Sight & Sound Announces Its Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The British film magazine Sight & Sound has announced its first-ever list of the greatest documentaries of all time. The top 50 films includes T/F selections The Fog of War (T/F 2004), Man on Wire (T/F 2008), Waltz with Bashir (T/F 2009), The Act of Killing and Leviathan (T/F 2013).  Also included are the Iranian films The House is Black and Close-Up which played T/F as part of our 2014 Neither/Nor series.

This list is generated by a survey of film critics, programmers and academics. A separate list ranks the choices of documentary filmmakers. We’ll have much more to say about this survey when we can dig through all of the individual ballots, to be published on August 14.


The Fog of War, Errol Morris, T/F 2004

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Man On Wire, James Marsh, T/F 2008

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman, T/F 2009

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, T/F 2013

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, Neither/Nor 2014

Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Neither/Nor 2014


Posted August 1, 2014

The Academy Presents the Second Annual Neither/Nor Series

The Neither/Nor series is an ongoing project to map the history (and present) of “chimeric” cinema, adventurous filmmaking that defies classification as either fiction or nonfiction. Every year True/False will partner with a visiting film critic who will present four films and produce a limited-edition monograph featuring essays and interviews. In the 2014 edition, esteemed film critic Godfrey Cheshire will introduce us to the self-reflexive Iranian cinema of the 1990s. Neither/Nor is underwritten by a generous grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We’re holding a Neither/Nor kick-off reception on Tuesday, February 25th at 6 pm at Ragtag Cinema. There you can meet critic Godfrey Cheshire before he introduces a screening of his own 2007 film Moving Midway, a look at the relocating of his family’s antebellum home to escape Raleigh, North Carolina’s sprawl. The series begins in earnest at Ragtag on True/False eve, Wednesday, February 26th, with Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece. The rest of Neither/Nor will take place during T/F 2014 at Big Ragtag. A Moment of Innocence plays Thursday at 5:30 PM, The Mirror Friday at 12:30 PM, The Apple Saturday at 10:30 AM and Close-Up screens again Saturday at 8:30 PM. All of the screenings in this series will be free.

Here’s a short introduction to this year’s selections.

Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, 98 min.) In this 1990 landmark, director Abbas Kiarostami takes a bizarre case of identity theft and convinces its real-life subjects to participate in a creative reenactment. Hossain Sabzian is a young, underemployed lover of cinema. One day while riding a bus, he meets a woman and convinces her that he is film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When she is confused why such a famous man would be riding public transit, Sabzian explains that it’s important to draw inspiration from the real world. Under this pretense, he worms his way into her family’s home and bank account. When the family starts to become suspicious, they invite an ambitious journalist to come investigate.
- Chris Boeckmann


A Moment of Innocence (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996, 78 min.) In 1974, when Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old anti-Shah militant, he stabbed a policeman at a rally. Makhmalbaf found himself in prison for six years, while the police officer suffered serious injuries. Many years later, after Makhmalbaf had found fame as a director, he ran into the same police officer during a film shoot, and they agreed to collaborate on a film. In the brilliantly structured A Moment of Innocence, we witness the two men as they work together to recreate this incident. As they go about this process, we discover that the men have very different memories of what transpired on that pivotal day.
- Chris Boeckmann


The Mirror (dir. Jafar Panahi, 1997, 93 min.) In the center of Tehran, as the day comes to a close, a young first-grader named Mina (played by Mina Mohammad-Khani) walks out of her school and discovers that her mother is nowhere to be found. Impatient, and with one arm in a sling, she decides to find her own way home. Mina boards a bus and listens in on the various conversations unfolding around her. That bus, it turns out, is heading the wrong direction. Eventually, all of a sudden, a frustrated Mina does something surprising. Jafar Panahi, then a protégé of Close-Up director Abbas Kiarostami, directed this playfully reflexive 1997 film.
- Chris Boeckmann


