Few film festivals can leave you with more in the tank than when you first arrived, but the 2012 True/False documentary film festival which took place last weekend, is clearly the exception.

I had heard so much about this quirky festival run out the college town of Columbia, Missouri, and it truly delivered. I left it inspired and energized.

I didn’t see a single bad film, which is quite an unusual feat. And I was repeatedly moved to tears by profound subjects and top-notch storytelling. This documentary festival actually feels more like a film festival because the documentaries that they include are so diverse.

One gets a true sense of how broad the documentary form is, from hybrid films that use recreations and is-it-real? techniques to straight-up cinéma vérité.

But perhaps Detropia co-director Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware said it best when she crooned how she was having more fun at True/False, thanks to the “March March” robot parade, than she had had at Sundance, where her film premiered. Indeed, there is a premium placed on fun.

The festival’s unique flavor comes down to it being, I think, an extension of the personalities of the founders, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson. I bet if you opened up their brains, you’d see Robin Hood wearing a top hat, playing an accordion in a projector room.

This might be a little inside baseball, but I was in awe at how there was a total absence of publicists. And yet, still, directors showed up at the screenings, and I completed all of my interviews, without a single flack. At other festivals, this would be unthinkable. And where are the sectioned off seating areas for very important people? Usually, there are giant swaths of seating off-limits, reminding everyone that very cool, more important people than they are, will be coming. Not here.

And giving the films a run for audience attention were the zillions of musicians who busk before each screening. My favorite group was the bluegrass band, Toughcats, who came down from Maine. Les Trois Coups is also worth mentioning. It’s an incredibly energetic, talented French group that Sturtz stumbled upon in Paris, and managed to bring over for their first gig in the United States.

Les Trois Coups performing at the Jubilee at Missouri Theatre (photo via truefalse.org)

Of course, above all, was the very well-curated list of films. Who needs to go to Sundance when True/False brings the best docs from there, and then mixes in a bunch of other ones to boot?

Here are my favorite films that I saw. I should note that there’s a system of secret screenings at the festival — so there are three films that I’m not allowed to write about because they are officially premiering at other festivals.

How to Survive a Plague
David France’s film about Act-Up, the AIDS activist group that fought the epidemic and the government’s slow response, is more than a necessary history lesson. It’s expertly shot and edited. France got access to great footage, none better than an Act-Up meeting in which playwright Larry Kramer gives one of the most impassioned, dramatic speeches I’ve ever seen on film. I recommend all actors study it to observe how one man can make the world stand still with the spoken word. My heart stopped.

The Imposter
It’s hard to admit I love this film, because, in a way, I hate it. This story of a Texas boy who disappears, and then is apparently discovered in Spain, is a prime example of the hybrid documentary. There are reenactments that make it feel like an A&E special. (And, indeed, the film was produced with A&E money.) And there are apparently real people who talk to the camera as real people, but they may be lying to our faces, for all we know. What I love about this is that I was constantly on edge. The film is incredibly engaging. The fact that it got under my skin, sometimes in an annoying way, speaks to its power.

Forget all the talk about the MPAA rating (an R, which would prevent it from being shown in schools), and let’s focus on the film, a heartbreaking depiction of  families that have been tormented by bullying. Director Lee Hirsch gets in there, with the kids, the schools, the families and, most importantly, in the school busses where so much bullying goes down. I don’t know how Hirsch got the permissions, but he actually shows kids getting bullied. And he shows a principal who mishandles a victim that made me want to shout at the screen. Well shot and well told, with articulate, compelling characters, this isn’t a dry, advocacy film. There shouldn’t be a question of whether this film will get an R. The discussion should be how to make it mandatory viewing for all American children from 10 to 18. I’m serious.

Searching for Sugar Man
There’s something uneven about this film that tells of 70s folk singer Rodriguez, who apparently disappeared. Constructed as a thriller in search of the missing musician, the film can feel manipulative. I sensed the director guiding me, which is never a good thing. Happily, though, the path he takes us on is through a remarkable story of how a great singer with promise could fall off the tracks to fame, but then come back, if just a little. Great music, a tragic hero and a comeback story — no wonder there was a long, standing ovation for director Malik Bendjelloul.

Why would a festival show a film that’s already been released to theaters? Maybe because it’s so good that the organizers just wanted people to see it. (The fact that one of the directors, Dan Lindsay, went to the University of Missouri, was probably another factor.) This documentary, which had just won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the week before, has its detractors. Undefeated is slick, and it’s directed by two good-looking young guns, TJ Martin and Lindsay, whose previous film was about beer pong. These guys haven’t earned their stripes, but don’t hate them, or their film, for it. (They’re actually very nice, and humble. And they are the first to say how fortunate they are.) Just go see how a small school football team and its coach can open up a world of emotion, from heartbreak and frustration to hope and love.

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  • Doc film buff

    My list from the most thought provoking and emotional viewing weekend in a long long time.  I know, I know that T/F is not about competition, but you gotta rank what you like somehow.  I’m with you that I did not see a bad film, but for my tastes the list went like this – and there are definitely a couple I missed – Plague being one of them – that I will get to see.  100% agree on the mandatory viewing of Bully and have been telling everyone I know the same thing.

