Our generous friends over at the Blue Note gifted us with four tickets to Andrew Bird on January 16th, which means we’re giving away a ticket a day to four lucky pass purchasers. With your purchase of a Lux Pass (or higher!), you’ll be entered to win a FREE ticket Andrew Bird at the Blue Note! Act fast, we’ve only got four tickets and four days. Winners will be notified January 14th, 6pm. Comment on our Facebook if you purchased a pass (today-Saturday) and want a ticket to the ingenious Mr. Bird.
We’re taking our nonfiction showcase on the road! True/False presents a special screening of Thy Father’s Chair at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago for one night only: Wednesday, January 4, 2017. As with all of T/F’s film events, the stage is set with a band: the wide-ranging Mar Caribe will play at 7pm. Then stay for one of 2016’s best documentaries (and T/F ’16 alum) THY FATHER’S CHAIR beginning at 7:30pm followed by a post-film conversation with director Antonio Tibaldi.
A chamber piece par excellence, Thy Father’s Chair profiles aging twins Abraham and Shraga, forced to open their derelict Brooklyn apartment to professional cleaners. The crew turn out to be counselors of the higher order who seek to rescue the brothers from themselves. Both wry and warm-hearted, Thy Father’s Chair has a clear-eyed appreciation for life’s contradictions. Plays with “Balloonfest” (dir. Nathan Truesdell, 6 min.) in which civic pride comes untethered.
We’re thrilled to announce that we have recently received a $6,800 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council (MHC) for our Filmmaker Education Ambassadors program. The MHC is the only state-wide agency in Missouri devoted exclusively to humanities education for citizens of all ages. It has served as a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities since 1971.
The T/F Filmmaker Education Ambassador program exists to connect students and community members with expert documentary filmmakers and scholars. True/False consistently brings world-class filmmakers to Columbia, Missouri who explore all manner of subjects. In the last few years, films have ranged from Sonita, about child marriage in Afghanistan, to Something Better To Come, an anthropological portrait of living in one of the largest dumps in Russia, to Western about a town on the US-Mexican border, to stories that cover the lives of writers, and more. We believes in the power of pairing film with the experts who made them to ignite dialogue. Together, we learn to reimagine what’s possible.
For the 2017 installment of True/False, Filmmaker Education Ambassadors will consist of four major components: a Filmmaker Discussion Series for the general public, Filmmaker-Designed Workshops for high school students, Camp True/False for high schoolers from Columbia and beyond, and the Student Symposium for students of all ages. These events will take place over the course of the four-day festival. The goal is to facilitate interactions between Missourians and humanities experts and scholars. Through these interactions, we aim to explore ideas and deepen our understanding of the world around us.
The filmmakers participating in the Filmmaker Education Ambassador program as well as the specific times and locations of the events themselves will be finalized by early 2017 and advertised then.
For more information about the grants program of the Missouri Humanities Council, call 314.781.9660 or 800.357.0909 or write to the MHC: 415 South 18th Street, Suite 100, St. Louis, Missouri 63103. You can also read more about our educational initiatives, here.
One year ago, True/False’s hometown suddenly became the focus of the entire nation’s attention. Its major institution, the University of Missouri, was rocked by historic protests by the student group Concerned Student 1950. Last year also saw the launch of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, an exciting new program overseen by Stacey Woelfel and T/F multi-alum Robert Greene. Three students from this new program, Adam Dietrich, Kellan Marvin and Varun Bajaj, embedded themselves in the Concerned Student movement in order to tell its story from the inside, capturing the rapid acceleration of events surrounding Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, climaxing in the resignation of UM System President Tim Wolfe.
Dietrich, Marvin and Bajaj then began a collaboration with Field of Vision; a new documentary initiative led by nonfiction luminaries A.J. Schnack, Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook. The final result was Concerned Student 1950, a powerful short film which had its world premiere in front of a rapturous crowd at the historic Missouri Theatre during True/False 2016. The film is now available to watch online.
Shortly after the 2016 fest, we got the chance to chat with Adam, Kellan and Varun about this whirlwind film…
True/False: To begin, could you tell me how you first got started covering this story?
Adam Dietrich: We were in class talking about some of the footage from the protest at the Homecoming parade that happened a couple weeks before and then looking at an article about the first day of the hunger strike. We had (Western co-director) Bill Ross in class guest lecturing that day. Our professor Stacey Woelfel posed the question “if you were going to try to make a movie about this, how would you do it?” Bill said you should just grab a camera, go shoot and figure it out as you go along. That started it for me. Right after class we got cameras and tried to go shoot. They didn’t let us in right away; they just gave us an email. I went through my Facebook friends and tried to find a connection to Jonathan Butler or one of the other original members of Concerned Student 1950. I found a woman who I used to work with who sent him a text message saying I was legit.
True/False: Can you tell me about how you built trust with the members of the movement in order to get access?
