The True/False documentary film festival is like Disneyland for non-fiction filmmaking. For one weekend every year, the small college town of Columbia, Missouri becomes a magical place where anything is possible. Renowned filmmakers rub elbows with college students, bartenders and farmers. High school science teachers break out their craziest outfits to help organize lines of ticket holders. Strangers cry together over a movie, and leave the theater as friends.
This year’s festival lineup was an exceptionally strong one, including a few recent Sundance hits alongside up-and-coming and under-the-radar entries. I arrived in Columbia ready to eat a lot of great food and see some incredible movies, and I left with both my heart and belly quite full.
Day 1: Thursday, March 5
My first screening of the festival was Crestone, from filmmaker and video artist Marnie Ellen Hertzler (and featuring original music by Animal Collective), which follows the lives of a group of Soundcloud rappers living in the high desert of Colorado. Hertzler was friends with these guys in high school; now, she reconnects with them as they squat in abandoned houses, grow weed and record music.
There’s an offbeat artifice to Crestone that’s probably best described in a scene where Hertzler tells the audience via voiceover that the group’s ringleader, Sloppy, is a Shia LaBeouf fan. I could easily see LaBeouf, and Honey Boy director Alma Har’el, connecting with Crestone’s crew of nomadic dreamers. Hertzler is fascinated by their lifestyle and the landscape that surrounds them. She imagines it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and stages scenes that cast the guys as survivors of some unnamed disaster.
As intriguing and occasionally beautiful as I found Crestone to be, its earnestness feels naive, bordering on exploitative. I kept wondering what drove these guys to the edge of civilization, and if their parents have any feelings about what their kids are up to. After tweeting this reaction, I got some surprising responses. Crestone’s editor, Albert Birney, tweeted me a photo of Sad Boy and his mom, who seems really sweet. Sloppy follows me now, too. That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot at True/False: you put something out into the ether, and it initiates interactions you never expected.
The day ended with Mucho Mucho Amor, about beloved Puerto Rican TV astrologer Walter Mercado (he of the opulent capes, feminine face and mile-high hair). Before the screening, co-director Kareem Tabsch explained how Walter helped him come out as gay to his parents, saying, “If they loved Walter, they could love me.” That’s an oft-repeated sentiment throughout Mucho Mucho Amor, with subjects mentioning how Mercado’s one-of-a-kind style and message of self-acceptance gave them the confidence to be fully themselves.
Mucho Mucho Amor also kicked off what became a sub-theme of this year’s festival: legacy and affirmation. Mercado passed away last November, and Tabsch and co-director Cristina Constantini were lucky enough to spend time with their subject during the last two years of his life. The film culminates in Mercado attending a retrospective of his career at a museum in Miami, carried around on a throne amid adoring fans and artifacts from his years on TV. It’s his last public appearance, and the sense of celebration and closure the event carries is deeply moving. I found myself thinking how nice it would be if every one of us could experience that kind of send-off.
Day 2: Friday, March 6
The legacy vibes continued on Friday morning with Dick Johnson is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s masterful follow-up to Cameraperson, about her relationship with her father at the end of his life. Dick Johnson and Walter Mercado are very different men, but the movies about them have surprising similarities. Both are about the importance of sharing your feelings about people you love with them, while they’re still around to appreciate it.
Johnson’s father, Dick, is supportive, genial and mischievous, a classic dad. He also has Alzheimer’s disease. To help him make the most out of what remains of his life, and to take some of the sting out of his impending death, Johnson and Dick collaborate on a series of short scenes depicting Dick’s death from a variety of accidents. Johnson also imagines Dick’s afterlife, in which he’s reunited with his late wife, relaxes in his favorite chair, and gets to eat all the chocolate cake he wants. Johnson’s film is beautiful, and instantly relatable to anyone who’s experienced the prolonged death of a loved one, or even thought about it for more than two seconds.
