The history of film festivals is littered with controversies, promotional stunts and, as anyone who has ever had the misfortune of standing near a photographer during Cannes knows, an all-out circus.
It's rare, however, that a festival's centerpiece is a game show.
On Saturday night in this charming culture-clash of a college town, a pair of Oscar winners and another notable documentarian convened on a theater stage, shots in hand, to investigate whether a series of supposedly documentary shorts were based on real life or entirely invented.
The setting was the "True/False" film festival, an elite curation of nonfiction film and a playful contemplation of what the term even means. The game, titled "Gimme Truth!" (with apparent apologies to John Lennon), allowed for a rather literal explication of the True/False name.
Nine Missouri filmmakers had made movies, no more than several minutes each, about oddball subjects; the films were then showed in front of a crowd at one of the festival theaters.
On stage, the Oscar winners, Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") and Roger Ross Williams ("Music by Prudence," "Life, Animated") along with noted filmmaker Kirsten Johnson ("Pray the Devil Back to Hell"), formed a panel that would determine these films' veracity. A regional comedian, Johnny St. John, emceed and also prodded them.
A short was screened, then the director came to the stage so the panel could ask them a few probing questions. After the brief inquiry, the panel voted on whether it was true or false. Audience members, assisted by their own experience and a stream of bar-provided pints, shouted along.
In one film, a woman claimed to be the child from a long-ago "Hooked on Phonics" ad; in another, residents of a modestly sized house at the nearby University of Missouri claimed that 23 people were living in it, under beds and in closets.
In another, a subject used Lego blocks to recreate a bank stickup he was allegedly involved with. A man stealthily enters art museums and shows some, er, oral affection for the works within.
In the shortest tale, a woman decides to shave off her eyebrows, and does. In the one that raised the most questions about the legal system, a college student goes to jail for a month for gallantly feeding other people's parking meters.
In the most absurdist vignette, a pair of college-age female twins introduced themselves as Potato and Potato Johnson, with one pronounced "Potahto" and feeling resentful because everyone always got it wrong. (The one time Potato smoked marijuana, she was nicknamed Baked Potato.)
The panel's questions were sometimes comedic (Williams: "How long have you been hooked on Phonics?") but often serious, the kind of specific queries that could reveal their respondents' intentions. (When did the teller start working at the bank? And how much do the house people pay in rent?)
The answers were short and cryptic, but rarely tells. What does the eyebrow-lady do for a living. "Fashion. Odd, high fashion."
The "To Tell the Truth"-conceit is meant to show that the line between fact and fiction in this hyper-mediated era is very thin. This is the age when docu-series like "The Jinx" are highly edited and shaped, a world where cameras are ubiquitous and everyone, in a sense, is performing. Defining a documentary is neither easy nor, perhaps, productive.
But mostly the proceedings demonstrated that you can have deep inquiries into silly issues. This may be the only cultural gathering in which a serious answer is sought to the question: "Is the art-licker true or false?"
The answers were soon revealed. The eyebrow-shaver, the art-licker, the Phonics lady and the LEGO robber were true; the dorm-squatter, the meter-feeder and the potato twins were false.
The panel ended with Johnson and Williams in a tie for the lead. The group chose its favorite films and finished its beers and shots. The crowd then dispersed to the bar for more drinks, reminding all of the one real verity at a film festival.
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