Varun Bajaj: We were very worried from the beginning about whitewashing this story, and we were very upfront about that worry and that we wanted to tell their narrative from their perspective. We maintained our access with our subjects because we put down our cameras as much as possible. We would help move water or set up tents, or stop to eat or pray with people. It was about those moments when we were we said “we’re students too and this affects all of us. It’s not just about us and our cameras. We’re students that are here supporting you as well as people who want to tell the story we are experiencing.” Just sharing a meal and praying with someone can go further than anyone can imagine.
T/F: I really like the way the film opens with juxtaposing the campus tour and the mock tour. Was that something you found right away?
Kellan Marvin: They rehearsed that tour of “the Real Mizzou” a couple times at the Black Cultural Center and then went out and performed it a couple times around campus. We had originally been playing around with the idea of cutting through that, from this location to this location, showing that they repeated it so many times. But it was never at the beginning. We originally wanted everything to be linear because we couldn’t really imagine telling the story working in any other way. The idea of placing that scene at the beginning was a cool thing that Erin Casper, the outside editor from Field of Vision, did when she came on. She had this outsider’s perspective. It didn’t really matter to her as much if things were out of order.
T/F: Could you tell me more about how the collaboration with Field of Vision began and how it worked?
AD: So Field of Vision: A.J. Schnack, Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook. The day before Tim Wolfe resigned A.J. called up Robert and asked if he could make a movie about what was happening. Robert said, “I’m not going to do that because I already have students out there filming” and A.J said “that’s even better, we want to see what they have.” Up until that point we had been filming, not for no reason, but with no endgame in mind. They kind of gave us a clear purpose.
VB: Once they got involved, things went from 0 to 60 pretty fast. We officially got Kellan on board, although she had already worked with us some.
Once we stopped shooting we put together an assembly for them and then it became a very collaborative process. At first Robert and Kellan were going to edit the film, but then Robert his film (Kate Plays Christine) into Sundance the same week, so they hired Erin out of New York. The three of us pretty much had final cut on everything, but between Laura, A.J., Robert and Stacey we had centuries of film experience working on this movie. It was really incredible. Just the concept that Laura Poitras is reading our notes and watching our film and helping us put it together is crazy.
AD: Erin and I would talk at least an hour a day for the last two or three weeks. She was sending us a new cut or at least scene edits every two or three days. Working with this group of people it was hard not to make something great. It was a lot of fun for sure.
T/F: Going back to that “Real Mizzou Tour” opening scene, I think it gives a good sense that this movement is an ongoing thing that isn’t just starting here.
VB: I think what I really like about that scene is that you get to see that these are students. They are practicing and learning every step of the way. You get to see the first time they perform it and then the last time, when they’ve done it four or five times. That last time they performed right after someone shouted “white power” at them.
We also wanted to something that showed our access. We had a lot of good footage that was shot outside that anyone could have had, but because we were the only ones who had access to the movement, we needed something right up front that showed that we had both the inside and the outside.
T/F: It is kind of interesting this idea of filming a performance, but shooting it in a way where the camera doesn’t just become part of the audience. Do you have any thoughts about that?
VB: I shot both of those scenes. When I shot the first one the thought in my head was “oh, they’re practicing? I can practice shooting.” That’s why I shot that first morning, which thank God I did.
The scene I’m most proud of shooting is that second protest, when you see them actually performing. As soon as they got there they lined up in the hallway, which was unusual. I figured out they were going to one at a time speak up front, and I figured screw it, I’ll be up front too to get the audience reaction, because I’ve already got them saying it five times, and it was a group of white women watching them. By the time the first two people went I realized how much more emotionally charged this version was going to be because they had just been berated by someone yelling “white power”. As soon as Taylor says “I’ve got a high GPA, I do what you want me to, but you still see us as just a bunch of the N-words” I immediately realized I needed to get the black students reacting to it too, because that’s not just an experience she’s had, that’s an experience that they’ve all had. So that’s why I walked over and filmed everyone else.
AD: I wasn’t in that specific room, but I had filmed all of the other protests up to that one. Being in those other rooms when they did that same protest, by the third one you’re kind of on autopilot. You’re not really hearing what they’re saying anymore, which kind of changes filming a documentary I think. Part of filming a documentary is that it’s always live and on-the-fly, but having that performance aspect, you get to refilm the same scene multiple times and fine-tune the pacing with them, it’s kind of like what I imagine filming a fiction film is like. The way I read that scene, especially not being in that room, I can feel Varun’s gut instinct, not listening, focusing on the framing and the mood of the room and everything else going on.
KM: And it’s more of a cinematic look. We shot on the (Canon EOS) 7D which I’m not a huge fan of because the zoom sucks. If he had been shooting as part of the audience you never would have gotten those shots of someone’s face while they are sobbing and sharing their story. That was the one thing that really impressed me, that he knew what his camera was capable of, which I think a lot of people don’t take into consideration. It’s not just an artistic eye, it’s knowledge of the equipment you are using.
T/F: Did you have an overall philosophy to doing interviews in the film?
VB: We didn’t do any of those interviews until a couple weeks after we stopped filming. Those interviews are all afterwards because we wanted it to be completely observational but we did not realize what we needed to do to make that happen.
T/F: Why did you feel like you needed them?
