True/False Film Fest | 2014 Wrap-Up

fest Tf75Many people didn’t select films based on descriptions in the program guide, but just saw whatever was handy—and they nearly always liked it.



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While the rest of the nation has been paying attention, I feel like most St. Louis film lovers have ignored how reliably great Columbia’s annual True/False Film Fest, a documentary festival held over a weekend right before Mizzou’s spring break, has become. 2014 marks True/False’s 11th year, and in that time they’ve hosted some of the greatest living documentarians (Kirby Dick, Joe Berliner, and Bruce Sinofsky, to name just a few); they’ve been written up in everything from Indiewire to The New York Times; and they’ve had some total knockout programs.

fest boyhoodBy way of example, on the night of March 2, I skipped watching the Oscars live for the first time in probably about 20 years to see Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood at T/F (which is not a documentary—more on that later). While I was watching Boyhood, the highest-grossing documentary of 2013, 20 Feet from Stardom won the Best Documentary Feature prize. 20 Feet played T/F last year, with the director and one of the subjects in attendance to talk about it. Not to mention that three of the four remaining Best Documentary Feature nominees played T/F ’13 (and that Linklater couldn’t attend T/F to support Boyhood, as he was up for an Oscar this year).

This situation is pretty normal for T/F: It’s possible you may not know the films they’re running when they announce them, but you’ll sure as hell know them by the time the next T/F rolls around. (Another example: T/F ’12 had Searching for Sugar Man, again with the director to talk about it.) And it appears that every year the festival gets better and better. So why aren’t more St. Louisans in a hurry to make the two-hour drive west to attend the festival? It’s only over the course of one weekend; you don’t even have to take off of work!

I saw 10 films in a little under 3 days this year, and I’m not lying when I say that there was not one bad film in the bunch. This is an incredibly rare feat for any festival, and speaks to how well-curated True/False is. That’s another reason of the festival’s growing success: Columbians are incredibly supportive of it, and rightfully so: The festival rarely (if ever) leads them wrong. It isn’t just the Mizzou students who attend; it’s nearly everyone in town. I met a number of people, none of them hardcore film nerds, who told me they didn’t select films based on descriptions in the program guide, but just saw whatever was handy, and that they nearly always liked it. A young man told me that True/False weekend is “like a holiday” for everyone in Columbia. Perhaps most staggering is that I heard more than once that this year’s festival had over 800 (!) (!!!) volunteers—Columbia really does support this festival.

fest jodorskyBut you’re wanting to hear about those 10 good movies I saw, right? Going into the festival, I was most geeked for three films that had recently played successfully at other big festivals: Jodorowsky’s Dune from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as Sundance hits 20,000 Days on Earth and the aforementioned Boyhood. As it turned out, Jodorowsky’s Dune was my favorite film of the fest (no small feat; there was serious competition), and I’ll need a little steeping time on 20,000 Days and Boyhood to tell you exactly how much I liked them.

Jodorowsky’s Dune explores a subject that has long fascinated me. In the mid-1970s, director Alejandro Jodorowsky very nearly got a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune off the ground, which could have been perhaps the greatest sci-fi film of all time. You may know Jodorowsky as the director of 1970’s El Topo, which is literally the first movie that came to be known as a “midnight movie.” He followed it up in 1973 with The Holy Mountain; although it didn’t cause quite the ripples that El Topo did, it remains Jodorowsky’s best film. His next project after Holy Mountain was to be Dune. Much of what I knew about his failed Dune project was that most of the team he had assembled to make it went on to work on Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, but Jodorowsky’s Dune makes the possibility for what the film could have been so real, you come out of the documentary feeling like you’ve seen it.

fest 2000020,000 Days on Earth is a documentary about musician Nick Cave’s creative process, filmed during recording sessions for last year’s excellent album Push the Sky Away. I’ve long been a big fan of Cave’s and like the new album, and so was excited to see the documentary. While the film is good, it stubbornly does not follow any pre-existing documentary style, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out how to respond. You really feel the directors’ hands in the project, be it through Cave’s flowery narration, set-up conversations between Cave and some of his previous collaborators (such as Kylie Minogue), or a staged (but apparently honest) interview with a psychologist, etc. None of this stuff is bad or poorly done, just jarring. Meanwhile, as the album comes together, we get some real treats of performance footage, from full, long, early version of the wonderful “Higgs Boson Blues” to his epic live variation of instant classic “Jubilee Street.”

