TRUE/FALSE: The Reality of the Documentary Film Festival

By Michael Haffner
In Culture

Lines. Paths. Roads. These are all words that signify the appropriate way to travel; the route to the right destination. However, sometimes wandering off the beaten path can lead to the discovery of hidden treasures. It can reveal wonders you would have otherwise traveled past because you weren’t even aware that they existed. The True/False 2016 theme embraced those filmmakers and cinephiles who were willing to go off the tracks. It has always been the type of festival that embraces the adventures and stories and individuals that you can only encounter when you venture “Off the Trail.”

True/False shows that you can do so much with so little. By all definitions, this festival is very small. It takes up residence in the college town of Columbia, Missouri; there aren’t A-list actors flying in for flashy red carpet events; and many of these films won’t be seen at your big multiplex theater next to the loud, CGI-driven superhero film later this year. But then again, True/False is about telling these incredible true stories.

There’s an intimacy with documentaries that you don’t always get from works of fiction, and since 2004, True/False has spotlighted documentary feature films, short films, and everything in between.

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All photos by Michael Haffner

Entertainment
What might surprise newcomers to the festival, though, is the amount of other nuances and quirks that make True/False such a unique experience. A personal favorite is the inclusion of buskers. Before every film, you are greeted by a performance when you enter the theater from a musician or musical group. Performers from all over the world flock to Columbia to perform for the attentive crowds before the film begins. Hats are passed around for tips—most people do, in fact, graciously tip. The French quartet Les Trois Coups returned once again this year with their funny and energetic, toe-tapping sound that is reminiscent of something you would have heard long ago in a European tavern. They were one of more than three dozen groups that played at this year’s festival.

Another element that further extends this carefree and jovial spirit is the wearing of costumes by some of the volunteers and the inclusion of an annual parade. Who needs a red carpet when you can have a parade to celebrate everyone involved in this magical fest including the residents and businesses of Columbia? To get information or to find out where the Q line starts, look for someone dressed in costume. Many of these volunteers can be seen in Victorian gowns, disco leisure suits, or just in their own red, black, and white True/False outfit that they assembled themselves.

You might be thinking: What’s this Q line you speak of? For many attendees, the Q system is a way to see films on the go. You don’t need a pass to get into a particular film; you just might have to wait a little bit for a Q number and hope that there are enough empty seats in the theater to allow for your number. This isn’t “The Hunger Games” though—the odds are usually in your favor. I received numbers around 180 a few times and was still able to get in, along with many, many people behind me in line.

As to be expected, the longest lines were for some of the higher profile films in this year’s impressive and impeccably curated program. Many of these films had just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival weeks before. “Sherpa,” “Weiner,” and “Life Animated” were three of the more popular films of the fest.

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Press badge, program, and ticket for the film “Sherpa”

 

Sundance Crossover
“Sherpa” uses a tragic story to talk about the history of the Sherpas who guide climbers up Mount Everest, and then examines social and political issues. “Weiner” is a true comedy of errors. Almost Shakespearian in its telling of a family of importance and power dealing with tragedy, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provide an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look into the life of New York congressman Anthony Weiner and the scandal surrounding indecent photos that “arose.” “Weiner” was a hit with Sundance audiences and was met with the same laughs, groans, and applause at True/False.

With every festival, there are always some surprises that people don’t expect. This year, one was a documentary about the underground world of fetish tickling, while another was a deeply personal look into the life of a lonely farmer.

“Tickled” is riveting and hilarious when its narrator and co-director David Farrier are present. The whole film could just be him reacting to these bizarre and unintentionally funny tickling videos. But while the film begins in more humorous territory, it quickly veers down a road that feels like a thrilling page-turner.

