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The Freeing Power of True/False's Free Ride

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 26, 2014 at 3:05PM

Missouri's True/False Film Fest has built its reputation in part by covering journalists' expenses. Does that mean you can't trust what they write?
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Approaching the Elephant

The True/False Film Festival, whose eleventh installment took place in Columbia, Missouri from February 27 to March 2, has built a high profile in a relatively short span of time, and it's done so without going the normal route of hosting high-profile premieres of off-brand studio product in the hopes of luring big-name talent and the bylines that follow in their wake. Given that True/False focuses on documentary film, this would be a next to impossible route in any case: No matter how much excitement awaits the arrival of a new documentary by Errol Morris, he doesn't exactly set flashbulbs popping. 

So True/False's founders -- or, as they prefer to be called, "co-conspirators" -- David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of touting world premieres, they decline to publicize them, despite the fact that last year's "Northern Light" and this year's "Approaching the Elephant" belong on any list of the year's great docs. Instead of using "important" subject matter to puff up a movie's worth, they push poetic approaches and hybrid forms, such that even superficially straight-ahead issue docs like "Dirty Wars" or Rachel Boynton's "Big Men" are informed by the context. Although it's mostly been treated as a visual appendix to subject Jeremy Scahill's book on the post-9/11 deterioration of U.S. government accountability, Richard Rowley's documentary struck me more powerfully as a portrait of Scahill himself, and especially that toll that harboring the secrets of so many horrific crimes takes on his soul. Would I have seen that had I not watched the movie in the midst of so many less overtly conventional documentaries during last year's True/False? Maybe. But over the course of the festival's four days, looking past the surface becomes second nature -- a habit that in the best-case scenario lasts until the following year.

The cost of True/False's decision to steer away from the usual methods of drumming up attention is the round-trip ticket and five night hotel stay offered to a generous handful of what Adam Nayman, in his writeup for Cinema Scope, called "influential (or at least widely retweeted) film critics" -- a description that, having been among their number this year and last, I am loath to finesse. It's hardly an unfamiliar process: Festivals from Dubai to Thessaloniki do much the same, and when FIPRESCI, the international federation of film critics, solicits members to fill festival juries, they require a confirmed assignment from a major publication. But it naturally creates the impression that coverage has been paid for, one way or another.

Here, then, is where I say something negative, or at least modestly snarky, about True/False in order to establish my critical independence. And... I've got nothing. It's not that I loved every film I saw -- Jessica Oreck's "The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga" struck me as altogether too pleased with its own opacity, and Jodie Mack's "Dusty Stacks of Mom" was too twee by half -- but there was nothing like the infomercial slog of "Alive Inside," which premiered at Sundance and will next be seen at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which in some ways is True/False's mirror image.

I'd been hearing about True/False for years before a chance encounter with Wilson and Sturtz in a Sundance shuttle van led to last year's invitation -- partly from critics, but mostly from documentary filmmakers, for whom it serves as a combination of think tank and high school reunion. Without compromising the seriousness of the programming, a festive atmosphere prevails, less, as Nayman implies, due to a mandate for self-consciousness hipness and more as the expression of a supportive community with more creativity than it has outlets for. When I mentioned this year's experience to a friend and former Columbia resident, she said simply, "That's CoMo." (Indiewire's Paul Dallas offered his own account of the festival's vitality.) If the parties and the silly outfits worn (voluntarily, to the best of my knowledge) by venue captains have a purpose beyond simple enjoyment, it's to take the curse off the word "documentary," which still makes most people think of sitting in a theater and being forced to learn something important but inevitably depressing. 

I saw movies that fit that profile this year, like "Private Violence," a shattering portrait of the justice system's inadequate response to domestic abuse victims, and "Rich Hill," a portrait of three boys living in rural poverty that was filmed only a few hours from the theater where it premiered. They were among the most formally traditional documentaries I saw, but used that form to thoughtful and emotionally powerful ends.

But I also saw movies like "Miraculous Tales," a portrait of the folk remedies and faith healers of Northern Ireland, and "Approaching the Elephant," whose black-and-white portrait of an ultra-progressive "Free School" strikes a perfect balance between verite immediacy and reflective abstraction. ("Elephant" was edited by my friend Robert Greene, who also worked on "Baba Yaga" and directed "Actress," a portrait of "Wire" supporting player Brandy Burre's attempt to get back into the business after a years-long absence. Our relationship prevents me from commenting further on the latter, so I'll just point to Eric Kohn's glowing review.) These weren't "difficult" films by any stretch of the imagination, but they also aren't films that immediately tell you what they're about or how to feel.

One benefit of True/False's journalistic patronage is that it allows critics to write at leisure without rushing to nail down the piecework they'd otherwise need to pay for the trip. Pieces by Nick Pinkerton, Eric Hynes, Tim Grierson, Vadim Rizov and Noel Murray, among others, are the work of fine writers given the uncommon leisure to follow their own interests without having to face queries about why they didn't cover the debut feature by some second-rate TV star. It also leaves space for a discussion like the one between Pinkerton, Nayman and Ela Bittencourt I was fortunate enough to moderate, video of which is posted below. The ostensible subject of "The Critical Takedown" was "What does creative nonfiction need from critics?" But the discussion quickly turned to the realities of covering documentaries in an era when non-marquee docs are often passed off to third-string critics on tight budgets who aren't given the time or the space to consider more than the bare minimum. (I've been one of them often enough.) It's a fascinating conversation, and I did my very best to stay out of its way.


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