The naked festival: True/False 2015 versus the rules

Columbia, Missouri’s flourishing festival has been in the vanguard of the new documentary unorthodoxy. As its mission succeeds, must it learn to play the film business’s games?

Charlie Shackleton

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How to Change the World (2015)

How to Change the World (2015)

It was surely no accident that this year’s True/False Film Festival kicked off with a screening of How to Change the World, Jerry Rothwell’s stunningly photographed (if prosaically assembled) document of the early days of Greenpeace. The film captures a defining moment in a burgeoning cultural movement through the prism of a single organisation that both fostered and to some extent attempted to marshal its development. At the onset of what many are calling a new golden age for documentary filmmaking, True/False has taken on a similar role within its own field, and it could learn a thing or two from the pointers and pitfalls catalogued in How to Change the World. (If nothing else, all this talk of world-changing should prove comfortingly familiar to a festival whose attendees are not prone to understatement.)

Rothwell’s film begins with a chapter entitled ‘Plant a Mindbomb’ – a reference to Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter’s ironic term for any idea that propagates quickly through the public consciousness with the aid of mass media. If True/False set out to plant a mindbomb of its own in 2004, when its inaugural edition sought films “that blur the line between fact and fantasy, documentary and narrative, propaganda and journalism”, then detonation occurred sometime around 2013, with the unexpected crossover success of a handful of documentaries that shunned traditional reportage in favour of artful techniques borrowed from the world of scripted drama (chief among them The Act of Killing).

True/False wasn’t solely responsible for this shift towards a more aesthetically inclined brand of nonfiction, but it undoubtedly became a focal point for the resulting movement. The following year, ticket sales reached an all-time high and the festival secured an unprecedented five world premieres, including Amanda Rose Wilder’s fly-on-the-wall school report Approaching the Elephant, Robert Greene’s quietly traumatising character study Actress and Ryan Murdock’s winning state-of-the-nation address Bronx Obama.

DIY Day: Columbia high school students on the March March at True/False Film Festival 2015

DIY Day: Columbia high school students on the March March at True/False Film Festival 2015
Credit: Noah Frick-Alofs

The presence of these films put the festival’s most fundamental principles to the test. Since its earliest days, True/False has set itself apart from the vast majority of film festivals by refusing to publicly acknowledge the premiere status of each film in its lineup. Most individuals on the festival circuit agree that the industry would be better off without these restrictive labels (‘world premiere’, ‘international premiere’ and so on) which serve primarily to limit a film’s lifespan and make the already fraught world of festival programming even more political than it need be. And yet, True/False is one of a vanishingly small number of festivals willing to take the leap of faith required to do away with them entirely. Finding themselves with five world premieres on their hands in 2014, the integrity of that commitment must have been tested like never before, as the urge to issue an exultant press release grew stronger.

In the end, the festival stayed true to its roots and refused to grant its world premieres any preferential treatment. In a piece for Filmmaker magazine written around that time, Actress director (and S&S columnist) Greene welcomed the decision, and wrote that his choice to launch the film at True/False was motivated not by a desire for special placement but by an appreciation for the festival’s core ethos. That year had seen the introduction of a ‘Pay the Artists’ initiative that promised attending directors a $450 stipend (since increased to $500) on top of travel, accommodation and food expenses. Such an offer, wrote Greene, “sure beats paying for your own flights and hotel, a practice that a few festivals have been turning to in the past few years.” I’ve had the privilege of travelling to a number of festivals as a filmmaker (including, full disclosure, True/False) and I can certainly vouch for the limited hospitality offered by festivals with industry heft on their side, as well as the superior experience awaiting filmmakers in Columbia, Missouri, the midwestern college town that True/False calls its home.

It’s impossible to say whether Greene and his fellow filmmakers’ gamble paid off, without knowing how their films would have fared at Tribeca, SXSW or other similarly established festivals, but there are certainly areas in which all five films appeared to under-perform in the wake of True/False, namely those areas outside of the United States (all were scandalously ignored by the major UK festivals, who do not send representatives to True/False). Premiere status may be a frustrating framework around which to build a film’s entire self-image, but to its credit, it provides a sturdy foundation for the release strategies of independent films otherwise lacking in commercial appeal. The words ‘world premiere’ bring with them increased attention both from the public and attending industry delegates, and so even filmmakers burdened with hotel and airline bills may find themselves better off in the long run. Greene promised two more pieces on the costs and benefits of premiering at True/False, so it’ll be interesting to read his conclusions once the dust settles.

