Plus, there’s a rad party at the end.


The True/False volunteer army is a mighty force of chaotic good. Every year, we’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of community devotion and we want to give a hearty thanks to this tireless crew. This year, we’re highlighting volunteers from each department so they can tell us a little about themselves and why they started volunteering for T/F. Want to get involved? Head to to apply for True/False 2018.



Meet Marie; Marie Schaller is a Columbia native and University of Missouri graduate with a degree in International Business. She currently lives in Fargo, North Dakota and works at Concordia Language Villages, language immersion summer camps. The first T/F films she saw back in ’09 were Food Inc., No Impact ManBerma VJ, and Pressure Cooker. We’re lucky to have her.

“Marie’s calm, cool, collected attitude makes Missouri Theater run like a well-oiled machine. Her smile is contagious and her love of the fest is infectious. We love Marie and are so thankful for her dedication to the fest!” – Carly Love, T/F Manager of the Theater Operations


TF: What department do you volunteer for?

MS: I have volunteered for Theater Operations as Venue Captain and have also volunteered with Special Ops


A large crowd gathers inside and outside the Missouri Theatre on Sunday evening, 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Allen)


TF: How many years have you volunteered for True/False?

MS: I have volunteered for the fest the past 6 years


TF: How did you get involved in volunteering?

MS: When I attended high school I saw a few films that had a really big impact on me and I knew I wanted to get involved.


TF: What’s your favorite part about volunteering? 

MS: My favorite part of volunteering for T/F is getting to see films that are thought-provoking and then getting to discuss them with other volunteers and creating friendships with them. More recently, this has translated to getting to help facilitate that bond within my team of volunteers


The closing show crowd at the Missouri Theatre, 2015. (photo by Rebecca Allen)


TF: Tell us one prominent memory or great story that happened while volunteering?

MS: Not a specific memory, but I love how the feeling of Columbia changes during those 4 days. All the art, music, activity, and openness adds this magic and suddenly downtown is transformed and everything feels heightened. The volunteers implement that transformation.


TF: What would you tell people who never been to or volunteered for True/False?

MS: Volunteering is so fun! You get to feel like a part of the Columbia community and you can make new friends and see some of the films for free! Plus, there’s a rad party at the end.

DJs at the Volunteer Party, 2017 (Photo by Jonathan Asher)


TF: What’s been the most rewarding part of your experience volunteering?

MS: The most rewarding part of my volunteer experience is getting to watch young people experience True/False through volunteering or just watching the films and seeing their perspectives broaden.



Posted December 26, 2017

You get to see a whole new side to the event.


The True/False volunteer army is a mighty force of chaotic good. Every year, we’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of community devotion and we want to give a hearty thanks to this tireless crew. This year, we’re highlighting volunteers from each department so they can tell us a little about themselves and why they started volunteering for T/F. Want to get involved? Head to to apply for True/False 2018.




Meet Lincoln Sheets. He is a physician and informatics researcher who studies the social determinants of health at Mizzou Med School. He lives and serves full-time at St. Francis House, a Catholic Worker community that provides shelter and hospitality to the homeless residents of Columbia, and his free-time interests include dance, triathlon, mountaineering, European languages, martial arts, and TRUE/FALSE!

“Lincoln is an fantastic volunteer.  The enthusiasm, willingness, and joy he brings to True/False – and to working with students – is the kind of glue that holds this festival together and helps it happen every year.  We’re so lucky to have him on our team!” – Allison Coffelt, T/F Director of Education


We asked Lincoln to tell us a little about his volunteer experience, his favorite parts about volunteering, and any advice he would give to first-time volunteers:

I’ve volunteered for the Outreach & Education team for the past two years. In prior years I’ve volunteered as a ticket taker, and also been a paying passholder. I was recruited to the Outreach and Education team by my friend Allison Coffelt, who is the director of that department for True/False.

Eddie Martinez, documentary filmmaker and college instructor, leads a group of high school students in a story writing workshop as part of the DIY Day Workshop. (Photo by Frank Finley)


My favorite part of working for that team is working with the high-school kids during the DIY Day program. I get to help the filmmakers and other creative types introduce 20 or 30 high schoolers to the various arts of filmmaking, storytelling, interviewing, and all kinds of cool skills.

If you’ve never volunteered for True/False, and especially if you already love the Fest as much as I have for so many years, you should try being a volunteer one year. You get to see a whole new side of the event, of the international community that makes up the Fest every year, and the great local folks who make it possible.


DIY Day participants make their way down 9th Street during the March March! (Photo by Adam Vogler)


Posted December 22, 2017

True/False brings the city to life in a way nothing else does.


The True/False volunteer army is a mighty force of chaotic good. Every year, we’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of community devotion and we want to give a hearty thanks to this tireless crew. This year, we’re highlighting volunteers from each department so they can tell us a little about themselves and why they started volunteering for T/F. Want to get involved? Head to to apply for True/False 2018.



Meet Lauren Miers. She’s a local communications strategist, freelance writer and doughnut connoisseur. She moved to Columbia in 2012 and hasn’t missed a year of T/F since. We’re lucky to have her.

“Lauren is one of our rocks.  She always shows up and knows how to do everything. And is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.” – Christina Kelley, T/F Merch Director



TF: What department do you volunteer for?

LM: One year I did Theater Operations, but for the past two years, I’ve worked with the Merch team.


TF: How many years have you volunteered for True/False?

LM: 3 years!


TF: How did you get involved in volunteering?

LM: I got involved with volunteering by being involved and in-touch with what’s happening in Columbia. As a journalism student working for the student magazine, I was constantly in tune with what was going on in town. When I heard about T/F, I thought volunteering would be a good way to experience the fest. In fact, volunteering for T/F helped me get connected to volunteering at Roots N Blues and Boone Dawdle!



TF: What’s your favorite part about volunteering for T/F?

The best part of volunteering for T/F is all the way I get to experience a transformed Columbia. T/F brings the city to life in a way nothing else does. Everyone is buzzing about films and events; Everyone has something in common for the weekend. It breaks down barriers, so I get to interact with lots of awesome people! Then I get to see some of those people around town during the year. It helps me feel like I’m really a part of the Columbia community!


TF: Tell us one prominent memory or great story that happened while volunteering?

LM: It’s always cool when a director comes up to buy merch!



