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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.”

levia

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”.

TBW_Still2

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”.

AfterTiller_WarrenHern

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. 

act-of-killing-2

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.

computer

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

‘Aaron Burr, Part 2′ and a Chat with Director Dana O’Keefe

Aaron Burr was a major figure in the American revolution and early republic. But the legacy of our third vice president was ruined forever on July 11, 1804 when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In Aaron Burr, Part 2 (T/F 2012) Burr himself returns to finally clear the air about that fateful day and the events leading up to it. Check out the short below, as well as my chat with the filmmaker Dana O’Keefe, the man also responsible for Vladimir Putin in Deep Concentration (T/F 2013).

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first become interested in making a film about Aaron Burr?

DO: I was initially fascinated by the idea that political figures resolved their differences through this highly ritualized form of combat. And then when it became clear that there were discrepancies in the accounts of the duel, that presented an opportunity to explore the idea that there isn’t really a stable version of history. That it depends on your perspective.

If there was a moment of clarity in conceiving the project, it was when we went to the actual site where the duel took place and realized that it was a parking lot. History, especially in New York, is all around us. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. Using the actual locations where these things happened and embracing the fact that they looked modern forces the spectator to think about the relationship between past and present.

One thing I soon realized is that I knew absolutely nothing about what really happened during the revolutionary war. In this short period a time a relatively small group of people made a series of decisions which in turn determined what would happen over the next two hundred years.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DO: I think the entire premise is “is there empirical, objective historical truth?” Aaron Burr was arguably as important a political figure as Alexander Hamilton. But he wrote himself out of history by killing another man, who in turn was enshrined as a national treasure.

To me it’s the epitome of how I interpret True/False, playing with these questions of documentary versus narrative. We tried to use a narrative filmmaking grammar to approach a documentary subject.

T/F: Could you tell me a little more about this narrative grammar?

DO: I think the idea was to figure out a way to present historical subject matter in a way that was both dynamic and relevant to a younger audience. The style is very music driven and utilizes highly composed shots, things that you don’t usually see in documentary. It’s very easy in shooting this sort of material to backslide into something that looks stagey or artificial.

T/F: Yeah, it almost feels like a film trailer in some ways . . .

DO:  Yeah, that’s funny, I guess it is somehow, it’s sort of like shorthand. I’ve never really worked extensively with dialogue in films, so a lot of what I do involves music and silent film storytelling techniques, occasionally title cards and things like that. So I try to convey as much as I can visually.

T/F: I thought Burr as a character was quite interesting. You made him arrogant and somewhat unlikeable, even though this is his chance to tell his story. How did you think about Burr as a character and a narrator?

DO: Gore Vidal wrote a historical novel called Burr which quickly eclipsed all of the other source material. The film is heavily indebted to that work in terms of presenting the jaundiced perspective of this guy who sort of wrote himself out of history and therefore has a very critical attitude about the cherished mythology of the period. That book really helped clarify how to portray his psychology.

T/F: Burr’s voice in the film has a weird, sort of otherworldly quality to it.

DO: Here’s a one way of thinking about it. We’re presented with this one version of history which we rarely question, right? And then Burr’s point of view about this incident is completely different, and he presents this version which contradicts the received wisdom. And he does so in a way that at first seems very objective and detached, almost robotic. But I think as the film builds you realize that his point of view is also delusional. Elements of megalomania sort of creep into this impartial narration. Hopefully, it highlights the impossibility of any stable interpretation of a historical event.

 

Posted December 5, 2013

Prepare for the Magic Realism of T/F 2014!

The True/False Film Fest returns February 27- March 2, 2014 with Magic Realism!

“Magic realism” first described a literary genre rooted in the everyday but peppered with the fantastical. In 2014, we’re recasting the phrase for our own subversive purposes. On the surface, Magic Realism describes how the festival weekend transforms the everyday, casting our quotidian downtown streetscape in a new light. Fresh surprises are as likely to lurk in a hidden alley as a darkened theater. Likewise, documentary filmmakers are every bit the masters of illusion, misdirection and sleight of hand as their fiction-focused brethren. The history of prestidigitation is one steeped in questions of Reality and Fantasy, exploring the intersection between the mundane and the fantastic.

