Each spring, Columbia, Missouri—halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City and home to the University of Missouri—plays host to the True/False Film Festival, a four-day event that takes over the city as thousands of aficionados and filmmakers descend on the college town for one of the country’s premier documentary film fests.
Four days and nights sitting in dim theater spaces watching dozens of hours of nonfiction films that invariably deal with serious, often disturbing, subjects might sound like a sober, emotionally exhausting way to spend a long weekend. Yet True/False, which just wrapped up its 18th edition, is a decidedly festive affair, filled with the kind of revelry, breakneck venue-hopping, and agonizing choices usually associated with multi-stage music festivals. In addition to a full schedule of film screenings, the fest’s four days and nights are jammed with libation-friendly events, from concerts to parties to parades to game shows to picnics to kickball games to campfire storytelling sessions.
Co-founder David Wilson says, “I think of the Emma Goldman quote: ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ Our philosophy is that it’s okay to have a festival feel fun and exciting and cathartic in the midst of dealing with some really big ideas.” As a result, festival-goers enter theaters to sounds of live music from eclectic buskers, they crowd into the town’s classic haunts (Booche’s, Shakespeare’s Pizza) to discuss films over pints of beer, and hit late-night concert revues and the whole thing is accessible on foot.
It’s an approach that has paid off, as True/False continues to grow each year and is now one of the key hubs of the documentary community. Last year, True/False stayed active during the pandemic by moving the films, concerts, art installations, and other events outdoors to a sprawling urban park. That Covid-dodging adjustment made for a unique version of the fest, one that included the in-person world premier of Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, Summer of Soul. This year, in a herald of normalcy, the fest returned to its traditional indoor spaces in downtown Columbia. Here are ten highlights from True/False 2022.
After the opening-night Jubilee, a grub-and-gab street mingles, a spirited crowd spilled into the Missouri Theater for Pawel Łoziński’s The Balcony Movie. Shot over two years, entirely from the director’s balcony in Warsaw, the film is composed of various Poles passing on the sidewalk below, most of whom stop to look up and visit with Łoziński as he calls down such questions as, “What is the meaning of life?” We see a recently sprung convict yearning for a place of his own, a pregnant woman returning later pushing a stroller, a man quietly mourning his lost partner who remained a secret for decades, an old woman hinting at contemplating suicide, a young woman clutching a rosary as a reminder of religious grace, a man who slept in his car after getting banished by his girlfriend, and dozens of others. This collage of vignettes makes for a poignant, sad, funny, and continually entertaining pastiche that captures rich interior lives in miniature and from a bird’s-eye view.
Later that night, Columbia’s venerated old concert venue, The Blue Note, was the ideal pop-up movie theater for Rita Baghdadi’s excellent music documentary Sirens, which follows the members of all-female Lebanese thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens. Portions of Sirens follow a Spinal Tap-ian narrative as the band rocks hard in rehearsals and on stage, plays to a nearly empty field at the Glastonbury Music Festival, struggles with inter-band relationships, breaks up, reunites, shreds. But Sirens goes well beyond typical rock-doc tropes and becomes a captivating, inspiring observation of talented and charismatic guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara as they kick against the prevailing Berutian aversion to metal music, the LGBTQ community, and independent women in general.
On Day Two, I participated in one of the festival’s Synapses—immersive, interactive storytelling experiences held in small art-studio spaces. When I arrived for my scheduled morning time slot for As Mine Exactly, billed as a “VR Performance Film”, I was surprised to learn that the project was a one-on-one performance film with its director and subject, London-based filmmaker Charlie Shackleton. Sitting in a dark closet-sized room wearing a VR headset, facing a total stranger, might sound like an unsettling prospect, yet once the film started, the 30-minute experience was a relaxing, even therapeutic, engagement. Shackleton manipulated photos, text, soundbites, video, and a musical score across virtual computer screens while providing live narration, all of which told the story of his boyhood experience with his mother’s medical emergency. Shackleton’s warm voice lulled me into an absorbing meditation of a personal story and a medium that felt thoroughly singular and intimate.
Francesco Montagner’s Brotherhood screened at the Ragtag Cinema, a cozy-capacity theater in which the audience is seated in a random assortment of couches. The visually-beautiful film follows three teenage Bosnian brothers who live with their exacting father—their mother is largely out of the picture (and entirely out of the film)—and who must go it alone on the family sheep farm when their father, an Islamic preacher and farmer, is sentenced to prison on terrorism charges. Montagner was granted access to the boys for four years—working tirelessly on the farm, attending school, navigating severe religious expectations, and the temptations of both radicalism and the more earthly pleasures of a modernizing society. A powerful example of immersive, experiential filmmaking, Brotherhood at once captures universal rites of passage in three stages of adolescence and the tortuous clash of willfulness and indoctrination inherent in a stifling coming-of-age environment.
