The weather in Columbia is raw on the first day of the fourth annual True/False Film Festival; the wind is blowing so hard it nudges people across the street before the sign flicks to "Walk." But the chill matters little, because there are so many charming places to duck into. After a visit to a nice wine shop, browsers' paradise Acorn Books yields up four novels for $25. Then it's on to the Cherry Street Artisan, a bustling coffeeshop/performance space that for these four days serves as True/False HQ.
It seems that all of Columbia is here, jostling for position, thumbing through schedules. A middle-aged man approaches a volunteer ticket-seller, saying he's nervous that he won't get into a particular film. The volunteer advises him to go early and get in line; up to 50 seats are held till the last minute for each screening.
First up: a presentation of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts at the Forrest Theater in the elegant Tiger Hotel. The house lights dim, and festival co-founder Paul Sturtz steps to the microphone to officially open the festivities. With his long black overcoat and wire-rimmed glasses, he's the very picture of the film buff, but minus the pretense. Sturtz announces that the Forrest Theater is being dedicated tonight in honor of the late Columbia Tribune columnist Forrest Rose. In accepting the honor, Rose's longtime companion, Bernadette Dryden, notes that True/False embodies the same desire for truth as Rose's writing, in that "these films seek to lift the veil on unsavory subjects, to make people think of things they don't want to."
Appropriately, the first two short films in the Oscar program The Blood of Yingzhou District, about the AIDS epidemic in rural China, and Recycled Life, about families who work in Guatemala City's toxic dump handle unsavory subjects with incredible grace. Afterward Recycled Life director Leslie Iwerks takes questions from the audience. No film is screened at True/False unless one of its principals can attend. And as Iwerks fields answers questions about her process, her subjects and her continued involvement with the people of Guatemala City, the festival organizers' rationale becomes apparent: Presenting filmmakers in the flesh bolsters the sense that True/False is not just a festival, but a film community.
A seminar at the Forrest called "Unscripted: Tales of Doc Derring-Do" addresses the ever-evolving nature of documentaries.
"I was very lucky that people who like to air guitar are 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 Enemies of Happiness about Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman who runs for a seat in her country's National Assembly could not be more different from Lipsitz's portrait of air-guitar aficionados. But Mulvad and Lipsitz's films occupy common territory when it comes to the directors' respect for their subjects.
"[Joya] is 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."
"You're on a journey with these people," Lipsitz adds. "At first I thought, 'Wow, [air guitar] 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.
Mulvad, Lipsitz and panel moderator Eric Daniel Metzgar (director of The Chances of the World Changing) have different approaches toward filmmaking. They receive funding in different ways. But all three view the documentary as a most crucial art form.
Hollywood popcorn-munchers may always rule the box office, Metzgar concedes, but "people want to see what's going on in the world," he says. "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 Spider-Man?"
Friday night is in flux. There aren't any seats left for Sundance favorite War Dance. And it's impossible to get anywhere near "Reality Bites," a foodie fete that precedes the much-hyped In the Shadow of the Moon. The chattering throngs that spill from the venues are evidence of a festival that's very much come into its own.
Around 10 p.m., a line forms in front of the former Illumia Gallery on Walnut Street. A bearded bouncer who refers to everyone as "bro" checks IDs and hands out Missouri quarters; the event is the "No Quarter Party," a bacchanal that features DJs, video projections and a performance by the Water Babies. And girls with glowing orbs in their hair. And lots and lots of guys with mustaches.
Oh, and a burlesque floor show. All of a sudden a half-dozen performers are a few feet away from partygoers, trading clothes with one another. The whole thing's a riff on gender roles women in evening gowns trade outfits with drag kings, who in turn offer clothes to Midwestern girl-next-door types which fits in with the idea of artifice, of True or False. When jokingly asked if he'd consider adding a burlesque element to the St. Louis International Film Festival, Cinema St. Louis artistic director Chris Clark, who's also in town for the fest, says something between "ha" and "hm."
The party's as crowded as any big-city throwdown, and soon no one can raise an arm without hitting an ironic mustache. Time to leave. The line still stretches out the door, and goes all the way down Walnut Street.
Arturo Perez Torres spent hours and hours delayed in snow-smacked Toronto. He's made it to Columbia just in time for the screening of his documentary, Super Amigos. The film is about ordinary men who, after donning capes and masks, become popular wrestlers and social crusaders. Amigos focuses on Super Animal, who fights against animal cruelty; Ecologista, who walks the 200 miles to Mexico City when he learns it's the most polluted place on the planet; Super Gay, who became a human-rights activist after his boyfriend was murdered by bigots; Fray Tormenta, who runs orphanages (and is also a priest); and Super Barrio, who helps poor tenants fight against unjust landlords.
The capacity crowd cheers audibly throughout the film, and Perez Torres receives a warm ovation for his work.
"I showed this in France, and not everyone knew what to make of it," the director says. "They asked me if it was real. I grew up with this stuff, so I take it for granted: In Mexico City, superheroes are absolutely real."
If there's an overarching theme of True/False, perhaps it's that people are ready for the truth. Desperate for it, even. And sometimes the truth is so sublimely out-there that we second-guess its veracity. True/False brings together a world of such truths, and the result is both shocking and beautiful. Guatemalan families build lives out of literal garbage. People devote years to playing an invisible instrument. Men and women refuse to be defined by class or by gender. And, yes, superheroes are absolutely real.
It's enough to rebuild some faith in humanity, if only for a few days in early March.