The Apple (dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, 1999, 86 min.) Directed by a then 17-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who co-wrote the screenplay), this 1998 film recreates a scandalous news story using the real life participants. In an Iranian neighborhood, a strict, unemployed father and his blind wife keep their 11-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, locked in their house. After neighbors complain to the welfare ministry, a social worker comes to release them. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-documentary follows Massoumeh and Zahra as they receive their first taste of freedom and observes their father as he sits behind bars, reflecting on his actions. Makhmalbaf’s auspicious debut is a profoundly unsettling exploration of patriarchy. Screens with “The House Is Black” (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, 22 min.).
- Chris Boeckmann




Posted February 10, 2014

2013 in Review

Another year has come and gone, and 2014 is already upon us. But as we prepare for everything that lies ahead, we wanted to take a look back at an extraordinary year for documentary film. 2013 was the year film critics woke up to nonfiction’s essential place in the cinema. This was reflected in the best-of lists, where a strong consensus emerged that documentaries were among the year’s best.

A good place to start is Scott Tobias’s Year in Documentary piece for The Dissolve, which praises 2013′s docs for their formal innovations. Tobias argues that 2013 was “a year in which documentary filmmakers liberated themselves from past formulas and found new ways to express the truth”; where docs were “committed to veering away from the realm of magazine pieces or Wikipedia, and finding truths only the camera can reveal”.

He opens his article by looking at Leviathan, which used tiny, light-weight GoPro cameras aboard a commercial fishing vessel to discover a new standard of cinematic immersion. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab received our True Vision Award at a screening of this work at last year’s fest. It was recently named the film of the year by the staff at L Magazine, who noted “This heaving, churning epic defies pat classification. In this case it’s only reasonable to invoke a critical cliche: you have to see it for yourself.”


Tobias also cites These Birds Walk, which spies into the lives of the homeless and runaway boys of Pakistan with a sustained eloquence reminiscent of the cinema of Terrence Malick. This film is the first to play True/False twice, first as a work-in-progress in 2012 and then as a completed film in 2013. Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor named it among his ten best, noting that Birds is “flooded with piercing sequences that open up an entire country and way of life”.


Another T/F 2013 selection receiving attention is After Tiller. The documentary debut of Lana Wilson and Martha Shane profiles the only four doctors left in America who perform late-term abortions. Taking on this most divisive of issues with a delicate and intelligent approach, the film takes us inside the confidential counselling sessions where women face impossible decisions. Naming it her number three film of the year, Katie Walsh at The Playlist observed “the remarkable thing about a film like After Tiller is the way in which Wilson and Shane take such a political topic and turn it into something so personal”.


The Act of Killing was named film of the year by both the Guardian and Sight & Sound magazine. The later, run by the British Film Institute, publishes a top 30 list every year after surveying over 100 international critics, curators and academics. The Act of Killing enlists the perpetrators of Indonesia’s mass killings of the 1960s to reenact their crimes in garish cinematic set-pieces. This truly startling work has already generated a massive secondary literature, including Sight & Sound’s latest piece by Carrie McAlinden. 


Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell turns the revelation of an awkward family secret into an investigation of a deeper mystery, the role that narratives play in all of our lives. Stories came in 13th overall on the Metacritic meta-pollElizabeth Weitzman of the NY Daily News named it her film of the year, calling it “intimate in scale, but enormous in scope”.

Sarah Polley in a still from Stories We Tell

Critics have also rallied around a T/F 2013 film perhaps too strange to be regarded as a documentary (or then again, maybe not). Andrew Bujalski’s undefinable Computer Chess takes us back to the dawn of the information age, to a strange hotel convention where a group of computer programmers are attempting to develop an artificial intelligence. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A. V. Club picked this bizarre sci-fi comedy as his film of the year.


Other T/F 2013 films mentioned in critics best-of lists include No, Blackfish, The Gatekeepers, 20 Feet From Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer.

2013 also saw the launch of an excellent new online resource for documentary fanatics. Christopher Campbell’s new site Nonfics features news, reviews, pieces on classics, a podcast and the first annual Nonfics critics poll, which collects a plethora of nonfiction only best-of lists.

