At first, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson had a hard sell when they pursued moviemakers on the streets outside the Sundance or Toronto Film Festivals.
As the owners of the Ragtag Cinema, a funky independent movie house in Columbia, Missouri, they already had some industry cred. But, in 2003, they were so inspired by the growing ranks of high-quality documentaries that they conceived the True/False Film Festival, a showcase for bold, non-fiction cinema. Getting those bold filmmakers to come to a college town in the heart of the Midwest in the dead of winter?
The conversation, Wilson admits, would go something like this:
Wilson: Hey, we're bringing a documentary film festival to Columbia, Missouri ...
Filmmaker: Uh, where's that?
Wilson: Um, kind of in the middle?
Filmmaker: [Blank look.]
got a reputation for being really persistent ... but nice," Wilson says
with a laugh. "We really went after what we wanted and loved."
geography, Sturtz and Wilson built an intimate festival that has grown
ticket sales from 4,500 in 2003 to an estimated 25,000 this year. Now
Sturtz and Wilson don't have to pound the pavement nearly as much to
fill their program. When production companies, like Magnolia Films,
want to amp up buzz for a new non-fiction piece, like Food Inc., they look to True/False. For the 2010 festival, the organizers got more than 700 submissions for just three dozen slots.
The four-day party starts Thursday.
Sturtz acknowledges that there are other documentary film festivals, in the U.S. and internationally, that are bigger or get more premieres. But True/False has its own cache.
Number one: Moviemakers in the flesh. "We've done a really hard line on not including a film if it doesn't have representation," Sturtz says. "And that does stand out, because it's a lot easier to just book a film. But on any given night in Columbia you can go see, like, 24 films at the Stadium or the Forum or at Ragtag. So, what's more special about seeing 24 films at a film festival, if you don't have the filmmaker there?"
Number two: Minimal pretension. "We're wanting it to be accessible to a wide range of people, so it doesn't feel like an in club," he says. "At other festivals, it's sort of only the serious people apply. It's more geared toward veteran filmmakers. There's a little more of that pomposity that we've successful purged from the vibe [at True/False]."
Number 3: Maximum party. "The [opening day] March with all the crazy, ragtag bands, marching down the street in costumes, and the parties, and the music before the films; that's all been pretty integral to True/False," Sturtz says. "The buskers who play before every single screening create a much more vibrant, energetic feeling across the board. There's no screening where you go, 'Oh, OK, another documentary.' It's wall to wall. We recognize that what we do is show business."
But the issues are important, too. Films at True/False tackle both global and local topics. They peer into the lives of two South African boys wrongly locked up for murder. They journey with a satirical comedy troupe poking fun at North Korean politics and a traveling circus struggling to make ends meet in Mexico. Which means, there's a lot to choose from. To make things a little easier, here are a few recommendations from Sturtz and Wilson.
Top movie picks:
The Oath, from Laura Poitras: A portrait of Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden, who's brother is now incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. "I was just bowled over by it," Wilson says of the film. "It's truly next-level, non-fiction filmmaking. It's really complicated but it's driven by personal stories. It's global, but it tackles really thorny, knotty subjects in a really creative and asthetically pleasing way."
Secret Screening Gold: The story of a small-town guy who goes looking for gold when global warming causes glacier to recede, exposing previously unreachable ore. "To me, it has all the elements that we look for in a film," Sturtz says. "It has really fantastic characters. It has this kind of nice environmental backdrop, but not real heavy on it. There's political resonance but it also focuses on being a really fun film -- with great music."
From up-and-coming filmmakers:
Colony, from Carter Gunn: An investigation of the collapse of honey bee populations. "It was one of the bigger premieres at Toronto and seen as one of the major revelations," Sturtz points out.
Gasland, from Josh Fox: A revealing road trip into the environmental sins of the natural gas industry. "He went on this investigation and found some really shocking things, like drinking water catching on fire," Sturtz says. "And, clearly, his theater background gives him a little bit of a head-start in knowing how to present material. The mix of being a hard-hitting political story with a lot of artistic elements makes it a fairly unique film. I'm really thrilled to be hosting him."
An indescribable flick from across the pond:
It Felt Like a Kiss, by Adam Curtis: A fast-paced video montage, described as "a psycho-archaeological dig into the mass psychosis that is the American Empire, buoyed by the most jubilant music imaginable." "I heard about this particular film, happening in Manchester in the early fall, and it was one of the coolest events I've ever heard about," Sturtz says. The interactive screening was held in an abandoned building, with only a few people allowed in every few minutes. True/False is making sure the experience maintains some of that non-traditional ambiance: a special screening, with the British director, will be held inside the normally secretive Odd Fellows Temple.
Other can't-miss events:
The March March: A roving party of costumes and bands down Columbia's main drag to kick off the festival. If Sturtz has one scheduling tip: "Try to get here Friday for the parade."
Gimme Truth!: Styled in the tradition of What's My Line?, a panel of visiting filmmakers are shown 10 Missouri-produced shorts that are entirely true or entirely false and must discern truth from fiction. "It's one of the really unique things about True/False," Sturtz promises.
Ticket packages are sold out, but don't despair, Sturtz says. "We will have literally thousands of [individual] tickets left by Thursday," he promises. Go to the box office, or just cue up at one of the larger venues, like the Missouri Theater or The Blue Note.
For a full schedule and description of films, check out the True/False website.