In a “post-truth” era of “alternative facts,” the importance of media literacy, and questioning why different media is made the way that it is, has reemerged in American society.
Such media literacy values are baked into True/False Film Fest, a four-day mid-Missouri festival devoted solely to documentary filmmaking. This year the festival will take place from March 2-5 and screen some 35 nonfiction films that urge audiences to define the line between real and fake.
It’s the festival’s 14th year. In its first year, about 1,500 people attended. In 2016, nearly 50,000 people attended. About 40 percent of audience attendance is from outside of mid-Missouri, with folks coming from across the state. About 15 percent of attendees are from outside of Missouri entirely, coming from filmmaking havens like New York, Los Angeles and London.
This year, St. Louis-based filmmakers, musicians and speakers will display their craft for festival visitors.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, contributor Steve Potter talked with David Wilson, one of the festival’s founders and “co-conspirators.” He is a filmmaker himself and his co-conspirator, Paul Sturtz, comes to the festival from a background in journalism.
He answered some questions about the origins of the festival, this year’s St. Louis connections and gave some insight into the films that will be screened.
Some people might think of documentaries and think of them as dry or informational. Is that still the case?
“When we first started, there were a lot of questions,” Wilson said. “ One of our earliest backers was the local Convention and Visitors Bureau … but even they said ‘like, I know you like documentaries but…we should have some movie stars, right?’ It took a few years for people to see the benefits and reasoning behind us wanting to have that tight focus.
“We started doing this because we saw a moment in 2002-2003, when there were suddenly a bunch of really theatrical non-fiction films coming out. We saw ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ ‘Winged Migration,’ ‘Spellbound,’ ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ … we thought ‘these are movies you want to see with other people, to see in a theater, to discuss afterward.’ That felt natural to us. What we didn’t anticipate was, thanks in part to True/False, we would be able to push forward what people thought documentaries could be.”
Where does the name True/False come from?
“It is in some ways an ironic name that we started with,” Wilson said. “We thought: every one of these films and really anything we watch, whether ‘Harry Potter’ or the nightly news, these are things that have some truth and some fiction to them. One of the early projects of True/False is to have people be active viewers, to have people question what they’re watching, to have people be media literate. The name is a constant reminder: no matter what you’re watching, you should be somewhat critical of it.”
How accurate does a documentary have to be?
“All films are subjective: they’re coming from a point of view,” Wilson said. “No matter how much that filmmaker is striving for journalistic objectivity, their experiences will still inform it. I like the word honest. That helps in watching documentaries. I can often gage where I think a filmmaker is being honest. Maybe it is easier to gage that rather than accuracy.
“Documentary filmmakers tend to be incredibly serious, probably more serious than people give them credit for, about accuracy and honesty. If I have a shot I think conveys an emotion and it is out of timeline but it gets the emotion right, then I think I’m being honest to the story I’m telling. That’s not really what the idea of alternative facts or lies are really about.”
How is the festival set up?
“The whole festival is set up to be walkable,” Wilson said. “There are nine different screens at eight different venues in downtown Columbia. Over the course of Thursday night to Sunday night, we’ll have 140 screenings. Each film shows three to four times.
“Folks can make their own path through the festival. Some might want to do one day and see three to four films in a day. Others want to see as many as possible, and usually end up seeing about 18.”
Venues range in size from 65 seats to 1700 seats and have their own personalities/decorations.
“We want people to come downtown and camp out,” Wilson said. “Downtown restaurants are open throughout the fest. There’s a real air of a festival. People often come up to me and say that the encounters they have on the street, encounters while waiting to get in line at the fest are some of their favorite moments.”
The festival this year is screening a documentary from a St. Louis director, Damon Davis, about Ferguson. Can you tell us about it?
The film is called “Whose Streets?” and recently screened at Sundance, after which it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. Wilson said this is “as close as ‘ripped from the headlines’ you get in the documentary world and it features scenes and events most people haven’t seen before.
“This is a partisan film,” Wilson said. “This is unapologetically on the side of the protesters. No matter who you are or what your perspective is, you can’t help but walk a mile in another’s shoes. The way it makes fully-fledged humans out of protestors who maybe you only see on the TV news holding a sign or shouting at a police officer. Now you actually see the depth of their lives. You see what they’re giving up to fight for what they believe in. It builds empathy.”
Tell us about the longest film screening at the festival, ‘Long Strange Trip.’
This four-hour film is about the Grateful Dead and it charts their whole journey, the flattering and unflattering, of the bandmates over the course of their careers.
“I’m not a huge Grateful Dead fan, but I can say this is one of the definitive rock documentaries of our time, Wilson said. “It has the feel of the band.”
The festival also raises money for the subjects of one of the documentaries in the festival — how does that work?
“That’s the True Life Fund,” Wilson said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that when you’re the subject of a documentary, you’re not paid and usually there’s a huge cost — whether financial or personal. It is usually not an experience you come out the other side saying ‘I feel great about that.’ There are stories that have to be told and people give themselves to let us into their lives. We started this fund as a way to say thank you.”
Audiences raise money for the subjects through a passed hat at various screenings during the festival. All the money raised goes to subjects of the film. This year’s film is called “Quest,” and the money will go to a family in north Philadelphia that is running a recording studio out of their basement.
What are ‘Secret Screenings?’
“That’s a funny thing we made up and now a part of fabric of the festival,” Wilson said. “These films will come out later in the year, agreeing to premiere at another festival, but we needed to find a way to screen them. The secrecy of the titles and content is always kept: we recruit the audience to be partners in keeping the screening secret.”
Another film screening, ‘Stranger in Paradise,’ has a St. Louis connection.
“’Stranger in Paradise,’ is an incredibly provocative film about the refugee crisis in Europe,” Wilson said. “With some of our films we have a new program called ‘Provocations’ where we pair a live speaker with the film. Now they aren’t talking about the film exactly, they are talking about what they’re interested in. With ‘Stranger in Paradise,’ we’ve paired Sarah Kendzior, who may be familiar to your audience [as a St. Louis-based writer], who has a background studying autocratic regimes in formerly Soviet republics.”
One more thing: I’ve heard there is a parade at the festival … and somehow your head figures in?
“You’ve hit on one of the most embarrassing parts of my life,” Wilson said. “That’s the March March, the world’s only documentary parade. It is a highlight of the festival, participatory, anyone can join and dress up. There are no motorized floats, no politics … people come up with whatever they want. It is a great moment in the fest.
“A couple of years ago I was surprised, I can’t say delighted, to find an effigy of both Paul’s head and my head coming down the street. It took me awhile to get over it but I’ve come to see it as: part of giving the festival over to other people is allowing them to come up with their own crazy ideas.”
(You can see an example of the "effigies" at the top of this article.)
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