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Nothing But the Truth

Columbia's True/False Festival is the coolest four-year-old in Missouri.

The fourth annual True/False Film Festival takes place Thursday through Sunday, March 1 through 4, in Columbia. Following are previews of some of this year's most fascinating films. A complete schedule of films and events, plus venue and ticket information, can be found at www.truefalse.org. And be sure to check this section next week for a wrap-up of the festival.

Air Guitar Nation(Alexandra Lipsitz). Any film that kicks off with Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" has a leg up on the rest, and when you toss in a bunch of dudes lost in imaginary wailing, how can you go wrong? Quite easily, if you're not careful. But first-time director Alexandra Lipsitz strikes the perfect chord (pun totally intended), and what could have been a two-hour Yngwie solo instead becomes as unpredictable as a Coltrane run on the saxophone. Air Guitar Nationdocuments the rise of competitive air-guitar playing in America. In the inaugural New York City challenge, we meet the two heroes of the film: C-Diddy, a Korean-American with a love of wailing mid-'80s guitar solos; and Bjorn Turoque, a charismatic Keith Richards with an eye on the prize, who at one point declares, "Tight, long strums are what it's all about." Both chase glory from New York to LA and ultimately to northern Finland, where each year the international air guitar championships draw 5,000 hungry fans and dozens of soloists from around the world. Air Guitar Nation is textured, well-crafted — and hilarious. The film's chief asset is its subtlety. Lesser minds would have gone for cheap, easy laughs. But Lipsitz finds something Zen-like in the insanity, and reveals the players to be witty, intelligent souls who celebrate the art of air guitar as "something you can't commercialize because it's invisible." Screens at 10 p.m. Friday, March 2, at the Forrest Theater. Director Lipsitz attends.Randall Roberts

American Shopper (Tamas Bojtor and Sybil Dessau). This is a "documentary" about an idealistic insurance agent who is spending his savings to stage the first national aisling championship in Columbia, Missouri. What's aisling? It's a "sport" in which contestants have three minutes to gather a pre-determined list of grocery-store items while earning style points for self-expression. Sound too silly to be true? It is. The insurance agent is an actor, the National Aisling League a creation of the filmmakers. However, the Columbia residents who agree to take part in the championship — and the prize money they compete for — purport to be real. Whether the joke in this "hybrid" mockumentary is on them or on viewers who don't get the joke is debatable. (If the staged interactions between the insurance agent and various Schnucks officials don't clue you in, wait for the ridiculous scene involving a helicopter and missing shopping carts.) But the compelling stories of some of the aislers — especially Mike, a once-promising actor now rebuilding his life after being homeless — save the film from outright self-indulgence. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Missouri Theater. Co-directors Bojtor and Dessau, producer Katie Mustard and star Jonathan Sawyer attend.Ian Froeb

The Devil Came on Horseback (Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern). After the civil war in Sudan ended in 2004, ex-Marine captain Brian Steidle became a patrol leader to help monitor the ceasefire. But in the face of increasing unrest in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, he ended up volunteering there instead. What he saw and experienced in Darfur was horrifying: bodies burned alive, innocent children murdered, villages destroyed and wanton genocide and rape. Through letters Steidle sends to his sister, Gretchen, and video interviews and snapshots he shot there — most of which are graphic, stomach-turning and unspeakably sad — Horseback aims to be a voice for those who are forced into silence. Woven into this film is Steidle's own struggle to have his story told: Despite high-profile coverage from the New York Times, he has to constantly fight against press suppression, government indifference and skepticism. But no matter the challenges he faces, Steidle's determination to share his photographs with anyone who will look — and a burning need to tell the story of Darfur on behalf of those who suffer unbearable cruelty — is admirable and powerful. Screens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Missouri Theater. Directors Sundberg and Stern attend.Annie Zaleski

Freeheld(Cynthia Wade). Police Lieutenant Laurel Heste is dying of lung cancer. But officials in Ocean County, New Jersey, will not allow her pension to go to her domestic partner — even though state law permits same-sex couples such liberties. So begins director Cynthia Wade 's heart-wrenching documentary chronicling the devastating effects of both disease and discrimination. In this case, it's hard to discern which is worse. As Heste literally wastes away before the camera, county bureaucrats greet her appeals with blank stares and deafening silence. Heste is soon joined in her fight by the most unlikely of gay-rights activists: the macho, heterosexual cops with whom she once served. Even the governor rallies to her cause. But with Heste's days drawing to an end, county officials refuse to grant her death wish. Screens at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Forrest Theater. Director Wade attends. — Chad Garrison