There’s something transcendent at work in “Peter and the Farm” that goes past the brazen philosophical musings from the tragic lead at the center of the story, Peter. Tony Stone has directed and lensed the most visually powerful film of the festival. Images of cluttered farm houses, snowy hills, and animals awaiting their fate create a striking and moody piece of art that make you think about life and death and everything in between. It should be noted that the film is not for the faint of heart. My screening came to a screeching halt for about 10 minutes when a man who passed out right after a scene of a cow being checked to see if she was pregnant. “Peter and the Farm” was a world premiere at True/False but will hopefully go on to be seen by a larger audience later this year.

Secrets
Aside from the films that surprise unexpected audiences, True/False is always home to quite a few secrets as well. Secret Screenings have been a tradition of the festival and continue to be—thanks in large part to a solemn oath taken by everyone in attendance: You can not talk or text or tweet about the film. You just can’t, plain and simple. Many of these films are either works-in-progress or have been assigned to premiere at other festivals or events at a later date. Hence, the reason why you definitely should not let the cat out of the bag—because True/False and the filmmakers could get in trouble. And no one wants that.

The other big, big, BIG secret that was the talk of the fest was the attendance of one of the most important names in American cinema. Spike Lee shocked a packed house the Saturday night of the fest when he walked on stage following the screening of “Concerned Student 1950.” The film was a 30-minute exploration of the events surrounding the protestors who successfully caused the University of Missouri president to resign. Lee met with the three student filmmakers before the screening, but no one in the emotional audience expected to see the award-winning director when he took the stage that night. His presence should indicate how powerful and important this festival has become.

A Home for Non-Fiction
It was already very clear before, but this year made the fact even more well known: True/False is the festival for outstanding non-fiction films. Aside from being expertly curated and perfectly organized, this quirky festival has so much going on in and around the venues. Whether it’s grabbing a slice of pizza at the famous Shakespeare’s Pizza, grabbing a pint at the Gold Medal-winning brewery Logboat Brewing Co., or stopping into one of the many small boutiques sprinkled throughout downtown, True/False invites you to explore the city of Columbia and see what you can find. Remember that it’s ok to live dangerously and wander from the beaten path. Try a restaurant you haven’t been to before. Go to a screening that you weren’t planning to attend. Talk to one of the filmmakers strolling down 9th Street. Stop and listen to that singer on the corner playing her heart just for tips.

True/False is about pushing one’s mind and self and encouraging fans of cinema to venture “Off the Trail.”

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The True/False staff took to the stage and received a standing ovation on the closing night.

Three Must-See Films From The Fest 

  • “Life, Animated” is a magical crowd-pleaser. Disney’s animated films have always been entertaining with their heroic stories and whimsical characters. However, they don’t typically save lives. But that’s what happened with the Suskind family. Owen was a young child when he mentally slipped from this world and began to suffer from severe autism. His parents thought they lost him for good when he stopped speaking, and yet, it was through the magic of film that Owen was able to communicate to his family. Incorporating dazzling animated sequences, interviews with Owen and his family, and footage from the lovable Disney films that helped this amazing boy soar in life, director Roger Ross Williams has delivered a film overflowing with heart and absolute joy.

 

  • “Jim: The James Foley Story” acts in a way as an extension of the conversation started with this year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, “Spotlight.” Both films address the importance of journalism and how hard it is to get true newsworthy stories. At a time when our culture in inundated with news sites, newspapers and TV channels, we often take for granted the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into these stories, photos, and videos that these men and women work on. The tragic story of James Foley shows the hardship of being a journalist in a foreign country, while spotlighting this selfless and determined young man. 

 

  • “Sonita” is a coming-of-age story for the ages. The film begins as a modest look at the life of a 14-year-old girl in Iran as she struggles with being a young woman in a world where her voice is not respected and can not be heard. She uses her love of rap music to convey social messages that go well beyond her years. Where the film goes from there is at first a sad reminder of the world of a girl living in the Middle East, but then turns into an uplifting journey of self-discovery and perseverance. “Sonita” is an incredible story that you won’t forget. I will be shocked if I don’t see this nominated for Best Documentary at next year’s Academy Awards. 

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