This will be brought home in the 2014 poster which quotes “The Marvelous Orange Tree” illusion invented by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic. In it, a small barren tree is coaxed to produce first flowers and then fruit by a persuasive magician.The intricate cogs and gears of the mechanism, though in many ways every bit as wondrous a feat as the suggested illusion, are hidden from sight. This is the magic of all filmmaking- the careful cloaking of the watchworks to produce passion, marvel and delight. True/False 2014 aims to be steeped in this wonderment, whether the art is visual, musical or cinematic.

All passes for T/F 2014 are on sale now. For those who want to help create the magic, we are also accepting volunteer applications.

Posted November 26, 2013

‘These Birds Walk’ Now Playing in NYC

These Birds Walk throws us into the chaotic world of the Pakistan’s lost boys, observing the residents and employees of one of the Edhi Foundation’s shelters for homeless and runaway children. The film’s poetic grace mirrors the startling eloquence of the children themselves, as face their predicament and search for something to hope for.

These Birds Walk is the first film to play True/False two years in a row, in 2012 as a work-in-progrss and in 2013 as a completed film. Just yesterday it captured the coveted Black Pearl Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Now New Yorkers can see the film for the for themselves at Village East Cinema.

John Oursler at The Village Voice called These Birds Walk “a touching portrait of youthful resilience” while at The Dissolve Scott Tobias declared the film “essential viewing”. And on Indiewire, co-directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq offered compelling advice on how to make a documentary rise above the “social issues” cliches.

But perhaps the best endorsement for the film is this trailer, which captures These Birds Walk‘s masterful scoring and photography.

Posted November 1, 2013

Gimme Truth! ‘Not Unusual’

One of our proudest creations is our signature game show, Gimme Truth! Every year a panel of three filmmakers gathers in front of a rowdy crowd at The Blue Note to watch a series of short films and try to determine if they are 100% True or 100% False. The whole event is presided over by the irreplaceable master of ceremonies Johnny St. John.

Thanks to our loyal media partner CAT TV you can relive this year’s edition and play along with judges Bill Ross (Tchoupitoulas), Sergio Oksman (A Story for the Modlins) and reigning champion Heidi Ewing (Detropia). Below you can evaluate “Not Unusual” by Betsy Gantt.

You can watch all of the 2013 edition of Gimme Truth! here.

Posted October 14, 2013

‘The Influencing Machine’ Revisited

In 1919, former Freud disciple Victor Tausk published an article called “The Origins of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia“, which became a classic of psychiatric literature. In it he describes “Influencing Machines”, elaborate mechanical constructions that simulate artificial realities, invented by schizophrenics to explain their delusions. In their operation, these contraptions reflect uncertainties about recently discovered phenomenon like radio waves and invoke the power of the then-budding cinema.

T/F Co-conspirators Paul Sturtz and David Wilson read about Tausk and his machines in a 2004 piece in Cabinet Magazine by Christopher Turner. This served as the inspiration for our 2012 theme and poster, created by artist Erik Buckham based on Tausk’s own drawings.

Now a new piece in Aeon Magazine by Mike Jay shows how the influencing machines continue to churn along, still projecting the paranoid fears and narcissistic fantasies engendered by our technological culture. Jay describes “The Truman Show Delusion”, where one believes oneself to be the star of a hidden reality TV show, constantly on the brink of experiencing the This-is-Your-Life moment of revelation.

Jay’s essay concludes:

In the 21st century, the influencing machine has escaped from the shuttered wards of the mental hospital to become a distinctive myth for our times. It is compelling not because we all have schizophrenia, but because reality has become a grey scale between the external world and our imaginations. The world is now mediated in part by technologies that fabricate it and partly by our own minds, whose pattern-recognition routines work ceaselessly to stitch digital illusions into the private cinema of our consciousness. The classical myths of metamorphosis explored the boundaries between humanity and nature and our relationship to the animals and the gods. Likewise, the fantastical technologies that were once the hallmarks of insanity enable us to articulate the possibilities, threats and limits of the tools that are extending our minds into unfamiliar dimensions, both seductive and terrifying.