KM: We talked to Field of Vision, and they thought it was still not clear and that we had to use too many title cards. We were trying to get them to actually say out loud “this happened with Melissa Click, this happened with the media, this happened on such and such a day” so we didn’t have to use title card after title card after title card.
AD: For me, it allowed us to create a deeper sense of character. We had a lot of the same faces of the people who became our main characters in some of the earlier cuts, but we never really got to know them.
VB: The way we framed them talking directly to the camera, in the way I thought about it, they are not talking to us, they are talking directly to the viewer.
T/F: It is interesting inserting footage into a film that the audience is already familiar with, such as the scene of Wolfe in Kansas City interacting with protesters and particularly the Mark Schierbecker/Melissa Click video.
VB: I think those things are very familiar to an audience here in Columbia, I think the people watching this nationally and internationally would not be as familiar. The Tim Wolfe footage I don’t think people outside of Columbia have seen at all. The Mark Schierbecker video we didn’t have in there for a long time.
AD: There was a weird restructuring where we originally introduced that Melissa Click footage through some of our main characters watching it on a computer and talking about it, but we eventually decided to get rid of that and just use the footage itself because it is a little more immersive.
VB: I think that Schierbecker footage really plays because it’s almost a montage of journalists interacting with the protesters at that point. You have the build-up of the first kid outside the circle say “Bro, what are you doing, why are you blocking my camera?” And the second one in the circle says, ”You’re going to respect us” “Why are you turning your phone on?” “I’m just checking my notes”. And then the last one: “I’m just here to tell a story” “No you’re not”. I think it puts that one video in context of everything that was happening that day, especially because you see Melissa Click get manhandled earlier by that other reporter.
T/F: I really like the scene of Wolfe’s resignation and how you captured the weird energy in the room in the lead up.
AD: It’s awesome that you touch on that because that was something that we fought about and talked through and changed and restructured up until two days ago.
KM: What actually happened was that the conference call wasn’t working, so he actually resigned twice. Also, one of the curators stood up and said “Mr. Butler’s father is in the hallway if you want to talk to him.” And Wolfe was like “No, I just want to give my speech.” We originally wanted him saying that he resigned twice, but it made more sense to build the tension throughout the scene. Only we would find it funny that he resigns twice.
AD: It was about, like you said, the energy. Kellan and I were there that day and being in that moment was incredibly weird and uncomfortable. Restructuring the scene and moving things around was about trying to rebuild that energy without losing context, because to play that scene as a whole, him getting up and resigning, the conference call cutting him off and the technical difficulty, the curator talking about Mr. Butler in the hallway, and then another resignation, makes absolutely no sense in a storytelling sense. It doesn’t get any of the information to the viewer in a proper format; it’s just a mess. It is a pinnacle point of the story, but we also let the resignation be more than just “I resign” and tried to portray what that room felt like. So I’m just really stoked that you felt that energy.
VB: I wasn’t there, but my favorite part of the scene is when Tim Wolfe says to the guy on the phone “Can you hear me now?” because this is all about a lack of communication. That’s probably my favorite line in the movie.
T/F: I also think the final scene works really well. Can you tell me about deciding to end there? Because obviously this story is still going on, there are still things happening.
KM: We really didn’t really know when to stop. We were still filming stuff this semester. Originally we had another protest in Greektown and Jesse Hall, the “we are not afraid march”, in mind as the ending, but it was too much of a bookend. Too much of a happy ending.
VB: It’s still happening. We didn’t want an ending where it seemed like it was happy and it was over because it is not over and they are not happy.
Having it end with that town hall, DeRay (Mckesson) was in the room who is running for mayor of Baltimore, Netta (Elzie) was in the room from Ferguson, both huge activists, Jonathan was done with his hunger strike so he was feeling back to a hundred percent, but it was still so scary. I don’t know how to describe the emotion of that room other than powerful. So when you have Ayanna (Poole), who is one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met, leading that, with me right in her face. I didn’t know I had that footage at first, but I don’t think there was anything else we could have ended with.
AD: After going through it so many times, Erin sent us that idea in one of her cuts and it just stuck. I don’t think we even needed to talk about it. I don’t think it was ever disputed.
T/F: To finish, could you tell me about the experience of premiering the film at True/False?
VB: The way we got accepted to True/False is that Pamela (Cohn) reached out and then Kellan cut together the silent piece (featured on 2016’s The Great Wall). Once they saw that they were like “Wow, let’s see what else you guys have.” We had something to show them on Friday, told us they programmed it on Sunday, announced it on Wednesday morning and we finished the film Wednesday afternoon to play Saturday.
Eight days before our film premiered that we found out that True/False was interested.
AD: It was crazy.
T/F: How about the screening itself on Saturday night?
VB: It was like watching a home video with 1200 of your closest family and friends. People were cheering during it. And then when it ended, we had all eleven of the original (Concerned Student 1950) members and they just stood up and started chanting. It was chills and cheers. I kept crying and wanted to throw up. It was amazing, the fact that the students that allowed us to film them and did this amazing thing on campus could be a part of showing the film. We made it, but it has nothing to do with us is was about them. The fact that they could be a part of that screening was really, really special.
