True/False Film Festival 2017 Wrap-Up

We’re a few weeks out from the end of True/False 2017 and, honestly, it’s been somewhat difficult to collect my thoughts. Being a Columbia native for the past 5 years, True/False almost feels like an out-of-body experience every year. For one weekend, the mid-Missouri college town transforms into this nearly unrecognizable place, full of bright-eyed people of all ages and backgrounds. That’s not to say Columbia isn’t always lively, but True/False brings a special atmosphere. And the day after? It’s back to the way things were.

Taking that experience, along with 15 or so films each year, and putting it into words is difficult. Do I write about my favorite films? Do I write about messages the curators were trying to pass along? Or do I single out moments in time I found special, like the one time I met Owen Suskind, subject of Life, Animated on the street corner? I told him I loved his movie. He responded with the biggest smile and the liveliest, “Thank you!” I’d ever received. True/False is always full of those little moments, even if they’re just talking with strangers about all the great films you’ve seen.

I confess it could be easy to talk about the high quality of this year’s festival: I saw 15 films and only disliked one. But that seems like an easy target and one I shouldn’t be surprised by. Each year, the True/False coordinators seem to learn more and more about making what is by now a world-class festival better than it ever was. I imagine my standards are just as high for them as theirs are for themselves.

It could also be pretty easy to talk about some of my favorite films: the brashly original realizations of Casting JonBenet; the raw fury of Whose Streets?; the poetic simplicity of Quest. All of these and more are great works, deserving of all the praise they’re getting. Their subjects have vital stories to tell, and thank God someone is out there telling them.

But again, that’s a pretty standard way to quantify an experience — by picking out the brightest moments. And I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to the experience either. It wasn’t my most exuberant moment, but arguing about the difficult voices and messages of Manifesto with my fiancé and friends was one of the most essential True/False experiences I’ve ever had. Hearing my decision to skip Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? — so I could get a good seat for Brimstone & Glory — was ill-advised and tough. The former had been one of my most anticipated films, but fell victim to a packed schedule and the end of a long, hard day. Still, these tougher moments of the festival are a vital part of what makes it so enthralling. And besides, I’d much rather be arguing about whether or not the movie was good rather than sitting at work moping about the films I’d missed.

So what is it about True/False 2017 that I want to share with those who weren’t there? I could praise how empathetic this year’s festival felt. Through films like Safari and Gulîstan: Land of Roses, I was able to pull back the curtain on worlds I’d never have imagined existed. And Stranger in Paradise was a twisted, jarring way to view the migrant crisis in Europe from across the ocean. But through each film, I was able to find a part of myself that I either liked or despised and self-evaluate along the way. I asked tough questions about my own frames of mind, questions I still don’t have answers to. But at least I’m asking them now. Or I could talk about the stark calls to reality from pieces like The Force or Whose Streets? I like to think of myself as a progressive thinker, but how do my values and ideals really stand up in the face of long-standing corruption and toxic cultures of power? Not as well as I’d hoped, I’ve discovered. These too have been hard thoughts, but one’s I’m grateful to have had.

Round and round I go, thinking of ways to categorize and mold my experiences from True/False into a neat picture, aimed at exhorting the fest’s virtues and encouraging you to come along for the ride next year.

But the truth is, whenever I hone in on one particular thought, another comes to me. Whenever I consider the value of my personal experiences, I think of a conversation I had with someone who experienced something entirely different. I saw 15 films a few weeks ago, and at least one person at the fest saw 15 that I didn’t. Their experience couldn’t be more different than mine if they tried.

And that’s partially the reason I find True/False more worthy of praise after each subsequent year. Yes, the film selections get better and better. And yes, the music/food/drink selections are always on the rise as Columbia reaps the benefits of True/False’s cultivating work. But I would be remiss to recommend True/False just because of the movies, music, or culinary options. Because at some point, it all blurs together. I can tell you just as much about the last beer I drank on Sunday night as the first movie I saw on Saturday morning — I think it was Dina?

Those things are all well and good, but if there’s anything I want you to experience, it’s the wholeness of True/False weekend. It’s the rapid pace of running from venue to venue with a slice of Pizza Tree pizza in your hand, shaking as your shoes slap the pavement. It’s the back-and-forth that gets a little too heated when you come out of a movie you liked, but your friends thought was pretentious. And it’s the way it all starts on a Thursday night and is completely gone in 96 hours.

By the end of the True/False Film Festival each year, almost none of it feels real. But as each year goes by, I find everything — films, bands, conversations, people, etc. — to be more worth my time, money and emotion than ever before.

Some Post Wrap-Up Thoughts

I know the above piece was highly editorialized, so I took some time to jot down more concise thoughts here:

  • Casting JonBenet, my favorite film of the festival, is coming to Netflix in April. Make plans to watch it.
  • Retroactively, I Am Not Your Negro would have been a Top 10 film for me in 2016.
  • Whose Streets? Is essential viewing for anyone interested in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
  • You may not get many chances at them, so if Gulîstan, Land of Roses, Safari, or Lindy, Lou, Juror Number 2 ever swing by a theater in town, make time for them.
  • I’d be shocked if Dina, The Force, and Step weren’t widely available to American audiences during the summer.
  • Brimstone & Glory isn’t essential viewing, but is quite majestic if you can see it on the big screen.

Thanks to everyone who read our coverage of True/False 2017. And thanks to True/False for putting on such a fantastic festival each year. Hopefully, we’ll get to do it again next year.