Documentaries

We’re enormous fans of documentary film here at Toronto Screen Shots. In fact, this very blog grew out of the many reviews we were writing for the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Our coverage now extends well beyond Hot Docs to include documentaries in other festivals, on DVD, on television and even films in development.

True/False Film Festival 2014

I’ve just returned from Columbia, Missouri, the home of one of the most unique film festivals in the world. The 11th edition of the True/False Film Festival took place from Thursday February 27th through Sunday March 2nd. Though the fest is dedicated to “nonfiction” cinema, its selections have often been at the vanguard of new movements in documentary and so attract a lot of attention from audiences and critics who may not consider themselves fans of what’s traditionally been considered documentary film. That’s just a long and awkward way of saying that True/False picks really great films that break out of confining categories and connect with audiences.

Columbia is a college town, the home of the University of Missouri (affectionately referred to as “Mizzou”). It has around 100,000 inhabitants and could be considered an artistic and intellectual hub of the region. Nevertheless, I still found it mighty impressive the amount of local support the festival has attained in just a decade. More than support; outright love. The festival succeeds not just with its film programming, but by involving every artistic community in the region (and beyond!). Gorgeously designed posters, program guide, and festival badges, one-of-a-kind sculptures and exhibits created just for the festival, an actual parade (the cleverly named “March March”), buskers performing before every screening, and much, much more. True/False is a celebration of creativity and its sense of whimsy draws a lot of people into its orbit who previously might have been uninterested in anything as stuffy as “documentary film.” It does a great job of “evangelizing” for a certain kind of filmmaking and exhibition and community engagement that is close to my own heart. I loved the films I saw, but more than that, I found inspiration in the way that they were curated and presented to the community. I learned a lot.

Here is Les Trois Coups, a group of musicians that T/F “co-conspirator” Paul Sturtz discovered playing on the streets of Paris and determined to bring to Columbia. They were a hit everywhere they went.

Les Trois Coups

And here are a few notes on the films I saw. I’ll rank them in order of most-enjoyed to least, although everything I saw was thought-provoking in some way. The “secret screening” cannot be named but I’ll link to the text the festival used to describe it without giving the title away:

  • Actress (Dir: Robert Greene) – What happens when you put an actor into a documentary about her own life? Magic, that’s what. Layered and compassionate.
  • Rich Hill (Dir: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) – This portrait of three teen boys from a small Missouri town achieves something universal even while telling the kind of story that doesn’t make it to the big screen often, at least without preachiness or pity. Humanist storytelling meets perceptive cinematography, finding thousands of moments of beauty in a difficult landscape.
  • Secret Screening Amber (Dir: ?) – this portrait of two alcoholic friends is tough, intimate and doesn’t pass judgement. It is patient and open-hearted, showing the audience that even the most ordinary lives contain drama, comedy, pain and love. Fantastic storytelling.
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (Dir: Frank Pavich) – Alejandro Jodorowsky is a force of nature, and his immense charisma puts this film on its back and carries it through a pretty heartbreaking tale of artistic failure. You’ll laugh a lot, though, and wonder “what if?”
  • Tim’s Vermeer (Dir: Teller) – Another crowd-pleaser carried by its eccentric subject, software millionaire Tim Jenison, who has enough free time and money to try figuring out the secret behind the paintings of Vermeer, and, you know, paint one himself.
  • Killing Time (Dir: Jaap van Hoewijk) – Formally interesting, this film observes an execution by spending the last day of an inmates’s life with his family members. You’ll (perhaps) be horrified at the banality of death’s administration. I certainly was.
  • Ukraine is Not a Brothel (Dir: Kitty Green) – What’s behind Ukrainian group FEMEN’s topless protests? This film bares all. (Sorry). Though this film has lots of surprises (and plenty of boobs, too), it left so many essential (to me) questions unanswered. Still worthwhile and in places deliciously ironic.
  • The Notorious Mr. Bout (Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Tony Gerber) – Using convicted “arms dealer” Viktor Bout’s home movies humanizes him while at the same time muddying the case against him. Successfully portrays him as much a pawn as a true player, but leaves a lot unexamined.
  • Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater) – Included for its quasi-documentary method of using the same cast over 12 years, it sorely disappointed me with its rather banal storytelling and constant use of pop culture references and musical cues to mark time.

I’ll also mention that I attended a really interesting panel (“The Critical Takedown”) discussing issues of documentary film criticism that included local hero Adam Nayman, as well as Nick Pinkerton, Sam Adams, and Ela Bittencourt. If I can get the right permissions, I can post the audio here for any interested.

I’d dearly love to return next year, and will make a real attempt to stay closer to the centre of things. We stayed at a very nice Hampton Inn that was a 30 minute walk from the venues. Not horrible, but between the really cold weather and my advancing age, it would be nice to be closer in.

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