AD: It was insane. It didn’t feel real. The whole weekend of True/False it didn’t feel like it was actually going to happen and then sitting there in the audience watching it it didn’t feel it was happening. And then afterwards talking to Charlotte, who was the former programmer at Hot Docs, she said she didn’t think she had ever been in such an electric screening ever.
Concerned Student 1950 is now available to watch online.
Boone Dawdle 2016 fundraiser for True/False Film Festival. Photo by Stephen Bybee for True/False.
Bill and Turner Ross, two brothers from Ohio who now call New Orleans home, drove five states north to join T/F for one hot summer afternoon. The Ross brothers’ third feature film, Contemporary Color, was featured at T/F’s annual Boone Dawdle, a bike ride and blufftop screening along the Missouri River. Contemporary Color finds creative ways to document an unusual concert of new, original songs written for the nation’s top color guards, organized by David Byrne (Talking Heads). T/F’s Allison Coffelt sat down with the filmmakers while they were in Columbia.
True/False: Can you talk a bit about the decisions you made when you were thinking about how to approach this project as a version of a concert doc, or an event film? It’s not oriented around a single person’s experience or following one person through; how did you come to the structure you have?
Turner Ross: You’re working with David Byrne who’s responsible for one of the greatest concert films of all time. You don’t want to just delve back into that straightforward approach. Nor did we want to make a emotional journey you know, with one character– let’s isolate this person– because it was such a collective experience: the musicians, the stagehands, the kids on the floor, our team making the movie. It was such an egalitarian experience where everybody was involved and everybody was invested. So, to truly isolate any of those one things for too long– I think what would would have WEIGHTED it down, and really would have done an injustice to the actual experience of being there.
And so we chose to take vignettes, little pieces of those things, and share them, and sort of ride the currents of these experiences. So you can have this emotional uplift with music, or you can have this emotional uplift with a character who goes through this valley with somebody, but it’s quick and passing. The music is fluid, these interactions are fluid and allowed us to go into these kids’ heads for a brief period of time, but then also to be present.
Our inspirations for this thing, although they sound comical, really did feed into what we wanted to do, which is things like professional wrestling from the ‘80s where you’d have these really heavy-handed narratives, but you’d only have a little bit each time you went to the show– you know, just be a little piece of the narrative, and so if you dropped into that world that was just crazy; or “The Muppet Show” when you go backstage with Kermit and he’s just frazzled and doesn’t know what to do, and then all of a sudden you’re with Statler and Waldorf up in the stands, and then all of a sudden you’re on stage and then maybe you’re in the audience blowing yourself up. It’s just all these little pieces moving around—
Bill Ross: This was our actual pitch to David–
TR: –Who was totally into it! (laughter). He was the first person to ever say, “guys that sounds great; your rambling nonsense is good stuff!” But we love that in those environments that you are completely welcomed in, absorbed and sucked into the life and current of these moving spaces. And that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want to create this artificial structure; it already has a structure. You’re already in the space for this period of time, and we wanted to allow that to happen, but also to drift in and out.
T/F: I wanted to ask you about how you made editorial decisions about the drifting. For instance, I noticed sometimes we would meet someone, like a musician, and then we would see a couple of songs. Then, maybe three acts later, their song would come on. What were you looking for when you looked at different pieces?
BR: Well, anything that we do is to present the feeling that we had while we were there. So wandering those hallways, you would bump into people throughout the show. We didn’t want to set it up in the film like, “Okay here’s this guy, and then we’re going to see them perform and that’ll be that.” They are existing just as we are and we’re all floating through the space.
Editorially, we really fell in love with all these folks, and we wanted to continually pop in and see them, and see, where are they now? Are they up in the stands watching? Are they In the back goofing off? We wanted this very circular thing.
TR: It’s kind of a stream of consciousness narrative rather than a predictable one, because the problem with the show, and then the interludes, and moving in-and-out is: if you started to develop a consistency, you start to develop an expectation, which just took you out of it. If we showed a performer and then the performance, showed a performer then the performance, it could just become really tedious. As frustrating as it can be to occasionally pull away from a song or wonder where the hell this is going, it’s like, well, you can go anywhere you want and try to create some unpredictability so this is a journey in which you can be surprised.
T/F: I really like the idea of having the viewer go on the same journey that you’re on as you’re doing it. Of making it experiential and having the viewing experience mimic the actual experience.
BR: I mean, we all work in the same office in New Orleans, and you’re sitting there watching a performance and you’re like, “I wonder what Ad-Rock is up to right now? I would love to come backstage and see what he’s doing”, and so we shot it like that. Those options could be had and so that’s the way the film was cut.
TR: We had an interesting conversation a couple weeks ago –we were at an event on a panel of people who want to talk about VR, virtual reality– whether that’s the death of what we’re doing, and all of that. This is kind of our own virtual reality experience.
