Every year, the True/False documentary film festival transforms the typically tame college town of Columbia, MO, home of the University of Missouri, into something out of Alice in Wonderland, as participants are dropped down, down, down a rabbit hole and into a land of endless films and parties. Handmade clouds float above ticket buyers at the box office, brick-lined alleyways between streets around town are painted with installation art projects, and coffee shops overflow with legions of filmmakers and the critics who write about them. With over 40 films, 35 different musical performances, eight panels, a parade, a masked ball, storytelling events, and even a 5K, it’s difficult to tell what’s running faster: film reels, the viewers darting around to see said reels, or the artisanal beer taps that are seemingly the only source of hydration for the weekend. The truth about True/False is that there’s too little time and too much to see.
The festival opened Thursday with Village at the End of the World, a film about the village of Niaqornat in northwest Greenland whose mere 59 Inuit inhabitants are facing the pressures of globalization. Directed by husband-and-wife team Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson (the latter has shot episodes of Downton Abbey), it follows a hunter, a teenager, the town’s sewage collector, and an elderly woman throughout the span of a year, during which the town struggles to reopen its fishing factory—the “heart” of Niaqornat that pumps in enough money to keep it independent from being bought out by Royal Greenland. By living in the town for two years (and two sun-less winters) with their toddler-aged children, Gavron and Katznelson realized that their initial theme of climate change was only the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). Yes, thinning ice sheets have endangered the once neighborly polar bears, but social media, tourism, and the incessant demand to keep the town’s miniscule but imperative economy afloat proved equally, if not more, important as Mother Nature. In every literal sense of the phrase, how on Earth can such a small population remain autonomous in a world where everywhere and everyone is increasingly merging into one big whole?
In one segment of the film, the charmingly innocent teenager, Lars, is sitting at his computer, Google-mapping and wondering what life is like for the people who fill the sidewalks of Manhattan. It’s a valid dream, considering Niaqornat has one store, one teacher, and time is clocked by when the sewage man makes his rounds. But though Lars’s vision of the world outside his isolated hamlet may be romantic, the automated images roaming through the grids of Times Square and Chelsea don’t seem nearly as seductive as the slow sunsets and glistening glaciers in his backyard. When a cruise ship stops by for a day tour, the tourists are surprised to hear the town doesn’t have a single restaurant, yet one man notes to the camera how he hopes nothing ever changes. The 59 inhabitants are confident in what they are: a fishing community that wants and needs nothing more than each other and a climate that allows them to keep being sustainable. When Lars leaves at the end to go attend school in a larger, nearby town, it’s clear that it’s not that the inhabitants can’t have more, but that they don’t want more. Gavron and Katznelson’s vision of a film about the ice melting turned into an ineffable piece about a place where time froze, and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful outcome of irony.
It’s funny how people use mundane tasks to mark time. One of the most fascinating parts about a documentary festival is noticing the overlaps in people’s lives, no matter where or who or what they are. In Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley’s brother is seen living in Toronto, far from the icy sheets of Greenland, but still keeps track of time by when he has to take out the trash, not unlike Niaqornat’s sewage man. But I digress. Polley’s latest documents its own creation, which, yes, is as self-indulgent as it sounds, but with a past like hers, it’s entirely forgivable. After her actress mother died of cancer when Polley was still a child, she was left living alone with her father, as her siblings were mostly grown. At some point the long-running family joke about how Polley looked nothing like the rest of her family became an obsession, causing her to question her mother’s past and whether she was as faithful to her husband as she was to her children. Ultimately, this led Polley to the discovery her biological father, and through interviews with her family and her mother’s doctors, friends, and co-thespians, Polley tells the mysterious story of how she was conceived.
Like a well-planned treasure hunt, the film is a map of twists that gives clues but no answers until Polley decides the audience has earned them. Meanwhile, her hard-hitting interrogation process brings out the most human sides of those she questions, most notably her two fathers. It’s a brave film through which Polley recounts how her mother endured years of the sort of nagging fear that accompanies the ritual of covering one’s tracks, all in the name love—love lost with her husband, found with another man, and then rediscovered again with her husband. Polley begins each of her interviews by asking the painstakingly simple question, “Can you tell the whole story?”—and as her subjects slowly begin to open all their doors to the camera, inevitably each story differs, rendering the film as much about the illusions of collective memory as it is about the results of a single love affair. It was perhaps the most fitting film that could have played on the opening night of a doc film festival named True/False, as it shows so much about how there’s rarely a single truth, and even falsehoods—false fathers, in this case—can become truths in time, depending on the eye of the beholder. And oh how much beholding shall be done by eyes this weekend.
True/False runs from February 28—March 3.