True/False Film Fesitival's "March March." Photo: Eugene Hernandez
Tucked away two hours from the nearest major airport in Columbia, Missouri, the True/False Film Festival could have very well remained a local event. Not that community isn't important here. Merchants, students from the nearby university, huge audiences and 800 volunteers have helped catapult the annual documentary festival into one of the most important nonfiction events in North America.
Celebrating its 10th edition over this past weekend, True/False has capitalized on its grassroots prowess and others have taken notice. The festival has increasingly become a major stop for the documentary community. Malik Bendjelloul, who took the Oscar for Best Documentary last weekend for Searching for Sugar Man, was here, as was Oscar nominee David France (How to Survive a Plague). Producers Josh Penn and Dan Janvey were here for a doc about their Best Picture-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild and the festival has welcomed an international crowd of festival programmers and industry, some of whom are serving as "Swamis," or mentors for up-and-coming filmmakers.
Though steeped in nonfiction, festival heads Paul Sturtz and David Wilson (or co-conspirators, as they identify themselves in this year's T/F catalog) are bent on making sure good times weigh heavily in the mix. Bands play as audiences are seated before each screening and, on Friday, T/Fers paraded down the street in what can best be described as a cross between mardi gras, costume party and zany mob in what is dubbed the "March March." And it all ended with a culinary feast with stations of food prepared by local restaurateurs in the stately Missouri Theater in an event called—naturally—"Reality Bites."
David France's How to Survive a Plague
But the substance of True/False is anything but a sideshow to the long weekend of cleverly labeled parties and gatherings. Two panels that kicked off the first full day of events slapped a core of the festival, which spotlights the uneasy line between reality and fiction. Moderator Robert Greene set the tone for Friday morning's discussion with film critics in an article he wrote for Hammer to Nail in which he contends most critics are "completely missing the boat" when it comes to understanding nonfiction storytelling today. In fact, "nonfiction" may itself be a misrepresentative label as both "documentary" and "fiction" storytellers increasingly fuse, mix and digest elements of both.
"What I'm most interested in are the films that fuse lines of reality," Greene said Friday. He used the example of How to Survive a Plague as a documentary that relies on actual footage to describe the rise of AIDS activist groups such as ACT-UP in the 80s and 90s. The filmmakers, however, purposely hold back one element of the story, which is then revealed at a critical moment, which provides a jolt to the viewer. "When you watch How to Survive a Plague, you're watching a movie. The filmmaker had a storytelling strategy," said Greene.
Subject matter, of course, factors into any doc's watchability. But a terrific issue/topic/subject does not negate form. At least, that was the prevailing consensus from the panel. "I do care about the subjects, but as a critic, I care about the composition, editing, sound, style and how they all come together to tell a story. Films like The Fog of War and Gimme Shelter expose underlying conflicts. A really good documentary is going to erase visual stereotypes," said critic Miriam Bale. But subject is nevertheless a driving motivation for most, as fellow critic Eric Hynes noted. "Some of us who do write about film do want to talk about form and not so much about subject matter. But the fact is people who do go to documentaries do want to deal with the subject matter."
Josh Marston's The Forgiveness of Blood
Film Society of Lincoln Center's Eugene Hernandez moderated the follow-up panel with two narrative filmmakers, Josh Marston and Sarah Gavro, who tell fictional stories while incorporating heavy doses of "reality" as vehicles for plot. Marston's Albanian-set The Forgiveness of Blood centers on an Albanian village, using actors from that area to tell the story of the centuries-old practice of blood feuds, in which one family member has to "atone" for a perceived wrong committed by another against a rival (typically a fellow villager) by dropping out of society in what is essentially house arrest.
"Scripted stories can have story points that are accepted as rules [for how to engage an audience]," said Marston. "But by doing the story points in advance, you lose the opportunity of discovery. I like narrative films that will allow for the process of discovery." Gavron, whose film Village at the End of the World is a portrait of an isolated community of 59 people and 100 sledge dogs living in northern Greenland. The constructed drama tells the story of a teenager, his father who has never acknowledged him, an outsider who moves to the community after meeting his online wife, and an elder who remembers when seal blubber fueled the village's lights.
"I can see why people do docs about something that's already happened because there's already an arc," said Gavron, citing Oscar-winner Man On Wire. "But doing something in real time is much more difficult. And finding your subjects is like doing a casting."
Pablo Larrain's NO
While ostensibly a documentary film festival, True/False is also screening some titles that fall into the "narrative" definition. Oscar-nominated feature NO is probably one of the year's best examples of a scripted film telling a story with actors, but relying heavily on reality elements. Archival footage factors heavily in telling the story of an ad exec, played by Gael García Bernal, who spearheads the "No" campaign in order to topple Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late 80s. In that election, which the regime fully expected to win, but only held to stave off foreign pressure, Chileans were asked to vote "Yes" to keep Pinochet or "No" to end his authoritarian rule.
NO incorporates actual footage that has the look and sensation of an 80s home movie. Consequently, the filmmaking team, headed by director Pablo Larraín, made the creative decision to film the non-archival parts of the story with the same texture. And while the overarching story about the grassroots movement is reflected in the film, it is not completely rooted in historical accuracy. But at the same time, it filmed actual players in the NO movement, playing off its historical elements.
"Every time you have a fictional film that deals with reality, you're going to have controversy," said NO producer Daniel Marc Dreifuss post-screening. "The [footage] from the Yes campaign is completely original. Most of the No [footage] is with the same people but re-created 25 years later, which blur the lines between truth and fiction."