When Paul Sturtz and David Wilson began conceptualizing their True/False Film Festival, which debuted last February in Columbia, Missouri (see "Bowling for Columbia," February 11, 2004), their ultimate ambition was to become the premier documentary film festival in the Midwest.
So impeccable was the programming and execution of the inaugural True/ False that Sturtz and Wilson are already talking about spin-off festivals on the coasts. For now, though, they'll content themselves with a killer lineup that includes the Midwest premiere of Murderball, the story of a group of quadriplegic rugby players that earned the Audience Award at Sundance last month.
And so ambitions have become loftier.
"We want to be the Telluride of documentaries," says Sturtz, who's expanded his programming this year to include an animated festival within the festival, as well as more live music performances before films.
"We want to be the really carefully curated and vibrant festival for documentaries in the United States," Sturtz explains. "We want a very compact schedule where people can see fifteen really great documentaries from Friday through Sunday."
Following are descriptions of three of the best.
I Like Killing Flies. It's really too bad the Academy Awards don't consider documentary subjects for the distinction of Best Actor, because acid-tongued Greenwich Village restaurateur Kenny Shopsin would blow this year's field away. The film, a one-man effort by Matt Mahurin -- normally a music-video director and Time magazine illustrator -- begins with the pot-bellied Shopsin walking toward his eponymous corner restaurant with a white motorcycle helmet on. He opens the graffiti-splattered garage door leading into the joint, enters its kitchen and embarks upon an unadulterated, f-bomb tinged philosophical monologue that goes on for about five minutes before anyone knows what's hit them (or what the film is about). Turns out, this chaos is the perfect introduction to a culinary Karl Rove who relishes 86-ing new customers and features a fusion-food menu of nearly 1,000 dishes at his 35-year-old eatery, which is about to lose its lease (Shopsin fortuitously lands a new space up the street in the nick of time). While his five children and recently deceased wife -- who double as Shopsin's kitchen and waitstaff -- get a smattering of screen time, the film is essentially Kenny's to sink or swim in. And oh man, is his a Spitzian performance. Every time you think you've got Shopsin pegged as a teddy bear at heart, he reduces one of his family members to near-tears with an unprovoked, profanity-laced tirade. And then when you think you've got him pegged as a combustible war general, his grace behind the grill borders on balletic. Mahurin's deliberately choppy, colorful style of chronicling this action transforms Shopsin's various creations into objects of gastronomic lust. Screens at the Missouri Theatre on Saturday, February 26, at 8:30 p.m. Director Mahurin will attend the screening.
Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family. The Hoop Dreams of bisexual love-triangle documentaries, Susan Kaplan's carefully rendered account of romantic triplicate Sam Cagnina, Steven Margolin and Samantha Singh is essentially three parts love story and one part heartbreak. Filmed over the course of nearly a decade in Manhattan, the film begins with a summation of how Cagnina and Margolin, once exclusively a gay couple, become bent on finding a committed female to share their lust, love, commitment and, eventually, children. Late in the 1980s, they arrive at Singh, then a beautiful, struggling Indian actress in her hyper-experimental twenties. The first half of the film bounces along as a cheery account of how gloriously this three-way "marriage" works (Singh technically marries only Cagnina, with the three later staging their own ceremony to cement the bond). They share a bed, a thriving chiropractic and massage-therapy salon, bear a child and get written up glowingly by almost every publication in the Big Apple. Somewhere along the way, we learn that Cagnina's father was a hotly pursued, ultra-macho Mafia operative and that Sam's never been totally comfortable with his homosexuality. It also becomes obvious that Cagnina, the most charismatic of the three, is the engineer of this relationship's train. On the eve of the birth of the trio's second child, Margolin leaves the relationship. The last half hour is a dissection of what went wrong, with Cagnina (perhaps unfairly) painting Margolin as a heartless, selfish prick as their business splinters and Cagnina and Singh are left with a sexless marriage and two kids. What's so compelling about this film is it could be paradoxically held up by open-minded progressives and fundamentalist Christians alike as Exhibit A for why nontraditional, less-than-hetero unions do and don't work. Ultimately, the most coherent explanation comes when the refreshingly candid Cagnina essentially cops to using Singh as a psychosexual buffer between his gayness and society's lack of acceptance of it. That such a wedge exists is the real tragedy here, with the bravely optimistic Singh and her two kids as its victims. Screens at the Missouri Theatre on Saturday, February 26, at 1:30 p.m. Co-stars Cagnina and Singh will attend the screening.
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt. This is the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This, which saw fairly wide release in 2004, could have been had it concerned itself with looks as well as substance. While it's true that only so much can be done with grainy archival footage and a deceased subject, Richard (Dazed & Confused, Before Sunset) Linklater's go-to cinematographer Lee Daniel and director Margaret Brown show here that when you do all you can with what you've got, the results can be deliciously haunting. The subject, Van Zandt, is a Southern-fried Dylan with all the artistic credibility and almost none of the fame, outside of a rabid cult following that grew to include Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle (all featured in this film), among others. As a man, Van Zandt, who died at the age of 52 from heart failure, was a manic-depressive mind-fuck, as calm and brilliant as he was self-destructive and booze-soaked. Fittingly, he gets a film to match. Don't plan on sleeping much after watching this poignant train wreck, which sucks three spouses and a score of offspring into its dizzying wake. The closing line, delivered by Texas musician and close friend Guy Clark, who reminisces about Townes over the course of the film while getting hammered on tequila, is an instant classic. Screens at the Blue Note on Saturday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. Director Brown and cinematographer Daniel will attend the screening.