We don’t think about documentary films in the same way as other art forms. Ever since the 1960s, when portable 16mm cameras with a crystal sync liberated documentarians, we’ve viewed these works through the lens of journalism. That perspective is reinforced every time a review pivots on the perceived worthiness of the subject matter, and if the filmmaker offers sources, footage and information that bring fresh insight or understanding to the topic.
As digital equipment creates even greater accessibility, a new generation of cinematic nonfiction filmmakers has emerged — but they’ve refused the cloak of journalism. Thumbing their noses at old-school documentary gatekeepers, they don’t worry about blurring the lines.
For these filmmakers the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri is the mecca where they are treated like filmmakers. The festival — whose very name pokes a stick in of the side of the fiction/nonfiction binary — embraces works that challenge and expand our definitions of nonfiction film. Which is why at a time when so much in film feels derivative and stale, True/False’s curation lends itself to a sense of discovery of not just of new talent but of a movement of talented filmmakers tapping unexplored territory in what is still an incredibly young medium.
“There are many people pushing the boundaries of form and experimenting” said co-founder David Wilson, in describing the festival’s curation. We’re a fortunate position where we get to show the experiments that came together and worked.”
Experiments that worked is a key distinction, as the festival is not positioned to appeal to avante-garde or experimental film crowds. While True/False’s reputation attracts the filmmakers, film students, journalists, and programmers one would expect, its success and continued expansion is rooted in the the local community it’s cultivated over the last 15 years.
A mix of small, intimate coffee-house-and-a-couch arthouse theaters and larger venues, part of the thrill of True/False is seeing a film like “I Am Not Your Negro” in a packed 1,700-seat university auditorium, or the raucous Friday night premiere of the Mexican fireworks film “Brimstone and Glory” in a 1,200-seat old movie palace from the 1920s. All that curation exists alongside local musicians (“buskers”) who play before each screening, a kickoff parade, and even a game show (Gimme Truth!).
And maybe what is most hopeful about True/False is is sees middle-aged Midwesterners lining up to see documentaries. Seeing these crowds engaged in a film that tackles race like “Strong Island,” or reading Alissa Wilkinson’s story on how True/False collaborates with an evangelical church, is the model of how the documentary world can break out of its own echo chamber.
Documentaries are becoming more mainstream as streaming platforms create both a market and a sizable audience. And while the doc audience expands, it’s important the palette of nonfiction film expands as well. If there’s one thing nonfiction filmmakers can learn from a century of scripted narratives, it’s the infinite possibilities of how craft, the language of film, and narrative structure can engage an audience. In Missouri this weekend, True/False attendees will get a preview of just how limitless the future of documentaries can be.
The 2018 True/False Film Fest takes place from March 1-4.