Werner Herzog has spoken of capturing “ecstatic truth” in his filmmaking, both in fiction and nonfiction films. In an era when truth seems less ecstatic and more elusive, the nonfiction film festival True/False, which took place earlier this month, is the perfect place to explore the outer limits of truth in a world that’s struggling to make sense of alternative facts.
Located in Columbia, Missouri, an easygoing gem of a college town, True/False was started in 2003 by locals David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who own and operate the indie Ragtag Cinema in town. They refer to themselves as co-conspirators rather than founders, which tells you much of what you need to know about how the festival gained a fervent local audience—and an almost cultish following among international nonfiction film enthusiasts. It’s the “Sundance of the Midwest!” a Mizzou alum tells me while we’re waiting in line at Lakota Coffee Company.
True/False has built the caché, but it’s smaller, friendlier and less Hollywood than Sundance. There aren’t any jury prizes; just great movies and a horde of international filmmakers and fans descending on Columbia to soak up the friendly Midwestern culture, Sparky’s ice cream and three-dollar burgers from Booches.
The festival wants to test the boundaries of the fiction/nonfiction binary, and in years past it has played films like Boyhood and Heaven Knows What, ostensibly narrative fiction films that have relied heavily on real-life elements. In the festival’s 14th year, conspirator Wilson says that True/False wants to reorganize the traditional taxonomy of film. “I used to think about nonfiction and fiction as kingdom or phylum, but I had this epiphany: what if we make those the bottom level? What if that’s the same as species? Throw away this dumb divide of narrative films and documentary films. It actually makes much more sense.”
The programming reflects that philosophy, featuring nonfiction films that skitter along the line of true and false, embracing subjectivity, personal narratives and, above all, cinematic craft. John Grierson, the pioneering Scottish filmmaker who coined the term “documentary,” defined nonfiction film as “the creative treatment of actuality,” and the films at True/False embody the full expression of that idea.
But let’s not get bogged down in sematics; True/False makes all of this incredibly fun. The Columbia community turns out in full force for the festival, both as volunteers and moviegoers. Costumes are frequent, especially at the masquerade-themed Jubilee that kicks off the fest. One woman wore a tophat and veil covered in alternative facts like “La La Land is Best Picture.”
It’s such a beloved local event that a proposal even went down in the middle of the party, with attendees mingling around the happy couple, sipping craft cocktails from local bartenders.
There are many traditions that make the culture of True/False what it is. Costumed Queue Queens marshal the crowds lining up outside theaters, and a colorful DIY parade down the main drag marks the first day of the festivities. Buskers from as far away as Asheville, Austin and Toronto play music before the screenings while audience members pass the hat for tips.
One of the festival’s favorite traditions is the live game show Gimme Truth, where documentary filmmakers have to judge whether or not a short film is true or false. This year, Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) anchored the panel alongside Amanda Lipitz, the director of Step, and photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah. Comedian and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me panelist Brian Babylon emceed the Patron-fueled affair at the Blue Note. The event has a party vibe but, as Wilson explains, it serves an important purpose. “It’s an exercise in figuring out what’s fake news and what isn’t,” he says. “It’s a game show that is secretly delivering a crash course in media literacy.”
Programmer Chris Boeckmann, who started volunteering at True/False in junior high, echoed the emphasis on media literacy. “We don’t want to play movies that pander to any audience or are condescending in the way that they treat things,” he says. Which is how one will find themselves sandwiched between white-haired senior citizens taking in The Challenge, an almost wordless study of Qatari sheiks and their falcons by Yuri Ancanari; or packing into the balconies of the historic Missouri Theater for the American premiere of Rat Film, Theo Anthony’s experimental, jarring but lucid exploration of rats in Baltimore as a symbol for racial and class inequality through urban planning.
Another addition to the True/False routine over the past few years are “Provocations”: five-minute presentations before screenings from interesting thinkers, like mini-TED Talks. Sarah Jeong presented a theory about the lack of the free press in Star Wars before Rat Film, while political scholar, writer and current Twitter must-follow Sarah Kendzior followed up the eerie melodies of a harpist at the Ragtag with a talk about Trump and authoritarianism before a screening of Guido Hendrikx’s European refugee-crisis film Stranger in Paradise.
True/False weekend becomes a bubbling stew of ideas, conversations and opinions among festival goers; you’re never without someone to talk to or debate with. Wilson asserts that ultimately, the festival is apolitical in its challenging of taxonomies and objectivity. “We’re going to show these movies and it’s on you to figure out if you agree with them or not,” he says. “We want you to wrestle with ideas.” That wrestling can almost be energetic to a fault—like a stranger starting a heated debate over The Challenge during the wee hours of the morning on an airport shuttle to St. Louis. It’s clear that the ideas that percolate at True/False don’t stop at the Columbia city limits. This may be ground zero, but everyone who attends becomes a host for these ideas making their way into the world.