Maybe it’s the smiling elderly lady in the plush red Santa Claus cape offering guidance on a busy street.
It could be the DJ spinning ethereal tunes, in a church, against the backdrop of a video-art installation before the screening of a trans-themed film.
Or perhaps it’s simply the parade — literally — of roller-bladers, jugglers, marching bands and furry-animal costumes reveling its way down the street.
Whatever it is, these snapshots convey a message: Something is very different about this movie scene.
The moments all come from True/False, a documentary festival that took place last weekend in this Midwestern college town, attracting nearly 50,000 attendees, many of them locals. Described alternately as “Sundance before it was Sundance,” “one of the best-kept secrets in movies” and “a filmmaker’s film festival,” True/False is, in a sense, all of those things. The festival is an elite curation of nonfiction film and a playful contemplation of what the term even means.
But by mixing the hip with the accessible, it also reaches into more profound territory.
“There’s something about the fact that it’s all documentaries and you’re in the middle of this vast space that makes it feel like it’s more than just about film--it’s about America,” said Melissa Auf der Maur, the musician and former Hole bassist who produced Tony Stone’s “Peter and the Farm,” a story about a philosophical Vermont farmer that made its world premiere at the festival. “It feels important but also unique.”
True/False asks if there’s another way. Founded in 2004 by David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, a documentary filmmaker and print journalist, respectively, who both call Columbia home, the festival seeks to be as much about the experience as the movies.
There’s something...that makes this feel like it’s more than just about film -- it feels like it’s about America.
Every screening is preceded by a performance from a busker. (A hat is passed around the theater.)
Special events like game shows and monologues are held. So are “provocations,” in which a filmmaker narrates their short as they screen. More than just play good movies, True/False seeks to question how and why we come together over film.
“I’ve come to think of True/False as something that plays with the form,” said Wilson, 41, who was raised in Columbia. “The film festival has become a formula. We want to challenge what a film festival is. We want to be a petri dish for what a festival is.”
Those experiments are on display over the course of the festival. There’s the March March, a kind of Halloween parade that gets everyone in the spirit. (Some go at it easy — a full-bodied Missouri Tigers costume — others, with specially tricked-out vehicles or giant effigies, do it differently. Many are wearing the ominpresent red-and-white “T/F” logo, though these are local fans who simply decided to dress up, not volunteers or employees of the festival.)
Most notable among all these efforts is “Gimme Truth!,” a game show that anchors the four-day festival’s Saturday night.
At the event, nine Missouri filmmakers had made movies, no more than several minutes each, about oddball subjects. The films were then shown to 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.
We want to challenge what a film festival is. We want to be a petri dish for what a festival is.
A short was screened, then the director came to the stage so the panel could ask them a few probing questions. After the 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. In a different film, a man stealthily enters art museums and shows some, er, oral affection for the works within.
At its most lofty, “Gimme Truth!” is less a game show than a meditation on the nature of images, especially nonfiction ones. 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 productive.
But mostly the proceedings demonstrate the chance for 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?”
"There is a little put-on-a-show quality to True/False,” Neville later said in an interview about the festival generally. “The cynical big-city person in you may think it’s a little twee when you hear about it, And then you see the purity with which it’s approached, and you get swept up.
“It verges on the cult,” he added. “But I think it’s well-deserved.”
At a Friday happy hour is Laura Poitras, winner of the 2015 feature documentary Oscar for her film “Citizenfour.” In the basement of a hotel having a late-night drink a few hours later is Neville, who won the Oscar the year before. Chatting with him is Williams, the first black director to win a documentary Oscar. (The filmmakers, it should be said, have all their expenses paid and are given a $600 stipend to attend. Hey, documentary work isn’t “Transformers.”)
And then there are the films themselves.
True/False, run as a nonprofit, shows only about 35 features during, a fraction of what nearly every major fest screens. Its movies are a mix of world premieres and selections from earlier festivals such as Sundance (the James Foley movie “Jim,” the political tale “Weiner” and the double World-competition prizewinner “Sonita” among them this year). A few are cherry-picked from elsewhere, such as Robert Minervini’s formally ambitious “The Other Side,” about poor drug addicts in rural Louisiana, which debuted at Cannes.
The festival this year showed several movies that tinkered with the form, including “The Other Side” and Robert Greene’s experimental “Kate Plays Christine.”
It went for the longform, playing the acclaimed and topical “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero).”
And then there were the radical-immersion documentaries such as “The Pearl” and “Thy Father’s Chair,” two premieres that look at unusual subjects — a quartet of trans women in the rural Northwest and a pair of hoarder elderly brothers in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn.
Both movies follow a resurgent Maysles brothers-type approach of putting a camera close to a subject and simply letting the action play out, a 21st century reaction to the reality-TV ethos of interviews and cutaways.
The festival also has a program of “secret screenings"--essentially world premieres that serve as dress rehearsals for their filmmakers. No press or social media is allowed.
Film gatherings tend to get bigger as the years go on and more sponsors come aboard. Wilson and Sturtz say they hope to retain the quirky quality of True/False. Even with nearly 50,000 attendees--a jump of five times from a decade ago--it can still feel intimate. Many of the festgoers are local and engaged; it’s rare at nearly any other festival to find 1200 people turn out on a sunny Saturday afternoon to watch an experimental documentary.
And though it is expanding with other programs, True/False hopes to retain its handmade quality wth the help of specific efforts. Wilson said he is planning for the first time this summer a “Rough Cut Retreat” that will allow filmmakers who are near the end of the process to workshop their movie so they can take it the last mile.
It is part of the quirky but useful community-building, he said, that fits with the group’s mission.
“Being a documentary filmmaker can be really lonely. You feel isolated and uncertain,” Wilson said. “We hope True/False can make everyone feel a little less of that.”