TF: What would you tell people who never been to or volunteered for True/False?

LM: Volunteering is an awesome way to get connected with Columbia, see one of the nation’s best film fests and see a ton of great films!


TF: What’s been the most rewarding part of your experience volunteering?

LM: Broadly speaking, exposure to culture that isn’t my own – through films, meeting new people, etc.

Posted November 8, 2017

Make mistakes and take risks.


The True/False volunteer army is a mighty force of chaotic good. Every year, we’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of community devotion and we want to give a hearty thanks tireless crew. This year, we’re highlighting volunteers from each department so they can tell us a little about themselves and why they started volunteering for T/F.

Meet Jane McElroy. She is a faculty member in the School of Medicine at Mizzou, a loyal True/False volunteer, and a wonderfully involved community member. About True/False she says, “I’m not a big movie fan, so I don’t watch very many films but I’m committed to supporting my community through meaningful volunteer activities and T/F ranks high.” Jane, to us, you rank higher than high. Thanks for giving us your time, energy, and endless support.


Jane builds houses with Habitat for Humanity. She has been doing this every weekend for years because she likes to stay active, she believes in the cause, and it’s fun. At some point, she started offering T/F her Sundays in the winter. We’re so lucky. I’m not even sure that she was able to attend this year’s event, but I bet she cut a full tenth of the lumber we used in preparation. – Ben Falby, T/F Production Manager


(Photo by Stephen Bybee)


TF: What department do you volunteer for? 

JM: Build. [Build Team is an off-shoot of the production crew that handles a lion’s share of the construction projects. The build team does everything from work with artists to help them create their visions to building storage crates for T/F production materials (and a million other things in between).]

TF:How many years have you volunteered for True/False?

JM: 6  years


TF: How did you get involved in volunteering? 

JM: Heard about it and tried a few different options before I landed on Build as a good fit a few years ago.


John NIchols and Jane McElroy discuss table saw safety with George Zimny during a work session at the Lab. (Photo by Stephen Bybee)


TF: What’s your favorite part about volunteering for T/F? 

JM: T/F rocks by providing an outstanding community experience and showcasing great documentary films.


TF: What would you tell people who never been to or volunteered for True/False? 

JM: Great event.  Volunteers on the days of the event are the face of T/F so it is a meaningful experience.  For those behind the scenes who volunteer,  we contribute to the quirky and nut-and-bolts pieces for a successful and memorable event.  In both cases it is a worthwhile experience with very tangible and fairly immediate results.  Patrons and artists feel supported and want to keep coming to the T/F event each year.  Columbia gets to have this event in their backyard.


TF: What’s been the most rewarding part of your experience volunteering?

JM: Being part of a great group of people (on the Build team) who have tasks without a exact answer on how we are going to complete them in every case.  With Ben as the coordinator/facilitator/and mentor, (working under Ben’s tutelage is one of the rewarding components of the experience), we stand around and problem solve.  Ben allows us to make mistakes and take risks as we pull together the structures that support the creative art installations.


Design and construction work begins early at the Lab for True/False 2015. Photo by Stephen Bybee.


Posted October 26, 2017

Post Rough Cut Conversation, AMAL

Here’s a quick conversation with Mohammed Siam, director of Amal. The film follows a teenage girl during and directly after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. In this coming of age narrative, Amal struggles with loss, identity, and relationships amongst the political upheaval in Cairo.



TF: How did you get involved in this project?

MS: I was looking for a hooligan member – male teenager to cast for a film about anger until I met Amal by coincidence and the film turned to be about her solely. I wanted to investigate the future face of Egypt represented in this young generation who witnessed [the revolution] at the age of 15-20 where this experience might shape who you are


TF: How long did you spend shooting?

MS: Six years. It took me two years to understand that it’ll be a coming of age story therefore the best way to do it is to witness this slow change over time and in fractions not by continuos shooting. The post-production took one exact year from rough editing to sound and color.


TF: Amal presents herself as a very strong character, so boisterous and full of anger. In a way, she acts as an embodiment of the revolution itself. How quickly did that mirroring present itself and how do you use that in the film?

MS: I see Amal as an embodiment of Egypt not for the revolution but could be also for her generation. That comparison started to be clear after certain changes and couple of years of upheaval to see the assimilation.


TF: Gender plays a huge part in the film. Amal insists that she be treated as a boy, but there is also this tension that she is very much a girl who craves a heternormative relationship. Her narration talks about a past relationship with a boy who is killed during a riot, which kind of acts as a catalyst for her action in the revolution. How careful were you about what to include when thinking about her gender expression and portrayal?

MS: This part I was not very cautious how to put it, and I wasn’t at all trying to be politically correct or even narratively accurate. I just let things play out as she grew up and changed. To see Amal as an infant, and at end the film with her having an infant, is a full circle that teaches you a lot about life and makes you question the reason and meaning of many incidents that happen and you never care for and make you take much graver things easily because you saw things over time and you had the mature reaction to these minuscule and major events of one’s life up close like that.


Siam talks with Chris Hegedus during one-on-one feedback sessions.

Siam talks with mentor Chris Hegedus during one-on-one feedback sessions.


TF: You use found footage of Amal’s home movies from when she was young. Can you talk a little about why you chose to include those in the film?

MS: Having the advantage of following a teenager who’s been born in the digital era – as we’re all now having a digital record of each of us – enriched the six years journey to give a three-dimensional portrayal of the same person for full twenty years which is the sum of her life.


TF: Your sense of place is really important as well. As much as this film is about Amal, it also follows the Egyptian revolution closely, showing the five-year aftermath of a political upheaval. How did you weave the place into the narrative?

MS: This layer is very subtle in the film as I see it. It’s developing and announcing itself every now and then but it’s not shouting to take the front or have the focus at any point. It was clear that the film is only about her and if she has moved within certain atmosphere it’d have been the container that envelops her story.


TF: The other tension in the film is between Amal and her mother (and her father, to a smaller degree). There are quite a few scenes where they have big disagreements, mainly about politics. Beyond insight into her family dynamic, why did you include these scenes?

Part of it to show how different she is from her family and also from that generation which is a chronic problem in each house whose family is divided on the Arab spring between the youngsters who fought in the square and the their parents who would rather safety over any risk for liberty, rights or change they might get in return.


