True/False 2018: The Midwestern Doc Fest Returns to Test the Limits of Non-Fiction

The heart of the Midwest beats in Columbia, Missouri, a charming college town where the land is eerily flat, the brick buildings are short, the sky is all-enveloping, and at the beginning of every Spring, visitors gather for a weekend to celebrate nonfiction cinema at the True/False Film Festival.

Well, maybe “visitors gather” is a bit of false advertising, because it’s astounding how many documentary moviemakers and academics at this year’s edition hailed from the surrounding area. In fact, a loyal True/False-goer told me that the festival itself isn’t what’s caused the area’s surge in doc moviemaking, but rather, that the preexisting surplus of great local nonfiction creatives is what spawned the festival in the first place. For the prestigious event fast approaching its 15th anniversary, this “chicken-or-egg” argument might’ve been too much of a rabbit hole for a newcomer like myself to venture down. But I pondered questions like these due to the festival’s clever programming, which confronts audiences with guest lecturers’ provocative prompts before select screenings.

A select few films tend to dominate the day-to-day chatter at any given festival, and the divisive The Task certainly achieved this status. With a synopsis that wryly predicts the film’s audience to walk out on it, “artist provocateur” Leigh Ledare’s film refuses easy classification, and makes it nearly impossible for one to de-code its message, or to determine whether its subjects’ conversations are either profound or completely insubstantial.

Self-described “punk kids” growing up through the True/False ranks, Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside display a deep maturity and empathy toward their subject matter in their new film América, their cinéma vérité look at a group of brothers who return home to Colima, Mexico to care for their ailing grandmother, the titular América. América may be 93-years-old with Alzheimer’s, but her spirit is distinctly intact as she is delightfully whip-smart and strong willed. A perfect amalgamation of the three years spent filming the subjects, the finale showcases a tenderness that drives the audience befittingly to “tears and laughter,”—a phrase used by one brother, Diego, to describe his family’s grappling with América’s eventual death.

Diego shares a tender moment with his grandmother América in Stoll and Whiteside’s América. Image courtesy of True/False.

B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story) is a series of panels and discussions wisely taking place before the festival reaches full-swing, with packed days of sun-up to sun-down screenings. Mizzou’s prestigious “Murray Center for Documentary Journalism” hosts filmmakers and critics alike discussing the nonfiction landscape with table-setting academic rigor that makes clear for any new visitors (as I was) what sets True/False apart. Priorities here regarding form and intention stretch beyond the filmmaking practice diving headfirst into film criticism. The panel “Nonfiction Criticism: Writing a New Narrative” led by the always illuminating critic Eric Hynes, along with the Murray Center and Sundance Institute’s inaugural Nonfiction Critic Fellows examined the history of nonfiction criticism and how writers should attempt to navigate this landscape in the world of copious online content and more business-friendly advertising modules.

Shirkers was one of team MovieMaker’s most cherished discoveries at Sundance 2018, and I made a point to catch it again here before I rode the always-eventful Greyhound bus back to Kansas City for my return flight home. Another film that defies easy description, (a reoccurring motif at a fest of this ilk) moviemaker Sandi Tan’s autobiographical film-about-films is a deeply personal journey toward recovering the lost indie she made as a teenager with her friends in ‘90s Singapore. Shirkers was just as charmingly off-beat and engrossing for audiences in the Midwest as it was when it played before Park City crowds this past January.

Sandi Tan appears in her film Shirkers, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance, photo by Sandi Tan.

Rethinking the shorts block model, each segment was named after a specific beverage, and post-screening, audiences roamed nearby galleries drinking said beverages while more informal conversation permeated the space. The Kombucha 71 block began with wunderkind British moviemaker Charlie Lyne’s sharply edited “Personal Truth,” which uses the “Pizzagate” fake news fiasco as an example of how susceptible to conspiracy theories people can be, and how anyone can view “truth” through rose-colored glasses when it suits a narrative we’re determined to believe. “Water Slide,” Missouri-born documentarian Nathan Truesdell’s follow up to his much-beloved “Balloonfest”, continues Truesdell’s unsparing examination of the Midwest. The results are much more tragic this time around (the death in “Balloonfest” seems in retrospect like the precursor to the much more horrific finale in this new piece). Chronicling the irresponsible construction of the world’s tallest waterslide in neighboring Kansas, there is a sense of foreboding in the absurd, comical footage of these self-proclaimed trailblazers chasing their own interpretation of the American Dream, physics and regulations be damned.

While some festivals pull you in different directions, toward multiple branded parties, True/False by contrast kept its soirées satisfyingly stripped down, instilling festival-goers with a sense of inclusion as they ended up at the same events at the same time. The fest’s “Gimme Truth” debate game, always an annual highlight, pit a panel of moviemaker judges against one another as they—with the help of an inebriated audience—voted on whether a series of student-made “documentary” shorts are either “true” or “false.” Later, at an Oscilloscope house party that raged into the early morning, mingling and dancing moviemakers, press members, distributors, and film-lovers agreed on one undeniable “truth”—that True/False had turned them into a family. MM

The 2018 True/False Film Festival ran from March 1-4, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. For more information, visit their website here.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2018 issue.

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