“I think I’m having withdrawls,” said one True/False Film Festival volunteer Monday morning at a hotel where many non-Columbia, MO guests stayed. “So much sensory stimulation and now it’s time for the come down…” And how! Though many of the contingent of New York guests did have one extra night in the small but hipsterish college town located in the middle of Missouri, due to a mass cancellation of flights because of snow, the four nights of the T/F packed in quite a dollop of activity. The weekend featured a massive outpouring of local support for the 40-plus feature line up – featuring a shockingly grand roster of films, many of which are just starting their festival circuit run – to the many bands playing prior to screenings, panels and of course parties which attracted an impressive showing of industry to an event of T/F’s size and relative youth.
IDFA ’08 and Sundance ’09 hits such as Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public” (winner of the Sundance doc competition), Havana Marking’s “Afghan Star,” Joe Berlinger’s “Crude,” Kimberly Reed’s “Prodigal Sons,” Rick Minnich’s “Forgetting Dad,” Eric Daniel Metzgar’s “Reporter,” John Maringouin’s “Big River Man” or Greg Barker’s “Sergio” made their second or third stops at T/F (and most of the directors were here too), others stopped off in Columbia as a pre-launch of sorts for their upcoming year on the festival circuit.
The sneak of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s “October Country” was a perfect example of one of the hidden diamonds in the festival. Based on the essays and photographs Mosher wrote based on his Upstate New York working class family, the film could have easily unravelled or not even work on screen had it not been for its amazing crafting and compelling personalities. Sometimes tragic and other times painfully familiar, the Mosher family is a portrait that is a reflection of large swaths of rural America. Daneal is the daughter and single mother fighting for custody of her child and Don, a father dealing with wartime nightmares from Vietnam and estrangement from his Wicca-practicing sister. There’s a son constantly in trouble with the law and fighting inner deamons and a young very intelligent daughter who may be the hope of breaking the family’s self-defeating patterns.
“When you’re a ‘new family member,’ people start to describe things and are willing to tell you their story,” said Palmieri who is not a genetic member of the family, but traveled to New York frequently with Mosher from their home in Portland, OR over one year. “We tried having me in the movie, but it wasn’t compelling. People like me – I don’t have problems with [anyone in my family] so it wasn’t useful,” added Mosher.
While Mosher’s family is certainly the central image screened, they also serve as a voice to an ignored Americana. “When do you see a story about the rural working poor in Upstate New York,” asked Palmieri. “You don’t… The don’t ‘exist.'”
Making its first U.S. stop after screening in Toronto and Berlin, is Magnolia Pictures’ “Food Inc.,” directed by Robert Kenner. The film takes to task the power and seemingly non-accountability of agri-business, a topic that was sure to be of interest in an agricultural state in the middle of America. And it apparently won the crowd over, with the film receiving a standing ovation at the 1200 seat Missouri Theater in Columbia following one of its screenings.
“We’re very far removed from where our food comes from,” said Kenner at a post-screening Q&A. “I’m not a vegetarian [but still] don’t eat meat much, but I don’t like that meat comes from these industrial factories,” continued Kenner who repeatedly advocated for the audience to buy “locally grown food” from farmers. He also blasted unchecked power of corporate agriculture. “I think it’s scary how much power these companies have, and to actually have the power to say, ‘we can police ourselves.’ I wouldn’t want Mother Theresa to have that kind of power, let alone [agricultural giant] Monsanto.”
Food takes center stage in Participant production (which also produced “Food Inc.”) “Pressure Cooker” by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, which debuted at LAFF last year. The feature profiles a culinary class, which serves as a surrogate family for a group of economically challenged students under the sharp eye of Wilma Stephenson, a hard-driving and tough instructor who nevertheless is devoted to the success of her students. Three students at the heart of this film already carry substantial responsibilities on their young shoulders, according to a T/F description. Erica looks after her blind sister, Tyree juggles football, cooking and the expectations of his single mom, and Mali-born Fatoumata cares for a controlling father. While the students pursue the culinary craft, they’re also vying for a dream to break out of their disadvantaged past.
“The kids pretty much forgot we were there most of the time,” said Grausman about the shoot, which captures some surprisingly great personal moments with both Wilma Stephenson and her students. “Wilma sort of ignored us except when she’d say, ‘get out my way when we’re in the kitchen.'”
Shaping the main plot to “Pressure” was the support the group found with each other in trying to alter their challenging upbringing in inner city Philadelphia. “Our challenge was to find other angles to the main story of the class being a surrogate family. We didn’t want that to overtake the whole story though,” said Becker. “They were sincerely ambitious kids. They weren’t trying to escape gangs or going to prison. They were simply trying to escape having to flip burgers all their lives.”
Much has been touted, by festival organizers and by T/F fans about the enthusiasm of the festival’s audiences and the embrace of the event by the local community. Ineed, screenings appeared typically full or packed throughout the festival and visiting directors walked away from Q&As with smiles on their faces. And central Columbia stopped for a half hour or so on a freezing Friday afternoon for the festival’s zany version of a parade, the “March march.”
Still, there are always going to be those films that will not appeal to everyone, even in a town that is generally embracing of documentary, even as the medium experiences its own ups and downs in the country and around the world.
Deborah Stratman’s experimental “O’er the Land” themes of free speech and how society views freedom, nature and life on the precipice screen against a backdrop of heavy sound, then silence and stunning visuals. One of “Land”‘s crowded screenings slowly saw a steady exodus of people until the 52 minute film ended with only a fraction of its audience – to be fair, it was preceded by a 21 minute short, the often hilarious “Bitch Academy” by Alina Rudnitskaya.
“The few, the proud…” Stratman said jokingly when looking at the audience after the lights went up, stirring laughter. Still, of those remaining, it seemed a core of fans showed appreciation for the challenging work, which recalls some of the experimental classics of the ’70s.
“I feel places have a lot more to reveal when they’re given time,” said Stratman, commenting on the sometimes long gazes of the camera. “[The film] asks question. It asks you to question yourself, like what does freedom mean? Having a slower pace allows you to [ponder] these issues. I’m personally a slow thinker, so I wanted that time.”
Brian Brooks is the Managing Editor of indieWIRE.