Field Niggas (2014)

Field Niggas (2014)

This year, the festival’s line-up did not include any world premieres, but it did offer up a number of films otherwise absent from the festival circuit. Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas considers life at a single Harlem intersection under cover of perpetual nighttime. Eschewing sync sound, the film paints a vivid chiaroscuro portrait of the neighbourhood, while its audio track brings together a patchwork of mumbled ruminations on community, policing and the pursuit of a basic living standard. At times, sound and vision seem to fall briefly (and thrillingly) in sync, before sliding back into disarray. The effect will be familiar to anyone who’s ever felt the simple pleasure of a car’s stereo fleetingly keeping time with its windscreen wipers.

First-time director Allah is demonstrably proud of the film – he elects to leave in a number of moments in which bystanders congratulate him on his artistic achievement – and he has good reason to be. By assuming the role of unapologetic advocate for a community in sore need of one, he establishes a bond of trust running through the camera from filmmaker to subject, despite a vox pop dynamic that might otherwise present a power imbalance. Special mention also goes out to sound editor Josh Furey, who conjures an atmosphere of miraculous calm amidst the default din of NYC.

Though Field Niggas made its festival debut at True/False, 30,000 people had already seen it online (Allah uploaded it to YouTube and Vimeo last September) making this little-known movie perhaps the most widely seen at this year’s festival. In some ways, it was a perfect selection for True/False: an innovative, resourceful and most of all timely film, but one that held little appeal to larger festivals thanks to its availability online and its distribution-resistant hour-long runtime (a trait shared with another film that made its festival premiere at True/False: Roger Teich and Henry S. Rosenthal’s psychedelic anti-EPK gem Jeff, Embrace Your Past, compiled from just four-and-a-half hours of footage shot behind-the-scenes at a 1992 Jeff Koons retrospective).

Jeff, Embrace Your Past (2014)

Jeff, Embrace Your Past (2014)

At the same time, True/False took steps to mitigate the risk posed by Field Niggas’ unusual circumstances. Ahead of the festival, organisers suggested to Allah that he temporarily take the film offline, recognising with uncharacteristic pragmatism that its widespread availability might render it less appealing to attending press. [T/F’s organisers emphasise that this was a non-mandatory recommendation specific to Allah, to encourage viewers to catch his film on the big screen.] He agreed, and the film went on to receive warm reviews from outlets including Slant and the Dissolve. A happy ending then (Allah is now seeking a distributor for the film) but it’s hard not to feel that the decision ran counter to the disruptive instincts at the heart of True/False. Shouldn’t a festival so openly opposed to industry gatekeepers embrace a distribution method as purely democratic as Allah’s, regardless of the consequences?

Sadly, other compromises may be forced upon True/False as its ascension into the upper echelons of the US festival circuit continues. Perhaps the festival’s most hallowed tradition is the programming of secret screenings, notable for the fact that they remain secret long after the festival ends (a custom that somehow weathered the launch of Twitter in the festival’s third year). This not only enhances the experience for those in attendance, but also ensures that True/False can continue to book films it wouldn’t otherwise be able to secure (this year’s roster included one as-yet-unseen film that had already promised its official world premiere to a rival festival). Yet even this tradition may soon find itself stymied by the festival’s success: rumours swirled at True/False this year that a major festival had for the first time banned the documentaries included in its lineup from stopping off in Columbia en route. [NB The festival directors flatly deny these rumours, and indeed that they consider fellow festivals as ‘rivals’ at all.]

Goodie bags for VIP guests at the 2015 True/False Film Festival

Goodie bags for VIP guests at the 2015 True/False Film Festival
Credit: Billie Stock

Nonetheless, True/False is still a refuge from the industry echo chamber that dominates so many other festivals. There are no press releases, bidding wars or ‘first-look reviews’ to contend with, and even critics have time to slow down and soak up the atmosphere. When you’re in desperate need of a through-line for a 2,000-word festival report, it can tempting to treat every documentary showcase as an opportunity to ‘take the pulse of nonfiction filmmaking’, which leads to a lot of clumsy, monolithic edicts about what documentary should or should not be. The more measured pace of True/False heads a lot of these sweeping statements off at the pass, and instead gears conversation towards the singular merits of individual films.