TF: Can you talk a little bit about your music selection? You feature some contemporary songs with lyrics that talk about the revolution, and the diegetic music also plays a large role in the film.

MS: There are some music references in the film as Avro Part whom we’d never afford so we’d change these pieces obviously. The choices of music and pop songs in the film are related to the adolescent sense of taste and atmosphere. Part of the music choices are actually Amal’s choices as these are literally the songs she hums by herself while walking in the street.


TF: Was Amal a large part of the creative decisions in the film?
MS: Part of it, no. But she was a major influence on how I shifted my thinking 17 different times to figure out who she is, then who she is becoming and where she’s going to. She never seizes to surprise me still. In that sense, she was part of it.


TF: What stage of post-production were you in when you came to Rough Cut? Had other people seen the film and were you pretty far along in the feedback process?

MS: I’m in the late middle of it. Few others have seen the cut and gave feedback, very different though from the feedback I’ve received in your great retreat. The feedback at Rough Cut was much more detailed and focused on certain problems. Also, the main meeting – when everyone was involved – was as constructive as it gets when Paul and David took the helm to dissect the structure and what scene didn’t work for them with Megan and Lisa’s moderation.


TF: During the retreat, you received feedback from a bunch of different filmmakers, what was some of the best feedback you got and how has it impacted your film so far?

MS: The ones about restructuring the second half of the film and about the need for an elevating ending which I was working on but they’ve confirmed my ideas and intentions.


Rough Cut Retreat is a collaborative project from True/False Film Fest and Catapult Film Fund that strives to give filmmakers with new projects dedicated time, mentorship, and feedback to help their work move from a rough cut to a final cut. 


Posted September 26, 2017

It’s hard to explain how powerful it is.

The True/False volunteer army is a mighty force of chaotic good. Every year, we’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of community devotion and we want to give a hearty thanks tireless crew enough. This year, we’re highlighting volunteers from each department so they can tell us a little about themselves and why they started volunteering for T/F. We present to you, the first installment.



Meet Violet Kroll; she’s 19 years old and was born and raised in Columbia. She’s a photographer, a pen-and-ink artist, and an overall kick-ass creative. We’re lucky to have her.

Violet is an exemplary T/F volunteer – always willing to step up, do more, and add her creative voice, she works hard and goes the extra mile to make sure the projects she works on look amazing. – Camellia Cosgray, T/F Operations Director



TF: What department do you volunteer for?

VK: I have been on the art team since I started.


TF: How many years have you volunteered for True/False?

VK: I’m honestly not quite sure, before I was old enough to officially volunteer I was following my father [Jamie Kroll, a T/F core staffer] around doing odd jobs.


TF: How did you get involved in volunteering?

VK: My dad has been a part of the festival since it started and I started with him.


TF: What’s your favorite part about volunteering for T/F?

VK: I love being around so many amazing and creative souls. Meeting all the wonderful people that are artists and directors for the fest and especially the people who are in core and the people I volunteer with.


Photo by Stephen Bybee.


TF: Tell us one prominent memory or great story that happened while volunteering?

VK: I remember meeting a director for a very powerful movie about women’s sexuality from last year, it was amazing. She was very wise and happily answered all of my questions. [That director was Mette Carla Albrechtsen who made the film Venuswhich we highly recommend]. 


TF: What would you tell people who never been to or volunteered for True/False?

VK: Prepare to never find parking! I’m kidding but the fest is an incredible experience for anyone. The art alone is awe-some and all the films will change you in a mental way that’s very powerful, something you can’t get from most things.


TF: What’s been the most rewarding part of your experience volunteering?

VK: Being a part of the community is just so uplifting and wonderful. It’s hard to explain how powerful it is.


Photo by Stephen Bybee

Posted September 19, 2017

Post Rough Cut Conversation, PIGEON KINGS

Pigeon Kings, a new documentary by filmmaker Milena Pastreich, tracks a peculiar subculture of pigeon competitions in South Central Los Angeles presided over by the godfather Keith London. Milena brought the rollers to Rough Cut Retreat back in July, and afterwards we sat down to talk about how she met the pigeon community and how the story evolved from her initial fascination.



TF: How did you get involved in this project?

MP: I made a scripted short film in 2011 and the lead in the film had pigeons, many scenes took place in her pigeon coop. So, during pre-pro, I was location scouting coops all over LA and upon visiting one, I looked up into the sky and saw pigeons doing somersaults. I got pretty annoying asking one question after the next, so the man who owned the coop invited me to a Roller Pigeon auction on that very day. I headed to the event, where I saw hundreds of men wearing pigeon T-shirts, talking about birds, and looking up into the sky. This world felt surreal and that is why when someone asked me what I was doing there, I responded “I’m making a documentary.”


TF: How long did you spend shooting?

MP: I spent two summers (2011 and 2012) meeting people with a camera, that was my form of research. In 2013 I got a grant from Canon via Film Independent, which meant I had C300 for 6 months. During those 6 months I was fully immersed in shooting the subjects of the doc in their day-to-day lives. In 2015 Canon loaned me the camera again and I spent 2 months shooting all things competition. In 2016 and 2017 I shot very sparingly to follow certain story lines.


TF: Can you tell me a little about the pigeon rolling sport?

MP: Roller competitions exist around the world and the fliers always compete from their own backyards so it’s the judge who travels to them. If it’s a national fly, the judge travels around the US, if it’s a local fly, he travels around the LA area. A South Central Roller competition starts around 6:30am on a Saturday or Sunday. Over the course of the fly, the group of participants caravan from house to house. Whoever is flying releases their birds and they have 20 minutes to fly a 20 bird team. There is a judge counting how many birds do somersaults in unison, if 5 or more pigeons roll at the same time, the competitor gets points. There’s a lot more to the scoring system, but that’s the basic concept.


Milena Pastreich and editor Alex O’Flinn discuss after individualized feedback sessions.


TF: During the post-screening conversation, we talked a little about how this film really served as a portrait of these people in this time, as opposed to a “sport” film. What about this group of people really stood out to you and made you want to continue filming?

MP: I’m glad it’s more of a character film than a sports film because that’s most definitely where my interests lie. What drew me to the men is their passion slash obsession with their birds. They have a real connection with their pigeons, they call them “children” and consider them part of their family. Over time, it became clear that the relationship is so extreme because they depend on their pigeons, just as their pigeons depend on them.


