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Why True/False 2013 Rocked (And Why True/False Always Rocks)

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A musician performs before a screening at True/False Film Fest 2013.

The 2013 True/False Film Fest just wrapped and, once again, the phrases “this is my favorite festival,” and “I love this festival more than any other” with a complementing starry-eyed look, were heard and seen over and over again during a great weekend.

When I first arrived, True/False newbie Martha Shane (After Tiller) asked me why everyone loves it so much, and whether there’s a drug everyone’s prescribed upon arrival. I didn’t give Martha an adequate answer, so what follows is my attempt to do so.

But before I do, even though I’m a huge fan, I have to admit the perfection bubble was burst for me for this second visit. No one is perfect, of course, least of all film festivals. But I feel compelled to mention that I saw a couple films that disappointed, including one that was plain awful, and I heard a couple bands that made me want to drown in a vat of Schlafly beer, including one that I had to suffer through twice. But, hey, you can’t wow everyone all of the time, so let’s get to the good stuff (in no particular order):

The wide variety of theaters, each with its own character, is fantastic. They’ve got churches that have been converted (how cool is that?), a couch-ridden Rag Tag, the classy Missouri Theatre, the rakishly boozy Blue Note, and the awesomely large (seating well more than a thousand) Jesse Auditorium.

Before every screening, there are musicians who rock, folk and synth out. Some are great, and all have character as they redefine the space as part-party, part-art space. My favorite band from last year, and this one, is Toughcats from Maine.

The selection of films, by heads Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, is fantastic. They manage to get the right audience-friendly films that play well in the large venues and satisfy local (and non-local) fans of the form. This year, I’d count Blackfish, Cutie and the Boxer, Stories We Tell, and I Am Breathing, in that category. And then they also pick the more fringe films, the harder-news ones and the aesthetically challenging docs that, as one filmmaker commented to me, make the audience lean in more. I’d count These Birds Walk, Leviathan and Secret Screening Green (which press aren’t allowed to discuss in detail because the film will be officially premiering elsewhere).

Buskers are a big part of Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Fest.

Number of Films / Number of Screenings
With about 40 films, most of which are shown three times, there is a perfect balance of not having too many films so that audiences do not feel too overwhelmed, but still awash in bounty. (I saw 13 films and really wish I could have caught After Tiller and The Captain and His Pirate.)

The Filmmakers’ Glow
At screenings, on streets, at the bar, documentary directors shine with a happy glow that, as it turns out, hasn’t been killed by all that grant writing, crowd-sourcing and long nights in the editing room. Hell, they’re so happy to be here, they say crazy stuff at Q&A’s like they don’t care if they get distribution, or they stumble on stage, noticeably drunk. Party on!

Everyone Is So Nice
OK, so this is a tough one for me. As a native New Yorker, it does get grating on me that not only is it true but that everyone always says it’s true. But, well, I actually find myself smiling and talking with strangers in ways I never do back East, so I’m going to say it, too.

Irreverent Play
Between the wacky “March March” that is Mardi Gras-meets-Portlandia and the Gimme Truth game show (in which contestants guess if clips are fiction or nonfiction), and busker-fueled parties and lots and lots of drinking, folks are here to have fun without ‘tude.

No Fest B.S.
Look, the guys behind True/False must care deeply about protecting the integrity of their festival and seeing it succeed, but they do so without catering to the industry or turning into fest Nazis. There are no press/industry screenings and Paul and David are so accessible that they give out their cell numbers to the press en masse. They even let the curators from other festivals/institutions, like Rooftop Films and Lincoln Center, introduce films. How’s that for not being precious about your own brand?

It’s in the Midwest
We people on the coasts are so self-involved, I think we shock ourselves that we’re all wiling to go to Missouri for work. What, that’s for auto parts salesmen (I write this, sitting on my flight home, next to three such men) and beer distributors. But, no, it’s also for media-types. Bravo, True/False, your changing hearts and minds, one visitor at a time.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
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  • Tefa

    True/False was definitely the highlight of my year (I know it was only March, but that’s how awesome it was)! I drove down from Chicago to volunteer, and it was definitely worth the most boring drive I have ever taken.

    I agree with Tom, the film selection was amazing. Also the quirky way of buying tickets (anyone who was there will remember the Q Queens), the soundtrack provided by buskers, and the chance to find yourself sitting next to a director at the Uprise bar all make this festival an unforgettable experience. There is no pretension in Columbia on True/False weekend.

    I’m from the midwest, and I was still blown away by the kindness and hospitality shown to me that weekend. A couchsurfer and festival employee put me up in her house for 5 day, for free! She actually handed me her keys 10 minutes after meeting her and left me to it. I had many long conversations with people I had just met who wanted to tell me all about the Columbia’s gems. I went down there knowing nobody and never felt alone the entire time.

    On a final note, my presence at the festival was heavily documented in print, radio, and film. I think it might have to do with the J-school? I was interviewed 3 times. Once for a NPR piece, once for Vox, and a third time for a student’s spec tv piece. I’m Columbia famous now!