Film festivals are weird things. If you love movies and have dreamed of going to, say, Cannes or Sundance, you might have this romantic vision of watching dozens of movies amid happy, goodhearted souls who share your abiding passion for film. The reality is, you'll meet some of those people at a film festival, but not a ton of them; what you discover instead is that festivals attract folks who work in film. There's a difference. It's not that these individuals don't like movies, but, hey, it's a job, and most people working a job lose their enthusiasm for the thing they're doing. I never forget how lucky I am to write about movies for a living, but still: Being surrounded by some people who seem worn down by the grind—including publicists, agents, executives, and fellow journalists—can be a massive bummer.
Among the many reasons I love True/False is that it's one of the few film festivals I attend where I don't feel that buzzkill. An annual spotlight on documentary filmmaking that takes place in Columbia, Mo.—home of the University of Missouri—True/False (which kicks off today) presents a welcome alternative to the idea of what a film festival is "supposed" to be.
Naturally, that approach opens the door to criticism that this is merely a chummy, touchy-feely festival that overstates its own importance. (Or, as a colleague who has never attended told me warily after hearing my enthusiasm, "So, I see you've drank the Kool-Aid.") Anything handmade and personally curated that tries to do things differently will raise such suspicions. But as someone who dislikes cliques and smug self-satisfaction—especially among film critics—I've been on high alert in regards to True/False since my first trip in 2013. And I just don't see it.
Now in its 12th year, True/False started out as the brainchild of Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, local proprietors of an indie movie theater who wanted to give nonfiction films a greater platform. Festivals like Sundance or Toronto show at least 200 films, most of those narratives. By comparison, this one screens around 45-50 documentaries per year—as well as the occasional fiction film (like Boyhood last year) that incorporates some aspect of "reality" in its storyline. And as opposed to bigger fests, True/False (which runs for only three and a half days) mostly stays away from world premieres and gives out no competitive prizes, which are the coin of the realm for a Cannes or Sundance in order to draw worldwide media attention. To my knowledge, there's never been a red carpet anywhere in Columbia.
Instead, Sturtz and Wilson (alongside fellow festival programmer Chris Boeckmann) have put the emphasis on smart selections and bringing in filmmakers to talk about their movies. True/False operates like a lot of regional film festivals in that it caters to an audience that doesn't have the time or financial resources to trek over to Cannes or Toronto or Venice to see all the buzzworthy movies. Instead, True/False brings those titles to Midwestern moviegoers in the heart of a college town brimming with life. The festival's demographics hit me where I live: I grew up about four hours east of Columbia, and I feel like I know these people on a molecular level. Unpretentious, curious, willing to give an unknown movie a chance sight unseen, these crowds are my type of film audience. (I'm sure it helps that the theaters aren't filled with people who work in the business.) As much as I love the energy and rush of, say, Toronto, it is awfully nice to be at a festival where no one's talking about a film's Oscar chances three seconds after it finishes screening.
The movies Sturtz, Wilson and Boeckmann program run the gamut of nonfiction film, which (its makers and fans are quick to point out) shouldn't be reduced to one broad genre classification, as if they were akin to a "romantic comedy" or a "thriller." Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes, and this year's True/False slate bears that out. While I've only seen a handful of titles in advance, something like The Act of Killing—the dark, provocative look at Indonesia's death squads, being shown here in its rarely seen director's cut—is vastly different from What Happened, Miss Simone?, a more conventional biographical documentary about Nina Simone. Last year's edition included the Donald Rumsfeld inquisition The Unknown Known, the playful/stylish Nick Cave pseudo-biopic 20,000 Days on Earth, the experimental portrait of random cable-car travelers Manakamana, and the crowd-pleasing Large Hadron Collider film Particle Fever. True/False may cast its eye to the most distinctive and groundbreaking work out there, but its programmers also understand that a feel-good movie like Twenty Feet From Stardom can have its place alongside the assaultive, immersive fishing-vessel film Leviathan.
Who could complain with such a lineup and such a mission? Those on the outside will grouse that True/False's glowing film coverage is secured by "buying" journalists. Each year, along with many other critics, I've had my airfare and hotel paid for by the festival; this, by the way, is not something only True/False does, but nonetheless, the cynical might assume that we're expected to praise the festival as a result. I can only say to such charges that I've never been influenced to change my opinion because I felt I "owed" True/False a rave review. But then again, I don't worry too much. Because these guys are picking from the crème de la crème of the nonfiction world—the programmers scour other festivals for the big discoveries—I feel relatively confident that I'm not going to see duds. If anything, this festival doesn't show enough movies, a necessary byproduct of its organizers' desire to keep things intimate and manageable.
True/False isn't the world's only documentary-centric film festival—Toronto's Hot Docs is much larger—and it isn't the only regional festival that's carved out an identity for itself. But I find my annual trip to Columbia both refreshing and cheering. I'm still that guy who pinches himself for his good fortune that this is what I get to do for a living. I find bigger festivals exciting in their own way, but their begrudging acceptance that they're about business first and art second can be depressing. Hanging out at True/False recalibrates my thinking, not just about documentaries, but about filmgoing in general.
So, I suppose, yes, I have drank the Kool-Aid—a crude expression that suggests brainwashing (and, y'know, mass suicide). For me, the True/False Kool-Aid offers the exact opposite sensation: Sturtz, Wilson, and Boeckmann's festival is restorative to the point of life-affirming for movie-lovers. I'm not brainwashed—I feel like I'm home.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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