TF: When constructing the portrait of these people, what were you careful about including and excluding?

MP: Knowing what to include and exclude is such a long process. I don’t think I was calculating what needed to be in our story and what didn’t, instead it revealed itself and is still revealing itself as we edit. Everything started on a scene level though. Since most of our footage is verité, we began by assembling all the scenes that stood out and then whatever was compelling became a building block for our story. With Keith, the heart of his story is his relationship with his children. For Choo, it is his barbershop, which is where we get a sense of the South Central apart from the pigeons.


TF: Tell me a little about how you wove together the personal narrative, and the narrative of the sport. You do it really well in the film so we get this really lovely dual story line of the competitions and the interpersonal relationships.

MP: Glad to hear it felt woven together. We began by mapping out the personal narrative which included a competition, so there was a natural sports narrative built into the personal narrative. We then worked backwards and figured out what we needed to explain for that competition to make sense. In terms of the sport, our approach is to explain the minimum amount necessary so people are not confused or annoyed, wanting to know more.


TF: I think you’ve also done a really amazing job of grounding the film in a certain place and time – can you talk a little about where it’s set and the community surrounding these characters/sport.

MP: Pigeon Kings takes place in South Central LA and although we are immersed in a specific pigeon world, the film is very much about the neighborhood. Most of the pigeon enthusiasts in South Central are Black and Latino men in their 40s and 50s who have had rollers since they were children. There are a handful of pigeon clubs in the LA area and the members spend weekends competing against each other and attending pigeon auctions. If they’re not involved in club activities, they are stopping by each other’s backyards for a hang; there is a very strong sense of community.  


TF: You chose very distinct music for the film. Why that sound and what inspired the decision?

MP: Birdman stole our title so we stole their soundtrack. Only kinda kidding. Our film was originally titled Birdmen and I was very inspired by the Birdman score. With a documentary like this, that takes so long to make, it’s fascinating to watch prior work samples and see the evolution of the music. We first started with classical and although it worked for short teasers and work samples, it never seemed like it could carry the entire film. I knew I wanted to embrace one genre of music or have a similar sound throughout since we are entering such a specific world. Last year when we made a teaser for a Kickstarter campaign, we were playing around with different options and when we tried jazz drum solos and drumlines we got VERY excited.


TF: What stage of post-production were you in when you came to Rough Cut? Had other people seen the film, were you pretty far along in the feedback process?

MP: We had been editing for over a year and had had 4 screenings.


Feedback session with mentor Mark Becker


TF: During the retreat, you got some feedback from a bunch of different filmmakers, what was some of the best feedback you got and how has it impacted your film so far?

MP: We got tons of great feedback at the retreat. One take-away was that one of our characters was outshining the other so we’ve been working on making the less popular character more present. Furthermore, some of the rules of the sport were confusing so we have been clarifying them. We got so many great notes but one of the best ones was so simple, reminding us of the scale of the changes that needed to be done. Very small changes will make a huge difference. Hearing that was very important.


Rough Cut Retreat is a collaborative project from True/False Film Fest and Catapult Film Fund that strives to give filmmakers with new projects dedicated time, mentorship, and feedback to help their work move from a rough cut to a final cut. 

Posted September 14, 2017

Post Rough Cut Conversation, VOICES OF THE SEA: A CUBAN ODYSSEY


We sat down with the five filmmaking teams who brought their projects to Rough Cut Retreat to hear a little bit more about their films, their creative process, and how the retreat impacted their work. Here’s the first of five, featuring filmmaker Kim Hopkins.

Voices of the Sea takes us into the heart of a high-stakes family drama playing out in a remote Cuban fishing village. Director Kim Hopkins brought her project to the 2017 Rough Cut Retreat after completing the first major edit of the film. Here we talk with her about the project and her experience at Rough Cut.


TF: How did you get involved in this project and how did you meet your subjects?

KH: In the late 1990’s I helped form the documentary department at EICTV (Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television) in Cuba. Whilst working with documentary students we often visited Playa Cajio, a fishing village, situated on the South coast. It was during these visits that I met with the fishermen and their families of Playa Cajio. It was then that the seed of an idea began to germinate. I knew all things Ernest Hemingway was an acceptable subject for the Cuban authorities to green light. I pondered, what if Hemingway had written ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ today? Fisherman Pita seemed to me to embody Hemingway’s old man. Oh, and I love fishing.


TF: How long did you spend shooting?

KH: A 3 person crew lived and filmed in Playa Cajio for 10 weeks, until we were turfed out by the Cuban military. Some time later, we then returned for 2 weeks to update the storylines.



TF: During the post-screening discussion we talked a lot about how you built a sense of community and place through the everyday scenes. I remember specifically we referenced how they resourcefully fixed their possessions (like sewing together a plastic chair with rope, or rebuilding a motor). Tell me a little about your process for constructing this sense of place through those scenes.

KH: Cubans are perhaps the most resourceful people on earth. They’ve had to be, with one of the most punitive and cruel embargos imposed on them for more than half a century. I’ve always been interested in how people live day to day, how the small stuff informs us as to how we survive hour by hour. In Cuba, one person sells the bread, another fishing bait, another hooks, or line, and yet another a belt to hold your pants up. This is how community is formed, by an army of Mr fix-its, and black market sellers. In one single day Pita (central character) counted 56 people that had passed through his kitchen. This at once introduced us to the community, and the locations.


TF: You gave the group attempting to leave Cuba a small camera to record their journey. What made you decide to do that, and was the group hesitant to film at all?

KH: Gaining the trust of those planning an illegal escape from Cuba was the most difficult thing. Usually, only immediate family or the closest of friends know about such plans, as nobody, not even in a small village know who the informers are. Because we were foreigners, and because we were perhaps the first people to give the villagers a voice, we gained trust. It seemed if Pita trusted us, that was good enough for the village. We knew that the illegal handcrafted boats contained about 20 people, and that those rafters came from all over the island. They didn’t even know each other. Therefore, we knew it would be impossible to get a consensus from the whole group to agree to one of us filming. We also knew, should we get caught trying to film an illegal escape, we might get accused of aiding and abetting people trafficking. None of us wanted to eat rice and beans for ten years in a Cuban prison. Therefore, Michel whom we’d gained some trust, offered to take with him a small domestic camera, one from the island that would not be immediately traced back to us should they get caught. We asked him to keep his fingers off the zoom, to hold shots, and to make sure both he and his wife were in some of the material. He was instructed, should they get caught, to jettison the camera overboard, but keep the micro-SD media card somewhere safe. Estrella his wife did just that.