I spent a lot of time at this year’s festival singing the praises of three docs that originally debuted at Sundance: Finders Keepers [Kickstarter page], which overcomes its high-concept ‘custody battle over a human leg’ logline to forge an intriguing documentary/gross-out comedy hybrid, in which the aesthetic sensibilities of The Overnighters meet the comedic beats of a Will Ferrell movie; The Visit [homepage], which transforms the potentially fanciful subject of alien invasion into a startlingly immediate concern with a simple linguistic switch into the second person; and (T)ERROR [homepage], a film that rivals Citizenfour for both circumstantial improbability and journalistic rigour. Upon their unveiling in Utah back in January, all three were absorbed into a woolly, all-purpose conversation about the nature of documentary. Here they’re allowed to fend for themselves.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

That difference in thinking reflects less well on Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a collage documentary that might fare better in a wide-ranging discussion on the cut-and-paste polyphony of so many contemporary music docs than it does when evaluated on its own merits. At its best, the undeniably well-researched film allows the Nirvana frontman to become his own archivist, stitching together extracts from minutely detailed notebooks and dictaphone recordings to form a candid portrait of a near-mythical figure. It’s the glut of other material in play – from newspaper clippings to TV interviews and even animated re-enactments straight out of Waltz with Bashir – that clutter, rather than clarify, this audiovisual fray. To its credit, the film is a welcome counterpoint to Nick Broomfield’s iffy gonzo doc Kurt & Courtney, but just as that film scrambled to conform to a documentary mould that was at the height of its powers in 1998 (thanks in large part to Broomfield himself) Montage of Heck feels like a cynical attempt to exploit the current fad for artistically adventurous doc-making.

True/False is hardly to blame for Montage of Heck’s formal overreaching, but it does play a part in the film’s stylistic choices, albeit an involuntary one. A strange new orthodoxy has built up in documentary filmmaking, taking its cues from this most unorthodox of festivals, which makes for some strange bedfellows. The founders of Greenpeace encounter a similar phenomenon in How to Change the World, as the flourishing environmental movement finds itself reflected in TV talk shows, mainstream sitcoms and even celebrity magazines, not least when Brigitte Bardot declares herself an unlikely ally to the cause. The increased exposure is undoubtedly beneficial, but with it comes compromise and newfound scrutiny.

How to Change the World (2015)

How to Change the World (2015)

In one scene, two conflicting figureheads of the movement – the measured, diplomatic Bob Hunter and his uncompromising colleague Paul Watson – butt heads on how best to move forward with a campaign against Canadian seal hunting. Having ventured to icy, far-flung Labrador with the intention of spraying the area’s seals with green dye in order to devalue their pelts, the Greenpeace team are confronted by a group of local sealers, angered by this blatant attempt to disrupt their livelihood. While Watson favours throwing caution to the wind and proceeding with the plan, Hunter overrules him, handing the dye over to the sealers in the interests of what might now be called crisis management.

It would perhaps be stretching the metaphor to compare True/False’s current situation with the one in which Watson and Hunter find themselves shortly thereafter: watching helplessly on as baby seals are clubbed to death before their eyes. But in its own small way, the festival is learning – with each film pulled down from YouTube to appeal to industry delegates, and each secret screening lost to an overzealous competitor – that changing the world is sometimes a case of meeting the world halfway.

Amendment (21 March 2015): after further discussions with True/False’s organisers (and consultation with the dictionary), we have revised the last line of this report to refer to ‘appealing to’ rather than ‘appeasing’ industry delegates. We have also noted True/False’s denial that any other festival has banned filmmakers from staging advance secret screenings at True/False, though our reporter stands by conversations he conducted with several unattributable but well-placed sources.


Further viewing

Two video postcards from True/False editions past:

► Raw Footage: Robert Greene at True/False 2014

► Funner than Fiction: Kevin B. Lee at True/False 2013

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