Many years, True/False will mix a fiction film or two into their program, just to shake things up a little bit. Said fiction films tend to have some relation to the documentary form, though (last year’s pick was Computer Chess; in 2011 it was Troll Hunter). Boyhood’s link to the documentary style is that it was filmed gradually over the course of 12 years, following the coming of age of its young lead character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane, a real find), whom the film follows from the age of 6 through 18. Like 20,000 Days on Earth, Boyhood doesn’t follow the film rules that have been constricting filmmakers for years—as a necessity of the way it was made, the story arc isn’t exactly traditional, and it’s strange seeing someone grow up for real when you’re so used to fiction filmmakers faking it—but it’s the type of movie that will fill a hole in you if you’re in a certain mood. Boyhood is a hugely ambitious film that you’d better get used to hearing about now, because it isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

The two films in the festival that have the most general interest appeal—and which I’d recommend to just about anyone—would be Happy Valley and The Overnighters. Happy Valley is the new film from Amir Bar-Lev. This year’s True Vision award winner (an award T/F gives to one key career documentarian each year) has established himself as a great nonfiction storyteller—his last film before this was 2010’s excellent The Tillman Story, and he made his name on My Kid Could Paint That back in 2007. Happy Valley is ostensibly about the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, but Bar-Lev focuses less on the details of that case, which you probably already know, and instead investigates the effect that the whole thing had on the community. Even for people who staunchly don’t care about what went down, Happy Valley is an engrossing film that will leave you thinking; likewise, The Overnighters from Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story), about a pastor in North Dakota who lets men moving in from out of town seeking jobs in the booming local fracking industry sleep on the floor of his church, and the local fallout from him providing shelter to these men who are trying to turn their lives around.

fest private-violenceThere were plenty of good issues films at True/False, as well—who doesn’t love a good issues documentary? It’s hard to pick a “best” of these, as they were all well done and on subjects of no little importance. So far, the one that’s stuck with me the most is Private Violence, an HBO-funded documentary about domestic violence that’ll have you wanting to do something to fight it and the way it tends to be handled in court. On a lighter side (though not as light as you might think), we have Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, which is about Femen, the Ukrainian-originated group of topless feminist protestors; the fact that nearly all members are young and gorgeous either helps or hurts their fight to raise awareness of feminism in a country overrun with prostitution and sex tourists.

What seemed to me about the most widely popular film of the festival was Rich Hill, a Sundance hit about a small town in southwest Missouri that focuses on three kids growing up there. Rich Hill never judges or makes fun of them (or tries especially hard to get you to empathize with them), and it becomes one of those movies where you see a lot of yourself in each of the three kids. And finally, E-Team is yet another Sundance hit about a team of the Human Rights Watch’s first responders, who go to places like Syria as human rights issues come to a head.

The one truly uncategorized-able film I saw in the festival was Manakamana, which is composed of 11 unbroken 10-minute shots of people going up a mountain in a cable car in Nepal. Manakamana was the most divisive film of the festival, inspiring a bunch of walk-outs—even the co-director, Pacho Velez (Leviathan), said before the film that if you didn’t like it \ 30 minutes in, by the end of its 2-hour runtime you’d want to shoot yourself—but I can be a sucker for films like this, and quite enjoyed it. A lot of the people bring animals with them in the cable car (I later found out that they were to be used as a blood sacrifice on the mountain’s Manakamana temple), which can be amusing, and in the ninth ride, two ladies eat entirely too-melty ice cream bars, which creates more suspense than you’d expect. Unless I’m just confused, sitting next to me at this screening was Georganne Nixon; she didn’t walk out.

2014 was not the first year I’ve attended the True/False Film Fest, but it was the first year I’ve personally attended it as press (though we at PLAYBACK:stl have been covering it since the very first festival, give or take a couple of off years). After the unmitigated success of this year’s festival, despite snow, an ice storm, and negative-degree temperatures, it’ll take a lot to keep me from going back in future years; this festival has just become a holiday for me, as well. | Pete Timmermann

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