TF: The footage from their journey is so intense. What was the process of watching it and deciding what to use like? Was it difficult to watch or decide what fit into the narrative?

KH: When we received the SD card back from the rafters, we fully expected about 5 minutes of material. You can imagine our joy at seeing nearly 4 hours were filmed. Michel and the other rafters felt a sense of duty to their countryfolk to record one of these dreadfully dangerous journeys. Michel and some of the other rafters did a great job of covering the central drama of their journey. Each day had coverage. When the engine failed, it was covered. When the engine was thrown overboard, it was covered. When the priest prayed for their salvation, it was covered. When I saw the material I had a real sense that it was people’s journalism, the camera was used as a political tool, and through the dialogue it was evident that the rafters were fully aware of its power. The material shot really chose itself.


TF: The international relations and politics of Cuba are very prominent in the story line. Can you talk a little about the situation and the group attempting to leave Cuba?

KH: From the onset, we wanted to make a film about ‘ordinary’ Cubans. What we call the Peso Cuban, those with no real access to the convertible Peso (CUC), which is effectively the dollar. It is mainly Peso Cubans who are driven into the sea, risking their lives for what they feel is a chance of a better life. The group that were on the filmed raft, were from all parts of the Island, there was a priest, a surgeon, a journalist, a fisherman, a sanitary worker, a farmer, a pregnant woman and a diabetic housewife. I guess they all had their own reasons for attempting this perilous journey, whether is be; economic, political, the American dream, or simply family reunification. We know several of them had attempted the journey many times before.


TF: So we have this odyssey plot, people journeying far away with harrowing struggles along the way, but we also have this captivating “land” plot, in which we get connected to this central character Pita. In it he really embodies the community, especially the fishing community. Tell me more about his role in the film and how he, and his wife, became your central character(s)?

KH: I know it’s not really the thing to admit to in the documentary community, but I always ‘cast’ my films. I had an idea that was loosely based on Hemingway’s ‘The old Man and the Sea’. I was looking for Hemingway’s old man, the embodiment of Santiago. A subsistence fisherman, somebody who rows out to sea each day, somebody who has those deep creases in the back of his neck, and scars on his hands. When I met Pita, I immediately knew I wanted to film him. I have a simple philosophy, if I over-film somebody, because I just can’t turn the camera off, that’s always for me the clincher. Then, when he spoke, I knew it. His voice came from the depths of the ocean, or from smoking since he was 7 years old. Pita, is a big man in Playa Cajio, the king of coffee. He shares everything he has, much to his wife Mariela’s frustration. Pita for me seemed to personify everything I love about Cuba, its grit, its patina, the romance, the pride, the generosity, and the sheer bloody minded determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Mariela personifies perhaps the new Cuba, those looking to the future. She is beautiful, but melancholy. She is frustrated, but has hope. She is torn between surviving in the now, and building for the next generation. Between them there was this elephant in the room, in the shape of the American dream.


TF: When editing, how did you weave together these two stories to make a cohesive film?

KH: I always seem to make films that have two narratives running in parallel. I set out to make a simple film about a subsistence fisherman. When the rafters’ story presented itself to me, I knew it was going to be both a blessing and a curse. The emotional drive of the film resides with the relationship between Pita & Mariela, but the dramatic drive of the film resides with the rafters’ quest. Somehow Leah (editor) and myself knew each section of the story had to propel us further along, a kind of emotional and dramatic checkerboarding in which each would inform the other. The rest was a suck it and see.


TF: The relationship between Pita and Mariela is really tense in the film. When building the portrait of their relationship how did you decide what moments to include in the film and what to exclude?

KH: This is a difficult question as both Leah (editor) and myself are still wrestling with this. I think the eureka moment was when Leah suggested that Mariela’s quest should not be solely set around her conflict about leaving or staying, rather that she was trying to reconcile her feelings of being trapped. This is a subtle difference, but one that informed the emotional journey of the film.


TF: They both have this sense of marital perseverance for the sake of their children set against Mariela’s waning attraction to her husband and her desire for a better future for her kids. There’s a scene where they’re having a very frank conversation about the differences between each other and she says “the name, the gender, and the age gap.” Can you expand on this moment for me? It feels pivotal in the film.

KH: Gender politics play a part, most especially when western sensibilities cast judgement on different cultural norms. It was important to us that Pita doesn’t come over as some male sage, with a wisdom that his wife lacks, simply because he’s a man. Rather, for us, it is simply Pita is a lot older than his wife, and his life experience had informed him of their reality. Pita has two generations of family in America, and he knows their reality. For Pita, it is simple, he’s pragmatic, ‘you can have your dreams and I will support you as much as I can.’ In the meantime, ‘I’m going to deal in the here and now, in our reality, and if the dream fails, the elder boys will know how to feed themselves’. If the dream succeeds, then great. The interesting thing about this scene is, it reflects on my own life. My partner is a lot younger than myself, and we have this very same conflict. It’s a generation thing.


TF: Can you talk about the score you used in the film? It’s a very distinct sound that runs throughout the entire film.

KH: We felt that a Latin American sound track was important, but we wanted to steer clear of anything Buena Vista’ish. We searched out music that was sparse and reflective, so the lapping of the waves or the rattling of an old yank tank would always push through.


TF: What stage of post-production were you in when you came to Rough Cut? Had other people seen the film or were you pretty far along in the feedback process?

KH: We were at late rough cut stage, we felt structurally we were nearly there, but had some very specific questions we wanted feedback on. The only people outside the team that had seen the film were a few very close filmmaker friends, including a screenwriter.


TF: During the retreat, you got some feedback from a bunch of different filmmakers, what was some of the best feedback you got and how has it impacted your film so far?

KH: As mentioned, we had some specific niggles and wanted to test them with a very eminent bunch of filmmakers. Interestingly, our main niggle was never raised, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to address it. The main overarching takeaway from the retreat was giving both Leah (editor) and myself a new sense of courage of our convictions. We were very happy, that the consensus was to be braver, be more lyrical.