What would happen if you dropped yourself in the space? Where would you go? Where would you look? What would you want to do? For me the difference between the two is, yeah, you could put on a headset and fly into this room and move around space at will, but the actual experience of being there and really feeling the energy of the space, getting to know these people, and feeling it out really dictated the way that we constructed the film, the choices that we made and certain rhythms we adhered to. It is different. You really that like the sense of being in that space with these people, and the emotional kineticism of the space. It was something that stuck with us for a long time and really dictated how we did things.
T/F: How would you describe the feeling of being in that space in that moment, personally?
TR: It was awesome. It’s a stupid word, but—(laughter), but in the real sense, it was awesome. We make these small movies together. We go out in the world with our little cameras, and the two of us and sort of recklessly find things that we like. And in this experience we were in the f***ing Barclay Center with complete control of everything. And a team working around us, and permission to do everything. That permission was access to this incredible event where you have hundreds of kids for whom this might as well be the Olympics. It’s the same energy, the same emotional outpouring- they’re invested, they’re waving flags at the Barclay center…that’s insane! People are paying attention to them and it’s not piped-in music on stage– it’s St. Vincent, it’s David Byrne. So you think of how these people were feeling, and the response the give and take. And just having access to be able to float around that world. Aside from what we do, my favorite spaces is dream space. You can do anything you want there. You can create anything you want, and this was a situation where we were very much in that dream space. We had everything at our disposal and this wild universe was swirling around us. We had all the tools in which we could say: “Send the people this direction, send the people that direction. I’m gonna go climb up on stage right now.” Just kind of drifting through and allowing everybody to be themselves and capture this environment. It was profoundly emotional for me. What about you Bill?
BR: Well, I’ve never been in the circus but I would imagine this was fairly close to what that experience must be like. It was very athletic; we played sports growing up and it felt like a lot of nervous energy– you have one shot to perform, to do well, to kill it. And that was on the kids. That was on the musicians. That was on us, making the film. So there is this very heightened sense-of-being for three hours, and when it’s all over everyone rushed backstage. It was this outpouring of emotion because we had all pulled off the show. There was a lot of hugging, the kids were crying, we were high-fiving and talking about what we’re gonna do after the fact and it was just… Like the next day I remember like we all woke up and started texting each other just like: I’m so sad, like profoundly sad, like summer camp was over. This great journey that we’d all gone on –a very intense journey we’d all gone on– was now over, and it sort of felt like a very, very bizarre dream. I think that’s what we had hoped the the film would feel like as well. I think it does. I think we made what we wanted to make anyway; I hope it comes across.
If you missed it at the Dawdle, keep an eye out – Contemporary Color will be released by Oscilloscope in 2017.
You’ve seen the pictures. The numerous bike helmets, bright smiles, the big tree, the color guard…but this year, we captured the T/F Boone Dawdle another way. If you’ve never been, this offers a glimpse into the day’s events: the fun, the energy, and community. If you were there, this should help you reclaim a bit of that 2016 Dawdle delight. So, put on your headphones, take a sip of your Schlafly, close your eyes, and reminisce with us for the next 4 minutes:
If you missed seeing SHERPA at the 2016 festival, it is fittingly now widely available. Naturally, we strongly recommend watching it on the biggest screen you can find. I mean, we recommend that for most films, but this *IS* Everest after all – it deserves some breathing room. Missing our post-film director Q&As is another matter, but if you couldn’t connect with Jennifer Peedom at the fest, we can offer the next best thing – we had the fortunate opportunity to chat more in-depth with Jennifer about her stunning film. Watch, read, enjoy.
True/False:With the wild turns this story takes it is hard to imagine your vision of it at the beginning was anything like it was at the end. How did this project first began?
Jennifer Peedom: I had worked as camera operator on Everest on and off for over a decade. I had worked on three of the expeditions with the Sherpas at the heart of this film. And I became interested in how little of their story ended up in the mainstream Everest documentaries, much less the big Hollywood blockbusters version. Initially, Sherpas are incredibly reserved people. Since my first expedition where I did my own little film for a program here called Dateline. I guess I’ve always had this film bubbling around in my mind. In 2006 I went most of the way to the summit and seeing what really goes on, particularly on summit day, and what an extraordinary job the Sherpas have to do to get the climbers to the summit and back alive and the extent to which that narrative gets cut out of the story because it lessens the other narrative, the foreigners’ hero story narrative, it seemed like a real opportunity to make something.
So back to your question, the vision of the film I made was not that different from the vision we started with. I wanted to make a film about what really goes on on Everest. I wanted to make a film that spoke to the spirituality of the mountain and what the mountain means to the people and how their families feel about it and all those things that ended up in the film. The only difference is we no longer had a narrative of an ascent, instead we had a much more political film. We didn’t know that the worst disaster in the history of the mountain was going to happen while we were filming. It highlighted the risks I was trying to highlight in a way nothing else could.
I will say at the time we didn’t really know we had a film until I got home and spent a few weeks watching the rushes and also understanding the rushes. A lot of stuff, when you don’t have a translator on the ground you don’t understand everything that’s being said. So it took awhile to figure out the story we had.
T/F:Part of what is fascinating to me about this story is that the spiritual and the commercial aspects of Everest are so intertwined, on both sides, for both the Sherpas and the tourists, and you can’t really pick them apart.
