If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending the annual True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., I truly feel for you. Film festivals can assume an almost mythical air to movie lovers: we all dream of attending Sundance, TIFF or Cannes. But in the past decade, True/False has clawed its way into the collective conscious of cinephiles across the world. Yes, I said world: I happen to have a friend in London who makes a point of attending each year.
It’s widely regarded as one of the premiere non-fiction film festivals across the globe, and last year it was one of two Columbia film festivals listed in Huffington Post’s “10 Best Film Festivals You’ve Never Heard Of,” the other being the female-driven Citizen Jane.
Over the years, True/False has hosted a number of award-winning films, and is frequently home to quite a few documentaries in consideration for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. The 2016 festival screened Life, Animated, a 2017 nominee and one of my personal favorites of this past year.
Arguably one of the best aspects of each True/False is how the coordinators stretch the boundaries of “non-fiction.” The label isn’t so much a qualifier as it is a working debate. You’re just as likely to see films like Man on Wire and Blackfish as you are Boyhood or Kate Plays Christine.
And so with each spring, True/False rears its head in the middle of America, ready for another weekend of provocative, reflective films made by attentive, talented filmmakers. As I attend each year, I can’t help but notice the coordinators are making a distinct effort to keep up with an America that is growing more socially-conscious. It’s hard to describe the weight of sitting in the same theater as the legendary Spike Lee, watching last year’s student-made short “Concerned Student 1950” and hearing the chants of “we have nothing to lose but our chains!” from student activists. Columbia may be a little bit of a bubble in Missouri, but there’s still a sense of importance that comes with bringing these issues to America’s heartland.
This year’s festival is no different. America is, of course, polarized and politicized to the point of breaking. But don’t expect to find much relief on the weekend of March 2-5 in Columbia. This year’s True/False film festival is out to tackle these issues head-on with a lineup ready to engage, provoke and illuminate. With that in mind, here are 10 films on this year’s lineup I’ve added to my weekend schedule that I believe the film community will be talking about for the next year and beyond.
Gulîstan, Land of Roses
In a time where American political dialogue often centers around the activity of the Middle East – with a specific focus on ISIS’ activity – Gulîstan, Land of Roses focuses on a group of female fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party Free Women’s Unit. As a news producer and consumer, I’m fascinated with this subject matter and can’t wait to get a look at how gender plays a role in the fight against terrorism. It has the look of a fascinating ride-along documentary with subject matter you can only get in person.
Stranger in Paradise
The topic of refugees is a particularly hot button issue in the American news cycle right now, and it takes on a special meaning to those who claim Christ. Stranger in Paradise promises to give viewers an inside look at refugee life in Europe, which often serves as a model for American political figures to promote their own ideas. While people in these situations are often crunched down to datasets and figureheads, there are undoubtedly stories worth telling. I’m looking forward to hearing just a few of them.
It seems like every few weeks, we’re reading about the impending extinction of a certain animal. One week, it’s the giraffe. The next, it’s the elephant. Safari puts the issue of animal extinction front and center while it follows the expeditions of big-game hunters. While a documentary like this can sound judgmental, everything I’ve read suggests it’s an honest, compassionate look at people who spend their lives hunting species that may be, quite literally, on their last legs.
Brimstone & Glory
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to hear about Mexico and think of anything other than borders and walls. Wherever you fall on the issue, Mexico doesn’t get much air time that isn’t politicized. However, Brimstone & Glory moves into the depths of the country to show the wares of a local fireworks festival. I’m seeing this film at the festival’s largest venue, and I’m especially excited to take in some majesty and wonder I otherwise wouldn’t be privy to. Everything I could hope for in this film can be found in the name.
One True/False staple that I adore is the presence of films that largely focus on audience participation in art. It’s a tricky tactic to navigate, but used effectively, it produces some of the most insightful and challenging art imaginable. Last year’s Kate Plays Christine is a perfect example of a film that divided audiences, but was very clear in what it asked of those who watched. Casting JonBenet looks to be of a similar mold, exploring the decades old murder mystery and how we – as consumers of news and art – fascinate ourselves with such grim tales. If early reviews are any indication, Casting JonBenet will be a creeping, piercing work.
It’s been nearly 3 years since the shooting of Michael Brown, and Ferguson, Mo., has since moved into the cultural jargon, representing the ongoing conversation of police brutality against people of color. Whose Streets? looks as if it will approach the story from a more personal perspective, exploring the lives of Ferguson residents in the continuing aftermath of August 2014. I’m expecting to be heavily convicted, which is almost always a good, necessary thing.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Steve James is a legendary name in the documentary film community thanks to classics like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Life, Itself. Now, James is back in action with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. It was first released in 2016, making its story of of a Chinese-American run bank timely and somewhat prophetic. While exploring how the bank became somewhat of a scapegoat in the financial crisis of the mid-to-late 2000’s, Abacus looks to be an indictment of how our government treats outsiders… even when they’re not really outsiders. I can’t be sure, but I’m expecting issues of immigration, racism and capitalism to rear their heads in a three-headed monster of a film.
Back to police in America: a more recently asked question in the conversation of police brutality is how departments should go about winning the trust of the people they’re sworn to protect. The Force examines this question with a look at the Oakland Police Department. In what I’ve read, I’m expecting The Force to divide viewers. But that’s not always a bad thing. At least it might get the conversation rolling of how citizens and government should hold officers accountable to their oaths.
Sometimes the best films are ones that don’t seek to raise big questions. Instead, they just tell a story and let the audience take in the subjects and their lives. Quest looks to be one such film. It examines the life of an African-American family living in Philadelphia as they navigate the trials – and joys – of life in America. True/False can be quite demanding of audiences, and I’m expecting Quest to be an uplifting – but eye-opening – palate cleanser.
I Am Not Your Negro
In an interesting move, True/False has brought on Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro as it’s closing night film, playing in the biggest auditorium right after the closing party. It’s a film that’s gained steam in the past few months, clearly pushing for an Academy Award. In a lineup dominated by socially active and aware films, I Am Not Your Negro seems to be the apt choice to close the weekend. It’s the last film on my schedule for a reason: I’m expecting to walk away from True/False 2017 thinking of America’s past, present and future, as well as my own privilege as a white man.
Of course, these 10 films aren’t the only things worth seeing this weekend. I’m giddy to see all 16 films on my schedule, and I’m lamenting the fact that I can’t make it to every film the festival has to offer.
As True/False nears, however, I’m looking forward to what story the festival will tell. Each year as it fades into memory, True/False has a way of leaving an enduring, specific mark on my psyche. I hope as the weekend goes on, I hope I can accurately give you all a picture of not only the story True/False is trying to tell, but also how I’m personally being challenged by the films I watch.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check back in to Cinema Faith throughout the March 2-5 weekend for regular dispatches. And if you journey to Columbia for the festival, be sure to reach out. I’d love to say hello and talk film with you.