Unto Others: A Conversation with Jesse Moss of ‘The Overnighters’

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.

The Overnighters is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. In the coming months, it will travel to other cities across the United States via Drafthouse Films. A day before its theatrical opening, I interviewed Moss via Skype.

-Chris Boeckmann

 

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Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.

T/F: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.

JM: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.

It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.

T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?

JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.

The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”

Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.

 

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T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?

JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.

For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.

In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.

Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.

I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.

T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?

JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.

Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.

 

Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters. 

 

T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.

JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.

In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.

I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.

You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.

T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?

JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.

 

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T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?

JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.

There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”

T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?

JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.

T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.

JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.

T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?

JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.

It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.

What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.

 

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Posted October 15, 2014

Announcing Surprise Screenings of Laura Poitras’ ‘CITIZENFOUR’ at The Blue Note October 19

We are very excited to announce our Secret Screenings coming to The Blue Note October 19. True/False is proud to help launch CITIZENFOUR, the much-anticipated, real-life suspense story by Laura Poitras.

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CITIZENFOUR reveals the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about the NSA and global surveillance to Poitras and her reporting partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden, who called himself CITIZENFOUR in encrypted emails with Poitras, set off global shockwaves with his revelations. As Poitras documented arguably the biggest spying revelation in history, she became part of the story herself. Poitras and Greenwald still hold hundreds of unreleased intelligence documents given to them by Snowden, putting them in continued danger of retaliation by the US government.

This film is the final work in Poitras’ trilogy documenting security and foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. Her first film in the trilogy, My Country, My Country, explored electoral politics in US-occupied Baghdad and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Her second, The Oath, was an intimate portrait of Abu Jandal, a former driver for Osama Bin Laden. It’s available to watch right now on Hulu. Poitras appeared with both films at T/F 2010 where she received our True Vision Award for her persistent creative advancement of nonfiction cinema.

CITIZENFOUR premieres today, October 10 at the New York Film Festival. It will play twice at The Blue Note on October 19, at 4:30 and 8:00 PM. Both screenings will feature live music from Syna So Pro and post-film Skype chats with Poitras. Tickets are available online now or in person (cash only) at the venue the day of the show.

Both screenings of CITIZENFOUR are underwritten by the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Posted October 10, 2014

T/F 2014 Panels Now Available as Videos or MP3s

T/F’s panel discussions bring together film directors, visual artists and film critics for candid conversation on the hows and whys of their crafts. Sometimes overlooked in the whirlwind of T/F weekend, we’ve now made the complete set of T/F 2014 conversations available to watch on our video page. Or if you’d like to take a panel with you on a jog or to the grocery store, click on any of the titles below to find an audio mp3 you can stream or download. All of these discussions were preserved thanks to the hard work of our media partners at Columbia Access Television.

The Critical Takedown

Nonfiction films entering the world are still plagued by two types of criticism. There’s “be nice, this topic is worthy” damnation by faint praise for films with “important” issues, and the “Where’s the context?!” stigma faced too often by more personal or artful films. How to strike a balance and what DOES creative nonfiction need from critics? Sam Adams, the editor of Criticwire engages three cranky malcontents (i.e. critics), Nick Pinkerton, Ela Bittencourt and Adam Nayman, who have all the answers.

Making Magic/Realism

T/F 2014′s visual theme of magic/realism suggested an intersection between the mundane and the fantastic. But it wasn’t until visual artists from all over the country offered their creative sparks did the theme come alive. Artist and writer Anne Thompson coaxes magic from T/F bumper director Jarred Alterman, T/F 2014 poster artist Akiko Stehrenberger, sculptor Taylor Ross, who made the interactive mechanical sculptor in the Missouri Theatre lobby, and “TransPlant” pod installation artist, Leland Drexler-Russell.

Lies My Subject Told Me

Present tense films are crafted through an agreement between filmmaker and subject, but sometimes the bond is broken. During these fragile moments, the foundation of the relationship is questioned and a new trajectory takes hold. Hot Docs director Charlotte Cook hosts Robert Greene (Actress), Maxim Pozdorovkin (The Notorious Mr. Bout), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) for a discussion on deception.

Beyond Pretty Pictures

What was previously off limits is now possible through affordable, lightweight equipment, and low-cost DIY hacking. Increasingly light-sensitive cameras liberate filmmakers to capture nighttime scenes; miniature, waterproof cameras are cheap; skeleton crews allow subjects to feel more comfortable revealing themselves. T/F alumni Omar Mullick quizzes Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) on how they harness technology to tell better stories.

Place is the Space

Nonfiction filmmakers locate vivid places and people whose stories jump off the screen – then they sift and winnow to find the soul of the place. True/False mascot Beadie Finzi chats with Tracy Droz Tragos (Rich Hill), Sherief Elkatsha (Cairo Drive), and Mark Levinson (Particle Fever) who reveal how they cast films where settings don’t act as backdrops but as stars in their own right.

