Last month I annoyed some people by referring to the True/False Film Fest as "fun but less newsworthy" than events like Sundance and SXSW. I honestly had meant that to mean it's just not as much on people's nor the media's radars. I should have put the word "newsworthy" in quotes, or just said "less covered" instead. It's certainly worthy of being reported on. I'd known for a while that a number of people, filmmakers, fans and critics, consider it the most fun film fest of the year. And now that I've experienced my first -- or two days of my first -- I am in complete agreement. While I'm still looking forward to returning to Austin next week, I'll be happy choosing this over Park City anytime.
Held annually in Columbia, Missouri, and now in its ninth year, True/False is a short but sufficient four-day-long festival for nonfiction cinema, and definitely its most devout enthusiasts. Located here I suppose because the University of Missouri - Columbia is one of the greatest journalism schools in the country, it also just seems to be perfectly situated in a smallish college town with a very friendly, communal and intimate (yet large) audience. If you think a strictly documentary film fest would be serious and stuffy and limited in appeal, you need to come out here and watch the wide array of genres and subjects on display in venues such as rock clubs, churches and a ragtag bar/cinema -- actually called the Ragtag Cinema.
I'm not the only person who thought it was brilliant to experience the punk rock-attitude of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry in a venue typically used for music shows, while the audience cheered and hooted in approval of the titular, middle-finger-waving Chinese artist as if they were attending a Crass concert. And it was brought up Friday afternoon that a church was a very appropriate place to see the secret screening about to be unveiled. Between these locations and the booze-flowing Ragtag, True/False screenings have a way of feeling either like a party or a place to worship docs, or both.
And speaking of that secret screening, one of the most appealing things about True/False is the surprise and anticipation of its program of seven unrevealed titles. Movie geeks have their own exciting secret screenings at SXSW and Fantastic Fest and elsewhere, and this is the chance for doc dorks to have a similar treat. They are new films, mostly the latest works by well-known and acclaimed filmmakers, but they can't be publicly revealed since they're docs that have official premieres later on. For that reason, I can't really write about them other than to acknowledge that they're usually a huge hit and I personally have had difficulty not devoting all my time to these types of screenings, whether for the curiosity or the expectation of only excellent docs.
But then I would have nothing to report on, other than perhaps some cryptic and critically meaningless opinion. I think I'm okay saying that the three secrets I've seen so far (color-coded as Purple, Blue and Gold) are about people exploring things, people taking things and people retaking things. One of them was slightly disappointing, one of them could be one of my favorites of this year and the other fills a terribly rare but important niche within the doc market. If I've got you wondering, you ought to be at True/False, because that's where to be to be ahead of the game, and the only place where you get to finish the day at a packed party filled with seemingly anyone who's anyone in the doc community, sharing in a beer and a private discussion of a film only you and a few around you have had the special chance to watch.
So how about those films I can talk about? On the other end of attraction from the so-new-they're-not-really-here titles are the still-fresh-but-slightly-used docs that come to Columbia following their splashdown at Sundance. And since I was unable to attend that festival this year, about a third of my choices at True/False consist of catching up. The Ai Weiwei film is one of these that had great buzz out of Park City and, now that I've seen it, can concur that it does not disappoint. The debut documentary of American journalist Alison Klayman (who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance), it's a necessary, compelling and very funny introduction to the eponymous artist as well as a good point of access for Americans who know little of China's creative activists and subversive journalists, including the expansive contemporary Chinese documentary movement.
I found parallels with another film focused on an activist-artist, Herman's House, which is one of the fest's premieres that isn't a secret. Directed by Angad Bhalla, also making his feature debut, this film revisits the very popular (and still tragic) documentary subject of the Angola Three -- or one of them, 30-year solitary confinement-suffering prisoner Herman Wallace -- and artist Jackie Sumell, who is working on a project in his honor and possible benefit. In addition to tackling prison conditions, human rights advocacy and political art, the doc also gets into a number of other topics including architecture, community, post-Katrina development of New Orleans and very personal stories involving Sumell's background and family. For a film spawned from an issue of constraint, it's anything but limited. Ambitiously, Bhalia reaches about and covers a lot of ground yet the doc never feels scattered, although it does occasionally come close.
Maybe it's just that I've been thinking a lot about the newly released This Is Not a Film, but I'm especially focused this weekend on themes of artistic and political restraint, such as that doc's look at the house arrest of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Ai Weiwei being temporarily disappeared by the Chinese government and then given limitations on his freedom, and then Wallace's inhumane containment in his 6x9 cell. Surveillance also comes into play as a related and ironically reflexive theme in Ai Weiwei and also the phenomenal Abendland, the latest montage work by Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread), which features gorgeous, statically framed motion pictures of Europe at night, with much emphasis on shots of border fences, cameras, monitors, protests, arrests and other images linked by issues of immigration and the superiority complex of the Occidental.
Fitting with the double-edged idea of surveillance and documentation is Me at the Zoo, a surprisingly captivating yet disappointingly obvious and superficial chronicle of the Internet celebrity Chris Crocker ("Leave Britney Alone") and his insight into and scrutiny received from the very world of fame and public attention he became famous for both defending and speaking out against. The blurring of voyeurism and exhibitionism is at play but it often feels like a rehash of both the very ahead of its time Tarnation and the subtly astute Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, for which Me at the Zoo is kind of a dark counterpoint. Having never watched one of Crocker's videos before, I was amazed by him as a personality and a life and a representation of the digital age and YouTube phenomenon, but I wished the film itself had more to say on the subject.
Then there's The Imposter, my most anticipated doc of the year even before it received heavy buzz out of Sundance (including from movie bloggers typically less interested in docs) and it deserves every bit of praise and recognition, so long as you have a great appreciation for the manipulative entertainment possibilities of nonfiction cinema. This highly engaging and suspenseful reenactment-heavy thriller is about a young French man who assumes the identity of a missing child in Texas, and it's the best kind of evidence of the "truth is stranger than fiction" idea. People are relating it with the new fiction film Compliance -- both ask us to believe we wouldn't be as gullible or blinded by faith as the characters on screen -- and I'd throw in The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost films, Dear Zachary and Man on Wire as worthy brethren. Like the last, in addition to sharing a producer, it also presents a very pre-9/11 story that's even more unbelievable and impossible by today's standards.
The Imposter has its share of complicated and provocative filmmaking choices, but they're the kind that leave you with much to think about rather than complain about. So far it's my favorite of the festival. And it certainly fits into the discussions at the center of two panel events I attended at the start of my True/False experience. One was on the issue of transparency in nonfiction film -- to which I counter with these questions: what about transparency in fiction film? Should fiction filmmakers also be more upfront about their employment of reality, accident and other non-scripted aspects? -- and another was on the growing acceptance of documentary as entertainment -- well, resurgence, I'd say, because docs were initially entertainment in the early days of Flaherty and Schoedsack & Cooper.
These two panels, though occurring at the head of the True/False festival, were part of a new conference held by the University of Missouri called Based on a True Story and not really officially linked to the fest itself. I wasn't even aware these events were going on until just before my trip out here. But I'd love to see this conference more publicized and connected to True/False because the conversations presented and generated are great lead-ins to the four days of film watching that follow. Together, and overall, I can already tell that True/False is a must for all diehard fans of documentaries, as well as many peripheral doc watchers and general movie lovers. I think it may be the most divine and diverting film fest I've been to yet. Hopefully it continues to grow in recognition and coverage.