Driving the stretch of highway from St. Louis to Columbia is a strange trip indeed, as the Megalomarts and T.G.I. Tuesdaybees of far west county give way to farming-implement stores and vinyl-sided Baptist churches. Then come the billboards for the Lake of the Ozarks, for a drive-through adult video store, for a Holiday Inn Express with "#1-rated shower heads!" Towns are small, and therefore grouped by threes on exit signs. Combined, they sound like the full name of some dashing aristocrat. Auxvasse Mexico Fulton is our favorite.
Then: Columbia. It's so cold, and the wind is blowing so hard that it nudges people across the street before the "Walk" sign flicks on. But this bad weather matters very little, because there's such an abundance of wonderful places here. Places to duck into, and stay. We eat cheeseburgers off squares of wax paper at Booches and score four novels at used-book paradise Acorn Books. Then we head down to the Cherry Street Artisan, a bustling hive that serves as HQ for the real reason we came to Columbia: the True/False Film Festival.
This is the fourth iteration of Columbia's all-documentary fest, and Riverfront Times has covered it each year, but this is the first time I've been able to attend in person. The excitement inside the Cherry Street Artisan a coffeeshop/cafe/performance space that, throughout the duration of the festival, adds "box office" to that list of descriptors is energizing. I wait in line to pick up my press pass, and it seems that all of Columbia is here, jostling for position, thumbing through the beautifully bound book that is the festival schedule. A ponytailed undergrad is on the phone with a friend: "I want to go to at least three movies," she says, "maybe four." A middle-aged man approaches a volunteer ticket-seller; he says he's nervous that he won't get into a show. The ticket-seller explains that he should get to the venue early and queue up, as 25 seats are held, and then released, for each screening.
There aren't too many events on the first day of the festival. We linger over wine and gnocchi at the Sycamore before heading to the Forrest Theater in the Tiger Hotel, an elegant building on Eighth Street. We receive our queue numbers (I have #28 — perhaps I lingered over that gnocchi a little too long) for a presentation of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. If there's a better way to plunge into a weekend of documentary films than with a sampling of the world's best, I've yet to find it. The convivial atmosphere inside the Tiger is contagious (one woman even gives me a better queue number, once she realizes her friend's purchased two reserved seats). Schlafly is providing free suds, upbeat music is playing, and once we make it into the theater (phew!), the high hum of happy chatter lasts until the house lights dim.
Paul Sturtz, the festival's cofounder, takes the microphone and gives a gracious welcome. With his long black overcoat, wire-rimmed glasses and purposefully tousled hair, he's the very picture of the film buff but minus the pretense. His passion is genuine, and the success that he and cofounder David Wilson have achieved over the past four years is remarkable. Sturtz explains that the Forrest Theater is being dedicated tonight, and that it's named after the late Forrest Rose ("one of the Columbia Tribune's best columnists," the nattily dressed man next to me whispers, knowing I'm from out of town). Rose's longtime companion, a lovely red-headed woman named Bernadette Dryden, gives a short speech. She says that True/False embodies the same desire for truth as Rose's writing, that "these films seek to lift the veil on unsavory subjects, to make people think of things they don't want to."
Indeed, the first two short films in the Oscar program Ruby Yang's The Blood of Yingzhou District, about the AIDS epidemic in rural China, and Leslie Iwerks' Recycled Life, about families who work (and sometimes live) in Guatemala City's toxic dump handle unsavory subjects. But they do so with such grace that they overshadow the last two films in the program, Rehearsing a Dream and Two Hands (about an arts camp for high-schoolers and the great pianist Leon Fleisher, respectively). After the program, Recycled Life director Iwerks, a one-time Missourian and the granddaughter of Walt Disney animator Ub Iwerks, takes questions from the audience. As Sturtz explained to me last year, no film is screened at True/False unless one of its principals (the director, or a producer or cinematographer) can attend. This requirement bolsters the sense that True/False is not just a festival, but a film community. And as Iwerks thoughtfully answers questions about her process, her subjects and her continued involvement with the people of Guatemala, it becomes apparent just how right Sturtz is.
"You'll have such a wonderful time this weekend," says the man next to me as we gather our coats, bracing to head back out into the wind. "Welcome to Columbia."