March 9, 2011 by abbyo
Last week, I spent four days volunteering at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. True/False is a documentary film festival that’s been around for eight years now, and it’s rapidly becoming known as a very special place for directors to bring their films. Because of True/False’s small-town location, and a support base that consists largely of local businesses and donors, the festival has a laid-back atmosphere, and an audience that consists largely of laypeople. It’s an opportunity for filmmakers to present their work to the everyday folks who make up their intended audience, and to get their honest feedback. There are also plenty of concerts and special events tied in to the festival, making the overall experience the equivalent of a four-day party. This was my first year attending True/False, and I was completely impressed by how easy it was to watch movies, meet filmmakers and hobnob with audience members. I’ve already decided that I’ll be returning next year.
The films at this year’s festival were a diverse group, including both high-profile titles that will get a bigger release later this year, and lesser-known but still exciting debuts. I had some surprising experiences both in and out of the screenings. Here are a few highlights from what I saw:
“Project Nim” is the latest release from James Marsh, who won an Academy Award two years ago for the excellent documentary “Man on Wire.” “Nim” tells the story of the titular character, a chimpanzee taken from his mother and raised by humans as a language and behavior experiment. It’s a bittersweet story—Nim, as with other chimpanzee experiment subjects, had to be put in captivity at a research facility at age 5, after his natural behavior started causing problems. The rest of the documentary follows what happened after that initial move, as well as the lives of the scientists who worked to ensure his well-being. It’s a solid film, perhaps not as entertaining or stirring as “Man on Wire,” but still an artfully done piece of work that tells a fascinating story. It’s being released by HBO Documentary Films, so look for it later this year.
This creative documentary was a festival favorite for a lot of people. Director Clio Barnard’s film is about playwright Andrea Dunbar, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Yorkshire, wrote two highly acclaimed plays, and died very young, leaving behind three children from three different fathers. Barnard tells this story through a series of audio interviews lip-synched by actors, mixed together with re-enacted scenes from Dunbar’s debut play, “The Arbor.”
This allows for some interesting interpretations of Barnard’s interviews and the interviewees, creating subtle staging that adds an unexpected amount of twists and dramatic heft to the proceedings. It’s not a perfect movie—the last half drags on longer than necessary, and the staged scenes from the play are inconsistently placed—but it’s an interesting experiment that obviously had a lot of thought put into it. Dunbar’s work isn’t well known in the states, but this movie made me want to find out more about her.
Extra feature: BBC Radio’s Mark Kermode talks about “The Arbor”
An engaging character study about the nature of faith and its interpretations. “Subway Preacher” is a shorter doc that lets audiences into the life of Brian (I know, I know), a charismatic man of God who preaches the gospel in the New York City subway with his partner in ministry, Shawn, and Brian’s wife Rose. Brian and Rose are living on his brother’s couch, since Brian is broke from quitting his doorman job in service of his preaching.
Brian becomes enamored of a Columbia grad student, Kaitlin, and grows increasingly frustrated with Rose, who in turn is frustrated with the lifestyle Brian has created for them. Brian and Shawn are indicative of most subway preachers: loud obnoxious nutjobs with bibles who, at the end of the day, don’t really end up converting anyone. “Subway Preacher” provides an interesting look into the lifestyle and personal beliefs of this character, allowing us to understand him in a way we’d never get to otherwise.
This shorter documentary was my favorite of the festival. Its gritty subject and straightforward approach caused the festival promoters to describe it as “the documentary Harmony Korine wishes he’d made,” but it goes deeper than that. Korine’s movies are exploitative, nasty and disrespectful. Andris Gauja’s film may not be pleasant, but I don’t see it as exploitative or disrespectful at all. The film is about a year in the life of Zanda, a woman who’s had two children by her brother, Valdis, who’s in jail for abusing them. It’s a shocking, no-holds-barred, and strangely entertaining movie about a class of people who often go ignored by society. I’ve written a full review of the movie for Scene-Stealers, and will post the link here when it’s up.
A few eyebrows were raised by festival-goers when they discovered that this Norwegian movie wasn’t actually a documentary, but it served as a nice palate-cleanser after the rest of True/False’s heavy, heady entries. “Troll Hunter” is, in fact, a fictional movie told in a documentary style, part of the faux-found footage trend inspired by “The Blair Witch Project.” Three Norwegian film students set out to do a Michael-Moore style film about a poacher who’s been killing bears. But when they tail the man they suspect on a midnight hunt, they discover that he’s not what they thought he was. He is, in fact, a troll hunter hired by the government to exterminate trolls who have been terrorizing local livestock. It’s a really fun, whimsical film, and the special effects are creative and impressive. It’s been making the festival rounds since last year, but will be distributed by Magnet, so it’s guaranteed a theatrical release.
So, that was my True/False experience last week! Some of these movies and directors may show up in longer “Non-Fiction Section” reviews, so keep an eye out. Overall, I had a wonderful time, and came out with some new experiences, new friends and a bunch of good stories. I’m counting down the days until the next festival.