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The Freeing Power of True/False's Free Ride

Reviews
by Sam Adams
March 26, 2014 3:05 PM
7 Comments
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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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7 Comments

  • bwunderlick | March 27, 2014 2:34 PMReply

    While I do think the programming is interesting, I have to agree with Chuck. There is this self-satisfied aire from filmmakers and critics congratulating themselves for being there (and being paid to do so by the fest itself) that is simply off-putting. It's a relationship too cozy for comfort. For example, I had never heard of a local church giving money to the fest (or more specifically a doc's subjects, a whole other ethical can of worms) till the New York Times piece a few weeks ago. Wish there was more coverage about this relationship, but for some reason the critics there are focused on other things.

  • scott | March 27, 2014 8:22 AMReply

    "too twee"? Ah, nothing like reading a smug critic (per Chuck below) demonstrate his or her English degree.

    If you thought Dusty Stacks of Mom hard to bear, pixie-haired, wide-eyed and precocious (one definition of twee) then do everybody a favor and decline the free gig to come to T/F next year.

  • Kamau | March 27, 2014 12:40 AMReply

    I feel T/F is one of the few fests turning the attention back on the filmmakers. It's lack of awards and newly introduced pay the filmmakers program are about appreciating the artists and their art, and getting the films in front of an audience. Certainly a step in the right direction for the indie film world.

  • Chuck | March 26, 2014 3:28 PMReply

    The coverage isn't suspect, but the smug air exuded by participating critics most definitely is. Is True/False actually a vital festival, or is the fest's relevancy inflated by critics whose free ride makes the fest (and themselves) feel superior? Based on the decent-at-best programming and the ridiculous side-shows/after parties that are the fest's true draw (who doesn't love drinking for free?), I'd say the latter.

  • Sam Adams | March 27, 2014 4:27 PM

    I don't say anything remotely close to the programming being "decent at best." I think it's largely extraordinary; spending even a few days at a film festival and not seeing a bad movie is *highly* unusual. Yes, it's fun seeing friends, but it's not so much fun that I'd spend four days away from my family in a Courtyard Marriott in Missouri if the movies weren't largely excellent. (As for the free booze, I've got beer at home.) In re: "Nobody says anything bad about the festival," all you have to do is click the links above -- or, like, read the piece -- to see that's not true.

  • Chuck | March 27, 2014 4:03 PM

    Here's the bottom line, Sam: If critics who attended True/False took to their blogs or Twitter feeds and said something along the lines of "I love going to True/False because they pay for my flight and they pay for my hotel and they do the same for my friends and colleagues and I really enjoying hanging out with them and seeing a couple films and participating in a panel that strokes my erroneous sense of self-worth (that one applies to Pinkerton, mostly) and partying and getting out of town for a few days and sleeping in a bed that isn't mine," I think I'd be less irked by how its reputation has inflated in recent years. But that's not what happens. Instead, people laud the festival despite the fact that its programming is, like I (and even you, above) say, decent at best. Just own the fact that you get a free vacation with your friends and we're all good. Every film festival has parties, yes, but just because True/False's take place in a more bucolic setting doesn't make it any less of a disingenuous fete. In fact, it might make them more disingenuous. Can't dress up a pig, etc. Also, I'm sure the parties are fun. Any place with free alcohol is usually pretty fun.

    One other thing: You'll notice nobody anywhere ever says anything actually bad or even remotely critical about the fest, which is strange, considering film critics are wired to find something wrong about with anything and everything. The reason is obvious. While at the fest, Michael Sicinski started to tweet some disparaging comments about True/False (something about twee regionalism being forced down his throat, I dunno—shoula screen-capped 'em) but he quickly erased them. Why? Likely, for fear of looking like an ingrate for criticizing a festival that paid for him to be there. The fact that someone with as much integrity as him would bow out in such a spineless way speaks volumes of just how ridiculous this whole thing has gotten.

  • Sam Adams | March 27, 2014 9:50 AM

    Is there a film festival without parties? And is there something wrong with a film festival being, you know, festive? True/False's parties generally involve a couple of kegs and a DJ in a warehouse, which seems substantially less ridiculous than your usual Sundance fete with celebrities under glass. If people talk more about the parties at True/False, it's only because they're actually fun.

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