True/False 2013 Critical Reaction

Posted March 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Kenigsburg at Time Out Chicago said of his weekend:

I wanted to write about T/F almost immediately after I arrived, because it’s clearly one of the best-managed and enjoyable film festivals within extended driving distance of Chicago. (The trip takes about seven hours, though various permutations of flying and busing are also available.) Compressing a heady mix of filmgoing and socializing into a long weekend—this year’s edition ran February 28 through March 3—the event seems both intensely curatorial and casually eccentric. Or to put it another way: Never did I dream that one day I could order borscht from a Missouri cinema concession stand and then take it into a screening of Jim McBride’s landmark docu-fiction David Holzman’s Diary (1967).

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

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

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