Manufactured Landscapes(Jennifer Baichwal). Al Gore may have made bigger waves with his documentary exploring man's impact on the environment. But Gore and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky are in many ways kindred spirits. Burtynsky's inconvenient truth: For better or worse, man has forever changed the way we view the Earth. In Manufactured Landscapes, director Jennifer Baichwal follows Burtynsky to southeast Asia, where globalization is altering the scenery faster than any time in history. We see the endless horizon of Shanghai factories, where the world's raw materials arrive only to return as the countless consumables we rarely give any thought to. We travel to the beaches of Bangladesh to watch as outdated cargo ships are torn asunder for their component parts. We arrive at China's Three Gorges Dam, where an army of laborers appear like ants against the backdrop of one of the world's great construction sites. From these stark images, Burtynsky and Baichwal leave us to form our own conclusions about the environment. Their message may not be as cataclysmic as Al Gore's, but it's hard to leave this film without taking a critical look at man's impact on our ever-changing landscape. Screens at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at the Ragtag Theater. Cinematographer Peter Mettler attends. — Chad Garrison

Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa(Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulberg). Located in a forgotten, barren patch of the New Mexico desert, the Mesa is home to about 400 veterans, hippies and self-proclaimed outcasts who live in trailers and cobbled-together shelters. As the title says, Mesa dwellers live completely off the grid, with no electricity or running water; the ad-hoc community seems to subsist on a barter system of marijuana and fuel. The film chronicles the ups and downs of this kind of self-governing: The Mesa enjoys relative autonomy and a more visceral kind of freedom, but the tribe struggles to protect their way of life, particularly from a nearby group of anarchist vegans (who are considerably more threatening than your average vegans). The film touches on themes of patriotism and isolation from civilization, and much of the hour-long doc is spent looking at the circle of life and death as it spins itself out in this community. Screens at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 3, at the Forrest Theater. Co-directors Jeremy and Randy Stulberg attend.Christian Schaeffer

Row Hard No Excuses (Luke Wolbach) It's been called the hardest race in the world: one plywood canoe and two rowers traveling 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Rowers spend over $170,000 to enter the race, which carries the grand prize of a trophy. Just a trophy. The film is a mix of all the classic narratives: man versus himself, man versus God, and man versus another man (in this case, his teammate). Friendships are destroyed, marriages are tested, and innumerable blisters are popped throughout the voyage, which is as psychologically challenging as it is physically brutal. The focus of the film is on John Zeigler and Tom Mailhot, two of the older participants, who appear to enter the race to gain the elusive respect of their fathers. Several boats record video diary-like entries of the race, with plenty of Blair Witch-like close-ups and nausea-inducing POVs of life on the sea. It will either make you want to put on a life vest and grab a paddle — or stay in the land-locked Midwest. Screens at 10 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at the Ragtag Theater. Director Wolbach attends. — Christian Schaeffer

Super Amigos(Arturo Perez Torres). The Mexico City portrayed in Super Amigos has open-air dumps and thousands of homeless children. Homophobia is so severe that a gay couple walking home from a bar is liable to be beaten to death. But into this mess stride five Mexican wrestlers wearing masks, leggings and capes, the outfit of the sport known as Lucha Libre, or Free Wrestling. These men care less about what happens in the ring and more about what happens outside it: they are determined to change the world. Ecologista Universal, with his sparkly green cape, walks the country protesting deforestation and nuclear power plants. Super Gay, who has a rainbow on his mask, challenges homophobia. Fray Tormenta, the inspiration for the Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre, is a priest who uses his Lucha Libre winnings to run an orphanage. Super Amigosportrays these men as the real-life equivalent of comic-book superheroes. They are never shown without their masks, for example, and animated sequences tie together certain sections. But these fighters, with their gray ponytails and bulging bellies, are undoubtedly real. Their feats may be on a smaller scale than, say, Superman's, but they come across as no less important. Screens at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at the Forrest Theater. Director Torres attends.Molly Langmuir

The Third Monday in October(Vanessa Roth). The shadow of the 2004 presidential election looms over the four real-life middle-school elections documented in this touching (and at times heartbreaking) film. By focusing on a diverse cross-section of schools in different locations — from a poorer urban school in San Francisco to an Episcopal school in Austin, Texas — and not sugar-coating campaign mishaps (candidate squabbles, poster vandalism), Roth successfully shows the universal nature of adolescence. And like the spelling-bee doc Spellbound , what makes Octoberso memorable is its charming candidates and their strong, sincere personalities. There's the precocious, articulate, political-fanatic Sam Brothers; a staunch, outspoken Republican named William Zolezzi; earnest Mick Del Rosario, who wants to improve his school; doe-eyed Katie Kane, who wishes to earn votes based on her qualifications, not just her looks; Kayla Bacon, who refuses to back down from her faith when called out for using a Bible verse on her poster; and Sam Arabian, whose campaign is modeled after and inspired by Superman. Screens at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Blue Note. Director Roth attends. — Annie Zaleski

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