The Q&A for the world premiere of After Sherman at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO concluded in an unusual way – mercifully, not with a question that was more a comment. One of the film’s producers whispered into the microphone, “We’re going to go to the Broadway Brewery, if anybody wants to join.” For this first-time festgoer, the moment set the stage for a cordial and casual weekend to come. True/False actually lives up to that much-ballyhooed promise of cinematic community that most festivals merely claim they foster. (Cough, Telluride.)
As chronicled by Crooked Marquee’s own Abby Olcese back in March 2020, True/False hosted one of the last major film events of the Before COVID Times. Most seasoned T/F veterans agreed that masks and proof of vaccination excepting, 2022’s edition restored the vitality of the way things once were – which, to the newly initiated, felt like the kind of warm collision of chance and collegiality that has been absent from the circuit for far too long. In a town of 120,000 with a surplus of Midwest Nice, True/False is the kind of environment where the volunteers remember your name and face, where the person you have a conversation on the street with the person behind you in line yesterday, and where people excitedly advocate for their new discovery rather than merely pontificating about them.
True/False still feels like a contained bubble of sorts – all it takes is a few tipsy Mizzou students stumbling down the sidewalk where you’re civilly queuing for sophisticated cinema to remind you the event is not the center of the universe. But there was also something refreshing about knowing there were documentary enthusiasts who weren’t spending all weekend fuming on Twitter about that woefully ahistorical piece of Netflix spon-con about the renaissance of non-fiction film. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It’s an encouraging testament to how smart programming and clever event planning can cultivate a base of dependable moviegoers apart from extremely online communities or major metropolitan area dwellers.
And the True/False festival ecosystem, from organizers to attendees, seemed to acknowledge just how precious a thing they have here. There’s a real sense of patronage, most notably for the musicians whose sets serve as preludes to the main entertainment. Festival volunteers pass around a literal hat to collect contributions for the artists, but if someone isn’t carrying cash, they can’t miss their Venmo handles posted prominently at the front of the theater.
That financial support reached beyond artists and extended to subjects, too. A title card before Srđan Kovačević’s Factory to the Workers explained that the film was produced under an agreement to share profits between the factory employees in front of the camera and the filmmaking team behind it. For a film about the struggle to find a sustainable model of profitable self-governance within a Croatian worksite, the model made for an impressive synergy – not to mention a reminder that sometimes we need art to help us achieve what eludes us in reality.
The festival does its part, too, for documentaries tasteful enough to spare us a cloying call-to-action-laden concluding title card. The festival’s True Life Fund benefits the subjects of a film whose need for support and visibility extends beyond the release of a film. For 2022, that was the Indigenous Brazilian tribe of the Uru-eu-wau-wau as chronicled in The Territory. Their fight to protect their rainforests from Bolsanaro-led deforestation is a righteous crusade that takes on the tenor of a political thriller, pulse-pounding synth score and all. Their struggle to maintain sovereignty inherently resonates with anyone who cares about, oh, the future of the planets. But nothing won over the giant audience assembled at the Missouri Theater quite like the moment when, faced with invasion by hostile forces, the Indigenous subjects have no choice but to seize control of the image-making process. “Give us your shot list,” one young subject demands to uproarious applause.
The True/False crowd did seem interested, first and foremost, in the movies themselves. Ancillary programming like podcast tapings and “field sessions,” the festival’s relaxed take on the dreaded festival panel format, drew sparse crowds. Of course, audiences turned out in droves for Sundance hits like Fire of Love and We Met in Virtual Reality – both of which saw a substantial number of queuers turned away. But they also packed into a shorts program on a Thursday afternoon and a four-hour look at Lithuania gaining its independence bright and early on a Sunday morning.
The festival has clearly bred an appetite for non-fiction storytelling that’s more than just fodder for an eight-episode streaming series. At True/False, binary thinking exists in their name only. The audiences craved films that took risks with form and narrative, not just slickly packaged delivery of pertinent information.
If there was one facet that defined the disparate group of films I screened out of the festival, it was patience. Artists unveiled projects with staggering longitudinal breadth, presenting a feature culled from several years of filming. The results were revelatory because the filmmakers sought to understand their subjects, not just explain them. Nastia Korkia’s GES-2 surveys five years in the retrofitting of the titular Moscow industrial space as it transitions from a former Kremlin power plant to an interdisciplinary art center. Her survey of the space as one holding Russia’s past, present, and future comes to resemble the chimerical nature of the structure itself. A multi-chapter saga complete with interludes and a karaoke scene that left the True/False crowd unsure if audience participation was allowed, GES-2 offers acute (if slightly askew) observational filmmaking.
Yet even after all this talk about audiences and crowds — a joyous and necessary element for the continuation of film festivals as a cultural force — what I’ll hold with me longest from True/False was an artistic experience I had entirely alone. While many festivals incorporate VR more as a stunt for sponsorship than an artistic outlet, Charlie Shackleton’s As Mine Exactly makes full use of the headset technology for a 30-minute work of immersion and intimacy. While the visuals of his “desktop movie” remain constant, Shackleton performs the script for one viewer in a small room at a time (albeit unseen to them).
As the filmmaker explores cinema as a tool to understand the mysteries of his mother’s epilepsy, he excavates a fascinating history of images. Moving images were used to make mental sense of the condition when so little was known about it, but early filmmaking pioneers also turned that visibility into a weapon by sensationalizing their struggles. These images found a natural home in the early peep show style devices like the kinetoscope that people peered into like carnival attractions. Over a century later, Shackleton reclaims the audience of one for those afflicted with epilepsy, guiding our gaze to empathize rather than gawk. And now, unlike in the exhibition of those early images, the audience can also wield an impact on the film itself rather than the effect being unidirectional.
I don’t know how my presence might have shaped Shackleton’s As Mine Exactly — I couldn’t see it, but if I may be so presumptuous to say, I could feel it. We’re nearly the same age and share an affinity for understanding how images work, and I could sense the twinge of a smile curling up on my face leading to a certain relaxation of his delivery. Even though I had more insight into the creation of this movie magic than perhaps any I’ve ever encountered, I’ll just stick to what I know best: how a film impacted me, not how I impacted a film. This was easily the most unique and innovative VR experience I’ve had to date. And while I’m sure it would have been special to take in with those discerning True/False audiences, I don’t mind keeping this one to myself.