David Dunstedter and Alex Primm want me to look at a tree. Or, rather, a half-tree. Strike that: The tree they want me to see is a 300-pound sculpture, the front covered in rough bark, the back hollowed out. In the hollow is a microphone. St. Louis artist Dale Dufer created this piece for Dunstedter and Primm's oral-history project, the Tree Dialogues.
The quasi-tree is situated on the top floor of the Tiger Hotel, where many of this weekend's film screenings take place. Dunstedter and Primm hope that visitors to the True/False Festival will take time to record their own stories about the rapidly changing Missouri landscape. They've recorded stories elsewhere in art galleries, for example, and in museums but they made it a point to bring the tree to True/False.
"I've been coming to this festival for the past four years," says Dunstedter, an affable 55-year-old from Rolla, Missouri. "Here, you see the most diverse and creative people brought together."
As if to prove Dunstedter's point, a filmmaker's panel convenes moments later in the Forrest Theater. This session, titled "Unscripted: Tales of Doc Derring-Do," focuses on the ever-evolving nature of documentaries, on the futility of imposing a certain plot structure or expecting certain things from subjects.
"I was very lucky that people who like to air guitar are really fascinating," says Air Guitar Nation director Alexandra Lipsitz. "Any time someone is having a great time and believes in what they're doing, you get sucked into it."
Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad's film Enemies of Happiness about Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman who successfully ran for a seat in her country's National Assembly could not be more different from Lipsitz's portrait of air-guitar aficianados. But Mulvad and Lipsitz's films occupy common territory when it comes to the directors' passion for their craft and respect for their subjects.
"[Joya] is a very strong woman, very famous in Afghanistan," explains Mulvad. "That in itself is a kind of fairy tale. She's 26 when she begins a road that could lead to democracy. She knows that she needs her work documented; she knows the importance, economically. And it helps with her security the more famous she is, the safer she is." (After announcing her intention to serve in Afghanistan's parliament, Joya received many death threats from the Afghan establishment.)
"You're on a journey with these people," Lipsitz says of her Air Guitar subjects. "At first I thought, 'Wow, this is hilarious.' But we went to Finland for the world championships, and it does have a world-peace connotation. In Finland, they say, 'You can't hold a gun and play air guitar at the same time.'" She laughs. "That sounds pretty esoteric. Well, it is Finland."
Mulvad, Lipsitz and panel moderator Eric Daniel Metzgar (director of the extraordinary The Chances of the World Changing, a favorite at last year's True/False Festival) have different approaches toward filmmaking. They receive funding in different ways: Metzgar depends on grants, Lispitz has some industry heft behind her (she also works as an editor on Project Runway and Project Greenlight), and Mulvad receives support from the government of Denmark. But all three view the documentary as an undeniably crucial art form, regardless of the fact that docs rarely make waves at the box office.
"I just visited the University of Copenhagen, and the documentary filmmaking class has more students than it ever has," Mulvad says. "People like to know what's happening in the world."
Hollywood popcorn-munchers will always rule the box office, Metzgar concedes, but "people want to see something new. They want to see what's going on in the world. Eventually, the escapist film is going to have to take a smaller place, because the world itself is getting so bizarre. If we watched more documentaries, we wouldn't be so shocked. When everything gets blown up, are we going to be in the theater, watching superheroes?"
Adds Mulvad: "The beauty of making documentaries is that you're never clever enough to know what's really good. You just relax and let it unfold. That's the magic of documentaries something better happens, something better than your brain can think up."