Picture the scene. It’s a Friday in early March on a downtown street in the midwestern college town of Columbia, Missouri. Marching bands have assembled and citizens have draped themselves in a wide array of costumes to march and dance in a giddy parade. In light of the morning’s chilly, rainy weather, the cloud-cleared sunny late afternoon sky makes everyone’s smiles glow that much more brightly. So, what is the purpose for this celebration? To send the top-5 ranked Missouri Tigers’ men’s basketball team into the belly of March Madness with rousing support? To wish the city of Columbia a happy 109th birthday? To party in the name of nonfiction cinema??? Why, the latter, of course.
Truth be told, the real purpose of the True/False Film Fest’s annual Friday “March March” isn’t to get folks fired up about documentary filmmaking exclusively; it’s to get them excited about creativity in general. And that is just one of the many refreshing distinctions that makes T/F such a magical and superb four-day event. I’d been hearing about this festival from the Kool-Aid stained mouths of those who had attended in previous years, and though I had no reason to root against it, I must confess that my bar of expectation was raised dangerously high when flying into St. Louis and shuttling over to Columbia to finally experience T/F for myself. So, did it deliver on its promise? I am happy to report that I have chugged the True/False Kool-Aid and, by golly, is it delicious.
Creativity is on display everywhere you turn at this festival. It’s right there in front of you as you walk into a venue to gear up for another screening. I’m not just talking about the live musical acts, either—i.e., the buskers—that perform mini-sets as folks settle into their seats before the lights begin to dim. I’m referring to the exhilarating art installations that decorate the theaters, adding even more flavor to the proceedings. By taking a homegrown, communal approach to their festival, co-conspirators Paul Sturtz and David Wilson have performed the magic trick of turning a potentially elitist concept into something that the entire city of Columbia has embraced. People here are proud of their festival. They should be.
I could go on and on about the ridiculously positive energy that overtakes the city during T/F—surely this utopian vibe can’t be indicative of Columbia on a 24/7/365 basis?—but I won’t. It makes more sense to get to the films themselves, which is ultimately why everyone is here. This year’s slate—at least based on the 13 features that I saw—was incredibly strong. At so many fests, the ratio of above-average-to-below-average work encountered often slopes in the direction of the latter. But because the amount of features programmed at True/False is restricted to 40, and because the programming agenda is described in this manner at the T/F website—“the festival highlights innovative work with a cinematic scope, creative takes on contemporary currents, and most of all work that provokes dialogue about its subject and the documentary form itself”—this leads to a situation where just about every film feels refreshing, vital, and distinct. Rather than being limiting or constricting, this guiding mandate instead produces a diverse lineup of work that defies boundaries while enlightening and entertaining in equal measure. Here is a breakdown of my True/False viewing diet. I would classify all of these films as need-to-sees.
FILMS I WATCHED AND DUG VERY MUCH AT TRUE/FALSE 2012
“SECRET SCREENINGS” — What secret screenings? Just kidding. Without giving anything away or getting anyone in trouble, I will say that the multiple films that I saw in this category will be making very big splashes in the coming weeks and months when they officially premiere at other fests that I should not, cannot, and will not name here.
Vivan Los Antipodas! (Victor Kossakovsky, 105m) — My biggest regret of T/F was missing Victor Kossakovsky’s The Belovs (1993, 60m), which had pretty much everybody I know who saw it drooling with awe. That’s kinda funny, though, because even though they sound like completely different films, Kossakovsky’s latest had me drooling with awe as well. At the Missouri Theatre, where associate programmer Chris Boeckmann presented Kossakovsky with this year’s True Vision award, Kossakovsky jokingly asked Boeckmann how he managed to get all these people to show up (the theatre holds well over 1,000 seats, and just about every one of them was taken). When Boeckmann laughed shyly, Kossakovsky went on to jab about how usually when a festival assures a filmmaker that “everybody loves them,” once they arrive at said festival, the reality is that only 10 or 15 people show up to watch their film. But here, that theory had been upended in a staggering manner. Of course, Kossakovsky recognized that this wasn’t a case of there being 1,000-plus Victor Kossakovsky fans assembled in one room—he concluded his acceptance speech by saying that he hoped the audience would appreciate his film and not wonder bitterly why the T/F powers-that-be would give such a boring film and terrible filmmaker an award—but the fact remained: the Missouri Theatre was jam-packed with regular ol’ Americans getting ready to watch an abstract, experimental tone poem/documentary feature film. As for the film itself, let’s just say that if- and whenever an American distributor picks up Vivan Las Antipodas! and releases it, it is just about certain to land in my overall year-end Top 10.
