The streets of downtown Columbia, Missouri — the District, as the college town's tourism agency would prefer that you call it — will teem with roving bodies this weekend, and not just with the usual blacked-out-drunk undergrads. The True/False Film Festival is celebrating its ninth year, and David Wilson (who co-founded the fest in 2004 with Paul Sturtz) is expecting the highest turnout to date.
"Last year, total ticketed attendance was just over 30,000, and I think we'll go up by two or three thousand this year," Wilson says. (Most passes are already sold out, but seats for individual shows are still available.)
The documentary festival has expanded to accommodate the growing crowds and the event's rising national presence. Two new venues have been added: the Picturehouse, a theater inside downtown's United Methodist Church, and Jesse Auditorium, a 1,732-seat theater on the University of Missouri campus. The fest is screening 38 features (including this year's Academy Award-winning Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated) and about 20 shorts multiple times Thursday through Sunday.
"We considered more films for screening this year — around 900," Wilson says. "We're trying to be both a fest that debuts great documentaries but also shows the best of other fests. There was a great crop out of Sundance this year, some of which we've included, but we've also found some cool European films that haven't been shown in the U.S., if at all."
Panel discussions have become de rigueur at serious-minded arts festivals. But in partnership with the University of Missouri, the conference "Based on a True Story: The Intersection of Documentary Film and Journalism" appears to have a tremendous amount of potential, pairing as it does a documentary fest with one of the nation's premier journalism schools. "The conference grew out of people we knew at the university who were fans of the fest, in the journalism school, who wanted to put together a more academic festival based around the fest," Wilson says. "We've worked closely with them, and they've found a lot of writers, journalists, critics and other guests to come talk and augment what we're doing."
The conference's discussions center on the role of documentary film and how it fits into the modern journalism-media landscape. Some of the panelists on hand: Betsy Sharkey, film critic for the Los Angeles Times; Andrea Meditch, executive producer of Man on Wire and Grizzly Man; and Nathan Rabin, head writer for The Onion's A.V. Club and noted coiner of the phrase "manic pixie dream girl."
Also on hand, as always, are many of the films' directors, who come ready to answer questions after their screenings. "I think that's a big part of what makes True/False, is that it feels very much like this neat community project," Wilson says. "It's a very handmade fest, handcrafted, people making things in small numbers. The directors are there in person. It helps create these unique moments that I think people are really hungry for."
We asked Wilson to talk about a few of his favorite docs showing this year.
How to Survive a Plague — "One of the Sundance films we liked. It's a look at this activist organization that took on the AIDS crisis before anyone really cared about it. A group of downtown New York artists and activists sort of transformed into amateur biologists. It's a fascinating arc to look at, especially given current protest movements like Occupy — how you can start as protest and turn into a knowledgeable force for change."
Gypsy Davy — "The filmmaker is on a journey to connect with her father, who is this sort of classic scoundrel who ended up as a famous flamenco artist in Spain. A really personal, different kind of film."
1/2 Revolution — "Another Sundance film. It's in-the-street reportage of Tahrir Square by these Egyptian and Danish filmmakers who were there when hell broke loose. It's this very immediate, long-form type of journalism that we don't really see anymore outside of documentaries."
Only the Young — "We found some really young new American talent with Only the Young. The directors are only 24 or 25 or something. It's about young Christian skateboarders in Southern California, and it has this really immersive feel that's like a fiction film. But it's great documentary storytelling, and they captured some astonishing footage."