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

Note: This interview originally ran back in October during the theatrical premiere of The Overnighters (T/F 2014) NYC. We are sharing it again as The Overnighters is returning Columbia today at Ragtag Cinema for a short pre-T/F 2015 run.

“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




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.

True/False: 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.

Jesse Moss: 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.


the over


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.




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.





Posted February 28, 2015

Tickets On Sale Thursday March 5 at the T/F Box Office

The T/F Box Office opens for individual ticket sales at 9 am on Thursday, March 5. We’ll have thousands of T/F 2015 tickets available. Among those screenings we’ll have tickets for are:

Those Who Feel the Fire Burning- Thursday at 9:30 pm- The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note

Drone- Thursday 10:15 pm- Missouri Theatre

Cartel Land- 10:15 pm  Friday- Missouri Theatre

Probation Time- Saturday 7:45 pm- Rhynsburger Theatre

Secret Screening Orange- Saturday 9:15 pm- The Picturehouse

The Visit- Sunday 9:30 am- Missouri Theatre

Spartacus & Cassandra- Sunday 12:30 pm- Missouri Theatre

Tales of the Grim Sleeper- Sunday 3:30 pm- Missouri Theatre

Girl You Know It’s True (shorts)- Sunday 7:30 pm- The Globe

Secret Screening Red- Sunday 7:30 pm- Rhynsburger Theatre

Time Is A Thief (shorts)- Sunday 8:30 pm- The Picturehouse

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst: Episode 5 - Sunday 9:00 pm- The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note

Posted February 27, 2015

Coming Soon to The Great Wall!

The Great Wall, T/F’s free outdoor cinema, is back in 2015, now newly situated right outside T/F’s international headquarters at 9th and Broadway. Films will play from 7-11 the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of the Fest.

This year The Great Wall will feature two different programs. On Friday and Sunday, we’ll be projecting a shorts program titled Swan Song for the Factory Age. Watch as the walls of modern industry are toppled and a postindustrial civilization arises.

It begins with the hypnotic Single Stream (Ernst Karel, Toby Lee and Pawel Wojtasik, 24 min.), which shows our throwaway society as it reaches operatic excess.

Single Stream

image from Single Stream


In the nihilistic The Digger, the Bell, and the Tropical Pharmacy (Jennifer Allora, Guillermo Calzadilla and Tony Gerber, 21 min.), we ride shotgun on a single-minded, musical excavator.

The digger

image from The Digger, the Bell and the Tropical Pharmacy


Assembly Line Movement (Jesse Sugarmann, 22 min.), introduces former Pontiac factory workers pantomiming—with surgical precision— their now-obsolete daily rituals.


image from Assembly Line Movement


In Layover (Vanessa Renwick, 6 min.), in which birds swoop over our demise, their relentless choreography signaling a new start.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.10.28 AM

image from Layover


This program will also feature a short film from this year’s True Vision Award winner Adam Curtis.


On Saturday night The Great Wall will feature Our Sweet Malik, a tribute to our late friend Malik Bendjelloul. Malik stole our hearts in 2012 when he brought his musical fairy tale Searching for Sugar Man to True/False. He also starred at our game show Gimme Truth! as the charming, befuddled foreigner. Then fresh off of his 2013 Oscar win, he made a victory lap to mentor T/F’s high-school students. With the gracious guidance of Brittany Huckabee—T/F alum and partner of Malik—we’re projecting a number of his visually arresting short works, which herald his later breakthrough.

"Searching for Sugar Man" Greenroom Photo Op - 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival

Malik Benjelloul


Make sure to include a little space in your T/F 2015 schedule for a bit of cinema out under the stars.

Posted February 26, 2015

Explore the Films of the Gateway Packet

Note: Gateway Packets are now sold out. But do not fear, we’ll have thousands of tickets on sale for these and other films at our box office beginning March 5.


The Gateway Packet is now on sale until 6 pm on Friday February 27 for T/F 2015. For $40, the Gateway grants you the ability to reserve three tickets online. For a select set of screenings at True/False 2015, which runs March 5-8. You can reserve tickets for three different screenings or multiple tickets for the same one; it’s up to you. Gateway is a great to introduce someone new to T/F. Pick up yours here.

This year’s Gateway screenings are as follows:

(T)ERROR, Thursday at 6:45pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note

Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, Thursday 9:30pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note

Drone, Thursday, 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre

Cartel Land, Friday 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre

I Am the People, Saturday 10:00am, Geology

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Saturday 9:30pm, Missouri Theatre

The Visit, Sunday 9:30am, Missouri Theatre

Spartacus & Cassandra, Sunday, 12:30pm, Missouri Theatre

Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Sunday 3:30pm, Missouri Theatre

Of Men and War, Sunday, 5:30pm, Geology

Finders Keepers, Sunday, 7:00pm, Cornell Hall

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Episode 5), Sunday 9:00pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note


Below we gathered some info about this year’s Gateway selections.


(T)ERROR gains unprecedented access to an FBI counter-terrorist investigation, as its directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe explain in this video from Sundance 2015.


