The True\False Film Festival or How I Came to Love the Doc

*Originally posted on the Monkey in the Cage Website on December 10, 2012

Earlier this year, many of us participated in, or were at least aware of, a Kickstarter event to help place the history of one of our favorite hobbies on film.  I was so excited by the prospect I ended up being the third person to put money to the project and certainly spent a fair amount of time and energy promoting it in my own small way.  The reason for my fervor had a lot to do with my love for documentary film, and that love of documentary film can be traced back to one solitary yearly event, the True\False Film Festival.

Held yearly around the first weekend of March, the True\False Film Festival focuses almost entirely on documentary films, typically with one or two “false” films to help it live up to its namesake.  The location for the festival is Columbia, Missouri – smack dab in the middle of the state and the perfect venue.  The founders, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson (also the founders of the Ragtag Cinema), still head up the event and strive to keep things feeling accessible to all lovers of film no matter how expansive the festival becomes, and growth is not in short supply.  When the proverbial doors opened in 2004, the attendance numbers were a bit north of 4,000 people with last year’s numbers close to 38,000, a staggering number for just nine years of existence.  This year marks the tenth anniversary and it is sure to be a packed one.  No matter how packed though, passes still start as low as $75.00 for ten guaranteed movies (and potentially more), staying true to the passion of making this festival open to any.  Those are some of the figures surrounding this exceptional event, but I want to impress upon you what makes it endearing to me and why I feel you should go if given the chance.

I still kick myself for not attending earlier, I had many chances.  I attended college at Mizzou, located in Columbia, Missouri, from 2005-2008.  I grew up in Warrenton, Missouri, a town only an hour away, and could have even easily made the opening year.  Of course I would have had to hear about it.  I can only be blamed for missing the years 2006-2009 because it was during those years that my best friend from high school, and fellow Mizzou alum, Kyle Puetz, was raving about the festival.  I just wasn’t all that interested in documentaries at the time, or at least I thought I wasn’t.

My exposure to documentaries had been mostly limited what I’d been shown in school and that wasn’t much of a selling point.  I didn’t have Netflix at the time, an instant queue brimming with well directed and interesting real world topics.  It was my assumption that a documentary had to be a boring “talking head” drag that might drop a nugget or two of useful information on me before it was done, assuming I’d not nodded off.  So basically “docs” were not my cup of tea.  It wasn’t until 2010 that Puetz convinced me to check T\F out.  By then he had gotten pretty involved by actually working for the festival, so I bought my Simple Pass and made my way to Columbia that year.  I was blown away.

How had I missed this event going on in the same town I’d gone to college in?  Thousands of people, all high on the shared experiences of engaging film, good music, and the unique chance to get up close and personal with the directors of these films.  To say that year changed my outlook on documentary film seems an understatement of grand proportions, but how else can I put it?  I saw some amazing films that year, namely Mads Brügger’s delightfully insane “The Red Chapeland Adam Curtis’ take on individualism and the American EmpireIt Felt Like a Kiss,” but it wasn’t just about the films.  True\False may be a film festival at heart, but it is so much more than sitting in theaters and watching documentaries.

Since 2010 I’ve gone back every year, making the upcoming tenth anniversary my fourth trip.  In just those three years I’ve not only seen over thirty films but have also been able to hear the wonderful music of Buskers as they perform to crowds awaiting their films to start, had lengthy conversations with directors and film crew about their filming process, attended late night parties, run in the “True Life Run” with a few of the subjects of the documentary “Bully”, and have had been able to introduce my wife and parents to the event as well.  If you want to talk accessibility of directors I can easily share a few stories.  The first year I attended I helped get a VCR for a VHS party held in the hotel room of Director Robert Greene (“Kati with an I” and one of my favorites “Fake it so Real”), and in my second year I and a few friends had an hour long conversation with Josh Fox, fresh from the Academy Awards where his film “Gasland” had been nominated, about how he was considering two possibilities for his next film, either “Gasland 2” or perhaps a film about banjos.  So both of these situations sound like name drops, well they are, but more so I wanted to emphasize that these types of scenarios are commonplace, everyone seems happy to be at T/F and it is one big shared party.

True\False puts people at ease too.  There is only one award to hand out, The True Vision Award, that is given annually to the filmmaker, or filmmakers, whose work most emphasizes a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction film-making.  Because of this, many of the directors see the festival as a place to relax after Sundance or Toronto and just meet with people who have an earnest interest in their work.  There is even an event sponsored by HBO that I went to last year called “Campfire Stories” where a group of that year’s directors sit by a fire and regale the audience with stories from the field.  It truly seems like one of the festival’s goals is to bring people together in the name of film and story.  One of the unique ways T\F brings film to its audience is by having some of the films that may wish to actually premier at a later festival screen under a code name that begins “Secret Screening” and then is given a color (i.e. “Secret Screening Orange” etc.).

Today I’m a geek for documentary film, and try to watch as much as I can when I get the time all thanks to True\False (and in no small part to my buddy Kyle of course).  One of the benefits of True\False is getting to see films that may never be available elsewhere, not to mention it gives me a chance to watch films that I may not get the time for later, being a father and husband with a busy work schedule.  The festival is also very geek friendly, just last year I watched Morgan Spurlock’sComic-Con, Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope”, which even featured a Columbia, MO native, Skip Harvey, an artist trying to break into the industry.  So you can imagine that come the time that the crew behind the Dungeons and Dragons documentary want to hit the film fest circuit I’ll be suggesting True\False to them and of course seeing if I can put the film into the ears of anyone on that year’s film selection board.  Not that I have any kind of pull but Hell, I’ll give it a shot.

If you live in the Midwest, please try to make it to this festival this year it runs from Thursday February 28th through Sunday March 3rd, and as I mentioned it’s the tenth anniversary so this is a must-go year!  If you don’t live in the Midwest, I’d still recommend the trip out here and I wholeheartedly consider it worthwhile.  So why am I writing an article before the New Year even starts about a festival in March?  Because tickets are already on sale, and they make great Christmas gifts of course!  Not to mention there is always the chance the festival sells out.   If this year ends up not being your year, no worries I’ll write a follow up in early March so you know what went down.  If you decide to go, let me know.  I’d love to meet up with anyone while I’m there, plus I’d be happy to give you some tips on what to do at the festival, you won’t regret the decision, I promise!

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