A feel for the reel

The True/False Film Festival’s success plays off passionate volunteers who help winnow roughly 550 entries to more than 60 documentaries.


By Lindsey Howald
Originally published in the Columbia Daily Tribune, February 22, 2009

The True/False Film Festival runs almost entirely on the eagerness of volunteers. More than 500 of them, in fact, are lured by the modest temptation of a few free films. There are the box office staffers who stand bravely behind the ticket table as the Cherry Street Artisan fills to the brim. There are the innumerable nameless individuals who lug around chairs and tape down cords. There are the glitzy ‘Q’ line ‘queens’ keeping people entertained as they wait to snatch up leftover seats. They come from all walks of life, united by a common, pulsing thread of excitement that it’s all happening here, in Columbia, the middle of Missouri, the middle of America.

For most of them, the crush is about to happen; True/False kicks off in four days and counting. For one small group of volunteers, however, the work has just ended. Months ago these first — and arguably most vital — volunteers assembled. They are the film submissions committee; they are the searchers and watchers; they are the people who reviewed roughly 550 documentaries and helped artfully construct the weekend’s program.

“It’s like panning for gold,” David Friesen said recently. It was the day after the program schedule went live, and the 26-year-old new director of submissions was in high spirits, finally taking a well-deserved break.

The consistently high caliber of True/False films wouldn’t lead one to believe it, but, with only a 7 percent acceptance rate, there were a lot of rejects. Some had a fantastic topic but failed at telling it well; others looked suspiciously like someone’s home video. For Friesen, that only made finding the gems to fill 42 screens all the more exciting.

“Every movie is different in its own way,” he said, adding that he felt privileged to have an intimate front-row seat to see the passionate work of hundreds of documentary filmmakers.

The system for rating films is systematic but not scientific. There is no list of hard elements for the team to look for onscreen; this would have flattened the landscape of creativity. David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who founded the festival in 2003 and have kept steady and artful hands firmly on the helm ever since, organized weekly watch parties that served to calibrate the team’s standards for critique.

“For me that was one of the more gratifying parts of this year,” Sturtz said. “We had never had a group that large talking about films. It’s usually David or I will watch a film, and … we know where each is going to come from before we’re 10 minutes in. … We can kind of read each other’s minds at this point.”

The group of volunteers, which Friesen assembled after Sturtz and Wilson tagged him for the leadership position, comes from varied backgrounds. Put their résumés together, however, and you’ve got a colorful, interlocking family that collectively holds a gigantic thumb against the city’s cultural pulse. Chris Boeckmann, a University of Missouri student with a knack for combing foreign film festival sites for documentaries never seen in the United States, is also a freelance music writer at the Tribune. JB Winter, an amateur comic book author and co-founder of the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective, also helped, along with Daniel Boone Regional Library co-worker Matt Swearngin. These four, plus Sturtz and Wilson, were the core; others would drop in from time to time, people such as Mary Nguyen, a True/False designer; Jeremy Brown, the manager of Kaldi’s Coffeehouse; Polina Malikin, Sturtz’s partner, an experimental filmmaker and instructor at Stephens College; Steve Ruffin, Ragtag’s head projectionist; Nathan Truesdell, a producer with local Boxcar Films; and Tracy Greever-Rice, True/False materials coordinator.

They didn’t always agree; the sessions would occasionally break out in good-natured debate. One submission, for example, chronicled a 1970s band that was part cult, part musical act. The people older than 30 remembered it. The people younger than 30 did not. Fond memories battled the film’s merits until a decision was ultimately made to scrap it. In another, Sturtz, Friesen and Nguyen resonated with a subplot others didn’t get, which revolves around managing media communication during a Texaco, now Chevron, lawsuit on behalf of a group of indigenous Ecuadoreans. The film, “Crude,” made it into the festival.

Film scouting is a multi-armed approach. Friesen began back in the summer, sending out letters and calls for entries to film schools, which collected DVDs in the mail. Many were received through Without a Box, a Web site connecting filmmakers to festivals. Most of the documentaries we’ll see next weekend, however, Sturtz and Wilson recruited from other festivals, such as Sundance, Toronto International, Telluride and International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

Eric Daniel Metzgar, a filmmaker out of New York, found the Columbia fest on Without a Box when it was still in its beginnings. He submitted a film about a man obsessed with saving endangered species of turtles, and Sturtz was so captured by the cinematography he persuaded Metzgar to bring “The Chances of the World Changing” here.

“I’ve been three times now, and it’s by far my favorite festival,” Metzgar said over the phone. “The enthusiasm level is higher than at any other festival, from the audience.

“A lot of other festivals, you’re taking a bus to a convention center, and you go in and one of the staffers for the festival comes out and says, ‘Hey, thanks for coming, so today we have this film, stick around for the Q&A,’” Metzgar said, mimicking a deadpan. He laughed. “But David and Paul come out, and they get a standing ovation from 1,200 people.”

“Reporter,” Metzgar’s new documentary about New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, premiered at Sundance in January with praise, and True/False audiences will have two opportunities to view it next weekend. Metzgar’s films, which use musical scores, cinematography and narrative elements found in fictional work, embody the feel of this festival, which celebrates documentaries told with flair.

“Paul and David have been really supportive of me, perhaps because I try to make a little more artistic films, as opposed to History Channel talking heads,” Metzgar said. “The shooting is extremely important to me.”

It’s common knowledge that filmmakers like Metzgar love the festival. With a no-awards policy since the beginning, the competitive edge is taken off, and they get to relax and enjoy the concerts, parties and other films for the weekend.

What is surprising, however, is that even rejected filmmakers praise the festival. It’s a matter of individual treatment, something that has been important since Day One for what Wilson calls a festival made for filmmakers. One of the fruits of this policy means individualized rejection letters for most submissions.

“It’s one of those things where we might look at that shelf and see 500 DVDs, but every one of those is the most important thing in somebody’s life right now,” Wilson said. It’s “the thing that they’ve spent two or three or five or 10 years of their life focused on.”

Each letter, most of which were written by Friesen, thanked the filmmaker for sharing his or her work — “As filmmakers ourselves, we know exactly how much time, energy, mania and money went in to the creation of your film”— and also shared tips or compliments. Friesen wrote to one, a BBC filmmaker whose film dealt with Iraq: “Your film is a personal favorite, in particular for the haunting scenes of Baghdad that we in the U.S. rarely get to see.”

One filmmaker, John Kamys, responded when his film “Stirring Water” was rejected, thanking Friesen for considering his work and writing such a personal response. “I am aware that very often submissions are rejected sight unseen,” he said. “Knowing the degree of integrity at TRUE/FALSE certainly moves your festival high on my list. Should I attempt another project of this nature, I will happily submit. Schedule permitting, I will happily attend.”

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