 

Posted September 23, 2013

‘I Am Breathing’ in Theaters Today

I am Breathing (T/F 2013) gracefully presents the final six months in the life of Neil Platt, a Scottish architect, husband and father enduring the indignities of Motor Neuron Disease. We watch Neil, confined to a chair by his illness, come to terms with his mortality and construct a legacy for his wife and infant son. The film is built around entries in Neil’s blog The Plattitude, a fount of down-to-earth wisdom capturing Neil’s humor, courage and inspiring resolve.

I Am Breathing opens today at the IFC Center in NYC with more cities soon to follow.

Co-director Emma Davie participated in our cozy get-together, Campfire Stories, where she shared an unforgettable story about “the tape in the shoe box under the editing suite”, a final message from Neil the she and co-director Morag McKinnon couldn’t bear to look at. Campfire Stories was filmed by our good friends at CAT TV.

 

Posted September 6, 2013

Gimme Truth! ‘The Mystery of Momo’

One of our proudest creations is our signature game show, Gimme Truth!  Every year a panel of three filmmakers gathers in front of a rowdy crowd at The Blue Note to watch a series of short films and try to determine if they are 100% True or 100% False. The whole event is presided over by the irreplaceable master of ceremonies Johnny St. John.

Thanks to our loyal media partner CAT TV you can relive this year’s edition and play along with judges Bill Ross (Tchoupitoulas), Sergio Oksman (A Story for the Modlins) and reigning champion Heidi Ewing (Detropia). Below you can evaluate “The Mystery of Momo” by Dac McCabe.

Posted September 3, 2013

Watch ‘The Interrupters’ and a Campfire Story From Steve James

One of the most unforgettable films ever to screen at True/False was our 2011 True Life Fund selection, The Interrupters. Steve James’s documentary introduced us to violence interrupters working in the troubled streets of Chicago. These interrupters are part of a program created by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin called Ceasefire (now renamed Cure Violence), based on the thesis that violence should be approached like an infectious disease, where the goal is to prevent each individual case of transmission.

The film’s deep humanism comes from the life stories of the violence interrupters themselves: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. All former gang members, the interrupters don’t shy away from their violent pasts, but instead utilize their reputations and gained knowledge to help their communities. We watch as they courageously interject themselves into intense situations, speaking blunt truths and directly confronting the drive for revenge or respect, passions that so frequently lead to acts of violence.

The 114 minute cut of The Interrupters is available to watch for free online through the PBS series Frontline.

The Interrupters was inspired by co-producer Alex Kotlowitz’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence”. Director Steve James was moved by this piece because of his personal connection to Curtis Gates, who was senselessly killed in a 2001 shooting. Curtis was the older brother of William Gates, one of the principle subjects of James’s 1994 film Hoop Dreams. Universally recognized as a documentary masterpiece, Hoop Dreams follows two basketball prodigies from poor neighborhoods in Chicago who dream of achieving fame and fortune through careers in the NBA. You can watch this essential film for free streaming online through Hulu.

Steve James returned to T/F this year to participate in our annual event Campfire Stories, an intimate gathering where filmmakers share tales about compelling scenes that didn’t make it into their films. In the clip below, James recounts an incident at a gas station which illustrates the violence interrupters problematic relationship with the police. Campfire Stories was captured on video by our friends at Columbia Access Television.

Posted

Thank You Boone Dawdlers!

For the fourth year in a row, the Boone Dawdle, our summer excursion and fundraiser, was a rollicking good time. We want to send a hearty thank you to everyone that made August 17, 2013 a day to remember. Thank you to the dawdlers of all kinds: riders, party-goers, sponsors, musicians, filmmakers, guests, volunteers and staff.

