Keeping things real at the True/False Film Festival

Roving reporter Courtney Sheehan sends us a dispatch from the 2013 True/False Film Festival…

Every year the festival kicks off with the March March, a parade featuring residents of Columbia.

For the past ten years, the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, has served up fantastic non-fiction fare to locals and filmmakers alike. The fest began in 2004 as a humble three-venue venture cooked up by co-founders David Wilson and Paul Sturtz. This year, with almost 44,000 ticket sales, filmmakers from all over the world in attendance, and 900 lively volunteers pitching in, True/False celebrated a decade of hard work, stellar film programs and unforgettable parties.

Columbia, a cozy college town, clearly provides much of the inspiration for the down-to-earth look, feel and spirit of True/False. Film festivals all too often end up feeling cookie cutter in their formulaic awards ceremonies and obligatory cocktail parties, but True/False keeps things fresh with innovative events like the documentary game show, Gimme Truth! It’s a testament to the power of local communities that highly original events embodying the spirit of the place can exist alongside an inviting atmosphere for newcomers.

Colorfully dressed volunteers called "Queens" run the Q ticket lines.

The ragtag face of True/False matches its fun-loving heart. Consider the Queens (volunteers who run the ticket queue lines, known simply as “the Q.”) Stationed outside each venue, the queens dress up in spectacular home-made costumes of rainbow wigs, long red capes, tinsel-trimmed boots, lion manes, wizard staffs, top hats—you name it—and lovingly guide attendees into the theaters. Outdoor art strung up in alleyways or erected on top of dumpsters greets you around almost every corner. The box office sports hand-crafted decor: the ticket line, merch store, poster raffle and complimentary coffee are tucked in among larger-than-life termite mounds, bird nests and cotton cloud hangings.

Many of the 37 feature films at this year’s True/False came straight from Sundance, such as actress-director-writer Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. An exploration of the ways we construct our personal narratives through our memories and our relationships with our loved ones, Stories We Tell charts a compelling story about Polley’s mother, via interviews conducted by the director with her father, siblings, and family friends. A film that could easily slip into the boring self-indulgence of familial navel-gazing instead holds to high standards of intelligence and respect, in both its directing and its treatment of the audience. It’s best not to give too much away about the core story, as riveting twists and turns abound, but the tale is recalled with endless wit, humor, and compassion by Polley’s smart and funny family members. Stories We Tell will have its theatrical release in mid-May.

The Act of Killing, exec produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, undertakes the dark task of excavating a history of genocide. In 1965, Indonesia’s first president was overthrown by one of his military generals, launching a horrific massacre of communists throughout Indonesia. Anwar, the film’s main The Blue Note theater was a main festival venue.subject, was a young “movie theater gangster” at the time. When invited by the new government, Anwar went from scalping tickets to leading death squads, ultimately killing hundreds of people with his own hands. The same regime remains in power today; Anwar has never been held responsible for his crimes and is instead respected as a war hero. The filmmakers asked Anwar and other death squad members to create movie scenes about the experiences (experiences that most would consider heinous war crimes). A devoted cinephile, Anwar draws on his love of film genres ranging from gangster to musical to horror in order to invoke the past. But the process unravels years of repressed memories and forces Anwar to finally face the trauma that he has left unacknowledged, outside of the nightmares that plague him each night.

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, conducted a Q&A via Skype after his film's screening.

Some might take issue with the filmmakers’ decision not to include the other side of the story, by interviewing the families of the victims, but this view misses a key point of the film. We are all implicated in cycles of violence, director Joshua Oppenheimer pointed out in a post-screening Q&A via Skype: “You can’t stay clean,” he said. “It’s a false moral standpoint.” It would be more dangerous, the filmmakers felt, to present Anwar and his cohorts as the only people capable of such cruel violations of basic human rights. The Act of Killing ruminates on the blurry lines between different manifestations of the human compulsion to perform, fantasize and act.

Other highlights at True/False were Computer Chess, by former mumblecore staple Andrew Bujalski, After Tiller (Martha Shane, Lana Wilson), a solidly-made doc about American doctors who perform third trimester abortions and The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (Tinatin Gurchiani), which adopts an unconventional structure in order to glimpse into the lives of young Georgians.

Local residents celebrate documentary filmmaking at the March March parade.

Courtney Sheehan was a 2011-12 Watson Fellow investigating the politics of film festivals in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Spain, India and Brazil. She was first bitten by the festival bug while interning at Northwest Film Forum’s Children’s Film Festival Seattle in 2009. She has written for The Independent and Senses of Cinema, and is a founding member of Cine Migratorio, a migration-themed film festival based in Santander, Spain.

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