Finally, filmmaker Robert Greene shared his list of the year’s best cinematic nonfiction in his Unfiction column at Sight & Sound. Greene’s “highlights of a triumphant year for the art of documentary” include T/F 2013 pics Sleepless NightsThe Last StationWinter Go AwayDeclaration of War, A Story for the Modlins and the shortest film ever to play True/False, Tina Delivers a Goat.

Tina Delivers a Goat from Joe Callander on Vimeo.

These are clearly exciting times for documentary film. We can’t wait to see what lies ahead in 2014, and share it with you in just a couple months.

Posted January 3, 2014

‘The Revolution Will Be Criticized’ Panel

Do film critics approach documentaries differently than fiction? Should they? When evaluating nonfiction, do critics mistakenly elevate “importance” over form, story over storytelling? Is it fair to always expect documentaries to be art?

These are just a few of the questions taken up by moderator Robert Greene and critics Eric Hynes, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Miriam Bale and Vadim Rizov in our panel “The Revolution Will Be Criticized: Do Critics Miss the Boat on Nonfiction Filmmaking?” which took place at the Odd Fellows Lodge during T/F 2013.

This panel was occasioned Robert Greene’s Cinematic Nonfiction 2012 piece for Hammer to Nail. In this article, Greene expressed frustration over Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review of Only the Young (T/F 2012), a review he considered symptomatic of critical culture’s failure to understand documentary not as a rigid genre but as a “way of seeing”.

The entire panel is available in the video embedded below thanks to the work of our friends at Columbia Access Television. You can also take this entire conversation with you as an audio podcast by downloading an mp3 here.

Posted October 29, 2013

True/False 2013 Critical Reaction

Over the past few weeks, many people have written kind words about their True/False experiences. Here are a few of our favorites.

Film critic Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold had an amusing conversation in SundanceNOW about their first trip to our small mid-western town.

Nicolas Rapold: I too was suspicious, especially when I heard the verb “experience” applied to True/False in lieu of “attend.” But fortunately the high quality of the programming never put me in the awkward position of praising the hospitality for want of anything else to say. Some of my increased feeling of well-being came from seeing theaters packed for the likes of a Chilean film featuring old folks in a nursing home waiting to die. It made me vaguely ashamed of the single-digit audience turnouts not infrequent at challenging programs back home in bonnie New York. Obviously the festival is a special event, but where are these curious moviegoers of many ages when I sit nearly alone at something awesome at Anthology Film Archives, wiping last-minute-samosa grease off my hands? Are my eating habits perhaps driving away potential waves of repertory enthusiasts?

Nick Pinkerton: The movie you are referring to, of course, is Cristian Soto and Catalina Vergara’s The Last Station, which, with its highly composed images—a face perfectly framed in a small mirror at the bottom of a drawer comes to mind—and lack of the instructive graphics and contextualizing voiceover that mark the infotainment documentary, is fairly representative of True/False’s programming. As for the cinema savvy of the average Columbian (Columbianite?), I must agree—the only time anything like “Oh my stars” prudery emerged was in a screening of Peter Whitehead’s The Fall, when a Destructionist theater group pummeled a live chicken to pieces against the wires of a piano they’d already chopped into kindling with an axe, after which half of the crowd walked out to protest the senseless death of some poultry in 1968. This played as part of a sidebar called Neither/Nor hosted by Columbia’s one FULL-TIME cinema, The Ragtag. The bill-of-fare was made of historical precedents to the festival’s signature dish, neither-fish-nor-fowl documentaries that blur the boundary between… well, you know the rest. Jim McBride was there with David Holzman’s Diary, while the Neither/Nor series was curated by some New York critic called Eric Hynes, who sort of looks like the Hip, Concerned Teacher in an after-school special from 1981. Where did they get that guy?

