True/False Film Fest is back: all the bumpers and buskers, panels and parties, field sessions, and filmmaker fêtes.
And, ah yes — the films. The nation’s premiere nonfiction film festival, True/False — now celebrating its 20th anniversary — has documentary aficionados flocking to Columbia, Missouri, each March for the latest innovative and thought-provoking docs and the spirited traditions that have made the festival famous.
Held from March 2 to 5 in a variety of downtown Columbia venues, this year’s fest will feature 33 new feature films and 25 short films, including eight world and seven North American premieres among the feature-length docs. Roughly 85 percent of the films’ directors and other guests will be on hand for post-film Q&As and other panel discussions.
It's a lot to take in, so we’ve highlighted some of our favorite aspects of the fest below.
Four days and nights sitting in dim theater spaces watching dozens of hours of nonfiction films that often deal with serious, sometimes harrowing, subject matters might sound like a sober, emotionally exhausting way to spend a long weekend.
Yet True/False is a decidedly festive affair, filled with active revelry, including concerts, parades, game shows, libation-friendly happy hours, dance parties and campfire storytelling sessions. And all the festival events are within walking distance of each other.
Chloé Trayner, artistic director of the Ragtag Film Society, which produces True/False, says the festival’s trademark balance of serious subjects and joyful merrymaking makes sense.
“Life is a spectrum, and it's about enjoying both ends of those emotions,” Trayner says. “We try to create a space where there is a balance of joy and fun that surrounds these sometimes-heavier films.”
True/False Director of Development & Sponsorship Stacie Pottinger adds: “You walk out of an emotionally exhausting film and are embraced by the community at a parade or a music event. So you experience all these big highs and lows and everything in between.”
True/False incorporates a unique theme each year, which informs the festival's films and art designs. This year’s is “This is a Test.” It is a broad concept, but Festival Co-Custodian Barbie Banks says it’s one that fits the challenge of engaging with a range of filmgoers.
“This festival means so much to so many different people,” Banks says. “We have to speak to an international audience and to real cinephiles and to people who just want to participate in the pop culture side of a film festival. That is the test we give our curation team every year, and this year they have really done it.”
While True/False strives to present cutting-edge and experimental docs, fest programmers also want to present plenty of crowd-pleasing films. The idea is to make the festival accessible to as many people as possible while “still pushing the form of documentary filmmaking,” Trayner says.
Banks points out that there has been an explosion in documentary filmmaking during True/False’s existence, so the festival has had to adapt accordingly.
Additionally, the way the public views documentaries has changed. Twenty years ago, True/False had to convince people the films were entertainment. But “now there’s a new documentary every week on Netflix,” Banks says.
As a result, the T/F screening committee watched more than 1,200 films this year as part of its selection process.
“The film industry is finding its peak again [after the setbacks of COVID-19],” Trayner says. “This year’s films are very mobile, very international. There are not as many of the internal types of films that people had to revert to during the lockdowns. It feels more like a return to form.”
Musically, the festival strives to push boundaries. Music curator Ashwini Mantrala says that this year’s buskers and showcase musicians also connect to the theme.
“We have an emphasis on electronic and improvisational music, as well as some low-key rock & roll and folk projects that have been directly influenced by the pandemic and how folks have had to reorient their creative approaches,” Mantrala says.
Among the notable musical acts are buzzy indie-Americana band Good Looks, who will headline a showcase at Rose Music Hall; Seattle futurist rapper Stas THEE Boss, who will perform at Cafe Berlin; and internationally known singer/producer Jessy Lanza, who is set to DJ a late-night dance party at the Blue Note.
“The folks who come to True/False have an expansive and adventurous-enough palette that they will take a flyer on music they may not even know,” Mantala says. “[We’ll have] some acts they wouldn't normally be able to see in this area, that don’t operate anywhere except the coasts or Europe.”
This year’s visual representations of the theme include 17 art installations, four exhibits and two artists-in-residence.
Niki Dionne will be presenting fiber workshops at Orr Street Studios, where participants will learn how to needle felt and will contribute to a large community mural.
‘Trial and Error,” curated by photographer Rebecca Allen, spotlights True/False photographers over the past 1o years. Each has selected what they feel are their best shots of the festival to include.
Elsewhere, Mami Takahashi, a multidisciplinary artist from Tokyo, will incorporate photography, installation and urban intervention into performance art.
“She camouflages herself in a mirrored dome and interacts with the public,” art installations curator Sarah Nguyen says. “It creates this awareness of being invisible and being extremely visible, echoing her own experiences as an Asian woman living outside of her home country.”
This year, True/False also introduces a new artist support program. The Confluence Fellowship selected four Midwest-based nonfiction filmmakers who are in development on their first feature-length nonfiction film. These directors will participate in this year’s True/False, receive creative support throughout the year and meet with other industry professionals. In this way, the festival hopes to build for the future by connecting area directors with the wider film community.
According to Trayner, community is at the heart of the fest. “Columbia really comes out and comes to life for True/False. We couldn’t exist without our local community,” she says. “We love to have all of these people come into town for these four days and talk about films and music and art. That element of community is really where the joy of True/False comes from.”
True/False takes place in venues throughout downtown Columbia, Missouri, from Thursday, March 2, to Sunday, March 5. Showtimes vary. Tickets for individual screenings are $15. Passes for individuals begin at $50 and run to $995. More information at truefalse.org.
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