,” he explained, later adding, “We all have a truth and an integrity towards truth, (but) we tell it in different ways.” And criticizing filmmakers who manipulate truth to achieve their agendas, he added, “We shouldn’t create an untruth with facts.”
For Lewis, the stories of people and the animals around them can lead to stories more fascinating than anything that could be made up, he concluded, smiling, “Non-fictional truth is stranger than fiction.” Coming soon, Lewis said he would return to the life of the frogs that started his career for a project that he says he may call, “The March of the Cane Toads.”
It’s impossible to ignore organizers determination to present documentary in an entertaining setting, as seen in the Reel Gone Round-up, or with the presence of an eclective mix of musicians. But, ultimate proof was the launch of the distinctive “Gimme Truth!,” a lively game show that Sturtz and Wilson designed to explore fact and fiction in film. Described as a cross between “What’s My Line?” and “Truth or Consequences,’ the live game included three fest filmmakers — Mark Lewis, “Smiling in a War Zone” co-director Magnus Mejmar and “The Grace Lee Project“‘s Grace Lee (a Columbia native) — in a competition to try to determine whether a selection of short films made by Columbia locals are real or fake. Compete with a colorful game show set, a local weatherman as host, audience interaction and prizes, the doc game show concept is one that True/False should consider syndicating to other fests, or one that might even warrant an actual television run.
The “Gimme Truth!” game show, like the True/False Film Festival itself, made for a lively event that cleverly engaged festival attendees in an exploration of the ways we determine reality and fiction in documentary today.
[Photos from this weekend’s True/False Film Festival are available in indieWIRE’s iPOP section.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief of indieWIRE.