Just ten years in to creating their regional documentary festival, the creators of the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri are already running one of the most successful documentary film festivals in the world.
For festival goers, True/False leaves an indelible impression as being a festival with not only great films but also with eager and excited audiences and great conversations.
True/False is celebrating their decade in existence with a special book charting the history of the festival, “Rarely Has Reality Needed So Much to Be Re-Imagined: A Mostly True History of the True/False Film Fest,” available for purchase on the True/False online market here.
Below are two essays printed in full from the book, both of which are essential reading for documentary lovers and filmmakers alike. One is from Distrify Founder and CEO Peter Gerard about how the festival got its start and another from the festival directors, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, about how they program the fest. We’ve also included an exclusive look at the beautifully designed layout of the book, with four pages available to view in PDF format.
The 2013 True/False Film Fest will run from February 28-March 3. — Bryce J. Renninger [Indiewire]
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“Bargain Basement Memories”
By Peter Gerard, Founder and CEO of Distrify
Once upon a time in Columbia, we had a few old beautiful cinemas that occasionally showed independent films and the odd documentary. I remember watching Hoop Dreams and eating so much candy that I felt sick (it was three hours long, so I bought a huge bag of candy). But then a giant multiplex descended on our humble town and closed our precious downtown screens. The dark years that followed were a sad time for everyone in mid-Missouri.
Finally, David and Paul appeared on the scene with a wild sparkle in their eyes that suggested they were crazy enough to take on Hollywood. In an effort to save our town, they launched the Ragtag Film Series—a seasonal program of bi-weekly film screenings at The Blue Note night club. For two nights a week, a few weeks a year, we were spared from the homogeneity of the multiplex and got to enjoy great films like “Crumb,” “Sick,” and “Divine Trash.”
There was hope in the town and excitement in the air and my friend Aaron Davis and I were inspired to start a film festival. We wanted to showcase the cheap and cheerful of independent film—the wonderful little gems people were making on the fringes. We didn’t care if it was shot on 35mm or VHS. If it was good, it was on. At the very moment that Bargain Basement Film Festival was coming into being, Paul and David were working with some co-conspirators to open the doors at the new Ragtag Cinema—a small, quirky one-screen cinemacafé filled with antique sofas and delicious beverages. The first film I saw at Ragtag was a bootleg of “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” It was clear that Ragtag would be the home of Bargain Basement.
For two years we crammed a motley collection of unknown short films and features into a summer weekend of films, ice cream, ramen noodles, music, and randomness. Bargain Basement was not in a basement, but it was a bargain and it sold out pretty much every show. David even won the audience award with Hepcat’s Holiday—a beautiful black and white 16mm short accompanied by an incredible snare drum solo performed live in the cinema.
Aaron and I weren’t living in Columbia anymore and we were too busy shooting documentaries to keep up the festival, so the basement got damp. I have no idea if there was a connection, but a couple years later David and Paul announced the True/False Film Fest. This was the real deal, a proper film festival, with the best audience and the best parties at any festival in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited twice and to show my films to the best audience on earth—my hometown audience.
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See page 2 for an interview with Sturtz and Wilson from the book about why films get selected for the festival.
“How Do You Pick the Films?”
A Conversation with Paul Sturtz and David Wilson
D: This is the question that, more than any other, we get asked all the time.
P: In the first year or two, we were scrambling a bit. This is before we had a screening committee that would would do some of the sifting for us. It was brutal to get through all the films.
D: So, from the beginning, T/F has had a sensibility of what films we’ve wanted to champion. We want work that is cinematic, that is beautiful, that has characters and a story and, boiled down, feels like you are watching a movie.
P: The films that resonate the most for me are idiosyncratic profiles of people that somehow illuminated bigger issues, rather than “important” films that foreground themes at the expense of that personal connection.
D: I actually think that topic is something we’re both willing to make secondary in our evaluative process.
P: Also, I want the poetry to emerge from the material itself rather than it being grafted on top of it. Too often we get self-conscious films that strain to hammer home grand themes rather than giving the audience credit for finding the larger resonance.
D: We’ve always felt like we had this rare freedom—there was no one looking over our shoulders, there was no agenda to the programming. We could really just show work that we loved.
P: Other programmers have said they are so jealous we don’t have to answer to a board of advisors. With my personality, that would have made me crazy, like a landlord telling me I can’t paint a wall.
D: So it’s just us. We argue, we maneuver, we each have our idiosyncrasies … Paul hates surgery scenes.
P: David doesn’t like old people.
D: Unless they’re really quirky and charming.
P: He instead says he’s pro-youth.
D: And that’s a good moment to mention that, since 2009, we’ve been joined in our decision-making by Chris Boeckmann, who started interning with us when he was still in high school.
P: Chris has pushed hard on films that ordinarily we might have passed on. He’s a real formalist. While we appreciate purism, David and I have always tried to not get too far ahead of our audiences and to remember what most of us are looking for, which is generally storytelling, memorable characters, and an upbeat take on life.
D: We actually have sort of quotidian tastes. Which, in a way, makes us good programmers, I think. It’s like being a DJ—if you only play super obscure stuff you lose your audience—you’ve got to bring them on a journey with you. Like getting to Shirley Ellis via Amy Winehouse.
P: You have to safeguard against what used to be called the “record store clerk syndrome” After watching thousands of docs, there’s a danger you lose your populist antenna or don’t trust it anymore.
D: Over the years, we’ve come to take pride in the idea that T/F reveals the pulse of the documentary community. We want to show what people are talking about, arguing about—the films that are pushing the form forward.
P: We’re hopefully part of this ecosystem that can support creative people to do great work over the long haul. It’s a unique experience to go from this private moment with a hand-burned DVD, and then into this incredibly public space where you hear a crowd gasp or laugh or groan and realize it’s not just you, you’re part of a larger community which shares in this alchemy.
D: I really believe that we’re living in a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking. It feels tremendously good to be a small part of that.