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The True/False Film Festival Feeds the Hunger for Great Documentaries, and People to Watch Them With

The True/False Film Festival Feeds the Hunger for Great Documentaries, and People to Watch Them With

At Deadspin, Tim Grierson last week, Tim Grierson offered a preamble to what he calls “our best little film festival”: Columbia, Missouri’s True/False.

True/False presents a welcome alternative to the idea of what a film festival is “supposed” to be. Naturally, that approach opens the door to criticism that this is merely a chummy, touchy-feely festival that overstates its own importance. (Or, as a colleague who has never attended told me warily after hearing my enthusiasm, “So, I see you’ve drank the Kool-Aid.”) Anything handmade and personally curated that tries to do things differently will raise such suspicions. But as someone who dislikes cliques and smug self-satisfaction — especially among film critics — I’ve been on high alert in regards to True/False since my first trip in 2013. And I just don’t see it.

True/False, which I, like Grierson, have been attending since 2013, sits in a sweet spot between premiere-driven international festivals like Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance and so-called “regional” festivals, which typically focus on funneling the movies unveiled at the big-time fests to enthusiastic local audiences. It’s easy to scoff at the latter, with their sometimes strained claims at microexclusivity — “Central Northeast Iowa Premiere!” — but at their best, they encourage and sustain the kind of homegrown curiosity a film scene needs to thrive. The big festivals send movies out into the world; regional festivals create audiences to receive them.

True/False has outgrown its regional status — ticket sales this year were over 45,000, more than 10 times the total for their inaugural 2004 edition — but it doesn’t have the clout of the majors; you can only draw so much attention to central Missouri in March. But co-conspirators (their official title) David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, along with programmer Chris Boeckmann and the rest of True/False’s dedicated and friendly staff, have turned that apparent weakness into a strength. Rather than scramble for premieres, they select from other festivals, choosing not only the best films, but a group that puts forward a particular, if not restrictive, vision of what documentary can be.. I tend to break out in hives upon hearing the word “curated,” but this is one case where it truly fits. (They also game the system ever so slightly through the use of color-coded “secret screenings,” which allows them to show a small handful of films before their official premieres at other festivals, but that veil of secrecy doesn’t extend to the festival itself. You’re free to discuss the movies with anyone you want, but what happens in CoMo stays in CoMo.) 

Where documentaries are concerned, the matter of premiere status is often something of a non-issue. This year, as every year I’ve attended, a good chunk of the lineup debuted at Sundance — somewhere between a quarter and a third, depending on how you count. Some movies premiered at Toronto, some at the New York Film Festival, some in Chicago; Khalik Allah’s “Field Niggas,” a poetic document of Harlem street life, was available for free on YouTube. But for every movie like Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” making one of its final festival pit stops before its March 23 debut on HBO, there was a movie like “Rules of the Game,” a portrait of young French job-seekers, that had barely made a blip since its Cannes premiere last May. At a more hectic festival, one where everyone seems to end up chasing the same small handful of “buzz” titles, I probably wouldn’t have made time for “Almost There,” in which two filmmakers try to save an elderly outsider artist from his life of squalor and wind up causing as many problems as they solve; it ended up being one of the best things I saw.

Read more: “The Freeing Power of True/False’s Free Ride”

As Grierson points out, apart of the pressure to chase hot titles is relieved by the festival’s generous practice of providing journalists with airfare and accommodations, which opens them up to the perennial charge that they’re buying favorable coverage. I’m confident that the free ride doesn’t dull my critical faculties, and I’m also aware that every study on the subject indicates that human beings are atrocious self-reporters when it comes to evaluating their own bias. But if journalists are so eager to come back, year after year, to a Midwestern college town in the grip of winter, I guess that might tell you something, too.

It wasn’t the rosy press coverage that drew me to True/False, but the glowing notices from documentary filmmakers, who have come to regard the festival as a kind of professional retreat, a chance to connect with their colleagues without the incessant obligations they need to fulfill at larger festivals. As one said in 2008, “It’s a manageable size and feels much like family.” For a smaller festival, True/False is uncommonly assiduous about bringing in at least one guest for every single screening. Those guests tend to stick around, and not just so they can talk to each other. “The Act of Killing’s” Joshua Oppenheimer, whose new film, “The Look of Silence,” was the beneficiary of its annual True Life Fund, is one of the documentary world’s most revered figures right now, but that didn’t stop him from hanging out in front of Sparky’s Ice Cream on Ninth Street, conversing with festivalgoers while families waited in line for mint chocolate chip.

As much as its stellar programming, what drives True/False is a sense of community. That goes for the documentary world, where experienced figures act as mentors to up-and-coming filmmakers, and it goes for Columbia itself, which embraces the festival like no town I’ve ever seen. Snobbish coastal stereotypes evaporate in the presence of a local audience that treats True/False with the excitement normally reserved for traveling circuses. Hundreds came out for “Something Better to Come,” which follows a homeless girl’s life on a Russian landfill across the span of more than a decade; more importantly, they stayed. Searching the #truefalse hashtag on Twitter turned up a few sour-grapes instances of hipster-bashing, but I’ve experienced far greater hostility towards outsiders in Park City.

As arthouses continue to feel the pain of shifts in viewing patterns, it’s left to film festivals to take up the slack; rather than a link in the chain of distribution, festivals are, increasingly, the end of the line. What lures people out of the house is not the possibility of seeing a film, even a great one, but the desire to be part of something. (This may be especially true for younger viewers accustomed to having streaming movies on tap; unlike many festivals, True/False’s core constituency doesn’t seem to be funding ticket purchases out of their retirement accounts, which bodes well for the festival’s future.) For audiences, for filmmakers, and for critics, True/False is a place to fulfill that need, and to kindle the desire for more.

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