For twenty years, the True/False Film Festival has been held in downtown Columbia, Missouri. Along the way, it has become the largest documentary festival in the United States. Many Oscar nominees started their journey on the world stage after True/False premiered.
The buy-in from the local community is inspiring. The festival operates six to eight venues simultaneously for three and a half days to bring as many short and feature-length documentaries to the public as possible. Local churches allow their worship spaces to be converted into screening rooms. Local bars set up screens and install sound systems to become theater venues. It’s a grassroots effort to transform Columbia into the Sundance of Middle America.
Curation runs deep in True/False. From future major award players to short personal video essays, developers mine the world of documentary films to bring a wide range of subjects and filmmaking styles to the True/False crowds. Kudos especially to the programmers who find the wealth of foreign documentaries that play the festival each year, making True/False a rich cultural and sociological melting pot of content.
If you’re a fan of documentaries, plan to be in Columbia, Missouri the first weekend of March 2024 for the 21st edition of this amazing festival. Here are some of the highlights from the 2023 festival that will hit theaters and/or streaming services later this year:
Bobi Wine: President of the Ghetto: In the United States we have elected the Terminationist as Governor of California and a former reality show host spent four years as our president. So it should come as no surprise that celebrities and artists have been political candidates in other countries. Bobi Wine: President of the Ghetto chronicles the rise and fall of Ugandan pop star-turned-reform candidate Bobi Wine and his efforts to overthrow Yoweri Museveni, who has controlled the African country for more than 35 years. The film is a boots-on-the-ground look at Bobi Wine’s campaign and Museveni’s attempts to thwart the will of the people and suppress anything beyond the mere appearance of democracy. Directors Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp joined Wine’s campaign and chronicled the illegal arrests, attacks by government troops and intimidation faced by the young candidate and his inner circle as they try to change the course of a nation. The film is a moving portrait of an inspiring young man and a reminder of the tenuous contract between a government and its citizens if democracy is to prevail.
Art Talent Show: Directors Tomas Bojar and Adela Komrzy pull back the curtain on the admissions process at a prestigious Czech art institute. Unlike many films that have come before it, Art Talent Show it does not dwell on the stories of the individual students who apply to the prestigious school hoping to realize their dreams. Instead, the filmmakers turn their cameras on the faculty members tasked with administering the entrance exams and deciding who deserves a place in their classes. From spontaneous drawing and painting assignments to one-on-one interviews where students try to explain why they deserve acceptance from their peers, the audience experiences firsthand the rigors of the application process. Sometimes serendipity is the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Bojar and Komrzy have been blessed with an eccentric cast of faculty members who are engaging and often hilarious. Spending time with them is a pleasure. I hated to see this one end.
The walk: In the 1980s and 1990s, before a wave of gentrification marked the end of an era, New York’s Meatpacking District was where dozens of trans women made a living as sex workers. Women were considered ‘unfit’ for traditional workplaces, so they found a sense of community and a livelihood working ‘The Stroll’. Director Kristen Lovell recounts her days on the streets of the Meatpacking District and the stories of her friends and colleagues who faced police harassment and violence at a time when transgender rights were not even considered. The walk is a powerful piece of cinematography that asks an important question: What if you had to fight every day for the right to simply be yourself? The walk was made with the support of HBO Documentary Films and will appear on that streaming service later this year.
Paradise: In 2021, increasing heat in Siberia sparked forest fires in the Sakha. Although sparsely populated, there are many villages in the area where civilians live and work. Director Alexander Abaturov chronicles the efforts of the village of Shologon to fight fires before the start of the annual rainy season. The government is indifferent to their plight. The cost to fight the fires far exceeds the fair market value of the property at risk, so no government assistance will be provided. Paradise effectively documents the importance of the individual in the face of institutional failure, while also examining the unprecedented impacts of climate change on the farthest corners of our world. You can’t help but think that this will be an annual battle that the people of Sologo will eventually lose.
Y2K time bomb: As the year 2000 approached, computer scientists and programmers worried that the technology might regress when the two-digit year became 00. What if all the world’s mainframe computers failed to connect to the Internet at the end of the millennium? Bank balances, stock markets, air travel and hundreds of other data-driven industries could be affected. The concern became known as Y2K and spawned doomsayers and prophets along with think tanks and problem solvers. Y2K time bomb from HBO Documentary Films takes a look at the cultural hysteria and very real concerns created by flipping those two simple digits. Directors Brian Becker and Marley McDonald have exhaustively researched their subject and condensed it into a compelling, often funny, look at recent world history. Y2K time bomb it is not a documentary that speaks through the lens of hindsight. Instead, he wisely uses interviews and news from the time to give the film a real-time, “you’re there” feel as the fears of the crisis unfold. The real MVP of the film is editors Marley McDonald and Maya Mumma who took an avalanche of archival footage and created a sleek, lean film that never falters. (Warning to middle-aged viewers: this movie will make you feel old, very old.)
How to have an American baby: Abuse of US immigration laws takes many forms. The most common are immigrants who cross the border illegally to find work in this country. How to have an American baby explores the many legal benefits of being born in America and the tricks people use to guarantee their children are born in the US. in the US (legally or illegally) in their sixth or seventh month of pregnancy and simply wait until their child is “accidentally” born in America. It’s like human trafficking with room service. Director Leslie Tai takes a comprehensive look at the issue from the birthing mothers themselves to the maternity ward owners to the effects these ‘baby mills’ can have on the neighborhoods in which they operate. How to have an American baby is a solid piece of film journalism. It gives a balanced look at subjects that many of us are unfamiliar with and allows the public to form their own opinions.