It’s been a week since the eighth annual True/False Film Festival was in town, and I’m still enthralled by the magic of it all. I had been looking forward to the festival for quite some time. We ordered our passes back before Christmas, and a couple weeks before the festival weeknd started, we went online to select the specific movies we wanted to see. Then Tuesday night we stood in a long line outside the box office to pick up our passes and tickets. It is like a big city-wide party, where people from all over the world show up to watch these amazing documentaries that cross the line between true and false but always have strong storylines, interesting characters, beautiful cinematography, and which usually bring attention to people or places or events I haven’t heard of or thought much about before.
Paul and David and others on the film-selection committee do an amazing job selecting films for this festival. Each year, several of the documentaries shown at True/False or Ragtag Cinema end up being nominated for and often winning Oscars, which makes me proud of being from such a progressive town (as though I were personally responsible for this great festival). There is always a fair amount of stress and consternation during the somewhat complicated system of buying passes and reserving tickets, with different pass levels (Gold, Silver, Lux, Simple) having assigned times when they can go online to reserve tickets, but the instructions on the festival website are clear and good humored. This year people who weren’t sure they wanted to invest in an entire weekend of movie going could purchase a three-movie pass, and there are always a limited number of single tickets available for those who don’t want to buy any kind of pass. Still, for first timers, it can be confusing. The disappointment generally comes when people realize that having a pass does not guarantee that you will get into all the movies you wanted, because people with higher pass levels get to select their movies first, and some of the venues are quite small. We have probably all experienced the disappointment of seeing the films we carefully selected going “NRT” (no reserve tickets) as we are ordering tickets.
This year we had a Lux pass, and I logged on the very minute we were able to reserve tickets (along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others who had the same Lux passes). I had done my research and had prepared a detailed list of first choices and alternates in case those were sold out, and I clicked through the list quickly and got all my first choices, but then, being the compulsive conscientious person I am, I thought I had better review my selections to make sure I had clicked the right buttons, and immediately one of the first films went “NRT,” so I panicked and hit “submit” before anything else became unavailable. Still, I think that hype is part of the fun. I know that even when I don’t get tickets to the all the films I think I want to see most, I can hardly go wrong. Every one of the films is worth seeing, and there are always other options, even after all the tickets have been reserved.
You can almost guarantee there will be tickets available to the films in the larger venues, such as the Missouri Theater. Also, people reserving tickets often overestimate how many films they can actually take in during one weekend or they forget to leave time in their schedules for, say, meals, so there is a good possibility there will be seats available even when all the tickets were reserved. To take advantage of that situation, you just need to navigate the infamous “Q” system, which actually works very well. An hour before the film you want to see, you go pick up a number, and then fifteen minutes before the film starts, you stand in the “Q” and wait until they call the numbers and hope you have a low enough number to get one of the remaining seats. If all else fails, some of the better films will be brought back later in the year and shown at the Ragtag Cinemacafe. And some, but not all, will eventually be released on DVD or through Netflix.
This year I deliberately avoided choosing the films most likely to depress me, unlike last year when I saw far too many films about environmental disasters, or previous years, when I saw too many war stories that made me worry even more about my son, who has been deployed to war zones during three of the eight film festivals so far. Still, it’s hard to know from the brief descriptions and the single images what the films will be like; sometimes I just have to trust Paul and David. Over the years, some of the films I thought sounded okay but not great turned out to be among my favorites—like Murder Ball, which was about a paraplegic basketball team that was brutally competitive and broke down all stereotypes about disabled people. When members of the basketball team appeared in the theater after the film, the audience erupted in applause. This year I probably would have skipped the film called Buck, thinking I don’t care that much about horses, except that it’s the one chosen to show in the Missouri Theatre after the Reality Bites reception and thus, almost guaranteed to be a winner.
The festival no longer has one big opening film that everybody goes to (with 40,000 people in attendance, the festival has gotten much too big for that), so there will be four or five other films showing at the same time, but by its placement in the schedule, Buck is getting special emphasis, so I definitely want to see what it’s about. Another one I might not have chosen just based on the description is the final film, Life in a Day, which was constructed from thousands of short clips taken all over the world on the same day in July 2010 and then edited into a coherent film. That should be mind boggling and visually stimulating. I also deliberately did not choose any films that start after 10:00 p.m., knowing I would be bleary-eyed and overstimulated by then. Even with a fistful of tickets to thirteen films in four days, I was only able to see about one-fourth of all the films showing during the weekend. In addition to the films, there are always parties and receptions and parades and workshops and all kinds of excitement going on around town that I am also not able to take in. But I love mingling with all the people downtown, greeting friends who are among the 700+ volunteers helping run the festival, marvelling at the wacky and creative costumes, hearing people talk about their favorite movies, listening to the musicians who are brought in from all over the country to entertain us while we stand in lines or wait for the shows to start, feeling the sheer creative energy that is focused downtown each year at the border between winter and spring, and enjoying the very postmodern experience of watching so many people carrying around cameras to film the festival itself.
Here are the films I saw this year, which you should definitely watch for in theaters near you:
- Benda Belili
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
- North From Calabria
- Wisconsin Death Trip
- Secret Screening White (I can’t tell you the title; we were sworn to secrecy until after the official release)
- Project Nim
- Page One: Inside the New York Times
- The Woman with Five Elephants
- The Pruitt Igoe Myth
- Life in a Day
I enjoyed them all, but my favorites were probably Buck, The Woman with Five Elephants, and Page One. From snippets of conversation heard around town, I missed many other excellent films, which I hope to catch at a later date.