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Festival Focus: True/False Film Festival

By Doug Whyte

The 1200-seat Missouri Theatre hosted several roll-outs throughout the weekend at the True/False Film Festival, including the opening night film, 'The Heart of the Game.' Courtesy of True/False

The True/False Film Festival (T/F) in Columbia, Missouri enjoyed its third incarnation this past February. Already hailed as a haven for nonfiction makers from across the world, T/F continues to amaze and delight. Not that any is necessarily needed, but this festival is more proof that the popularity of documentary films is on the rise. But it is also evident that there is much more to a festival than merely screening films.

The creation of David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, T/F is pushing the boundaries of what a documentary film festival can be. "It's a playful name for us," quips Sturtz. "The festival itself actually exists in the slash mark," adds Wilson. They are not afraid to approach the idea that, even though documentaries are about reality, the truth contained within them is as subjective as each filmmaker's point of view. The famous Robert Flaherty quote, "Sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth," comes to mind.

This year saw a 50 percent increase in attendance over last year. Approximately 10,600 tickets were sold over three days in a town of 80,000 people. And the number of filmmakers attending with their films was astounding--a Q&A with the director and/or subject followed practically all 40 films. In this case, there is no doubt that the sponsors' money is being put to its best use, helping to create an event with incredible spirit. "T/F is a communal experience in which filmmakers and audiences engage with each other," explains Sturtz. "Showing an unaccompanied film is not at all interesting to us. In our town alone, there are 26 films shown every weekend, so what's the big deal about showing 70 or 80 if you're not going to have that exchange?"

With a foundation of four theaters all within walking distance and a small, tight-knit college town with the oldest journalism school (University of Missouri-Columbia) in the country, the next key ingredient is programming. Sturtz and Wilson are quickly building a reputation as having one of the tightest programmed festivals in the country. There is neither an awards competition nor a showcase for premieres--just a focus on finding the best nonfiction films available, with an emphasis on films that push the traditional documentary form by using a hybrid of narrative and traditional documentary techniques.

Despite T/F's soft-pedaling on premieres, one of the biggest treats this year was a film that had yet be screened anywhere else called Chances of the World Changing by Eric Daniel Metzgar and Nell Carden Grey. Dubbed as a work-in-progress (with the official world premiere being at Full Frame), this is one of those special films that combines masterful filmmaking with incredibly engaging subject matter. An enchanting score by Eric Liebman sets the tone for this exquisitely photographed story of Richard Ogust, a writer obsessed with saving turtles on the brink of extinction, even if it means having 1,600 of them in his New York City apartment and risking everything in his life to save them.

Beyond top-notch programming, Wilson and Sturtz are also dead-set on creating a unique and eclectic experience for filmmakers and audiences alike. First, at every screening, audience members are treated to live music as they muscle their way through the mostly sold-out shows to find their seats. Additions of events like the "Reel Gone Round Up" and "Gimme Truth!" will provide long-lasting memories for all attendees.

The "Reel Gone Round Up" started with a musical bus ride to a livestock auction barn turned into the "Bull Pen Cinema." Then, after the audience received sack lunches and beer, filmmaker Mark Lewis (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History) introduced and screened his new film, Standard of Perfection: Show Cattle, described as a Best in Show for cows. Lewis commented that he has never--nor will ever--have a screening venue more appropriate than this one.

To further challenge the idea of truth vs. fiction, "Gimme Truth!" is Sturtz and Wilson's newest invention. Touted as a game show in the tradition of "What's My Line?" and "Truth or Consequences," the event pitted local filmmakers against a group of contestants made up of visiting filmmakers. The contestants (and audience) had to decide if the short films presented were true or false. Much to everyone's surprise, it was much tougher to decipher than originally thought. This exploration of truth in filmmaking worked like a charm and no doubt will be back next year.

A festival wouldn't be a festival without panel discussions, and T/F delivered in this area as well. One of the most fascinating panels was "Me and My Shadow," a discussion around the filmmaker/subject relationship. It showed how no two relationships are the same, from Marc Isaacs (Philip & His Seven Wives) going so far as to invite his subject into the editing room to watch him cut the film (which his subject never actually did, but appreciated the offer), to Ralph Arlyck (Following Sean) talking about the difficulty of working with a subject who was blasé and non-committal. Also touched on was the issue that many times the relationship is just fine between filmmaker and subject--until critics write about the film and "the shit hits the fan."

T/F wouldn't live up to its name if it didn't pepper in a fictional film or two. This year, the film Chalk, directed by Mike Akel, was not distinguished in the program as separate from the documentaries; on the other hand, although a screenplay was written, the film was made with mostly non-actors. Akel uses this method to try to show us the reality of being a public school teacher in America--the filmmaker is lying, in the end, to tell us the truth.

As T/F grows and builds its reputation, the organizers have their sights set even higher with the launch, scheduled in April, of T/F West in Bellingham, Washington. "T/F West is an experiment in cooperation," Sturtz maintains. "As we all know, there are way too many festivals in the world trying to distinguish themselves; we think it's time to share resources and expertise to forge a strong network of festivals collaborating to create vibrant venues across the country for documentary film."


Doug Whyte is a documentary filmmaker who recently completed Pushing Up Daisies (7th Art Releasing) and is in post-production on Silver Spurs, a documentary about a Western-themed group home for the mentally ill.