Rough Cut Retreat is a collaborative project from True/False Film Fest and Catapult Film Fund that strives to give filmmakers with new projects dedicated time, mentorship, and feedback to help their work move from a rough cut to a final cut. 

Posted September 5, 2017

Concerned Student 1950

One year ago, True/False’s hometown suddenly became the focus of the entire nation’s attention. Its major institution, the University of Missouri, was rocked by historic protests by the student group Concerned Student 1950. Last year also saw the launch of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, an exciting new program overseen by Stacey Woelfel and T/F multi-alum Robert Greene. Three students from this new program, Adam Dietrich, Kellan Marvin and Varun Bajaj, embedded themselves in the Concerned Student movement in order to tell its story from the inside, capturing the rapid acceleration of events surrounding Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, climaxing in the resignation of UM System President Tim Wolfe.

Dietrich, Marvin and Bajaj then began a collaboration with Field of Vision; a new documentary initiative led by nonfiction luminaries A.J. Schnack, Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook. The final result was Concerned Student 1950, a powerful short film which had its world premiere in front of a rapturous crowd at the historic Missouri Theatre during True/False 2016. The film is now available to watch online.

Shortly after the 2016 fest, we got the chance to chat with Adam, Kellan and Varun about this whirlwind film…

True/False: To begin, could you tell me how you first got started covering this story?

Adam Dietrich: We were in class talking about some of the footage from the protest at the Homecoming parade that happened a couple weeks before and then looking at an article about the first day of the hunger strike. We had (Western co-director) Bill Ross in class guest lecturing that day. Our professor Stacey Woelfel posed the question “if you were going to try to make a movie about this, how would you do it?” Bill said you should just grab a camera, go shoot and figure it out as you go along. That started it for me. Right after class we got cameras and tried to go shoot. They didn’t let us in right away; they just gave us an email. I went through my Facebook friends and tried to find a connection to Jonathan Butler or one of the other original members of Concerned Student 1950. I found a woman who I used to work with who sent him a text message saying I was legit.

True/False: Can you tell me about how you built trust with the members of the movement in order to get access?

Varun Bajaj: We were very worried from the beginning about whitewashing this story, and we were very upfront about that worry and that we wanted to tell their narrative from their perspective. We maintained our access with our subjects because we put down our cameras as much as possible. We would help move water or set up tents, or stop to eat or pray with people. It was about those moments when we were we said “we’re students too and this affects all of us. It’s not just about us and our cameras. We’re students that are here supporting you as well as people who want to tell the story we are experiencing.” Just sharing a meal and praying with someone can go further than anyone can imagine.

T/F: I really like the way the film opens with juxtaposing the campus tour and the mock tour. Was that something you found right away?

Kellan Marvin: They rehearsed that tour of “the Real Mizzou” a couple times at the Black Cultural Center and then went out and performed it a couple times around campus. We had originally been playing around with the idea of cutting through that, from this location to this location, showing that they repeated it so many times. But it was never at the beginning. We originally wanted everything to be linear because we couldn’t really imagine telling the story working in any other way. The idea of placing that scene at the beginning was a cool thing that Erin Casper, the outside editor from Field of Vision, did when she came on. She had this outsider’s perspective. It didn’t really matter to her as much if things were out of order.

T/F: Could you tell me more about how the collaboration with Field of Vision began and how it worked?

AD: So Field of Vision:  A.J. Schnack, Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook. The day before Tim Wolfe resigned A.J. called up Robert and asked if he could make a movie about what was happening. Robert said, “I’m not going to do that because I already have students out there filming” and A.J said “that’s even better, we want to see what they have.” Up until that point we had been filming, not for no reason, but with no endgame in mind. They kind of gave us a clear purpose.

VB: Once they got involved, things went from 0 to 60 pretty fast. We officially got Kellan on board, although she had already worked with us some.

Once we stopped shooting we put together an assembly for them and then it became a very collaborative process. At first Robert and Kellan were going to edit the film, but then Robert his film (Kate Plays Christine) into Sundance the same week, so they hired Erin out of New York. The three of us pretty much had final cut on everything, but between Laura, A.J., Robert and Stacey we had centuries of film experience working on this movie. It was really incredible. Just the concept that Laura Poitras is reading our notes and watching our film and helping us put it together is crazy.

AD: Erin and I would talk at least an hour a day for the last two or three weeks. She was sending us a new cut or at least scene edits every two or three days. Working with this group of people it was hard not to make something great. It was a lot of fun for sure.

T/F: Going back to that “Real Mizzou Tour” opening scene, I think it gives a good sense that this movement is an ongoing thing that isn’t just starting here.

VB: I think what I really like about that scene is that you get to see that these are students. They are practicing and learning every step of the way. You get to see the first time they perform it and then the last time, when they’ve done it four or five times. That last time they performed right after someone shouted “white power” at them.

We also wanted to something that showed our access. We had a lot of good footage that was shot outside that anyone could have had, but because we were the only ones who had access to the movement, we needed something right up front that showed that we had both the inside and the outside.

T/F: It is kind of interesting this idea of filming a performance, but shooting it in a way where the camera doesn’t just become part of the audience. Do you have any thoughts about that?

VB: I shot both of those scenes. When I shot the first one the thought in my head was “oh, they’re practicing? I can practice shooting.” That’s why I shot that first morning, which thank God I did.

The scene I’m most proud of shooting is that second protest, when you see them actually performing. As soon as they got there they lined up in the hallway, which was unusual. I figured out they were going to one at a time speak up front, and I figured screw it, I’ll be up front too to get the audience reaction, because I’ve already got them saying it five times, and it was a group of white women watching them. By the time the first two people went I realized how much more emotionally charged this version was going to be because they had just been berated by someone yelling “white power”. As soon as Taylor says “I’ve got a high GPA, I do what you want me to, but you still see us as just a bunch of the N-words” I immediately realized I needed to get the black students reacting to it too, because that’s not just an experience she’s had, that’s an experience that they’ve all had. So that’s why I walked over and filmed everyone else.

AD: I wasn’t in that specific room, but I had filmed all of the other protests up to that one. Being in those other rooms when they did that same protest, by the third one you’re kind of on autopilot. You’re not really hearing what they’re saying anymore, which kind of changes filming a documentary I think. Part of filming a documentary is that it’s always live and on-the-fly, but having that performance aspect, you get to refilm the same scene multiple times and fine-tune the pacing with them, it’s kind of like what I imagine filming a fiction film is like. The way I read that scene, especially not being in that room, I can feel Varun’s gut instinct, not listening, focusing on the framing and the mood of the room and everything else going on.