Those Who Feel the Fire Burning is a haunting look at life immigrant communities in Europe, as you can see in the mesmerizing trailer below.


Drone is a timely investigation drone technology, and the sticky, unresolved issues around its wide spread use in modern warfare.


Cartel Land a jaw-dropping look at the moral grey zone’s created by powerful drug cartels, as director Matthew Heineman explained at Sundance.


I Am the People is a unique and deeply humanist examination of the Arab Spring, an important film just now arriving in our hemisphere.


Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck creates a frightening and fascinating portrait out of a wealth of amazing archival materials. Morgen recently discussed his intimate with a legend in an interview with Rolling Stone.


The Visit is a hypnotic philosophical provocation from filmmaker Michael Madsen, who simulates humanity’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial species.


Spartacus & Cassandra is a beautiful and affecting story Roma children at a life crossroads. The blog Cine Vue covered its screening at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival.


Tales of the Grim Sleeper explores the unbelievable story of a serial killer who preyed on women in a South Central LA neighborhood for 25 years.


Of Men and War is a direct, unforgettable look at American soldiers suffering from PTSD, and the difficulty of providing them the help they need.


Finders Keepers is the stranger-than-fiction story of a severed foot found in a BBQ grill, and the even more bizarre events that followed. The Guardian covered its recent screening at Sundance.


Finally, The Jinx a multipart HBO series, where filmmaker Andrew Jarecki presents a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives around millionaire Robert Durst, who happens to be the center of multiple murders and disappearances. The Sunday screening that is part five, so those watching along on HBO or HBOGo can join in. If you’ve caught up, check out the analysis of the latest episode on Vulture.


Posted February 23, 2015

Back to School with Amanda Rose Wilder of ‘Approaching the Elephant’

Note: This interview first ran in April 2014, when Approaching the Elephant screened at the Sarasota film festival. We are sharing it again in honor of the film’s theatrical premiere at the Independent Film Project in Brooklyn, NYC where it is playing through February 26.


Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.

Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?

Amanda Rose Wilder: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.

T/F: Where’s that at?

ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.

We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.

I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.

T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?

ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.

From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.

I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.

T/F: So, what’s true/false about your film?

ARW: Oh man, good question . . .

Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.

I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.

So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.



Lucy in Approaching the Elephant


T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.

ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”

As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.

T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .

ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.

So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.

What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.

But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.

T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?

ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.

Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”

T/F: Haha.

ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.

T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?

ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.

How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.

T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?

ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.

T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.

ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.



Jio in Approaching the Elephant

Posted February 20, 2015

Neither/Nor Begins True/False Eve with ‘Arena of Life’

The 2015 Neither/Nor series kicks-off on True/False Eve, Wednesday, March 4, with a free event at the Ragtag Cinema. At 6pm that evening, Ragtag will host a reception featuring all the guests of this year’s series. At 7pm, we will screen Bogdan Dziworski’s shorts program Arena of Life. After the screening, this year’s Neither/Nor curator, Ela Bittencourt, will moderate a Q&A with Dziworski.



image from Arena of Life


Famous for both his cinematography (see Through and Through) and still photography (check out his exhibit at Uprise Bakery), Bogdan Dziworski is one of Poland’s most imaginative visual artists. In this shorts program, we focus on the spectacular, unconventional profile films he directed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arena of Life (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1979, 20 min.) takes us behind the scenes of a circus, as performers tirelessly put on a show. Biathlon (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1978, 11 min) ogles professional skiers as they triumphantly shoot out into the sky and then crash to the ground. The masterpiece A Few Stories About a Man (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1983, 20 min) introduces us to Jerzy Orlowski, an agile, armless man, and shows us how he dives, draws, skis and, yes, urinates. In the melancholic, whimsical Szapito (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1984, 29 min), Dziworski revisits the circus and observes older performers as they struggle to nail their acts.

This event is free. Tickets will be available day of show at the Ragtag Cinema box office.

Posted February 18, 2015

T/F 2015′s New Venues

As you’ve probably noticed by now, three buildings on the University of Missouri campus will become cinemas for the first time at this year’s Fest. A little while back our photo team went out and scouted ahead so that you can familiarize yourself with the spaces before their transformation. Take a look.


Cornell Hall at the College of Business






Rhynsburger Theatre





Geology Lecture Hall in the Geological Sciences Building

-photo by Rebecca Allen -T/F 2015 -Keller Auditorium, Geological Sciences

-photo by Rebecca Allen -T/F 2015 -Keller Auditorium, Geological Sciences

-photo by Rebecca Allen -T/F 2015 -Keller Auditorium, Geological Sciences

Posted February 16, 2015

An Interview with Shilpa Ray

Shilpa Ray is as raucous a harmonium player as you will find and possibly the first in the history of True/False buskers. The Brooklyn musician is coming to True/False with her backing band to play the Saturday Showcase at Rose Music Hall and even sneak in a few busking gigs throughout the Fest. She’s a documentary film fan and sandwich lover. So, she’ll fit in just fine.



I got the chance to chat with Shilpa via email a few weeks back while New York was facing down a possible blizzard.