JP: Yeah, I think one thing that really struck a cord about the film, a comment I’ve heard that I’ve liked is that it is so morally complex. It doesn’t take the high ground. At the end of the film we’re not saying necessarily don’t climb Everest. In fact the Sherpas need the foreigners and the foreigners need the sherpas. So it’s this mutually complicated, very tricky relationship. It’s two cancelled seasons in a row and it’s not clear how that situation is going to play out. The sherpas have had very little income for that time on top of the fact that most of their houses have been destroyed or badly damaged by the earthquake. Phurba Tashi himself has been really struggling. They need Everest to continue, but what they learned when they cancelled the season is that they have more power than they realized. And so whether or not people should climb Everest I’d just hope that they’d watch the film. One thing I found strange about the whole Everest thing is the extent to which you can bury your head in the sand. So one thing I’d ask if you were going to climb Everest is to be aware of what you’re asking other people to do, the risks you’re asking them to take on your behalf.
T/F:Can you tell me some about the logistics of filming a movie on Everest?
JP: In some ways it is so well set up over there. There’s so many crews on Everest, and over the years systems have been developed. It kind of makes it easier than you might think, than going into some foreign wilderness where no one has ever filmed before. The obvious logistics is getting a whole bunch of equipment to an isolated place. Part of the difficulty is getting crews that can handle the altitude. And that’s hard. It’s probably the reason I got all of those gigs a number of years ago. Not a lot of bodies can function well enough at altitude.
And then you’ve got the logistics, there’s no fixed structure at base camp, it’s just a tent city that springs up. There’s no power, so the really big challenge is keeping computers warm and batteries charged. most of that we do on solar power where we could and then use generators when we run out. Things like computers have to be put with hot water bottles into little sleeping bags every night. It just kind of goes with the territory. You get used to it and I had really hand picked a great team, including the great cinematographer Renan Ozturk, who’s also one of the subjects of Meru. He’s an amazing cinematographer. I also choose another cinematographer Hugh Miller. who I worked with on Everest Beyond the Limit who’s a real veteran, and has climbed Everest three times.
The other thing that we did was that we went ahead a couple months early with cameras, and Phurba helped us pick two young Sherpas who he thought were good potential camera operator. We trained these two young guys to film things we wouldn’t have access to. You see a lot of their material in the film. They were there to film base camp being set up. To be honest I didn’t really have high expectations, but when I got there and saw what they filmed it was very impressive. It meant we got greater access to their world. They filmed going through the icefall as you see in the film. We put GoPros on them. It ended up adding layers that we never really would have gotten and when things got really messy we wound up having more Sherpas on our team. They went down and filmed that first protest that was really Sherpas only. And all of these other guys were saying “What’s this? Who are you working for?” and the word kind of spread about our film. And that wound up having real benefits.
T/F:Did you have an overall philosophy to the cinematography? It seems like there might be a danger of making things too pretty, like everything you point at up there is so gorgeous . . .
JP: You say that, but it can look really ordinary, believe it or not. Certainly if I was the one shooting it would look really ordinary. So yes I did, I wanted it to imbue every shot with almost spirituality. There was a very good reason I chose Renan, and it wasn’t because he was such a good climber. He has a way of observing natural environments in a very poetic way. He speaks some Pali, so he understands something about Sherpas and Sherpa culture.
I wanted people to see Everest in a way that they hadn’t before. I wanted to linger longer mountain ridges, I wanted to observe the smoke and all of those symbols that help us understand Sherpa culture. I wanted the mountain to be observed from a different point of view, less as something to be conquered and more as something to be revered. There’s a lot of upspeed that slows stuff down, because you know we bring all of our Western busyness to Everest and I wanted to slow that down for the Sherpa villagers, because time really is slower, it runs at a different pace. They are Buddhist people and they really take time to observe the world around them. I hope that comes through.
We could not be happier to report that in 2016 we have raised the most ever for the True Life Fund! Together we have collected $42,500* for TLF recipient Sonita Alizadeh. Alizadeh, the teenage subject of the film Sonita, is an Afghani refugee living in the US who is both a rapper and an advocate against child marriage.
The True Life Fund is made up primarily of small donations, collected via festival screenings, local high schools, text-to-give donations, and our website, plus a generous challenge grant of $15,000 from the Bertha Foundation. The Crossing, a local Columbia church, has sponsored the Fest and the Fund for the past nine years.
The film, Sonita, directed by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, chronicles a pivotal moment in Sonita’s life. Living as a refugee in Tehran, Sonita dreams of becoming a successful rapper. But her efforts are threatened by her mother’s plans to sell her into marriage in Afghanistan. As things become desperate, the filmmaker intervenes, setting off an extraordinary chain of events.
“Words are not enough to express how the True Life Fund helped Sonita. The value was not only in the money, but the love and care that thousands of people sent Sonita,” Ghaemmaghami said.
At T/F, Sonita and director Ghaemmaghami did post-screening Q&As, and Alizadeh performed her original music for more than 4,000 people. T/F has established a trust in Sonita’s name, which will allow for regular distribution of the funds.
