True/False 2011: Festival Report

Travelling for the first time to the True/False Film Festival, I had heard nothing but rave reviews from filmmakers who had shown their films there; I knew it was in a small town and that it would be the furthest inland I’d ever been in the US. After a fourteen hour journey from the UK, I landed in Kansas City Airport. From the airport, you face a two-hour drive to get to Columbia, where the festival takes place, but after travelling that amount of time what’s an extra two hours?

After a minor hotel mixup, which was actually quite fun, we stayed the first night in the host hotel The Regency before moving a little further out to the Hampton Inn Suites. After having this dual lodging experience I can say that if scrappy fun is your style The Regency is the way to go – if comfort is the main priority then it’s the Hampton.

The next day we made our way into downtown Columbia. The festival hadn’t started yet, so we made the most of having time to have a look around. Despite being a small town, Columbia has a fair amount going for it, with many great places to eat and extremely good vintage stores. We did also manage to sneak in a screening of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D (The Fan Cut). I will not go into my love of this film here, but check out the next podcast for further explanation.

(note: I don’t condone taking pictures in theatres; this was just a happy accident)

That evening, we went along to the opening night gala: The Jubiliee, at the Missouri Theatre. There was a masked ball theme, and after accidentally breaking several of the amazing masks created by the volunteers I gave up and tried some of the delicious and wonderfully strange drinks provided by local bartenders. It was an incredible atmosphere, which carried into the screening of Benda Bilili! The Missouri Theatre is a wonderful place to watch a film – its architecture is absolutely beautiful.

I was fortunate enough to have been asked to introduce and host Q&As for a few of the films and my first was for Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles by Jon Foy (listen to our interview with Jon on the podcast here). The screening took place at the RagTag Theatre and even though my brain was telling me it was 6am it was a fantastic experience. The thing that immediately struck me about the festival was the level of audience engagement. Many other festivals have an element of public attendance, but nothing quite like True/False. This is a festival that feels entirely for the local people and it really thrives because of this. I’ve seen many other public Q&As, but never with such an engaged, documentary-knowledgable audience.

By Friday, the festival was in full swing. My day began moderating a panel called Africa 11…the Pulse of a Continent, which looked at filmmaking in Africa from both an African and outsider perspective. The panel was comprised of filmmakers from three of my favourite films of the festival – Jarreth Merz from An African Election, Renaud Barret from Benda Bilili!, and Frank Piasecki Poulsen and Sekombi Katondolo from Blood in the Mobile. It was a fascinating discussion that ranged from the technicalities of filming in Africa to the responsibilities of representation and the further purpose of making films there.

I followed the panel with a screening of Zielinski by local filmmakers Chase Thompson and Ryan Walker. It tells the story of author and photographer John M. Zielinski who, after a devastating legal dispute over the publishing of one of his books, turns investigative reporter and dedicates his life to exposing issues through his writing and cable tv shows. Zielenski is a really fun watch, and reminded me of a less scary Collapse. During the screening there was a minor weather apocalypse with extreme tornado warnings. Lucky we were in the right place and safely stayed away from the thunder and lightning outside. However, this meant the weather wasn’t on our side for the next activity of the festival, the March March.

The March March is a festival tradition in which everyone parades through downtown in costume, or with handmade drums and shakers, making serious levels of noise and having a lot of fun. Despite the rain it was fantastic, with the University of Missouri drum line following the procession.

One of my favourite aspects of True/False is that they actively stay away from the premiere rule that often stifles other festivals. To do this they create several Secret Screenings. There is an unspoken contract with the audience that they must not make it public which films they’ve seen secretly. I managed to get to a few of these and so will keep any reviews at bay until the films have premiered elsewhere. Later that day I went to see the screening of Steve James’ The Interrupters at the Missouri Theatre, and the Q&A was incredible. The Interrupters was the recipient of the True Life Fund which promotes documentaries that create change. We’ll be posting a review of the film soon, but in the meantime check out the interview we did with Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz at Sundance here.

The rest of the day was taken up with a screening of Andris Gauja’s jawdropping Family Instinct, followed by the Gimme Truth game show. Gimme Truth pits three panellists against a host of short docs – each as ambiguous as the next – with them guessing as to which is true and which is false. The shorts were so well made it was near impossible to tell and Ameena from the Interrupters frustrated outbursts at guessing nearly all wrong were amazing. Host Johnny St. John was one of the highlights of the entire festival, creating a hilarious comedy routine against every burst of frustration from the panel.

The last day of the festival was by far my busiest day, with intros and Q&As for two films amongst screenings. The first was Buck, a film that absolutely wowed me. Rather than being largely about horses, as one might expect, it’s a portrait of real life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman who is an absolute joy to watch – from his level of skill to his incredible anecdotes and life view. I highly recommend seeing this film when you get a chance.

My last Q&A was for Resurrect Dead for the second time and, again, the Q&A was nothing short of incredible. It’s a wonderful experience to stand in front of an audience and hear such a range of views and perspectives that really honour the film and show real engagement.

After this I managed to run and catch the Q&A for James Marsh’s Project Nim. James was this year’s True Vision Award recipient, which is an award given to a filmmaker whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking. In honour of this the festival screened his most recent film, Project Nim, and two previous works, Wisconsin Death Trip and Burger and the King, the latter of which is one of my favourite films of all time and, by the reaction during the festival, was also a highlight of the programme.

One of the most notable aspects to True/False that makes it stand out from other festivals is the real attention to detail when it comes to overall festival experience. One of these aspects is the addition of live music in the form of buskers who perform before each screening. All the acts I saw were fantastic, and I left with several CDs picked up from the box office. On the last night this culminates in the Buskers’ Last Stand in which all the bands head to the Missouri Theatre and play. As we got there, Bramble and Pearl and the Beard (highly recommend checking out both) had formed into a super group and had the entire room singing.

True/False is now in its eight year; created by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, it’s a festival that lives and breathes for its audience. The programme is excellent, with a diverse range of documentary styles and themes and a wonderful balance of high profile and hidden gems. The external events, which range from the march to a campfire stories evening with filmmakers relaying the stories that got away to a morning fun run, give True/False the extra element of fun, and a community spirit which makes the festival now a definite yearly trip for me.

The Missourian got witty the day after the festival, but they had a point.