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Don’t be fooled by the game show, the musical showcase, the masquerade ball or the parade with possibly topless Ukrainian feminists.
The True/False Film Fest, a documentary-focused program that started this year’s run on Thursday, has become one of the most respected film festivals in the country, if not internationally. Yet most people outside the film community and Columbia, Mo., where the festival takes place, have never heard of it.
When it started 11 years ago, the festival sold about 4,000 tickets. This year, T/F nearly sold out of its 50,000 tickets more than two weeks before it opened. Some of the surge comes from the increased popularity of documentary films, but festival regulars say there's also a sense of community that's missing from other, larger gatherings like the Sundance Film Festival.
Robert Greene, premiering his new film “Actress” at this year’s True/False, called the event a “perfect storm.” The timing is good because it’s held after Sundance and before South by Southwest. The selection includes smaller, quirky movies as well as known names. And it’s held in an affordable, charming college town with a nationally known journalism school.
“All the directors go there, big films, small films, the ones who just won Sundance,” said Greene, who is premiering a film here for the third time. “It’s where you go to really discuss what’s happening in the community, and there’s a reverence about the conversation.”
The four-day festival includes screenings of 43 documentaries, a half-dozen director panels, three secret showings of not-yet-released films, nightly parties, a Sunday breakfast and, of course the “March March,” an annual parade down the main street complete with floats and “crazy dancing.” This year it’s held on Feb. 28, not in March, but no matter.
The ‘how to sell yourself and make money’ discussions happen a lot at other festivals. We try to get at the ethics and theory and what’s really behind documentary filmmaking.
co-founder of True/False
David Wilson, who grew up in Columbia, created the festival with Paul Sturtz, a former reporter and editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, the local paper. They had already developed Ragtag Cinema, a nonprofit also based in town, dedicated to showing independent films. With T/F, they wanted to create a bigger conversation about documentary film.
The T/F festival started right about the time when mass audiences began paying attention to movies like the 2001 nature film “Winged Migration” and 2002’s “Spellbound,” about spelling bees.
“There’s a realness that people want to experience,” said Wilson. “We see that same impulse in reality TV — you can peer into other people’s lives.”
Wilson said that while most people know of Sundance, he wants to steer clear of its celebrity sightings and tents of free sponsored goodies. (The most in-demand goodie at the T/F festival is a hoodie made just for the directors, said Greene.)
The celebrities at T/F are not actors but directors, like Morgan Spurlock or David France, who directed last year’s Oscar nominee “How to Survive a Plague.” This year Tracy Droz Tragos, co-director of “Rich Hill,” winner of the 2014 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, is speaking on a panel.
“The overall theory we have for True/False is based on lively discussions and what’s interesting to filmmakers,” said Wilson. “The ‘how to sell yourself and make money’ discussions happen a lot at other festivals. We try to get at the ethics and theory and what’s really behind documentary filmmaking.”
This year, for the first time, the festival is providing a $450 stipend to filmmakers. It also covers all expenses, including travel, food (coupons for Booches, a local dive bar and burger joint, are particularly in demand) and lodging, a big deal to newcomers like Kitty Green, a director based in Melbourne, Australia.
Green is showing her film “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” about the topless feminist group Femen. A member of the group is expected to accompany Green in Friday’s parade.
She was originally looking at South by Southwest for her American premiere, but kept hearing about a festival in Missouri.
“Big festivals are like a machine,” she said. “I hate the business side, where you’re sitting down with agents and distributors. We make films because we’re passionate about the stories and ideas, and it’s nice to get around and chat cinema with people who feel the same way.”
We’re entering a phase where it’s not good enough just to be a good nonfiction filmmaker — you have to be a cinematic filmmaker as well.
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
The popularity of T/F is a good barometer of what’s happening in the film industry, says June Cross, professor and director of the documentary program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Not only is making films simpler than it used to be, but more documentaries are playing in large theaters and are easily available on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
“It’s raising the bar,” she said. “We’re entering a phase where it’s not good enough just to be a good nonfiction filmmaker — you have to be a cinematic filmmaker as well.”
She pointed to 2012’s “The Act of Killing,” which focuses on the Indonesian genocide in 1965 and includes gang leaders re-enacting the slaughter as well as dramatized depictions of people’s nightmares. It was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.
“They have a set designer, makeup artists,” she said. “The filmmaker is transparent about it, but it walks a fine line and pushes the conversation about what is a documentary even further.”
This year, the University of Missouri received a $6.7 million grant to develop a documentary journalism program. The money came from Jonathan Murray, a 1977 graduate, who is now chairman of Bunim/Murray Productions and a force behind one of the first big reality shows, “The Real World,” as well as “Project Runway” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
Wilson says he plans to help develop the curriculum for the new program, which is expected to start in 2015.
But for right now, he is focused on the True/False festival. He and Sturtz start screening films and planning for the 2015 festival the week after this one ends.
“It’s the most exciting time ever,” he said. “People are making risky, exciting, thrilling, fun, scary, impactful work.”