-Zac Early


True/False: As you know, True/False is a film festival primarily focusing on documentary film. The films at the fest play with ideas of fact and fiction and what lies in between. Considering this, what would the synopsis of a film about your life and career be?

Shilpa Ray: A woman dreaming of a life like Bonnie and Clyde becomes Dillinger instead.

T/F: Are you a documentary fan? Do you have a favorite documentary film and why is it a favorite?

SR: I do love me some documentaries. I enjoy a lot of music ones but I also draw a lot of inspiration from non-musicals as well. I’m a huge Ken Burns fan. Jazz and The West are my favorites. I also love Ric Burns’ New York, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, and Martin Scorcese’s The Blues. I suppose the documentary series that had the greatest impact on me was the PBS Rock and Roll mini series. I recorded it on to VHS when I was a teenager. My parents were incredibly strict when I was growing up, so for fun I read a lot of books, listened to tons of music and watch this series on repeat. I got my mind blown watching footage of the VU, The Doors, the Stooges, David Bowie, the Animals, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Janis and Big Brother Holding Company, The Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaatta and Kraftwerk . I watched it so religiously. I’d jump around in my bedroom miming all the parts. It was my world.

T/F: The theme for this year’s fest is ‘The Long Now’. How do you and your band fit into this idea of the long now? What does ‘The Long Now’ mean to you?

SR: Isn’t that just defining reality? I suppose documentaries are feeding into a certain kind of fantasy. Condensing one’s subject into highlights, climaxes and rock bottoms. In the meantime we’re all making sandwiches, sleeping, working, getting high and paying bills– lots and lots of bills.

T/F: You will be performing both as a busker and with your band at the Saturday night showcase. How will your busker and showcase performances contrast for fest attendees looking to catch you in both settings?

SR: Whoa! Busking? Really? I had no idea. Sounds like fun though. From what people tell me I’m “really intense” so we’ll see how that works out in-between making sandwiches.

T/F: Sandwiches?  What made you bring up sandwiches?

SR: I was so hungry. We are going through “Snowmaggedon” right now and everyone got hysterical. There’s no food left at my grocery store. It’s crazy out here, with not enough snow.

T/F: Last year, 20,000 Days on Earth, the film about a day in Nick Cave’s life, showed at T/F. You have toured with Cave and released a solo record on his label. What has that been like to work with someone of his stature?

SR: He’s a lot of fun. One of the funniest and real people I’ve ever met. He used to make me sandwiches on the tour bus. They were pretty damn good.

T/F: Other than Nick Cave, who are some other musicians you have worked with who influence your music?

SR: Steven Bernstein. He’s more than a stalwart in the New York jazz scene. He’s worked with John Zorn, Lou Reed, John Lurie, tons and tons of rad people. I got to work with him for the Sly Stone and Shell Silverstein tributes held in NYC a few years ago. What a fierce arranger! I was floored by how he can command a large jazz ensemble. Such a magical presence. He’s my favorite.

T/F: Often times, musicians who aren’t white, heterosexual males get pigeonholed based on their identity. Somehow, all they sing about is this perceived identity while white, heterosexual males sing about themes and topics that are more universal – or so the thinking goes.

SR: That’s not true. Musicians play and sing about whatever they want regardless of color and gender. We’re all universally self absorbed hedonists. Sure my life has not been lived the same as a white man, but I don’t feel that what I’m doing is marked by my race or gender. I actually feel that white male culture doesn’t take enough risks and modern music has become incredibly boring. If the music industry is constantly looking for another Kurt Cobain it is and it has been fucking itself over. Everyone knows that.

Posted February 14, 2015

The New Merch is Here!

New T/F 2015 Merch is now in stock and on sale, both in our online store and in the T/F pop-up shop in Makes Scents at 19 S. 9th Street in downtown CoMo. If you want to browse in person, Makes Scents is open seven days a week, Monday-Saturday 10-6, Friday 10-8 and Sunday Noon-5.

Take a gander at some of our new wares!

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Posted February 12, 2015

‘Best of Enemies’ is Our Jubilee Film

T/F 2015 kicks-off on Thursday, March 5 with the Jubilee, our annual masquerade extravaganza. There’ll be costumes, cocktails and buskers a-plenty throughout lobby and corridors of the august Missouri Theatre. Eventually, we’ll all find our seats and take in the opening night film. This year we are thrilled to present the fun and fascinating Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Academy Award-winner and T/F alum Morgan Neville of Twenty Feet From Stardom (T/F 2013).


best of enemies

image from Best of Enemies


This archival film utilizes crackling editing and sound design to take us back to the 1960s, when ABC paired the disdaining, incredulous conservative William F. Buckley with the jeremiad-spouting liberal Gore Vidal in a series of televised debates.  Their spirited clashes embodied the culture wars of the 60s and haunted both men for the rest of their lives.



image from Best of Enemies


Filmmakers Neville and Gordon will both be on hand for what is sure to be a lively post-film Q and A. We hope to see you there! And don’t forget the rest of the T/F 2015 film slate will be announced at 6 PM tonight!

Posted February 11, 2015
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