True/False Film Festival: Documentaries in our backyard

| Staff Writer

The 14th annual True/False Film Festival wrapped up this past Sunday in Columbia, Mo. A short two-hour drive from St. Louis, the festival screened upwards of 40 documentaries to an audience of about 15,000. It’s a quirky, homegrown festival that draws attention and submissions from the big players in documentary filmmaking. Every year, at least one of the documentaries nominated for the Academy Awards had been screened at True/False the year prior.

Founded in 2004, the festival takes over downtown Columbia for four days in late February or early March. Art installations go up in alleyways and screening venues while the streets become clogged with film-loving pedestrians trying to get to their next film. The town, already a bit of a hipster and intellectual hot spot, comes to life.

What’s great:

The vibe: Whether or not you’re super into documentaries, it’s hard not to love the sense of community the festival creates. The home of the University of Missouri, Columbia is only ever this full on football Saturdays, and even then, it’s mostly with college students. In addition to the films and art installations, T/F hosts buskers who provide live music before each screening. The venue Queens and the March March Parade add an extra level of eccentricity by encouraging volunteers and participants to don the most vibrant costumes they own. It’s all of these little things that give the festival an intimate and welcoming feel.

The films: The film lineup at T/F is always packed with high-quality, feature-length and short documentaries. And, true to the festival’s name, there’s always at least one that blurs the line between fact and fiction. The films play three to four times over the weekend, giving attendees many chances to catch their top picks. Of the 10 films I see every year, there’s usually only one I wish I hadn’t spent time on, and the rest of them, I would even watch multiple times.

The special guests: True/False brings in the directors, producers and/or stars of nearly every film for a Q&A session at the end of the screening. They come from around the world to show their films, and if they can’t be there, they’re often Skyped in. Audience members can ask them questions about the films, learn more about the production and where the protagonists are now.

What’s not so great:

The price: Passes range from $40 to $800, with each level of pass offering more included films and earlier registration times. Those with the most expensive passes get first dibs on reserving tickets, which means that offerings are slim by the time you get down to the cheapest passes. And honestly, the $40 pass is barely a pass at all. That said, individual tickets are available to purchase. If a film isn’t sold out, you can just buy a ticket for about $10 and walk right in. If it is sold out, you can opt to wait in line in the hopes of claiming any empty seats for the price of a ticket.

There’s not much more that’s bad apart from the occasional stupid questions from the audience or question-and-answer moderators and how crowded the venues become. It is quite the well-run and fun festival.

My recommendations from 2017:

“Step” (Amanda Lipitz): You MUST see this film. It’s about a high school girls’ step team that follows the paths of 3 seniors trying to both win a step competition and get into college against the backdrop of poverty and racism in Baltimore. I saw it with a crowd of 1,500 people who all actually audibly clapped at each of the characters’ successes. I’ve never had a viewing experience like this before with such a large audience participation. They talk about their experiences with such honesty and openness that it’s hard not to become invested. “Step” will be released more widely in July.

“Brimstone & Glory” (Viktor Jakovleski): This film brings the beauty (and danger) of Mexico’s National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec to the screen. It’s a film that relies largely on its magnificent cinematography. The camera takes us into the fireworks, sparks flying everywhere and colors abounding. With few interviews or narrative threads, somehow we still get a deeper understanding of the role of festival in the local economy and cultural life. Together with an epic score, the film is a complete sensory experience. There is no release information available yet.

“Casting JonBenet” (Kitty Green): This Netflix-sponsored documentary seems to explore the murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey’s 1996 murder, for which no one was ever convicted. But instead of being a true crime documentary, the film casts many local actors to play JonBenet’s family, the prime suspects and a few strangers. It becomes more of an investigation into how the tragedy impacted the community as a whole, as the actors share their opinions on the murder and bits of their personal lives. It closes on a heart-wrenching crescendo, as all potential versions of what happened the night of her murder are played out together, and we realize that we’ll never know the truth. The documentary will be available on Netflix in April.

“Still Tomorrow” (Jian Fan): This is another beautifully shot documentary that focuses on Yu Xiahua, a Chinese poet. Yu became famous in 2015 when her poems were discovered on social media. She quickly became a feminist icon, travelling the nation to speak candidly about her writing, which discusses sex and love very frankly. While all of that was happening, however, she was coping with her rural life as a disabled individual and trying to escape her unhappy marriage. The film is simply a window into her life and her perspective, all through her own words. She’s someone you won’t be able to forget. There is no release information available for “Still Tomorrow.”

Though the St. Louis International Film Festival brings us new films in the fall, True/False Film Fest provides a spring alternative with mostly new programming. Whether or not you ever get a chance to go, the list of films can give you an idea of what to watch online and in theaters near you.