Africa is Not a Country

To a Western mind, Africa may appear as a slideshow of slums, safaris, refugees, and marathon runners. In a clutch of T/F 2014 films, though, outsider filmmakers avoid shopworn stereotypes to tell distinctive stories from a diverse continent. T/F ringleader Ingrid Kopp asks Tobias Janson (Concerning Violence), Rachel Boynton (Big Men), and Joe Callander (Life After Death) how they circumvented the pitfalls.

Posted October 7, 2014

Surprise T/F Screening at The Blue Note Sunday, October 19

We are thrilled to announce a first-of-its-kind, surprise T/F screening Sunday, October 19 at The Blue Note. We’ll be showing two screenings of a brand new documentary film by a T/F alumnus, giving you a unique opportunity to see an important new work ahead of the rest of the world! We can’t tell you the title just yet, but will reveal it sometime in October.

What we can tell you is that like all T/F screenings, there will be live music. Syna So Pro has been a crowd favorite at the last couple installments of T/F, and will be sharing her experimental and infectious.

Tickets for both the 4:30 and 8:00 PM Surprise Screenings are on sale now through the T/F website, HERE.

If you’ve already purchased a Super Circle pass for T/F 2015, you are entitled to a ticket to one of the two screenings. Once we determine the exact times, we’ll ask you to let us know which screening you would prefer. If you want to pick up a T/F 2015 Super Circle pass, they are on sale here.

These screenings are presented with support from the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.

We’ll have more details real soon!

Posted September 25, 2014

Moments of Transcendence with Tracy Droz Tragos of ‘Rich Hill’

Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.

This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It is now available to rent on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon. I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?

TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.

As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.

T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?

TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.

It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.

T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.

TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.

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image from Rich Hill

 

T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?

TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.

We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.

We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.

We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.

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Harley and his grandmother in Rich Hill

 

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

TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.

I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.

But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.

T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?

TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.

We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.

T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?

TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.

T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?

TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.

It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.

T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?

TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.

When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.

T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.

TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.

Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.

T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.

TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.

There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.

The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.

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Andrew in Rich Hill

 

Posted September 23, 2014

True/False is Adding Three New Screening Venues on the MU Campus for the 2015 Fest

As you may have heard, Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri is closed for building improvements and won’t be ready in time for True/False 2015. This means we will be temporarily losing our largest venue, the 1,700-seat Jesse Auditorium. Thankfully, in coordination with MU planners, college deans and building managers, we’ve come up with three new venues on the MU campus to fill the gap.

We’re excited to announce that Bush Auditorium at Cornell Hall, Keller Auditorium at Geological Sciences and Rhynsburger Theatre at the MU Department of Theatre will all be transformed into cinemas for the four days of T/F 2015. This will make the 500-seat Cornell Hall our southernmost venue. It’s only a 15-minute walk from The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, the T/F venue furthest north.

Additionally, the Oddfellows Lodge will become a full-time screening venue. And we’re happy to report that the rest of the T/F 2014 venues will be returning: Missouri Theatre, the Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, the Picturehouse at Missouri United Methodist Church, Forrest Theater at the Tiger Hotel, the Globe at First Presbyterian Church and, of course, our other half Ragtag Cinema.

We’re looking forward to working even closer with the University of Missouri staff and exposing T/F attendees to more of our town’s major institution.

T/F 2015 will be held on March 5-8. Passes are on sale now.

Posted September 10, 2014

Job Openings

Think you have what it takes to work for True/False? We are now looking for a Manager of Theater Operations, an Office Manager, an Assistant Volunteer Coordinator and several Venue Captains. Find out more info here.

Posted September 9, 2014

Two Essential T/F Films Available to Watch from POV

The PBS doc series POV has established itself as a major outlet for compelling and timely documentaries. Recently they aired two essential T/F selections, both of which are available to watch online right now.

The first is Big Men (T/F 2014). Over the course of five years, filmmaker Rachel Boynton gained inconceivable access to the back rooms to tell the story of Ghana’s first oil well and its exploration by western oil companies. The 82 minute broadcast version of this work is available streaming until September 24.

 

Also available is After Tiller (T/F 2013) an empathetic look at the four doctors remaining in the US who openly perform late term abortions. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane take us inside intimate counselling sessions, carefully exploring the tough decisions facing each patient. You can watch After Tiller online until October 1.

Don’t forget to explore POV’s website for extras, filmmaker interviews, more films to watch and more.

Posted September 8, 2014

Two Captivating Video Essays from Sight & Sound

The British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound recently released it’s list of the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, the result of a new poll of critics, programmers and filmmakers. In connection with the list, they also released two captivating and provocative video essays. You’ll need to click the links below to watch them on their site, something we recommend highly.

