Inside True/False 2014

Roving Seattle filmmaker and film critic Rustin Thompson puts a spotlight on the 2014 True/False Film Festival. . .


Some locals call it “CoMo” (as in Columbia, MO), the county seat of Boone County, once inhabited by mound-building Native Americans.  It is the 13th most highly educated municipality in the United States (thanks, Wikipedia), home to the University of Missouri and, during the last weekend in February, the site of the True/False Film Fest, one of the most respected non-fiction film festivals in the country.

After less than 24 hours at True/False, I already knew Seattle film lovers would embrace this town’s historic downtown core. The walk-friendly grid of graceful brick buildings contains an inviting collection of bars, coffee houses, cozy restaurants, and music venues. The Ragtag Cinema, a half-block off the main drag, is a medley of all of the above, as well as a two-screen movie theater and video store.

By the looks of things on this Thursday afternoon, a few hours away from the festival’s first screening, it’s a busy nexus of activity, with passholders munching croissants, Mizzou students hunched over Apples, musicians carting instruments to the backroom stage, and the festival shuttle driver stopping by every half-hour to call for passengers. The Ragtag started out in 1997 as a film society after Columbia’s last downtown movie theater closed. It was a labor of love nurtured by eventual film festival co-founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson. The program notes say, “the Ragtag is sometimes credited with saving Columbia, but people tend to exaggerate such things.”

This is the first time I’ve attended a film festival without a film of my own to show.  Our past documentaries (I work with my wife, writer-producer Ann Hedreen), have all achieved some form of distribution and public television airtime, but they’ve never been accepted into a major festival. Most have played at scruffy, off-the-beaten path venues to audiences of 15 people (The Other Venice Film Festival), or have been lost in the maw of overbooked, commercial affairs (Cinequest), or screened at once-thriving fests (Taos Talking Picture) now gone forever, like deleted outtakes in a hard drive. My documentary about the WTO riots in Seattle, 30 Frames A Second, won the Grand Jury award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, but thirteen years later I’m still waiting for my promised $400 prize money.

Our lack of success with major festivals is, I’ve finally come to realize, our own damn fault.  Due to an impatience with the worm-like pace of fundraising, a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with networking, a busy life of raising children and working to pay the mortgage, we’ve made our documentaries in between all those other rest-of-life moments. Because we’ve always owned our own camera and editing equipment, and have the skills to earn a living as a two-person team making short films, we’ve never felt the need to raise money or seek executive producers in order to make our films. We simply made the movie, pre-screened them for critically astute friends, and shipped them off into that hellscape of rejection otherwise known as Withoutabox.

But we now have a new documentary in the works, the mental bandwidth that comes with an empty but restless nest, and a patience borne not from regret (or even rejection) but from a greater need to open ourselves and our work to a larger audience. So I’m here in Columbia for a few reasons: to report on the festival for several doc-centric blogs and eventually write reviews of those films that will receive a theatrical or national television release, and to begin inching, like a worm, along the byzantine path of networking and grantwriting. We’ve already got one award to our credit, $1,000 in cash and another 5K in-kind from Seattle’s Women in Film. Small maybe, but important.  I spent the thousand bucks to get to Columbia.

“New filmmakers can get frustrated and think the festival world is closed off, it’s all about cronyism, and whether or not you’ve got a good sales agent,” David Wilson told me during a brief break in the run-up to the True/False Film Fest. “At some places that is true. But nobody is impressed by me as a programmer if I want to show a film from Sundance. If I want to impress somebody as a programmer I find a voice, a filmmaker nobody has ever heard of, and I introduce them to the world.”

The 43 feature films and 3 short film series that make up the fest include risky works of slow, observational direct cinema, doc/fiction hybrids, and yes, freshly fêted Sundance premieres. A third of the movies have played Park City, while about 20% come from other festivals and 40% are films the True/False staff have been tracking for a while.

The tough news for filmmakers lobbing their movies over the proverbial transom is that only 10% of cold submissions are accepted. But, in the knowledge-is-power category, this is good information to have. “Certainly it doesn’t hurt to have programmers aware of your film,” Wilson explains, “but the biggest awareness I have of films is by looking at who is getting grants or if a filmmaker knows somebody whose opinion I trust. If a producer whose work I love called me and tells me, ‘I have a new film that I executive produced’, then I’m going to watch it. But the number one thing it always comes down to is: do I like the film?”

Festival co-founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson.

For filmmakers like me, Wilson’s statement is a revelation. It explains why so many films with similar trajectories–a major festival premiere, followed by a distribution deal, a theatrical screening and/or a long life on POV or HBO–also boast the same constellation of funding logos in their credit roll: The Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach, Impact Partners, ITVS, MacFound, and others. It also explains the need for a sales agent and an executive producer, two other components in the package I’ve ignored in the past, simply because I was too naïve to realize merit alone would never create a bright enough blip on the radar screen of festival programmers.

Recognizing these key elements doesn’t mean the obstacles in the journey are suddenly cleared away. Funding may not be granted; the executive producer may not materialize. In that case, it’s important to finish, to get your film seen somewhere, anywhere. You never know, David Wilson might just like it.

For filmmakers looking to enlarge their sense of what a documentary can be or to understand how the film they’re making or thinking of making might stack up against others, the True/False Film Fest is a must to attend. It is extremely well-curated, with an emphasis first on cinematic craft and second on story. All the films are accessible, many are demanding, others are popular and crowd-pleasing.

The screening venues (9 in all) are top-notch, with large screens, impeccable sound and projection, clear sightlines and comfortable seating. In every festival theater, audiences are serenaded by an invited busker (many from far-flung cities and countries), until the film is introduced. All screenings include a Q&A with the filmmakers. The scheduling and layout are first-rate. The atmosphere a mix of sophistication and down-home appeal. Booze, coffee and snacks are everywhere, as well as a not-so-small army of paid and volunteer staff.

Audiences line up at The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.

For David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, directing the festival is a full-time job. In addition, Sturtz runs the Ragtag Cinema and Wilson also makes films. “Being a filmmaker really helps me empathize and understand and appreciate what filmmakers are going through. We work hard to be a festival that always puts filmmakers first,” Wilson says.  Judging by what I’ve seen at True/False, Wilson would probably add that the viewer is a very close second.

Visit my blog, The Restless Critic, to read capsule reviews of the 14 non-fiction films I saw at the festival.

Rustin Thompson is an independent filmmaker with more than 29 years experience as a director, cameraman, editor, and writer.  He has earned several Emmy and photojournalism awards, including an Emmy for his producing and camerawork on a CBS News Special Report from North Korea.  His documentary, 30 Frames A Second, won numerous Best Documentary awards at film festivals nationwide, and is distributed by Cinetic and Bullfrog Films.  He is also a film critic for KBCS.FM and writes about films as The Restless Critic.  He is the host of the popular KBCS Americana program, Roadsongs. Rustin is a graduate of the University of Washington.

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