KM: And it’s more of a cinematic look. We shot on the (Canon EOS) 7D which I’m not a huge fan of because the zoom sucks. If he had been shooting as part of the audience you never would have gotten those shots of someone’s face while they are sobbing and sharing their story. That was the one thing that really impressed me, that he knew what his camera was capable of, which I think a lot of people don’t take into consideration. It’s not just an artistic eye, it’s knowledge of the equipment you are using.

T/F: Did you have an overall philosophy to doing interviews in the film?

VB: We didn’t do any of those interviews until a couple weeks after we stopped filming. Those interviews are all afterwards because we wanted it to be completely observational but we did not realize what we needed to do to make that happen.

T/F: Why did you feel like you needed them?

KM: We talked to Field of Vision, and they thought it was still not clear and that we had to use too many title cards. We were trying to get them to actually say out loud “this happened with Melissa Click, this happened with the media, this happened on such and such a day” so we didn’t have to use title card after title card after title card.

AD: For me, it allowed us to create a deeper sense of character. We had a lot of the same faces of the people who became our main characters in some of the earlier cuts, but we never really got to know them.

VB: The way we framed them talking directly to the camera, in the way I thought about it, they are not talking to us, they are talking directly to the viewer.

T/F: It is interesting inserting footage into a film that the audience is already familiar with, such as the scene of Wolfe in Kansas City interacting with protesters and particularly the Mark Schierbecker/Melissa Click video.

VB: I think those things are very familiar to an audience here in Columbia, I think the people watching this nationally and internationally would not be as familiar. The Tim Wolfe footage I don’t think people outside of Columbia have seen at all. The Mark Schierbecker video we didn’t have in there for a long time.

AD: There was a weird restructuring where we originally introduced that Melissa Click footage through some of our main characters watching it on a computer and talking about it, but we eventually decided to get rid of that and just use the footage itself because it is a little more immersive.

VB: I think that Schierbecker footage really plays because it’s almost a montage of journalists interacting with the protesters at that point. You have the build-up of the first kid outside the circle say “Bro, what are you doing, why are you blocking my camera?” And the second one in the circle says, ”You’re going to respect us” “Why are you turning your phone on?” “I’m just checking my notes”. And then the last one: “I’m just here to tell a story” “No you’re not”. I think it puts that one video in context of everything that was happening that day, especially because you see Melissa Click get manhandled earlier by that other reporter.

T/F: I really like the scene of Wolfe’s resignation and how you captured the weird energy in the room in the lead up.

AD: It’s awesome that you touch on that because that was something that we fought about and talked through and changed and restructured up until two days ago.

KM: What actually happened was that the conference call wasn’t working, so he actually resigned twice. Also, one of the curators stood up and said “Mr. Butler’s father is in the hallway if you want to talk to him.” And Wolfe was like “No, I just want to give my speech.” We originally wanted him saying that he resigned twice, but it made more sense to build the tension throughout the scene. Only we would find it funny that he resigns twice.

AD: It was about, like you said, the energy. Kellan and I were there that day and being in that moment was incredibly weird and uncomfortable. Restructuring the scene and moving things around was about trying to rebuild that energy without losing context, because to play that scene as a whole, him getting up and resigning, the conference call cutting him off and the technical difficulty, the curator talking about Mr. Butler in the hallway, and then another resignation, makes absolutely no sense in a storytelling sense. It doesn’t get any of the information to the viewer in a proper format; it’s just a mess. It is a pinnacle point of the story, but we also let the resignation be more than just “I resign” and tried to portray what that room felt like. So I’m just really stoked that you felt that energy.

VB: I wasn’t there, but my favorite part of the scene is when Tim Wolfe says to the guy on the phone “Can you hear me now?” because this is all about a lack of communication. That’s probably my favorite line in the movie.

T/F: I also think the final scene works really well. Can you tell me about deciding to end there? Because obviously this story is still going on, there are still things happening.

KM: We really didn’t really know when to stop. We were still filming stuff this semester. Originally we had another protest in Greektown and Jesse Hall, the “we are not afraid march”, in mind as the ending, but it was too much of a bookend. Too much of a happy ending.

VB: It’s still happening. We didn’t want an ending where it seemed like it was happy and it was over because it is not over and they are not happy.

Having it end with that town hall, DeRay (Mckesson) was in the room who is running for mayor of Baltimore, Netta (Elzie) was in the room from Ferguson, both huge activists, Jonathan was done with his hunger strike so he was feeling back to a hundred percent, but it was still so scary. I don’t know how to describe the emotion of that room other than powerful. So when you have Ayanna (Poole), who is one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met, leading that, with me right in her face. I didn’t know I had that footage at first, but I don’t think there was anything else we could have ended with.

AD: After going through it so many times, Erin sent us that idea in one of her cuts and it just stuck. I don’t think we even needed to talk about it. I don’t think it was ever disputed.

T/F: To finish, could you tell me about the experience of premiering the film at True/False?

VB: The way we got accepted to True/False is that Pamela (Cohn) reached out and then Kellan cut together the silent piece (featured on 2016’s The Great Wall). Once they saw that they were like “Wow, let’s see what else you guys have.” We had something to show them on Friday, told us they programmed it on Sunday, announced it on Wednesday morning and we finished the film Wednesday afternoon to play Saturday.

Eight days before our film premiered that we found out that True/False was interested.

AD: It was crazy.

T/F: How about the screening itself on Saturday night?

VB: It was like watching a home video with 1200 of your closest family and friends. People were cheering during it. And then when it ended, we had all eleven of the original (Concerned Student 1950) members and they just stood up and started chanting. It was chills and cheers. I kept crying and wanted to throw up. It was amazing, the fact that the students that allowed us to film them and did this amazing thing on campus could be a part of showing the film. We made it, but it has nothing to do with us is was about them. The fact that they could be a part of that screening was really, really special.

AD: It was insane. It didn’t feel real. The whole weekend of True/False it didn’t feel like it was actually going to happen and then sitting there in the audience watching it it didn’t feel it was happening. And then afterwards talking to Charlotte, who was the former programmer at Hot Docs, she said she didn’t think she had ever been in such an electric screening ever.