Critic Eric Hynes, who curated our first ever Neither/Nor chimera series, described True/False as “some kind of monster” in an excellent piece for Cinemascope. Among many other things, Eric wrote on what he sees as our unique critical slant.

With these films as a kind of standard for docu-cinematic delirium, it becomes tempting to judge all of True/False programming according to that standard. While this may be a somewhat reductive or misguided impulse (the implications of which I’ll explore shortly), it nevertheless speaks to True/False’s unique place within the festival landscape. Not just another doc survey, industry marketplace, or act of small-town self-promotion, T/F has a genuinely critical slant—and one that, by now bringing critics into the curation process, implies an ongoing interrogation of the art (and act) of documentary filmmaking rather than just a showcasing of the year’s more appealing fare. At least potentially, it’s programming as scrutinizing rather than cheerleading, inviting critical engagement not just with the chosen films but also with the choosing of those films.

Ben Kenigsburg at Time Out Chicago said of his weekend:

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).

Vadim Rizov crafted two excellent dispatches for Filmmaker Magazine, briefly reviewing films he saw here in Columbia. The first reflects on These Birds Walk, The Garden of Eden and The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, while the second ponders Sleepless Nights and Computer Chess. Vadim also gave us a shout out in the Onion AV Club’s best festival experiences.

Other outstanding responses included Kevin B. Lee’s “Funner Than Fiction” Video at the British Film Institute, Tim Grierson’s report at Paste Magazine, Brian Brooks’s coverage for The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Basil Tsiokos’s post at What (Not) To Doc, Tom Roston’s capsule reviews at PBS’s Doc Soup blog and IndieWire‘s list of 8 things we are doing right. Locally, The Columbia Daily Tribune and Vox Magazine expanded their coverage further than ever before, digging deep into every nook and cranny of the festival.

On the audio side, Adam Schartoff of Brooklyn’s Filmwax Radio recorded a series of dispatches from Columbia featuring conversations with Gabriela Cowperthwaite of Blackfish, film producer Esther Robinson, T/F co-conspirator David Wilson, Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq of These Birds Walk,  Maxim Pozdorovkin of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Judith Helfand about our SWAMI program. KBIA also created an eleven-part series titled True/False Conversations which offers both audio and transcripts of brief interviews with filmmakers and fest-goers.


Posted March 21, 2013

True Life Fund distributes $30,000 to Bully Subjects

The True/False Film Fest distributed $30,000 to the five families featured in the film Bully, this year’s True Life Fund selection about the impact of bullying on society. Capacity crowds attended screenings of Bully at the Missouri Theatre and Jesse Auditorium during True/False 2012. The True Life Fund—presented by the True/False Film Fest with support from The Crossing Church and media support by KOMU—raises money and awareness for the subjects of one nonfiction film each year and provides the audience with an opportunity to give back to the subjects on the screen. The funds raised will go to the main characters of the film, Alex Libby, Kelby Johnson, and Ja’Meya Jackson, and to the families of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, two bullied kids who took their own lives. The money is a way of thanking them for sharing their stories and speaking out about bullying.

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Posted April 6, 2012

More Raves for T/F 2012

More post-fest enthusiasm has been coming down the transom:

Posted March 12, 2012

Five days out, a morning to read the papers

The True/False crew is hundreds strong now, and has been working marathon shifts, so that means that some of the senior staff can actually read the newspaper on Sunday morning. Unprecedented. Here’s some good stuff we dug up at one of the newspapers in town:

Posted February 24, 2008

RFT names T/F Best Film Fest

Here we go again. The year ends, holidays are celebrated, lists are made. “Best of . . .” & “Worst of . . .” and all the rest. And True/False has again been named Best Film Fest by St. Louis’ The Riverfront Times.

We’re seriously honored. For real. But we also must point out that the venerable St. Louis Film Festival is a great event, albeit with a wholly different mission and form than T/F. So let’s give thanks to the RFT for the high praise and props to all the fests around our fine state that keep the spirit of independent film vital.

Posted December 30, 2007
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