I woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday to take two flights to St. Louis and then drive two hours to Columbia, Missouri for the eighth True/False Film Festival. This is my third visit to True/False as part of a growing contingent of Mainers (and Maine sympathizers from both coasts) who planted a flag in Columbia five years ago. Aptly described as the “platonic ideal of a college town” by ’09 House correspondent Vadim Rizov, downtown Columbia, on this weekend, seems to exist as a factory which serves exclusively to produce volunteers (600 - 700 this year) for this enchanting documentary film festival.
Columbia, just slightly overwhelmed by True/False’s growing audience (on Sunday afternoon, the downtown trash cans are overflowing with sleeved coffee cups), is immensely welcoming and charming, its amusing incongruities (restaurants closed for church on Sunday; dirt-cheap cigarettes) reminding you what part of the country you’re in, even as you attend a devolving series of late-night afterparties and catch sights like a ukulele-playing busker performing an earnest version of Pulp’s “Common People.” Columbia’s good spirit infects its visitors: both spectators, who eagerly introduce themselves to anyone standing alone (or, in my case, cheerfully inquiring about why I’m writing in a notebook during a screening), and filmmakers, none of whom are hosting premieres or competing for awards or distribution, and who therefore treat this annual journey as something like to a vacation.
As such, True/False, run by David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, has become alluring enough that its program serves as a fairly comprehensive primer on the upcoming year in documentaries. (Three of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature—Restrepo, Gasland, and Waste Land—and more of the shortlist made it to Columbia in 2010.) The pair has great taste, particularly in domestic character studies set abroad or in rural America (they premiered Robert Greene’s excellent Kati with an I last year). More than ever, the 2011 True/False program reflected an eagerness to defy the conventions of the form; the weekend was themed “Forest/Trees,” and the reality of some of what I saw was not so much in question or obfuscated as it was just unconsidered: The first four films I saw could have, at least in their first half-hours, passed as art-house fiction features. (One film I missed, Andre Ovredal’s Troll Hunter, was described to me as “not a documentary,” then later as a mockumentary.)
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, I woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday, which meant I spent the latter half of my first film, Foreign Parts, directed by Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, nodding into a series of micronaps. Which I regret. Produced in part by the awesomely named Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, the film is a well-mixed assemblage of cacophony, rain, and detritus set in the Willet’s Point neighborhood of Queens. In the immediate, enormous shadow of the Mets’s new Citi Field, the filmmakers observe an unpaved neighborhood junkyard, home to an unusual marketplace of specialty car-repair shops. (One man greets cars driving in, and points them to the guy who can help them.) Along with the impeccable sound design, the setting is almost surreal enough to sustain the film; when rains come, the area floods, and loose chickens prowl the grounds. The wisps of story that spring out of the dirt illuminate the circumstances of the neighborhood’s inhabitants and employees, whether they’re begging for change or living in a busted, unheated van, or moving in and out of jail. Paravel and Sniadecki mostly keep their camera at a modest distance, though; they’re stealing glimpses rather than building characters, and I suspect if they got much closer they’d have cheapened their film’s collage-like effect, along with the subtle, glancing impact of their subjects. Only (of what I was alert for) a last-minute venture into the zoning and development threats endangering the future of Willet’s Point’s residents inject much emotion into Foreign Parts. This coda acts as a cruel timestamp on a promising film.
True/False ran from March 3–6. For more information, click here.