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Why True/False Is One of the Most Vital Festivals In America

Why True/False Is One of the Most Vital Festivals In America

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.

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” 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 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.

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