    1 SS Blue
    2 Undefeated
    3 Comic-Con Episode IV
    4 Queen of Versailles
    5 Bully
    6 Only the Young
    7 Low and Clear
    8 Imposter
    9 Me at the zoo
    10 Ambassador
    11 Gypsy Davy
    12 SS Orange
    13 VHS
    14 SS Gold

  • Frankiem77

    My list is the same as yours w/ the substitution of Vivan Las Antipodas in place of The Imposter (which I sadly didn’t see). What I love about this festival is that I go to express my gratitude in person to 3 of the directors through casual interactions at restaurants during the festival and tweet with one of the others. Thanks for promoting this gem we love (I’m a local Columbian). The utter lack of pretentiousness (e.g. no VIP seating…I sat by complete accident next to Malik in the 15th row for Sugarman) and pure love of the film is what I enjoy. I hope we never lose that.

  • True/False Veteran

    I’m the outlier here regarding “Bully”: too unfocused, too many people profiled, too little depth in terms of policy.  Yes, powerful scenes, particularly with the “second” couple from a ranch in rural OK but they weren’t subjected to much study.  A mile wide and an inch deep in terms of content.

  • http://twitter.com/detroitjetaime detroitjetaime

    Vivan las Antipodas was screened? Wow, amazing! Just discovered this festival, thanks for sharing that, planning to attend next year!

  • http://twitter.com/DocSoupMan Tom Roston

    Thanks for the comments all. This reminds me I should have mentioned the two films I most regret missing. Indeed, as you say, there’s a lot of talk about Antipodas (although I know one person who didn’t like it so much). The other one is 1/2 Revolution, about the Arab Spring in Egypt. Someone told me it was like Cloverfield. Ah, man! I wish I was there.

  • Sarah CD

    Tom, thanks so much for the good press.  So glad you enjoyed our festival!  In reference to this:   “Usually, there are giant swaths of seating off-limits, reminding
    everyone that very cool, more important people than they are, will be
    coming.”– Welcome to the Midwest, where that sort of holier-than-thou attitude is highly discouraged.  I’d say the quickest way to piss off a local would be to look down your nose at her!

  • Gary Marx

    Great review of the festival, Tom. I saw 8 full-length docs and almost 20 shorts, and I loved most of them. But one that gave me fits was “1/2 Revolution.” I think it did a good job of putting the audience in the middle of an urban uprising, but it failed disastrously when it tried to make a broader statement. Too many sweeping indictments without evidence or political/historical context. The film was beating the drum of a one-sided argument, but it consistently undermined that argument by giving false testimony (at one point, a demonstrator holds up a spent plastic shell as evidence that the police were using 9mm guns on the crowd) without qualifying comment or explanation. The film painted with very broad brushstrokes — the demonstrators (and the first-person film makers) were “fighting for freedom” and the counter-demonstrators (the numerous Mubarek supporters) were dismissed simply as “thugs” and “motherfuckers.” The hand of the editor was heavy and obvious throughout the film, and it got to the point where I didn’t believe any of the cuts or the chronology. It eventually lost all credibility. This film festival is called True/False, and this film definitely does not fall on the True side. In a panel discussion on Saturday morning, the director, Karim el Hakim, said  “journalism is a corpse,” it is dead, and he spoke about the virtues of manipulating the audience during the editing process. “If they (the audience) buy in at the beginning, they will follow you down the rabbit hole,” he said. Perhaps he was talking about shaping a point of view, or pointing the audience in a certain direction, but he used the term “manipulation,” and his film made me feel manipulated in the worst way. His indictment of journalism is misguided, and his ideas about editing facts and footage into fiction and shaping stories and public opinion are truly frightening.  This film, he would agree, is not journalism. I might be citizen journalism at its worst, perhaps, but it is not journalism. The sad thing is that I probably agree with El Hakim’s politics. It is equally sad that his film gets any air time. This film is propaganda, the tool of despots, the same type of despot El Hakim presumably wishes to overthrow.     

  • Will

    T/F 2011 was my 6th year (I missed 2009, 2010 because I was out “finding myself”) and the best year yet.  The docs were great but they have always been great.  For me, the festival is getting better because more people are attending, the organization is improving every year and the music is improving every year.  Pearl and the Beard blew me away before Comic-Con Episode IV which was a great film.  Can’t wait for next year, this festival is one the highlights for my year.  My top three for the festival:

    Marina Abromovic: The Artists is Present

    The Ambassador 

    Me at the  Zoo

    Great article.

  • Mackenzie

    Great review. True/False Film Fest was a really big hit with the Millennial generation, read our blog about why here: http://yayaconnection.com/2012/columbiastruefalsefilmfestenticesthemillennialgeneration/

  • Willem Tijssen

    explains why THE AMBASSADOR is not a documentary nor a mockumentary, and reveals
    the inconvenient truth behind the story about what was left out.

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