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True/False: A Filmmaker's Fiesta

By Shelley Gabert

When filmmaker Frank Pavich took the stage to introduce his film Jodorowsky's Dune on the opening night of the True/False Festival, he looked out at the crowd in the 1,200-seat Missouri Theater and beamed. "I'm completely blown away," said Pavich. "I've been to Cannes, Toronto and Telluride, but within a few hours of being here, I feel so welcomed by this amazing community."


Director Frank Pavich (right) and editor Alex Ricciardi following the screening of their film Jodorowsky's Dune. Photo: Sarah Hoffman


A few days later, Tracy Droz Tragos, co-director with her cousin, Andrew Droz Palermo, of Rich Hill, echoed the sentiment. "I've only been here 24 hours but I think this is my favorite festival."

Filmmakers who bring their films to True/False, which ran February 27-March 2, definitely feel the love from the captive audiences and the warm glow of the community, which goes all out in support of the festival. Situated in Columbia, Missouri—often referred to by the East and West Coasters as a flyover state—True/False draws filmmakers from Los Angeles and New York and from around the world. Traditionally it hasn't positioned itself as a marketplace, a competitive festival or a showcase for world premieres, but that may be changing: Five  films—Approaching the Elephant, Life After Death, Bronx Obama, Actress and the Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga —all launched at True/False this year.

 "I'm especially proud of our programming this year," says David Wilson, a filmmaker and co-founder of True/False. "I think it has been some of our best. We showed films that were nearly a year old and had played at other festivals, but we also realized there are benefits to filmmakers to launch their films here."

With a small line-up of films relative to other festivals, True/False screened 20 shorts and 38 features, including Rich Hill, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; Jesse Moss' The Overnighters; Penn Jillette and Teller's Tim's Vemeer; and Rachel Boynton's Big Men, whose previous film, Our Brand Is Crisis, won an IDA Award for Best Documentary Feature.  

 "Big Men premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, but we didn't feel like it had enough champions behind it so we added it to this year's festival," says Wilson. "Rachel Boynton is a talented filmmaker and it's a great film."

Big Men, about the 2007 discovery of oil off the coast of Ghana, opens March 14 at the IFC Center in New York, then March 28  in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, before rolling out to markets around the country.


From Rachel Boynton's Big Men. Photo: Jonathan Furmanski


Most of the films that play at the festival won't have theatrical distribution, so this year True/False implemented a Pay the Artists program, where each filmmaker or co-director appearing with their feature film received $450 in cash. This is in addition to paying for their flight and lodging and providing food vouchers. "Many films in the festival run will actually lose money, so we wanted to do more to support them and documentary filmmaking," Wilson explains. "We went to donors, who [each] made a multi-year commitment for an annual gift of $5,000; half went to our operating fund and the other half to filmmakers." 

While Wilson acknowledges that their model might not work at other festivals, True/False has always thrived on being independent and making its own rules. While there are sponsors who make the festival possible, the commercial aspect is behind-the-scenes, and smaller, more obscure films are given the same screen space and amenities as the crowd-pleasers that have received critical attention. The only award at the festival is The True Vision Award, which went to Amir Bar-Lev, director of Happy Valley, about the sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

At its heart, True/False is a small, intimate celebration of documentary filmmaking.

A Jubilee masquerade party kicked off the four-day film festival and festival-goers donned masks and sipped cocktails from the local restaurants and enjoyed small dishes prepared by culinary students at the Columbia Area Career Center. The festival schedule is packed with live music, parties and buskers at the screenings, and there's even a True Life Run, but the focus has always been on showcasing the programming. 


Part of the festivities at True/False: A parade through the streets of Columbia. Courtesy of True/False


From the large banner on Broadway outside of the box office, the True/False logo was literally everywhere in downtown Columbia, and a festive energy was in the air as people poured into the venues like The Blue Note, Ragtag and Jessie Auditorium on the University of Missouri campus.

As Columbia is a major college town and cultural melting pot, True/False capitalizes on the synergies between the university and its alumni. On the heels of winning the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2012, alum Dan Lindsay screened Undefeated in Jesse Auditorium and returned with a short in 2013.

Last year, True/False screened Morgan Neville's Oscar-winning Twenty Feet from Stardom, which featured interviews with Missouri native and University of Missouri alum Sheryl Crow. Jonathan Murray, a graduate of the university's world-class School of Journalism, and now head of Los Angeles-based Bunim/Murray Productions, spoke on a panel about the relationship between reality programming and nonfiction.

Columbia is also supportive of local filmmakers. Wilson is a native of Columbia and he and A.J. Schnack, another University of Missouri alum, co-directed We Always Lie to Strangers, about life in Branson, Missouri. It premiered at the 2013 SXSW, where it received a special jury award for directing, 

Although he now lives in Los Angeles, Jefferson City native Andrew Droz Palermo called being back at True/False a homecoming. For the past three years, he and Tracy Droz Tragos have been working on Rich Hill, a documentary about three teenage boys and their families in the small rural town 70 miles south of Kansas City. The film, a project in IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, has just been acquired by PBS' Independent Lens and film and music distributor The Orchard. Independent Lens funded and aired Droz Tragos’ debut film Be Good, Smile Pretty, which went on to win an Emmy for Best Documentary. The Orchard will distribute Rich Hill theatrically in 18 markets, as well as across digital outlets via its fest and docu label Opus Docs.


From Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos' Rich Hill. Photo: Andrew Droz Palermo


The Saturday screening in the Tiger Hotel theater was jam-packed, and after the film, the three boys and their families fielded questions from the audience. Earlier that day Drogos participated in a panel entitled "Space Is the Place," along with Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive) and Mark Levinson, a former physicist who spent seven years shooting at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research), to make Particle Fever

For Elkatsha, the city of Cairo, whose 20 million citizens all share the same roadways, is the main character in Cairo Drive, which won the Best Film from the Arab World in the documentary competition at the Ab Dhabi FilmFest last October. "Many filmmakers told me that I would fail in that effort," said Elkatsha, who was raised in Cairo, but now lives in Brooklyn. He said he benefited from the perspective of living somewhere else and returning there, where his family still resides. Often he shot with a towel over his camera, for fear that he could be arrested, but he did manage to capture a city, post-revolution.

Tracy Droz Drogos spent summers and winter breaks with her grandparents in Rich Hill, and had many fond memories. Her grandfather was a mail carrier and her grandmother taught third grade there, and those roots helped connect with the community.

While Rich Hill showed the struggles of the three boys and their families who faced poverty and other issues every day, another film, directed by Austin-based independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, chronicled the life of one boy for 12 years. Boyhood, which was a closing-night film, utilizes nonfiction techniques and pacing in a narrative film.

In its second year, Neither/Nor is True/False's programming strand of "chimeric cinema,"  featuring elements of both fiction and nonfiction. Last year it was films made in New York during the late 1960s, and this year four Iranian films were screened.

Each year, True/False continues to grow and evolve and Wilson would like to see additional support from the community, including the University of Missouri. Two weeks before True/False opened, the university announced that Jonathan Murray would contribute a gift of $6.7 million to create a documentary journalism program at his alma mater. "We're really excited about the program, as we will both benefit," Wilson says. "It will only strengthen Columbia as a place for developing documentary storytellers and will complement our efforts at True/False."

Shelley Gabert, a native of Mid-Missouri, is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.