Skip to main content

True/False Rocks the Show Me State

By Shelley Gabert

As a light snow fell, the 10th annual True/False Film Fest officially kicked off on March 1 with its "March March" documentary film parade. Hundreds of watchers and participants took to Ninth Street in downtown Columbia, including the Marching Mizzou drumline, representing the University of Missouri, an anchor of the college town that's home to the festival.


The March March, a staple of the True/False Film Fest. Photo: Taylor Glascock


Only a few days prior to the festival's film screenings, which began on February 28, volunteers were out shoveling the snow from two winter storms that had dumped more than nine inches of heavy, wet white stuff onto the town. The remaining piles of snow amassed on the sidewalk gave the festival a Sundance-like feel, sans the mountains and Hollywood high-glitz and marketing.  

"We're not really focused on world premieres," says David Wilson, a filmmaker and the co-founder, with Paul Sturtz, of both True/False and RagTag Cinema, a nonprofit, independent theater.  "We're a non-competitive festival, and this really changes the way filmmakers spend time together. We're more of a communal event for the filmmakers. Since the festival ended, I've already gotten an inbox full of impassioned letters thanking us for the weekend."

One of the largest celebrations of documentaries in the country, True/False has honored a who's who list of filmmakers, from Bruce Sinofsky to Henry Alex Rubin to Dana Alan Shapiro. The festival has also grown significantly over the years, thanks to devoted fans flocking to the screenings, free panel discussions and other events and parties.  

The 2013 True/False showcased 37 feature docs at venues throughout the town, including Missouri Theater, Jesse Auditorium, Ragtag and The Blue Note, a local music spot. "We had another banner year, despite the weather," says Wilson, citing an increase of 17 percent of tickets sold over last year, while pass sales increased by 15 percent.

The films included Stories We Tell, a personal documentary about family secrets, directed and produced by actor and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley; Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, an Oscar-nominated documentary about Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service; and Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel, the story of snowboarder Kevin Pearce's rise, fall and redemption.

Most of the filmmakers attended the screenings of their films, but Polley had to cancel her trip due to her father being in the hospital.  She was also scheduled to participate on a panel that focused on what fiction storytelling devices can help the nonfiction filmmaker.  British director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) did serve on that panel, along with Josh Marston (Maria Full of Grace).  Gavron's film Village at the End of the World, a slice-of-life view of the residents of a tiny, remote fishing village in Greenland, screened at the festival. Cinematographer David Katznelson, who won an Emmy for his work on PBS' wildly successful television series Downton Abbey, co-directed and shot Village at the End of the World.

On the heels of the Oscar-nominated  Zero Dark Thirty, Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden mines similar territory. Director Greg Barker attended both screenings of the film, which goes behind the scenes with the researchers at the CIA who were tracking the developments of Al Qaeda. "This film goes as far back as the early '90s, when these research specialists at the CIA were just beginning to piece together a map of just what Al Qaeda was and what it meant," Wilson notes.


Greg Barker, director of Manhunt: The Seach for bin Laden, leads a post-screening Q&A. Photo: Scott Patrick Myers


Andrea Sporcic, a film specialist with The Missouri Division of Tourism, loved Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom, which had its premiere at Sundance. In the film, unknown backup singers are featured along with Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow, who started out as a backup singer touring with Michael Jackson and also recorded background vocals for Wonder and Don Henley. 

Crow is a native Missourian and a graduate of University of Missouri - Columbia, which provides screening venues and a talent pool during True/False. At the 2012 festival, Dan Lindsay, another alum, screened Undefeated, just days after the film, which he co-directed, won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

This year's True/False featured Jon Murray, who graduated from the University of Missouri Journalism School and is co-creator of The Real World and head of Bunim- Murray Productions. He spoke on a panel with Jersey Shore creator—and University of Missouri alum—SallyAnn Salsano about reality television and its relationship to nonfiction filmmaking.  "They talked about many of the same ideas and issues that I hear documentary filmmakers talk about all the time-how they feel about their subjects, their story," notes Wilson. "These two worlds started out together and then veered away from the other."

A documentary filmmaker, Wilson understands the struggles to make nonfiction film. He and A.J. Schnack (Kurt Cobain About A Son), another University of Missouri alum, co-directed We Always Lie to Strangers, about four families in Branson, Mo. The documentary premiered at this year's South by Southwest in Austin, where the filmmakers received a special jury award for directing.  

Although True/False is international in scope in terms of its content, for Wilson it's the support of local filmmakers and musicians that's one of its unique aspects. "What makes our festival different is the homegrown aspects such as the parade and Gimme Truth, our documentary game show, where local filmmakers make short films and judges guess whether they're true or false," Wilson maintains. "We packed the Blue Note with a lot of laughing and clapping, and it's a live, interactive event that you don't see at any other festival."  


Gimme Truth, True/False's documentary game show. Photo:Parker Michel-Boyce


Thirty different bands performed at True/False, both before each screening and at the many music venues in town. "We featured music before every screening and most of the band members were local," Wilson says.

There's no doubt that True/False shines a light on Columbia, and the community really comes together as an excellent host for the weekend. This is the Show Me State, after all; Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and First Lady Georganne attended the closing-night festivities at The Missouri Theater, the 1928 renovated movie place adjacent to the University of Missouri campus.  

"This is a festival for filmmakers and fans who are passionate about storytelling," says Sporcic. "They come to town with no pressure, no fanfare, and can really enjoy the spirit of the festival."  

Shelley Gabert, a native of Mid-Missouri, graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.