I attended the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri a short while ago, and I’m afraid that I’ve been captured by its cult. Almost nobody manages to attend this festival without rhapsodizing about its brilliance. I, too, will succumb.
The festival has a curatorial intelligence shaped by its directors, David Wilson and Paul Sturtz. In his recent “Film Festival Form: A Manifesto,” critic Mark Cousins (co-creator with Tilda Swinton of one of the most creative festivals ever mounted, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in Nairn, Scotland), challenged festival organizers:
The people who run film festivals must think of themselves as storytellers and stylists. They must ask themselves what the narrative structure of their event is, and its aesthetic. Most of all they must, as the best filmmakers do, challenge themselves to do things differently.
Wilson and Sturtz do not run a typical film festival, which, in so many cases, is simply a collection of fine, unrelated new movies. First, they advantageously narrow their focus to documentaries (as we have narrowed ours, more broadly, to films by and about artists). Their specialization is a smart move, because independent documentaries are flourishing lately, with great narratives, characters, cinematic vitality, and a sense of social urgency that fill the gaping hole left by mainstream print and TV news “infotainment.”
I saw some amazing art docs, including 20,000 Days on Earth, an unusually playful portrait of musician Nick Cave, and Jodorowsky’s Dune, which makes a strong case that its subject may be the most influential movie never made. Mati Diop’s 1000 Suns, about the current life of the lead actor of African film classic Touki Bouki, was a dazzler that I’d love to land for our festival in November.
Wilson and Sturtz’s programming meets Mark Cousins’ challenge “to do things differently” and tell a compelling story by making each festival an inquiry into the truthfulness of documentaries. They find films that have stories and characters that put fiction films to shame (The Overnighters), and films where what was staged and what occurred unprompted is hard to distinguish (like the magnificent Actress). They ended the festival with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette starring as the parents of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. Filmed over twelve years, with each year given about 10-15 minutes of screen time, the feature film visibly, truthfully documents the growth of Coltrane from childhood to adulthood.
Providing even more coherence to their event, the festival programmers give each year a theme, and this year’s was “Magic/Realism.” The theme was carried through the festival’s poster and trailers and many of its selections, such as Jodorowsky’s Dune, leading audiences to think about affinities between prestidigitation and filmmaking.
But, lest this all seem stuffy and too serious, let me say that I have never been to a more joyful festival. As Mark Cousins points out in his manifesto, there’s “the whole issue of festivity itself to restore to the centre of the world of film festivals.” True/False embraces festivity with imagination and energy, featuring musicians (“buskers”) performing before every screening, a parade (the “March March”), costumed ushers, art exhibitions everywhere, and lots of free food. Wow….I want our festival to be this festive and this smart, and I left Columbia feeling inspired and invigorated.