It started off like many film festival conversations. Sliding into his seat at the Main Squeeze on 9th Street in Columbia, Jon Murray extolled the power of “Sunless Shadows,” Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary about a group of Iranian women imprisoned for murdering the fathers, husbands and brothers who abused them.
“I just saw an amazing film.”
The then conversation took a bit of a twist.
“At one point, one of the women addresses the camera directly,” Murray says, “and I thought, ‘Ah, the confessional.’ Which we introduced in ‘The Real World’ Season 2. Of course,” he adds, “we got it from Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds,’ but you didn’t see it in documentary before ‘The Real World.’ And now you do.”
And there you have it, the great blur — between film and television, feature and documentary, nonfiction and journalism, popular culture high and low — diagrammed in three sentences by a man who as a founder of American reality television is one of the world’s leading experts in genre fluidity.
Not that Murray considers reality television low culture. He and Mary-Ellis Bunim created “The Real World” in part to offer audiences a chance to experience life outside their own particular bubble. “We believed,” he said in an earlier conversation, “that if we bring different kinds of people together, after all the drama and the shouting, they will find they have more in common than not.”
Certainly, the casting of Pedro Zamora in the show’s third season, “The Real World: San Francisco” had the kind of effect many documentary filmmakers dream of. As the first gay man with AIDS to be featured in mainstream media, Zamora helped changed cultural attitudes. When he died in the same year the show aired, he was mourned by millions. “President Clinton said Pedro did more to educate Americans about AIDS than anything else.”
There were many notable aspects of this year’s True/False Film Fest, a 17-year-old celebration of documentary and nonfiction that draws 16,000 filmmakers and movie fans from around the world to the unlikely spot of Columbia. Including that it happened at all.
Even as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and other festivals and public events were being canceled over coronavirus concerns, True/False slid through four days of packed movie houses on a sea of antibacterial gel (prominently provided at every venue), liquid soap (religiously replenished in every public restroom) and the blessings of the Boone County Health Department. There are advantages to being smack dab in the middle of fly-over country, Columbia Mayor Brian Treece said in a press conference held on the festival’s opening day, March 5, to assuage any local concerns.
There were no films coming from the hardest-hit countries — China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — so festival organizers felt confident that following guidelines from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would offset any risk. And with the exception of a few sponsor reps, who were no-shows after their companies issued “no unnecessary travel” policies, the only significant cancellation was by Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, West Bank, and the subject of David Osit’s revelatory “Mayor.” Hadid was on his way to the airport when the Palestinian government issued a similar policy, but he sent his greetings via Osit to standing ovation crowds.
Elbow bumps occasionally replaced handshakes, but not all that often, and as crowds spread across the sidewalks under the unseasonably warm and sunny skies, there was nary a face mask in sight.
But for me, the most notable aspect of this year’s True/False was the ability to see it briefly through the eyes of Murray.
Murray is, after all, a former journalist who cofounded Bunim/Murray Productions. He, along with his partner, Bunim, practically invented reality television with “The Real World” (which, after 32 seasons on MTV, recently had a 33rd on Facebook Watch), “Road Rules,” “Starting Over” and “The Simple Life” before executive-producing the pop culture revolution that is “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and all its various spin-offs.
In recent years, BMP has moved into documentary film — “Autism: the Musical” “Valentine Road” — and series — “Citizen Rose” and “Surviving R. Kelly.” For Murray, who now serves as creative consultant at BMP, the recent explosion of documentary filmmaking, and the exploding of the traditional rules of what that is, makes perfect sense — there are as many ways to tell a nonfiction story as a fictional one. Maybe even more.
True/False fest has always had a nonbinary, all-inclusive attitude toward the definition of “documentary.” This year, Kitty Green’s feature “The Assistant” was part of the early, unofficial opening and several films, including Turner and Bill Ross’ “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” used staged situations to “document” larger truths.
Green, who is best known for documentaries including 2017’s “Casting JonBenet,” interviewed more than a hundred people before writing the script for the fictional “The Assistant.” For “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the Ross brothers assembled a reality show-like cast put its members in a Vegas dive bar with a general prompt — act as if this were the last night of your favorite bar — and a series of announced cues. Which, if either, is nonfiction?
“It’s a big question,” says Murray. “With ‘The Real World,’ we were very transparent. We chose seven people we thought were interesting to live together and then filmed what happened. With ‘Bloody Nose,’ the prompt was much more specific. I liked the film, but I’m not quite sure what it is.”
“Sometimes,” he added, describing the festival, which he has attended for the last seven years, “you don’t know quite what you’re seeing. But that’s what makes it exciting.”
And sometimes, at least for Murray, expensive.
This was the first year Murray was attached to a festival entrant. He is a co-executive producer of David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya,” which documents a group of activists attempting to save LGBT+ people in that country from the horrific antigay purges being conducted by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov (and approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin). A traditional documentary that is by turns harrowing, horrifying, heartbreaking and inspiring, “Welcome to Chechnya” received the festival’s True Life Fund award this year.
Murray’s involvement began at the end of last year’s True/False, when, leaving Columbia, he shared an airport shuttle with France.
“I loved his film ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ so I asked him what he was working on,” he recalled.
France told Murray that he had made “Welcome to Chechnya” but that he could not show it because he wanted to use digital facial transformation technology, the kind Martin Scorsese used in “The Irishman,” to disguise his subjects without dehumanizing them. But that technology was very expensive.
France screened the film for Murray and his partner, Harvey Reese, at their L.A. home. They gave France a check for $100,000 and later held a fundraiser at their home in Cape Cod.
“The moral of the story is,” Murray says, laughing “be careful who you get on an airport shuttle with.”
But that was actually not the most costly visit Murray has made to True/False. On his first trip, seven years ago, he realized that while Columbia is home to both the largest documentary film festival in the country and one of its best journalism schools (from which he had graduated), that school did not have a documentary program. This seemed to Murray like a pretty big disconnect, so he started talking with festival founders and several journalism professors about fixing it.
A year and a $6.7-million endowment later, the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism was born.
“Docs are critical to exploring social issues in depth and holding people in power accountable,” Murray says. “And with all the best documentary filmmakers coming to Columbia each year, we all loved putting equal emphasis on filmmaking and journalism.”
With Robert Green as the artist in residence, Murray says, the program (from which my son is about to graduate) has a journalism bedrock infused with True/False.
“But that’s how I feel about my reality career,” he says. “It was always grounded in journalism.”
The Jonathan B. Murray Center is also a key sponsor of True/False, which means Murray’s name flashes on-screen, albeit amid a crowd of other sponsors, before all the films. This does not grant him any special dispensation, however. He had been hoping that “Transhood,” a film about a group of Kansas City parents navigating their children’s transition that he produced, would be at this year’s True/False. But it didn’t make the cut.
“But HBO bought it,” he says, “and it will show at Toronto. So that was some consolation.”
“It’s something,” he adds as we eat a lunch of organic vegetarian food — yes, even in Missouri — and discuss the multiplatform-amped world of documentary and his part in it. “The way things happen. For years, we pitched scripted series, even had a few pilots made. The only reason ‘Real World’ got made was because MTV couldn’t afford a scripted series. And look what happened.”
He laughs, takes a bite of kale and looks at his watch — his former college roommate is meeting him before the festival premiere of “Welcome to Chechnya.” “I think about all the strange decisions that lead to where I am today, to creating a new genre that has changed so much.” He laughs suddenly.
“I’m actually writing a one-man show about it,” he says. “About my life and my career. It’s in the early stages, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it when it’s done.”
Who knows? Maybe it’ll show up some year at True/False.