Bowling for Columbia

An upstart film festival in Tiger Town is generating big buzz

Feb 11, 2004 at 4:00 am
Scottish film director Kevin Macdonald once gripped the cold, gold figure of Oscar, tangible recognition for his Academy Award-winning One Day in September, a riveting, Michael Douglas-narrated documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

And yet, his appearance at a small, first-year boutique film festival in Columbia, Missouri, this weekend might well mark the pinnacle of his career to date.

Macdonald's latest film, Touching the Void, the harrowing true story of two mountain climbers who face life-threatening struggles in the Peruvian Andes, screens February 13 at the inaugural True/False Film Festival's opening-night gala in the regal 1,200-seat Missouri Theatre.

"We told Kevin we'd get 1,000 people to his screening," explains 29-year-old festival co-founder David Wilson, who grew up in Columbia. "And he said, 'I've never had 1,000 people at one of my movies.'"

"The organizers told me what films they wanted to get, and they were films I wanted to see," Macdonald says by phone from overseas, ticking off a list of reasons for his upcoming visit to Mizzou-land. "And two, because unlike most documentary festivals, they were willing to pay my ticket. And three, because I'd never been to Missouri -- and because it sounded exciting to screen the film before 1,200 people."

So, for the payoffs of scale and heartland curiosity (and, well, airfare), Macdonald signed up and thereby bestowed instant cachet upon the brainchild of Wilson and 39-year-old co-founder Paul Sturtz. The roster of films and speakers they've managed to secure for the President's Day weekend event has observers and participants anointing True/False a "destination festival," even before its first reel has been cued.

The True/False lineup includes Errol Morris' Oscar-nominated The Fog of War (see page 40 for a full review); festival-circuit darling The Lost Boys of Sudan; director Sarah (American Movie) Price's corporate prankster chronicle The Yes Men; the latest from Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (the pair behind Sundance favorite Brother's Keeper), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; and, to top it all off, a gonzo historical bus tour of Columbia conducted by iconic Manhattan Gray Line guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch (The Cruise, Waking Life).

"I don't know how they did it," Macdonald marvels.

For one thing, there is the Columbia pair's track record: For the past six years, Wilson and Sturtz (the latter a former journalist) have sponsored Ragtag Cinema, an eclectic downtown film series that blends critically acclaimed indie films, obscure documentaries and classics. Ragtag's selections play to often-packed houses in Columbia, giving Wilson and Sturtz the fiscal backbone necessary to attract sponsors for their True/False dreamchild.

Add it up: Experience, money and a niche focus that just so happens to be riding the crest of a cinematic vanguard are a potent mix -- especially when combined with a double dose of determination. And it appears to have won over United Artists, a big-name independent distributor that green-lighted the closing-night involvement of Milwaukee-based director Sarah Price and The Yes Men, which chronicles the exploits of a couple of anti-corporate pranksters as they impersonate the World Trade Organization on television and at business conferences around the world.

"UA had turned down most all festivals, but David [Wilson] was really persistent and nice, and it seemed to make sense thematically, so we all decided it was okay," recounts Price, whose American Movie, a wickedly funny feature about a floundering but charismatic Wisconsin producer of horror movies, has achieved cult-classic status in the documentary film community. "It seems like a great beginning. From the get-go, you need to establish a bar of quality. You kind of have to have a vision to do that."

Wilson credits the down-to-earth nature of documentarians. "Documentary filmmakers are easier to deal with than big movie stars," he says, then confides that Hollywood powerhouse Creative Artists Agency "laughed at me" when he extended an invitation to Spike (Being John Malkovich) Jonze.

Chris Clark, managing and artistic director for the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), is so keen on True/False that he feels the fest, unlike his own, could soon be mentioned in the same internationally recognized breath as Telluride, if not Sundance. If successful, Sturtz and Wilson may well generate more cinematic heat in one weekend than SLIFF has in the totality of its thirteen years -- which doesn't bother Clark one bit.

"True/False is almost ahead of its time in a way," Clark offers. "The documentary has never been this popular -- ever. I hope it catches on, and if it does, absolutely, I'll steal their ideas. There's no competition whatsoever. We're not a destination festival," he says of SLIFF. "We cater mostly to people who live here."

For the most part, the local focus has not inhibited Clark and his staff creatively; SLIFF, which skews toward foreign offerings, is generally regarded as an event that boasts some of the most innovative programming of any major metropolitan festival. But SLIFF is hardly a unique cinematic animal. Most good-size cities have a festival these days.

"It's very hard to compare Milwaukee and St. Louis to Seattle or Chicago. I think they're wonderful cities, but if we set ourselves up to be the next Toronto, we're in for a disappointment," says Dave Luhrssen, executive director of the Milwaukee International Film Festival, which drew 13,000 attendees last year in its inaugural incarnation. Seattle's annual fest boasts an attendance figure of 160,000, while SLIFF reached 18,500 in 2003.

"If you try and do a big general festival that tries to do everything, there are so many of those already that to get yourself noticed and to get distributors to allow you to show a film is incredibly difficult," says Macdonald. "But if you start up in a part of the country where there isn't such a thing as a documentary or animation festival, you can stand out from the crowd."

Adds Clark: "There are precious few documentary film festivals of import."

Hype, though, is nothing more than hot air until the closing credits have rolled, as a cautiously pessimistic Luhrssen is quick to remind.

"I think it's kind of an illusion to assume that tens of thousands of college students are going to line up to see non-Hollywood movies," cautions the Milwaukee film maven.

Which re-raises the question: Is bigger and broader better? While Macdonald doesn't think so, Fog of War editor Karen Schmeer, who'll make the trip to Columbia with her film, offers a split perspective.

"It's probably nicer for [the audience] to have it more centered," says Schmeer, addressing the question of whether the small-city/niche-focus combination is an effective one. And, she concedes, it may be savvy from a business standpoint. "But I don't find them quite as fun to go to, because the variety isn't there. Also, it's kind of nice to have things to do besides see movies. Like Sundance -- it's so focused on Main Street, you don't feel like you're in the real world at all."

Then again, one might argue that the whole point of cinema is to escape, if only for two hours, the rigors of everyday life -- unless, of course, you're watching a documentary.