Since David Wilson and Paul Sturtz conceived of Columbia, Missouri's True/False Film Fest in the summer of 2003, their annual event has demolished three persistent myths about documentaries and the festivals that spotlight them. Namely:
1. That documentaries are dull (not true).
2. That the movies in the fests are obscure (not true).
3. That there's no audience for them (false).
For proof, look no further than the happy geeks who dressed as their favorite sci-fi characters when Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope debuted.
The folks at True/False can also take pride in their prescience. Two of last year's entries received Oscar nominations: How to Survive a Plague (about the successful activism that enabled millions to survive despite being HIV-positive), and Searching for Sugar Man (about the neglected career of singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez), which went on to win the Oscar Sunday night. The Gatekeepers, another nominee, is making its Missouri debut at this year's True/False.
And what about star power? The Steven Spielbergs and the Martin Scorseses of the doc world are often guests here. Among those who have presented work at the festival: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the duo behind the Paradise Lost trilogy, about the unjustly imprisoned West Memphis Three), Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland), Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, Outrage, Twist of Faith), James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, Detropia).
Anyone who has waited in line to get a ticket at True/False knows that attracting crowds isn't a problem. Last year, the festival sold 37,000 tickets, a record. (Columbia itself, home of the University of Missouri, has a population of 110,438.) Sellouts are common.
There's still entertainment for those who don't make it into screenings. All of Columbia seems to be taken over by the March March parade on Friday, and buskers from across the United States play songs before the movies start. All the venues are within walking distance of one another, and the streets of Columbia are spring-loaded with surprises (a man in a gorilla suit, playing an accordion, say).
This year's festival runs from Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening. For tickets, movie details and a schedule, see truefalse.org. This year's entries weren't available for advance viewing at press time, but the following titles look to be in awards contention.
Nominated for Best Feature Documentary at this year's Academy Awards, The Gatekeepers is a major achievement simply because it features all six of the surviving former directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security and counterterrorism agency. All of the men profiled in the film have been understandably tight-lipped about their experiences. And all six agree, with some variation, that Israel's lasting safety depends on concessions to the Palestinians. Director Dror Moreh sits for a Q&A afterward.
Stories We Tell
Canadian actress-writer-director Sarah Polley picked up an Oscar nomination in 2008 for writing the narrative feature Away From Her. It turns out that her own life might be as fascinating as the roles she has played and the characters she has created. Stories We Tell reveals that Polley's history is more complicated than even she imagined it to be. For one thing, her mother died when she was 11, and the actor whom she thought was her father wasn't. In fact, to accurately portray what actually happened in her childhood, she has had to make up footage to reflect it. Polley is in Columbia to talk with viewers after the screening.
Like Stories We Tell, Chile's entry for Best Foreign Language Film, No, weaves fact and fiction. It's based on a play by Antonio Skármeta (whose novel Burning Patience inspired Il Postino) and chronicles the ad campaign that helped bring down the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) plays a Don Draper-style pitchman who spearheads a campaign against a referendum to keep Pinochet in power.
While No's framework is dramatized, the ads featured in the film are ones that actually convinced Chileans that a more democratic government would be a good thing. In interviews, director Pablo Larraín recalls he was able to find dozens of people who could vividly recall the work they did on "no" ads, but he found only one "yes" man. Producer Daniel Dreifuss is attending the screenings.
Since the 2009 murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller, only four doctors in the United States have provided late-term abortions. After Tiller profiles all of them and attempts to provide a more nuanced discussion of the polarizing subject. Co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson are present for screenings.
Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
Hetherington, a still photographer and videographer, and Sebastian Junger, the print journalist who wrote The Perfect Storm, teamed up to cover the deployment of a platoon in Afghanistan. That partnership resulted in the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Restrepo. Then the 40-year-old British photojournalist died while covering the war in Libya. Junger uses his new film to ask what sort of person Hetherington was, what his legacy says about the status of journalism, and what attracts people like him to dangerous stories. Junger will be on hand to discuss the film and his friend.