I followed Dick Johnson is Dead with David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, which is kind of like saying I spent two hours hugging a small animal, then decided afterward to go for a roll in some barbed wire. Welcome to Chechnya, about an activist network trying to rescue LGBTQ+ Chechens from being tortured and killed, is a very important movie; it’s also the most intense I’ve seen so far this year, a position it’s likely to maintain. It’s full of triggers (self-harm, images of torture) and harrowing tension, but also incredible heroism. The film was the recipient of the festival’s True Life Fund, which collects donations to support the chosen movie’s subject — in this case, relocation costs for subject Maxim Lapunov, and his family.
Fortunately, my follow up to Welcome to Chechnya was The Mole Agent, from Chile. This was the surprise of the festival for me (and several other festival goers I encountered throughout the weekend), following an elderly gentleman hired by a PI to live undercover at a nursing home and investigate a client’s claims of elder abuse. The gentleman, Sergio, doesn’t find evidence of abuse, but he does find a lot of lonely people, who he tries his best to help. Imagine if Paddington 2 took place at a nursing home instead of a prison, Paddington was an 84-year-old man, and Brendan Gleason’s Knuckles McGinty was a little old Chilean lady who liked nicking stuff from people’s rooms. That’s The Mole Agent in a nutshell.
Day 3: Saturday, March 7
Saturday started with the Obama-produced Crip Camp, which tells the story of Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled children and adults. The freedom Jened campers felt translated into a self-made activist community, which in turn played a significant role in the fight for disabled civil rights, and the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Crip Camp is a little slick in its production, and definitely more on the traditional end of the True/False lineup, but it shines a powerful light on an underrepresented part of American history. That alone makes it worth checking out, as does the warm feeling produced by its empowering message about the far-reaching influences of chosen family and intentional community.
Collective was a spontaneous viewing choice, one that, like The Mole Agent, ended up being one of my favorites of the festival. Alexander Nanau’s Romanian film covers the aftermath of a 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest that killed dozens and injured over 100. The disaster uncovers massive corruption in Romania’s healthcare system, which in turn develops into even more tragedy and loss of life. Nanau spends half the film with a team of journalists working to uncover the truth, and the other half with a reforming minister of health trying to clean out corruption. It’s like a documentary version of The Wire, and as disturbing as it sometimes gets, it’s never less than compelling.
Day 4: Sunday, March 8
Bill and Turner Ross (Western, Tchoupitoulas) received this year’s True Vision award, a mid-career award given by the festival recognizing a filmmaker’s contributions to nonfiction cinema. I caught up with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the brothers’ latest, on Sunday. As with their other films, this one messes significantly with the line between fact and fiction, capturing moments of truth through staging that make the whole, complicated enterprise even more fascinating.
The premise is that it’s the last night of business at a bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and the regulars have all gathered for one last party. None of this, however, is actually true. The bar the brothers used is in New Orleans, not Vegas, and it’s still open. The Rosses basically street-cast a group of people they thought would bounce well off each other, gave them the general idea, and let them loose, making their own unscripted version of The Iceman Cometh. We’ve seen all these characters before, but far more glamorized. The reality (such as it is) is a lot dirtier, sadder, and honestly, a lot funnier, too.
My festival experience concluded with Feels Good Man, a kind of horror movie in documentary form about artist Matt Furie, and his most infamous creation, Pepe. Once a benign stoner character in Furie’s indie comic series Boy’s Club, Pepe was co-opted by the internet and transformed into a favored icon of the alt-right. He’s registered as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Furie, genuinely sweet and terminally chill, is understandably horrified by all of this.
Director Arthur Jones takes audiences right into the belly of the beast, exploring the significance of memes as modern day iconography and the frustrating nature of online identity. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story, done with a sense of humor and impressive visual style. Jones clearly knows Furie’s scene well, and does a good job of trying to bring it to life, while also considering one of its most ill-used creations.
Every True/False fest carries with it a myriad of themes and ideas, but none more so than the theme of community, both in the movies themselves and in how the festival operates. The news that SXSW was canceled hit on Friday afternoon, and by Saturday morning, organizers were already hard at work providing last-minute space for some canceled documentaries, including Hannibal Buress’ comedy special Miami Nights. It was just one more instance of that particularly midwest sensibility of pulling together, and the unique feeling of warmth and possibility that, among film festivals anyway, only True/False can provide.