Funner than fiction: True/False 2013

Where the documentary community comes to party.

Kevin B. Lee

Web exclusive

Something of a cinematic miracle of the American Midwest, the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri enjoys a steadily spreading cult status among filmmakers and critics.

The warm regard to which directors hold the late winter fest was made clear on this year, its tenth anniversary: one week after the Academy Awards, three of the five directors nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category (Malik Bendjelloul, Kirby Dick and David France) were reunited at Columbia, swinging through town simply because they enjoyed their previous experiences. Some award-winning filmmakers even volunteer their services as panellists or presenters so that they can attend. Film professionals plan their vacations around True/False, even though its organisers don’t claim or even aspire to have the brand name clout of Sundance or Tribeca. Its non-industry-player status may be exactly what endears it to professionals, as well as to the modestly-sized college community that has embraced it as an annual highlight.

Columbia locals Paul Sturtz and David Wilson founded the festival under a simple, somewhat unorthodox conviction: documentaries are fun. For them part of the allure lies in the deceptive nature of non-fiction filmmaking, built at times upon manipulations and outright fabrications. Hence the festival’s intriguing name, one that might normally invite a slew of academic presentations on theories of hybridity and authenticity, but for the festival becomes a springboard for communal conversation facilitated by liberal doses of merry mischief.

This is exemplified by ‘Gimme Truth’, which to my knowledge is the only game show held at any film festival in the world. Missouri filmmakers are invited to produce short documentary or faux-documentary clips based on local stories, real or fake. A panel of professional documentarians watch them with a raucous live audience and judge if they are indeed true or false.

Stemming from its highbrow ‘true/false’ concept while emboldened by its party atmosphere (musicians perform before each screening), the festival invites a formidable share of challenging fare. Genre-bending films like the noise-rock fisherman doc Leviathan, the retro-analogue mockumentary Computer Chess and the Sundance-winning The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear have received ample attention elsewhere, but two of my personal highlights this year were ones overlooked by other festivals: These Birds Walk, a stunningly immersive portrait of a runaway boy in Pakistan, whose intimacy with its subject is vivid beyond belief; and Sleepless Nights, a rigorous exploration of the legacy of the Lebanese Civil War that uses staged confrontations to give equal weight to both victim and victimiser. (In that regard it’s more respectable and responsible than the overpraised The Act of Killing, a cunning but one-sided exercise in historical-atrocity crocodile tears.)

To find these films playing sold-out shows in the US heartland is remarkable enough, but the nurturing role the festival plays goes further. These Birds Walk screened here as a work-in-progress last year, receiving feedback that led to its fulfilment as an exceptional finished work. Sleepless Nights was in danger of being overlooked after other US festivals turned it down, but the unanimous acclaim of critics attending True/False has given it new life.

The latter film was championed within the festival by junior programmer Chris Boeckmann, who first volunteered as a teenager and earned a curatorial position by college, if only for his ability to find films that most professional programmers neglect. (I’m told he relies on secret web-search techniques that bring to mind a festival programmer version of Mark Zuckerberg.) His small-town success story is one of several local aspects that endear one to True/False.

In many respects, True/False goes out of its way to stay out of the way, and not to stumble into an already crowded and competitive festival circuit. They list several films as ‘secret’ in order to screen them without jeopardising their premiere status at more industry-oriented venues. It abides by its original community-oriented mission to bring challenging documentary works to an audience that may not have an opportunity otherwise to see them, making a special effort to bring filmmakers from around the world to enrich the discussion.

But that extended hospitality, anchored by a genuine sense of purpose, is what makes True/False an increasingly relevant fixture in the festival calendar. In eschewing industry for the sake of community, True/False has proven itself to be a more cherished destination for film professionals, one of many counterintuitive aspects of True/False that make it so beguiling.

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