A legion of volunteers once again pitched in with their time and talents. Among them were our photo team, Stephen Bybee, Kevin Dingman and Ryan Henriksen. We’ll be looking back through the images they captured. If you want to see even more pics of the Dawdle, check out their Facebook photo albums here, here and here.

Things got underway on Saturday afternoon with some important assistance from our friends at Walt’s Bicycle, Fitness and Wilderness. They offered all of the riders a tune-up before our departure.

photo by Kevin Dingman

 

After everyone signed up, we struck off westward down the trail for a ride across Boone County. Our meandering 16-mile trip eventually took us from Columbia to Les Bourgeois outside Rocheport.

photo by Kevin Dingman

 

True/False wouldn’t feel like True/False without music and the spirited buskers who create it. Popping up here and there among the trees were Dubb Nubb, Ruth Acuff, The Flood Brothers, Googolplexia, Lizzie Wright Super Spaceship and The Onions. Also contributing a cheerful noise were the Branson-based performers the Lennon Brothers.

photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Kevin Dingman

photo by Ryan Henriksen

 

Other pleasant interruptions in our journey through the woods included games, a trivia contest, an advice machine, a lunar explorer photo cut-out and snacks and drinks courtesy of our culinary contributors.

photo by Stephen Bybee

photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Kevin Dingman

 

We also got our first chance to meet our special guest Christopher Carson, the star of the evening’s film, Lunarcy! Christopher intends to be the first human being to live his life on the moon. He shared his bold vision for lunar colonization with characteristic gusto and wit.

photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen

 

At the end of the long, fun-filled trip, we faced the final daunting hill. A little encouragement was definitely in order, and cheerleaders from Rock Bridge, Hickman and Battle High Schools were kind enough to oblige.

photo by Stephen Bybee

photo by Ryan Henriksen

 

Waiting for us in Rocheport was a sumptuous spread prepared by our friends Chelsea, Josh and Curtis and the rest of the amazing people at Les Bourgeois Winery. After grabbing some food and drink, we found seats, relaxed and hung-out on the beautiful limestone bluff overlooking the Missouri River.

photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Kevin Dingman

photo by Stephen Bybee

 

Next, we were treated to a concert by Yes, Ma’am. The group joined us all the way from the streets of the Big Easy to share their authentic blend of gritty country, pounding blues and old fashioned rock-in-roll.

photo by Ryan Henriksen

 

And before the film began, the T/F production crew treated us to a magnificent fireworks display.

photo by Kevin Dingman

 

The 2013 Boone Dawdle film was Lunarcy! Simon Ennis’s hilarious and inspiring documentary debut introduces us to a series of passionate dreamers who have built lives around the moon and its place in human destiny. After we watched the film out under the heavens, Simon and the subject Christopher Carson brought our evening to fitting conclusion with a charming and earnest Q and A.

photo by Kevin Dingman

photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen

 

Thank you again to everyone mentioned above. As inspiring as what happened in these photographs was, we assure you what went on behind the scenes was even more remarkable. Our tech team was up working late the night before, transforming the bluffs into an outdoor cinema. Volunteers hauled water and gear into the middle of nowhere, loaded countless bikes into trucks for the trip back to CoMo and stayed up past 2 am cleaning up the party. Our sherpa team stepped up in a big way, hauling bikes up the hill for hours. First Student provided bus transportation to get everyone back home for the night. And our dedicated staff put in the long hours at the Lab, making all of the details shine.

And, of course, our crazy schemes wouldn’t amount to anything without our sponsors. This year’s Dawdle was made possible by generous support of Delta Systems, Walt’s Bicycle, Fitness and Wilderness, Mountain Valley Spring Water, Les Bourgeois Vineyards, 102.3 BXR, The Columbia Daily Tribune and the Courtyard Marriott Columbia.

Together we can accomplish incredible things. Please remember, the Stars Are Ours!

 

Posted August 26, 2013
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