Concerned Student 1950 is now available to watch online.

Posted November 2, 2016

Spirituality of the Mountain: An Interview with Sherpa director, Jennifer Peedom

If you missed seeing SHERPA at the 2016 festival, it is fittingly now widely available. Naturally, we strongly recommend watching it on the biggest screen you can find. I mean, we recommend that for most films, but this *IS* Everest after all – it deserves some breathing room. Missing our post-film director Q&As is another matter, but if you couldn’t connect with Jennifer Peedom at the fest, we can offer the next best thing – we had the fortunate opportunity to chat more in-depth with Jennifer about her stunning film. Watch, read, enjoy.

True/False: With the wild turns this story takes it is hard to imagine your vision of it at the beginning was anything like it was at the end. How did this project first began?

Jennifer Peedom: I had worked as camera operator on Everest on and off for over a decade. I had worked on three of the expeditions with the Sherpas at the heart of this film. And I became interested in how little of their story ended up in the mainstream Everest documentaries, much less the big Hollywood blockbusters version. Initially, Sherpas are incredibly reserved people. Since my first expedition where I did my own little film for a program here called Dateline. I guess I’ve always had this film bubbling around in my mind. In 2006 I went most of the way to the summit and seeing what really goes on, particularly on summit day, and what an extraordinary job the Sherpas have to do to get the climbers to the summit and back alive and the extent to which that narrative gets cut out of the story because it lessens the other narrative, the foreigners’ hero story narrative, it seemed like a real opportunity to make something.

So back to your question, the vision of the film I made was not that different from the vision we started with. I wanted to make a film about what really goes on on Everest. I wanted to make a film that spoke to the spirituality of the mountain and what the mountain means to the people and how their families feel about it and all those things that ended up in the film. The only difference is we no longer had a narrative of an ascent, instead we had a much more political film. We didn’t know that the worst disaster in the history of the mountain was going to happen while we were filming. It highlighted the risks I was trying to highlight in a way nothing else could.

I will say at the time we didn’t really know we had a film until I got home and spent a few weeks watching the rushes and also understanding the rushes. A lot of stuff, when you don’t have a translator on the ground you don’t understand everything that’s being said. So it took awhile to figure out the story we had.

T/F: Part of what is fascinating to me about this story is that the spiritual and the commercial aspects of Everest are so intertwined, on both sides, for both the Sherpas and the tourists, and you can’t really pick them apart.

JP: Yeah, I think one thing that really struck a cord about the film, a comment I’ve heard that I’ve liked is that it is so morally complex. It doesn’t take the high ground. At the end of the film we’re not saying necessarily don’t climb Everest. In fact the Sherpas need the foreigners and the foreigners need the sherpas. So it’s this mutually complicated, very tricky relationship. It’s two cancelled seasons in a row and it’s not clear how that situation is going to play out. The sherpas have had very little income for that time on top of the fact that most of their houses have been destroyed or badly damaged by the earthquake. Phurba Tashi himself has been really struggling. They need Everest to continue, but what they learned when they cancelled the season is that they have more power than they realized. And so whether or not people should climb Everest I’d just hope that they’d watch the film. One thing I found strange about the whole Everest thing is the extent to which you can bury your head in the sand. So one thing I’d ask if you were going to climb Everest is to be aware of what you’re asking other people to do, the risks you’re asking them to take on your behalf.

T/F: Can you tell me some about the logistics of filming a movie on Everest?

JP: In some ways it is so well set up over there. There’s so many crews on Everest, and over the years systems have been developed. It kind of makes it easier than you might think, than going into some foreign wilderness where no one has ever filmed before. The obvious logistics is getting a whole bunch of equipment to an isolated place. Part of the difficulty is getting crews that can handle the altitude. And that’s hard. It’s probably the reason I got all of those gigs a number of years ago. Not a lot of bodies can function well enough at altitude.

And then you’ve got the logistics, there’s no fixed structure at base camp, it’s just a tent city that springs up. There’s no power, so the really big challenge is keeping computers warm and batteries charged. most of that we do on solar power where we could and then use generators when we run out. Things like computers have to be put with hot water bottles into little sleeping bags every night. It just kind of goes with the territory. You get used to it and I had really hand picked a great team, including the great cinematographer Renan Ozturk, who’s also one of the subjects of Meru. He’s an amazing cinematographer. I also choose another cinematographer Hugh Miller. who I worked with on Everest Beyond the Limit who’s a real veteran, and has climbed Everest three times.        

The other thing that we did was that we went ahead a couple months early with cameras, and Phurba helped us pick two young Sherpas who he thought were good potential camera operator. We trained these two young guys to film things we wouldn’t have access to. You see a lot of their material in the film. They were there to film base camp being set up. To be honest I didn’t really have high expectations, but when I got there and saw what they filmed it was very impressive. It meant we got greater access to their world. They filmed going through the icefall as you see in the film. We put GoPros on them. It ended up adding layers that we never really would have gotten and when things got really messy we wound up having more Sherpas on our team. They went down and filmed that first protest that was really Sherpas only. And all of these other guys were saying “What’s this? Who are you working for?” and the word kind of spread about our film. And that wound up having real benefits.

T/F: Did you have an overall philosophy to the cinematography? It seems like there might be a danger of making things too pretty, like everything you point at up there is so gorgeous . . .

JP: You say that, but it can look really ordinary, believe it or not. Certainly if I was the one shooting it would look really ordinary. So yes I did, I wanted it to imbue every shot with almost spirituality. There was a very good reason I chose Renan, and it wasn’t because he was such a good climber. He has a way of observing natural environments in a very poetic way. He speaks some Pali, so he understands something about Sherpas and Sherpa culture.

I wanted people to see Everest in a way that they hadn’t before. I wanted to linger longer mountain ridges, I wanted to observe the smoke and all of those symbols that help us understand Sherpa culture. I wanted the mountain to be observed from a different point of view, less as something to be conquered and more as something to be revered.
There’s a lot of upspeed that slows stuff down, because you know we bring all of our Western busyness to Everest and I wanted to slow that down for the Sherpa villagers, because time really is slower, it runs at a different pace. They are Buddhist people and they really take time to observe the world around them. I hope that comes through.

SHERPA (T/F 2016) is available to rent or buy via iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, and YouTube.

Posted June 16, 2016
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