Only The Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 73m) — It would be a severe shame if fest programmers and distributors and viewers and, well, basically anyone, dismissed Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s film for riding too closely behind the wheels of Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer. For as excellent as Patterson’s documentary was, Only The Young is its own glorious creation. A portrait of three punk-rocking, skateboarding teenagers in Southern California, this doc sneaks up on you by making you think you’re getting into a film about reckless juvenile delinquents, only to realize that they are as good-natured, decent, wise-beyond-their-years, adorable, and hilarious as kids could possibly be. Mims and Tippet take an unexpected—and welcome—turn of using a classic soul music soundtrack, which enables the film to further escape its superficial punk rock trappings. After only one viewing, I’m ready to file Only The Young in the all-time coming-of-age canon.
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks, 79m) — An incredibly strong example of socially engaged cinema that doesn’t purport to have any answers, Peter Nicks’s Frederick Wiseman-like documentation of one day in the life of an Oakland emergency room won me over from the very first frame. Rather than making a blunt case for or against universal health care, Nicks instead shows us how complicated the situation is by introducing us to several less-privileged American citizens who need help and are having serious trouble finding it. Mercifully, Nicks and his collaborators don’t try to stuff an agenda down our throats. By merely documenting this complicated issue with honesty and grace and sensitivity, they have provided an invaluable service. One hopes this approach will inspire thoughtful, productive discussions instead of more useless bickering.
Summer of Giacomo (Alessandro Comodin, 78m) — What a deceptively thrilling movie this is! Comodin’s 16mm-photographed portrait of a slow, lazy summer in the life of a deaf 18-year-old who has received cochlear implant surgery seems as matter-of-fact as movies come—handheld cameras and a score-free soundtrack simply document Giacomo’s interactions with his girlfriend Stefania—but as tiny details escape like wisps of thought, new layers of insight and emotion are revealed. Days after having seen it, I find myself falling deeper and deeper in swoon with Comodin’s exhilarating Summer of Giacomo.
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 90m) — Detroit is f**ked. While Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady don’t pussyfoot around that cold, hard fact, and though they do reveal how the once thriving city is on the verge of outright economic collapse, they also manage to point their cameras at several of the city’s intelligent, resilient residents, who help to inject the film with a desperately needed jolt of humor and spirit. But still, man: Detroit is f**king f**ked.
Argentinian Lesson (Wojciech Staron, 56m) — Another documentary about youth shot on 16mm celluloid (see also: Summer of Giacomo), Argentinian Lesson has the feel of a tender, intimate family home video. Which makes sense, as director/cinematographer Staron just so happens to be the father of the film’s main subject, 8-year-old Janek. As his family relocates from Poland to Argentina so that Janek’s mother can teach Polish to locals, Janek befriends the 11-year-old Marcia, who is both tough as nails and pretty as a peach. It’s hard for me to be objective about this type of sweet-and-grainy cinema, but I do think this is a gem of a film.
The Ambassador (Mads Brügger, 97m) — If you’ve seen The Red Chapel, you know what you’re getting into with a Mads Brügger picture. Brügger is what would happen if Sacha Baron Cohen decided to become a real-life investigative journalist. In The Red Chapel, his target was North Korea. Here, it’s the rampant corruption in the Central African Republic. Buying his way into the position of a Liberian diplomat, Brügger pretends to be a match factory magnate while simultaneously pursuing a career in trafficking blood diamonds. As inappropriately funny as much of the film is, things begin to get serious when Brügger’s illegitimate paperwork threatens to expose him as the sham that he is. After this film and The Red Chapel, I fear for where Brügger will go next.
The Imposter (Bart Layton, 95m) — I haven’t read the lauded New Yorker article that helped to inspire this film about serial French child imposter Frédéric Bourdin, which made this film even more uncomfortable. Shot like a particularly cinematic episode of a too-baffling-to-be-true crime show, this tale unwinds into increasingly outlandish directions. But as outlandish as it is, it’s true. But it can’t be true. But is it?
Into The Middle of Nowhere (Anna Frances Ewert, 15m) — If forced to make a list of “Most Adorable Movies Ever,” you can add this 15-minute short to the tippy-top of mine. After the screening, someone wondered if Scottish people would find these young children and their accents as adorable as we did. My answer? Of course they would! Do yourself a big, big favor and watch it yourself for free right now.
Come to think of it, watching Into The Middle of Nowhere is a perfect way to conclude this wrap-up. In summation, all I can say is that something extreme will have to prevent me from returning to Columbia next March for the 10th anniversary of True/False. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll be there too.
— Michael Tully