“Blur the lines… go off the trail.”
For all True/Falsers, the above is a familiar scene. For every day at the annual non-fiction film festival in Columbia, there’s a different short-short documentary that adheres to the festival’s theme of the year. These short-shorts play before every film at the festival and are met with rousing applause. Every. Single. Time. (Sorry, editorializing. Moving on.)
This year’s theme was explicitly stated in Saturday’s short-short. It’s very cleverly constructed, “Off the Trail.” Midwesterners do love hiking and trail-walking. And non-fiction cinephiles do enjoy documentaries that leave behind the traditional idea of ‘documentary.’ In a way, that’s what True/False is all about. That’s why it’s a ‘non-fiction’ – as opposed to ‘documentary’ – film festival.
“Off the Trail” is supposed to take attendees out of their mental comfort zone. To prepare them for a mindset that isn’t traditional or known.
But it’s impossible to have a film festival without thematic material. After all, we’re not going off the trail to dive off a cliff. We’re leaving the trail to break new ground, to explore new areas.
This past weekend, thousands of people left the trail in Columbia, Missouri.
What did they find?
They Found: Art influencing life
The importance of culture in life isn’t exactly lost on anyone who chooses to spend their weekend watching non-fiction films. In fact, this idea might seem a little redundant. It’s like telling people at a Donald Trump rally the importance of building a wall. They’re all on board, Don. No need to elaborate.
But this year’s program featured films with expanded vision. In Morgan Neville’s The Music of Strangers, different members of The Silk Road Ensemble are used as examples of how art influences the world – not just our world, but the world. Keyhan Kalhor talked about being separated from his home and family in Iran, and how he’s constantly fighting to keep the arts free from government control. Cristina Pato chronicled her upbringing in the culturally rich – but economically poor – region of Galicia in Spain. And famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma spoke about how music constantly challenges him to find himself in the big, screwed-up world he constantly sees around him.
Columbia resident and True/False veteran Robert Greene internalized the idea of art and life in his polarizing film Kate Plays Christine. It’s a film I can’t bring myself to spoil, but I will say it asks many difficult questions of its viewers: how do we socially perform for those around us? What are we looking for when it comes to story? Are we too sensationalized as consumers?
One of the festivals biggest hits was Sonita, the story of a girl who fights the tradition of child brides in her home of Afghanistan through a passion for hip-hop. While music plays a big role in the story, the bigger question comes when director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami inserts herself into the narrative halfway through the film. Again no spoilers, but I found myself in the middle of many interesting conversations about artists and the debt they owe their fans and themselves in the midst of making “ethical” art.
They Found: Hope among brokenness
One of the easier ways to make a documentary film is to pick an inspiring story with a compelling protagonist that every man and woman can get behind. But True/False found different films to add to this year’s schedule that displayed these characters as “warts and all” subjects. Instead of sanitizing issues, filmmakers at True/False presented their heroes for better or for worse.
In Weiner, the Sundance-award winner, New York politician Anthony Weiner is chronicled during his campaign for New York mayor. Weiner was perhaps the most fascinating subject at this year’s festival, a deft blend of insanity, charisma, and profound sadness. It’s hard not to root for the guy, even after all the crap he’s put his family through. And as the film comes to a close, you find yourself in step with the filmmaker when he asks Weiner, “Why are you letting me film this?”
At the recommendation of a close friend, I attended a screening of Presenting Princess Shaw, an obscure YouTube singer who finds overnight popularity after her videos get picked up and produced by an artist half a world away. It’s an intimate look at Princess Shaw’s world, one filled with constant rejection and undying optimism. I left the film thinking to myself, “How can I find joy in smallest circumstances of life?”
The Fear of 13 was my personal favorite of the festival, a compelling monologue told by Nick Yarris, a 23-year-veteran of death row. Director David Sington plays out Yarris’ time behind bars through a combination of interview footage and re-enactments. While that may sound slow, Yarris eloquence and ability as a storyteller make it impossible to peel yourself from the narrative. It’s a story that not only crushed me, but also challenged me on how I view everything from the prison system to presumed innocence and guilt.
Perhaps no film at True/False presented this idea of hope more beautifully than Life, Animated, the story of a man with autism who communicates with and inspires the world around him through his love of Disney movies. It’s an honest film, one that is unyielding in its portrayal of autism and the difficulties it presents. But it’s also completely and wholly empathetic to its characters, presenting them as loving, complex human beings. At the heart of the film is Owen, the joyous man whose passion for Disney translates to every aspect of his life. His love for people and desire to connect with them ripped my heart out. More often than not, I should take after him. (Side note: I got to say hello to him on the street. It was easily the highlight of my weekend.)
They Found: The pursuit of truth
Again, this isn’t an entirely new idea when it comes to True/False. Documentary film often strays into the world of journalism. But many films took it a step farther this year. Can we find truth without a full journalistic investigation?
David Farrier’s Tickled followed the most conventional path as it sought to uncover the strange corner of the internet dedicated to ‘competitive endurance tickling.’ But instead of turning it into a traditional exposé documentary, Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve made their film something far more interesting: an exploration of how power structure works when it comes to those with money and those without. Tickled is a fascinating piece, one that never goes into full “take down” mode. Instead, it aims to teach its audience something about human compassion and how its absence can destroy someone.
The Illinois Parables was certainly one of the more challenging experiences I had over the weekend. Instead of a traditional narrative, Parables was more of an audio-visual experience, a collection of 11 themes that sought to portray the history of Illinois and the Midwest in all its tragic detail. Instead of swaying the viewers emotions, it presents documents and details, letting the audience decide what to think and feel as the film unfolds.
Many of my good friends enjoyed Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a look back on the literary scandal of JT LeRoy aka Laura Albert. It’s a pretty straightforward telling: woman creates persona, persona becomes famous, persona gets out of hand, woman is exposed. But the film also asks its audience how to feel about its main character without explicitly showing all of its cards. In a world where film, documentary, and journalism often intermingle, Author – a non-journalistic endeavor – presents itself as the most objective pick of the litter.
What I Found
Obviously many of my thoughts above are pretty indicative of what I felt and saw at True/False 2016.
But more importantly, it was refreshing to discover that more people are willing to ask questions and engage than I thought. I had so many difficult conversations over the course of four days, conversations about social issues, about art and ethics, about why film is important in the first place.
As a creative and a believer in the importance of art, I’ve always strived to get people to invest in film as an important artistic medium. But when I went off the trail, I found that to be somewhat unnecessary. Film is alive and thriving, even among those whose passion isn’t as zealous as mine. People are willing to explore and engage in areas they aren’t necessarily comfortable. That’s a beautiful lesson, one I could meditate on more often than I do.
So what did I find when I went off the trail this past weekend? I found that people are willing to leave the trail in the first place. And that’s all that matters.
I’ll clap for that.