“I am truly grateful to True/False for this incredible support. This money secures a future education for me and a voice for so many girls who are not heard, as I work toward my goal of ending child marriage. The kindness of the friends I made at True/False is something I will always treasure.”Alizadeh said.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, The True Life Fund supports the subject of one film each year to show appreciation for the sharing of their stories. Alizadeh is increasingly a well-known opponent of forced child marriages, and recently performed at Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award ceremony.
The True Life Fund will help support Sonita as she furthers her education and works to achieve her musical aspirations. Additional donations to the TLF can be made here or via text (573.818.2151) through April 30.
The next True/False Film Fest will take place March 2 – 5, 2017 in downtown Columbia, Mo.
*UPDATE: As of April 30, when donations ended, the final tally increased to $43,514!
We are done. Obliterated. Barely functional. Our mind is like an underground trash fire that will burn for five-thousand years, but in a good way.
We feel like we are watching ourselves when we witness a team collapse the enormous white orbs which had been floating above the Missouri Theatre balcony. They deflated the enormous white orbs, understanding they were not disposable, and would be back next year.
Outside of Sparky’s, at 2:45pm, we listened to a banjo player and tried to count how many people we could see up and down Ninth Street. This is the kind of mind-sapped idea that we have after three days of films, music, art, and parties. We couldn’t count the people, so we went to the biscuit truck and asked how many biscuits they had sold in the past three days. A man in the biscuit truck said “over a thousand biscuits,” and we aren’t sure if that’s a lot of biscuits, or a little. Judging by the way he said it, we think that a thousand biscuits is a lot of biscuits.
Wishbone Zoe played during the Sparkys Sunday Showcase. March 6, 2016. (Photo by Tina Edholm)
Everyone was talking about Tickled. As it turns out, watching Tickled is a lot like getting tickled. At first getting tickled is good, but it quickly becomes both good and horrifying, and yet it’s hard to stop laughing. Word on the street is there are actual professional ticklers about, on the streets of Columbia, and we try to spot them. We think, for a while, about the traits of a tickler. We build a tickler profile: extremely wealthy, serious, and male.
Random, overheard fest-goer quote: “You would think I oughta see films this good at home, you know, where I got like a hundred channels, but they’re all showing CRAP!”
Deborah Stratman came with her beautiful, experimental film Illinois Parables. It puts us in a whirling tornado, a nuclear reactor, and a hot-air balloon. It looks like a water-strider made of hilled earth viewed from two-thousand feet in 16mm film. She refers to what she does as, “sculpting pressures.” Then she says, “most of the experience of a film happens later, up here,” and points to her head. We think about what this means for the next twelve months, and wonder if we will have enough time to truly experience the memory of this festival before the next one begins. We wonder if we could have somehow made a comprehensive documentary of True/False which would supplement our memory of the True/False film festival itself, and which we could watch in the comfort of our home, unthinkingly, eating popcorn on our couch.
But we go to Buskers Last Stand in the pleasantly packed Missouri Theatre lobby. Yes Ma’am plays and then Les Trois Coups plays and the mass of people forms around the new people playing. This happens again and again. And then the volunteers link arms, produce megaphones, and cheerfully force us all out of the theatre while informing us the festival has concluded. But the festival has not concluded. We are talking about films, standing our ground, until the line of volunteers meets us and we are strained out the front door.
Musicians perform during Buskers Last Stand at the Missouri Theatre, March 6, 2016. (Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce)
We bounce through a volunteer party, where we’ve rewarded our 1,004 volunteers with croissant sandwiches, open bars, and big-shot, out-of-town rappers Champagne Jerry. We get sprayed with champagne. We see our favorite drag-queen again.
At Toasted, hosted by Charlie Lyne, festival guests congregate for the last time to get early morning waffle breakfast and to listen to filmmakers, artists, and others talk about their weekend. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman)
Then we go to Toasted at Cafe Berlin in the middle of the night. This is supposed to last for four hours. Many of us here are awaiting midnight shuttles back to where we came from. We fly to many different time zones, and it will take us many hours, and we will bring the festival home to our villages. The M.C. Charley Lyne produces an autobiography of Miley Cyrus and begins to read. Then come the directors, one-by-one, talking candidly about their films.
It feels like nobody wants this thing to end.
True/False 2016 Daily Digest: Sunday, March 6, 2016
Where do we start the story of our day? Where should we stop? How about we start with a momentous, seemingly impossible marvel?
Bad film-school movies start with a character waking up to an alarm clock going off. We’ll begin the day’s fest digest here: the moment we became conscious that we had a body, that we existed, and that the rules of physics were still firmly in place: a man in a hot-pink shirt went running past us missing us by inches. We stepped back, surprised, and a woman in a neon green shirt just about got us from the other side. Then it occurred to us: this was the True Life run, and we had ambled dumbly into the course of the race. We exist in a dream-like place this weekend. Walking out of movies, regaining our selves, losing it again. We must remember what is real. We must construct a narrative that makes some kind of sense. Our stories are what define us.
