Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

True/False: Interview with ‘Actress’ Filmmaker Robert Greene

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Film still from Actress, directed by Robert Greene.

The True/False documentary film festival, which kicks off next week, has become a beloved event for many in the doc community. With its tightly curated mix of small, indie docs and bigger well-known names, many of which just premiered at Sundance, the festival is less about the stress of business and showmanship and more about an opportunity to kick back and appreciate great and/or daring nonfiction. It’s hard to imagine a doc festival that takes place in Columbia, Missouri, to be a pressure cooker anyway, so it’s good to see that True/False organizers know how to keep with their sweet spot.

I’ll be going for the third time this year and I’ll be taking part in a panel on documentary journalism in the digital age at the University of Missouri’s Based on a True Story conference. If you’re going to the festival, please consider swinging by.

I am excited to see films from both aforementioned categories; on the well-known side, there are Sundance vets Happy Valley, about the Penn State abuse case, The Notorious Mr. Bout, about an arms dealer, and one on musician Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth. As for the unknown, there’s Life After Death, a ground-level look at Rwanda, Uncertain, a work-in-progress southern gothic essay, and a series of secret screenings that aren’t publicized because the films are formally debuting at other festivals.

And then there’s Actress, a documentary about a real-life actress whose life goes through some major changes when she lands a role on The Wire, by director Robert Greene, whom I’ve gotten to know a bit since we were on a panel together at Hot Docs, and through his rabid social media presence.

Every film festival has its darlings, those favorite filmmakers who become identified with the event. Venice has Darren Aronofsky, Tribeca has Eddie Burns. And, among others, True/False has Robert Greene. All three of his feature films have shown at the festival, and the fact that he isn’t a household name (yet) hasn’t stopped them from bringing him back. I figured he’d provide a good way of looking at the festival, so I asked him some questions and asked if it’s a good place to launch a film.

Actress premieres February 27 at 8 PM at the Ragtag Cinema. I’ve got my ticket. I just wish I’d talked to Greene before I worked out my schedule, because The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is now trending in my brain.

Doc Soup Man: This is your third film at T/F. How important has the festival been to you?

Robert Greene, director of Actress: Well I often say that I wasn’t even on Facebook or Twitter before first coming to True/False in 2010 (with my film Kati with an I) and that I joined those social networks (that now somewhat define me) after realizing that there was a real documentary community that I didn’t want to lose when the festival ended. But that still doesn’t scratch the surface of what True/False has meant to me. The inclusion of Kati (after so many other festivals passed) showed me that my pursuit of documentary filmmaking wasn’t completely foolish. The acceptance of Fake It So Real gave me hope that I could build a career. And the fact that I was invited back two times without films made me believe I was really a part of something. This year, there was very little doubt about where I wanted Actress to premiere (or where I thought Approaching the Elephant, Amanda Rose Wilder’s film that I produced and edited, or The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Jessica Oreck’s film that I helped edit, should be.)

Simply put: True/False has given me a chance to build my life and live my dreams, as cheesy and hyperbolic as that sounds.

Doc Soup Man: Why is Actress a good fit for True/False?

Robert Greene: While making Actress, ideas about the relationship between telling stories and capturing reality – a tension embedded right there in the name True/False – were constantly at the forefront of my mind. This is what Actress is about, on a formal level. So the festival was always my number one choice to launch the film and I was very excited when they accepted it.

The thing about True/False is that it’s a festival about ideas, which celebrates formal adventurousness and unorthodox filmmaking, but it also takes place in one of the nicest towns in America, full of smart, friendly Midwesterners that engage with the films on all levels. The mix of small town pleasantness and college town fun (as well as a very interesting ongoing dialogue the festival has with the prestigious journalism school at the local Missouri University) makes the T/F audience very unique and really fun to talk movies with.

Doc Soup Man: What do you think of the festival this year — outside of your film, what are you most excited about?

Robert Greene: It’s another great lineup. I think people will really be surprised by Approaching the Elephant. I have seen and adore The Overnighters, Manakamana and 20,000 Days on Earth. Life After Death is a completely unique view of Africa and Jessica Oreck’s film is probably a masterpiece. Of the things I haven’t seen, I’m very excited for Uncertain, Sacro GRA, Dusty Stacks of Mom, A Thousand Suns and many more. The inclusion of Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater) is an amazing programming victory and – oh my god – they’ve programmed some of the greatest Iranian films ever made. I’m excited. It’s like a candy store for nerds of cinematic nonfiction.

Doc Soup Man: Will there be any business happening at T/F for you? In other words, are there potential buyers?

Robert Greene: Yes, I think (or really hope) so. It’s obviously a gamble to premiere your film at True/False but I believe deeply in the festival and really think the people that need to see the film will be there. I have high hopes for both Actress and Approaching the Elephant. I’d like to show that T/F is a viable place to launch your film. Having said that, I cherish the lack of business-first vibe that you get at some “bigger” festivals. I trust the people that run the festival when they preach a “different” way to do business.

Doc Soup Man: What’s one thing, totally not about docs, that you like to do in Columbia–drink, eat, whatev…

Robert Greene: Well, I’ll have the star of my film, Brandy Burre, with me, so I’ll get to show her all the best things in Columbia – Booches burgers, Broadway Brewery, weird 3 AM dance parties in college kids’ basements, the March March, the Wednesday night skating party – everything.

True/False Film Fest will be taking place from February 27 to March 2 in Columbia, Missouri. See the full schedule and purchase tickets at truefalse.org.

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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