The first is “The Art of Nonfiction” by T/F filmmaker Robert Greene. In it, Greene takes us on a whirlwind tour of 100-plus years of nonfiction cinema, presenting clips from masterworks and elucidating the inherent tensions which define the form.

Disorder, Huang Weikai, 2009, T/F 2010

 

gates of heaven

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

 

lessons

Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog 1992

 

leviathan

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, T/F 2013

 

In the second video, “What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner”, critic Kevin B. Lee looks at three anthropological films from career of director Robert Gardner. While tracing his evolving approach, Lee presses tough questions about “documentary” and the access to reality it promises us.

dead birds

Dead Birds, Robert Gardner, 1964

 

Rivers of Sand

Rivers of Sand, Robert Gardner, 1973

 

forest of bliss

Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner, 1986

Posted September 1, 2014

Thank You Boone Dawdlers!

The 2014 Boone Dawdle has come and gone, and we are happy to report another unforgettable day. Hundreds were undeterred by the threat of storms and joined us for a fun-filled bike ride, a scrumptious meal, a delightful concert and a fascinating film. As always, we’d be utterly lost with out the good will and hard work of an entire community of people. We want to take a moment to look back at the day and thank some of the people that made it happen. Along the way we’ll share some of our favorite images captured by photographers Stephen Bybee and Vivian Abagui.

Things got underway that Saturday morning with a tune up from Sarah Ashman and the rest of the crew at Walt’s Bike Shop, who generously provided support for our 15-mile westward journey down the MKT and Katy trails linking Columbia and Rocheport.

photo by Stephen Bybee

photo by Stephen Bybee

 

It certainly wouldn’t be True/False without music vibrating through the air. As we set off westward, tunes were here and there from Max Rubio, Dubb Nubb, SaP, Meeyoo, Step Daughter, Rae Fitzgerald, Ben Bushman, Nevada Greene, Sunshine Mamas and Ruth Acuff, who accompanied her beautiful, soaring melodies with a harp.

vivian 4

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Folks looking for a burst of energy or perhaps just a simple treat were in luck, thanks to the delicious trailside snacks provided by Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream, Kaldi’s Coffee and Harold’s Doughnuts. For those that imbibe, there was a local beer pour featuring samples from Schlafly, Flat Branch, Broadway, Logboat and Bur Oak breweries.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

The Dawdle is defined by delightful and instructive digressions. This year we entertained by the folks from by Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers, Moon Valley Massage, Missouri Contemporary Ballet and the folks from the Greenhouse Theater Project, who gave short improvised performances.

vivian5

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Dawdlers also found themselves seeking advice from the Interpretation Station manned by John Reid and in the midst of a mini carnival at Hindman Junction featuring jugglers Phil and Melanie Knocke.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

In addition, Jeff Barrow and the Missouri River Relief volunteers offered Dawdlers a new treat, a short voyage on a scenic stretch of the Missouri River.

dawdlevivian

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

The final bit of trail before Les Bourgeois is especially taxing, coming at the end of our trek. Thankfully, cheerleaders from Hickman and Battle High Schools were kind enough to provide some inspiration. Meanwhile, the legendary T/F Sherpa team kicked it into gear, hauling more than 143 bikes up the hill and the bike loading volunteers began loading the hundreds of bikes into trucks for their return journey to Columbia.

vivian2

photo by Vivian Abagui

 

We’d arrived at our destination, Les Bourgeois Winery. Here our gracious hosts Curtis, Chelsea and Matt had a delicious meal waiting for us, featuring food from numerous local culinary contributors, more Schlafly beer and Les Bourgeois’ own wine. Then we stretched out and relaxed on the beautiful limestone bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.

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photo by Stephen Bybee

 

This summer’s delightful sunset concert was performed by the duo Drakkar Sauna, who combine classic country themes with inventive word play to create a unique style all their own.

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photo by Vivian Abagui

 

Throughout the day, Doug, Steve, Justin and the rest of T/F tech crew once more rose to the challenge and worked around inopportune weather. They waited until just before showtime to setup the screen for this year’s film, An Honest Liar, explores the career and life of James “the Amazing” Randi, a world-class magician who became an important debunker of purported psychics and healers. Afterwards, co-director Justin Weinstein was kind enough to join us for a discussion of this provocative film.

photo by Vivian Abigui

photo by Vivian Abigui

 

Then, alas, the 2014 Boone Dawdle was at an end. Thanks again to everyone who made the journey with us, and a special thanks to the T/F Volunteers and Core Staff who worked a 15-hour day to make it possible. Let’s all hang our again in just six short months, March 5-8, at T/F 2015! And in less than a year it will be time to Dawdle again, on August 15, 2015.

 

 

Posted August 27, 2014
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