True/False Film Fest 2013

The Ragtag Cinema in snow-covered Columbia, Missouri

The Ragtag Cinema in snow-covered Columbia, Missouri

When the True/False Film Fest invited me to Columbia, Missouri, this year, I told planners I wouldn't guarantee any coverage. If I decided to write anything, I'd put a big, fat disclaimer at the top saying they'd paid my way. So here's that disclaimer.

The thing is, I wanted to write about T/F almost immediately after I arrived, because it's clearly one of the best-managed and enjoyable film festivals within extended driving distance of Chicago. (The trip takes about seven hours, though various permutations of flying and busing are also available.) Compressing a heady mix of filmgoing and socializing into a long weekend—this year's edition ran February 28 through March 3—the event seems both intensely curatorial and casually eccentric. Or to put it another way: Never did I dream that one day I could order borscht from a Missouri cinema concession stand and then take it into a screening of Jim McBride's landmark docu-fiction David Holzman's Diary (1967).

Most easily pegged as a festival of nonfiction, the ten-year-old event also encompasses fiction features that court varying degrees of verisimilitude. Selections included Andrew Bujalski's dryly hilarious improvised comedy Computer Chess (shot on cameras used for early-'80s TV docs) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan, a fishing-trawler epic shown at CIFF that redefines notions of cinematic space. I caught up with the Sundance titles ranging from Blackfish (an obvious but effective bit of muckraking on dolphin treatment at SeaWorld) to After Tiller, a genuinely brave examination of the lives of the four doctors in the U.S. who perform third-trimester abortions. Broaching a matter that's de facto undiscussable even among pro-choicers, the movie might seem like a controversial choice for a red-state festival. (At Sundance, there was heightened security because the doctors themselves attended.) But it received long, sustained applause at the Blue Note Theater on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, it's a college town—but there's a sense, to paraphrase what directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson told me in an interview, that the movie makes the topic specific in a way that cuts across ideological divides.

Other titles came in with less buzz. The world-premiering vérité doc Northern Light might have been called They Drive Snowmobiles, Don't They? With a mix of offhand observation and uninflected social commentary, it follows snowmobilers and their families on Michigan's Upper Peninsula as the men prepare for a grueling, daylong racing competition that doubles as a potential financial salvation. One of the most buzzed-about movies was The Last Station—basically Into Great Silence relocated to a Spanish nursing home, with elderly residents instead of monks. The festival offered a head start on HBO with Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?, Sebastian Junger's memorial to his Restrepo codirector Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in 2011. Featuring ample archival footage of its subject, the film illustrates what made him a great photographer of some of the world's most volatile areas. (In a chilling moment, Hetherington notes that war photographers face increased risk of death as they grow older, as their instincts for where to find the most dangerous, photo-worthy action improve.)

Even when I didn't like a film, I could discern a programming rationale or see how it complemented another selection. The brevity of the event forces movies into conversation with each other, giving True/False a coherence that even world-class fests like Toronto don't always have. Size is a factor: It was easy to catch up with almost anything I wanted to see (there's only one film, the by-all-accounts extraordinary Sleepless Nights, that I regret missing). And the vibe itself, with filmmakers, journalists, enthusiasts and locals hobnobbing at the same parties and the Ragtag Cinema, is inclusive.

So, yeah, I suppose the invitation turned me into the fest's unofficial tourism bureau. But I'd go back next year, invite or no.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)