Participants colorful leg gear at the True Life Run on March 5, 2016. (Photo by Tina Edholm)
Jeff Feuerzeig, director of Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Heidi Ewing, director of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You were talking about film in front of a crowd of people. This was Synapses, in the Reynolds Journalism Institute – a little like a panel, but not. Susan Sontag once said something like, “intelligence is something that happens between two people,” and we think she’s touched on the logic of the Synapse, which is new this year. Jeff and Heidi were there to talk about how they craft cinematic biography. There was a discharge of ions, action potential was reached, the nerve-ending fired, and Heidi said, “I wondered how to do a biography of Detroit,” as if the city were a character. We all just stared at her. But the city is not not a character, we think. How do you make a biography of a city? Then Heidi tells us. We paraphrase: “Call everyone you know in that city you wish to make a biography of. Ask each person you call, ‘What ten people would you say are the Detroit-est?’ Make a list of the names they give you, and then contact those names. Have those people give you their list of the five most Detroit-est. Those are your characters.”
The characters of True/False are on the screen but also milling around. We thought we’d find a hardcore extremist segment of the True/False characters by showing up to the intermission of the 344-minute film Homeland, about an Iraqi family before and after the second Gulf-War invasion. Who are these people, we wondered, who would see a 344-minute film? We saw a bus-tub get carried out of Big Ragtag, where Homeland was showing, and it was overflowing with Girl-Scout cookie boxes and empty soda bottles. That’s how they’re doing it, we realize. Quick calories. Focus. Here they come from inside, now, at the halfway point, taking a break from Homeland: Dan and Stacie look beleaguered, eyes bloodshot, moving slowly, looking happy. Why did you choose this film, we asked, and they said, “We chose it because we’ve never seen anything like it.” Seth, also watching Homeland, said, “I have temporarily regained some sense of how soft our existence is,” to which we can only nod.
Homeland director Abbas Fahdel answers questions during a Q&A at Ragtag. (Photo by Noah Frick-Alofs)
We have a cup of soup at Uprise bakery and watch two out-of-towners, press passes around their necks, guy and girl, working on laptops across from each other. Guy on the left spills his soda all over the table, and it runs beneath her laptop. True/False volunteer number 982, Johnny Pez, materializes with a rag in less than five seconds. The guy and the girl hit it off and start talking. A connection is forged. Out come the business cards. We wonder if they will be life-long friends.
“There wasn’t a dry-eye in the place,” says a moviegoer named Cindy, of the moment when Sonita emerged from behind the black curtain following her film and rapped for Jesse hall.
During the film Starless Dreams, pathos is like a bubble of warm air that inflates inside of us, filling, breaking, refilling, and then just barely deflating again.Director Mehrdad Oskouei, recipient of this year’s True Vision award, said, when introducing his film, “I am very very happy now,” and we were, too. Pathos. This was in the palatial Missouri Theater. “I dedicate this prize to these girls you see, to whom nobody dedicates anything,” Mehrdad said, and left the stage without his trophy. A volunteer collected it on his behalf before the film began. The extreme pathos we feel when the girl who’s named herself Nobody, living in a jail for juvenile delinquents in Iran, tells us about her family life, is instantly transformed by a babbling, giggling baby, which the young women wash together, and later make dance.
Up Ninth Street, T/F icon Johnny St. John celebrated his tenth year as the angry, recidivist host of Gimme Truth, America’s favorite documentary game show. As always, Gimme Truth featured 10 short-films from local directors. In one, a man is struck by lightning four times. We are very proud of our tiny festival-within-a-festival. Another Murray Center student Morgan Lieberman celebrated her first place finish for her pitch-perfect bank-robbery short Steve’s Legos. Kirsten Johnson (Poitras’ collaborator) tied with fellow judge Roger Ross Williams for most shrewd discernment sussing out truthiness from falsity. Morgan Neville rounded up the rear.
Hannah Bilau answers questions about her entry during Gimme Truth at The Vimeo Theatre at The Blue Note, March 5, 2016. (Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce)
Added in the last few days to the T/F schedule was the “Concerned Student 1950” screening. It happened at the Missouri Theatre at around 11:45pm, and it was easy to see why the 30-minute, behind-the-scenes and wrenched-from-the-frontlines film was undeniable to T/F programmers. Piggybacking this surprise film onto the end of a packed show of Secret Screening Navy involved ushering in 300 attendees into emptied seats post Q&A, it became a historic occasion in itself, the most memorable moment in 13 years of True/False. Our city (which temporarily included luminaries such as Spike Lee and Laura Poitras) got to watch itself on screen, showing a convulsive time when the University of Missouri was turned upside down last fall. Was it kismet, serendipity, or pure luck that the biggest, most explosive thing that ever happened to Columbia coincided with the birth of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism AND New York-based Field of Vision? Three bright-eyed students – backed by ace talents – met head-on with the unfolding drama of other students demanding change, and demanding it now, and improbably getting quite a few answered including the resignation of a university president. Concerned Studens 1950’s final chants of “Ashé power!” — Yoruba for power – obliterated everything that came before in the fest.
True/False 2016 Daily Digest: Saturday, March 5, 2016