At True/False, live music plays a role nearly equal to documentary screenings. Every film is preceded by a live musical performance, the parties and receptions feature unique buskers, a mobile funk band leads the annual costumed street parade (the March March), and downtown venues host nightly concert showcases and dance parties. The cream of the crop this year was Liam Kazar, the Kansas City-based singer-songwriter who led an electric trio through a stellar set of Kazar’s smart, snappy rock songs at brunch-spot-turned-rock-club Cafe Berlin. The Harpo-Marx-resembling Kazar held down adroit guitar arrangements and, backed by drummer Spencer Tweedy (that’s Jeff’s boy), featured poised versions of songs from last year’s terrific Due North that fell somewhere between Elvis Costello and David Byrne.
In curating a festival from over a thousand submissions each year, True/False settles on a mix of the traditional and the experimental, the mainstream and the esoteric. One of the weekend’s biggest crowd-pleasers was 2nd Chance, the Ramin Bahrani-directed biodoc of body-armor entrepreneur Richard Davis. The film opens with Davis, wearing one of his own bullet-proof vests, placing the barrel of a high-powered handgun to his chest and pulling the trigger. It’s a stunt/demo Davis repeated hundreds of times in his career to prove his products’ efficacy, and, as with much of the rest of the documentary, the scene is bizarre and shocking but impossible to look away from. The story takes several surprising turns as the director blends archival footage with new interviews, Davis himself among them, which work together to paint a complex portrait of a controversial figure, an examination of the socio-political issues that drive him, and the surprising revelation of an unlikely reunion.
Director Eva Stefani spent 12 years filming an independent sex worker who operates (and is the sole employee of) the oldest brothel in Athens in Days and Nights of Demetra K. When she walks the streets, Demetra is not at work—we see her shopping, feeding stray cats, visiting a cemetery. Her job takes place exclusively in the dark, bric-a-brac-stuffed upstairs space where she waits for customers to show (when she isn’t wrangling her 17 small dogs). The handheld camera that waits with her stands in for Stefani, to whom Demetra increasingly confides, resulting in a portrait that humanizes Demetra as a strong, caring, funny, stubbornly defiant woman whose multidimensional personality serves as a measure of her city: She demands respect at city council meetings debating sex-worker rights, and a collapsing Greek economy spells trouble for her longtime business.
The rowdiest event of the weekend is also the hottest ticket in town: Saturday night’s Gimme Truth!, billed as the world’s only documentary-film game show. Hosted by comedian Brian Babylon, who serves varyingly as the evening’s moderator, stand-up comic, and booze ambassador, Gimme Truth! sees a panel of celebrity filmmaker judges (and the well-oiled audience) try to determine whether a series of two-minute docs are real or fake. This year’s offerings included a young Swiftie who became a viral sensation in Japan, a college student who claimed to enjoy eating rocks, an eventful road trip to a Harry Styles concert, and a scary online-dating encounter, among others. The short film’s directors are on hand to field To Tell the Truth-style questions from the judges, a process that stays just on the rails in one True/False’s most enduringly uproarious traditions.
Day Four started at the Blue Note, where the bar was serving drinks for a breakfast showing of Fire of Love, one of the festival season’s biggest hits. Directed by Sara Dosa, Fire of Love tells the story of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who became partners in romance and science from 1970 until a tragic eruption in 1991. For those two decades, the Kraffts were pioneers in volcano study, and Dosa pieces together a priceless pile of found footage to depict two singularly passionate people falling in love and coming close to falling into volcanoes. In doing so, the Kraffts shot stunningly gorgeous videos of volcanic activity. Fire of Love is a swift-moving documentary about an inspiring couple who faced the thrills and risks of living life on the edge.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began just days before the start of True/False, and news of the war hung over attendees and filmmakers. None more than Russian director Ruslan Fedotow, who did not mince words with his anti-war rhetoric as he introduced his film, Where Are We Headed? The film itself, however, takes an observational approach to create a collage of everyday Russian commuters on the Moscow subway. Filmed over several months well before the invasion, the embedded camera picks up slices of Muscovite life—a vendor trying to sell balloons, debauched New Year’s Eve revelers, a woman mesmerized by a rooster statue, a Santa-attired old man debating religion, a parade of mourners holding signs of loved ones lost in World War II. The film toggles to extremes: Protesters are arrested, fights break out, lovers embrace. Recently, all screenings of Where Are We Headed? have been prohibited in Russia. But at True/False, the screening served as a reminder of shared humanity in a documentary that, despite the presence of conflict and pain, revealed moments of tenderness and beauty.