The art of curating: uncovering T/F

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Ashley Tanner

Standing outside of the Missouri Theatre in downtown Columbia, senior Alex Isgriggs and some of his friends discussed the film Stories We Tell, a movie he had watched on the first night of True/False three years ago.
“It felt like the first time I was able to properly analyze a film and give my thoughts on it,” Isgriggs said. “It was a very interesting, thoughtful and fun conversation that marked the beginning of my ability to critically discuss films with other people.”
True/False was created to celebrate and share films and documentaries with the people of Columbia and surrounding towns. The idea for True/False Film Festival bounced around the Columbia community in 2003 with the hope of celebrating a new wave of stimulating cinematic documentaries.
The Blue Note, Ragtag and the Missouri Theatre are the original venues that hosted films for the festival and since then, True/False has increased in popularity. In the second year, True/False hosted around 6,500 people and by 2013, the attendance was at 43,500 people. For more than a decade, True/False continues to unite the community by bringing diverse documentaries to town, along with filmmakers from all across the world.
Isgriggs has attended True/False the last three years and has met filmmakers and cinematographers through the True/False boot camp, a camp that allows high school students to explore the festival in new ways. He has also attended as a pass holder. Both of these experiences have led him to love the festival movies.
“As a pass holder you can go through the list of films, do research, watch trailers and keep up with the buzz,” Isgriggs said. “Some films will sound more interesting to people than others, but the films playing at the largest venues tend to bring larger and more diverse audiences. Usually, if you’re like me, you try to get a balanced mix of many serious, heavier docs and lighter ones as well.”
The True/False film selection committee, known as the programmers, look for two things when searching for the films, programmer Chris Boeckmann, alumnus 2008, said. One is where the film premiered. The second thing is the quality of a movie’s cinematography. Over time, they collect a list of filmmakers to hunt down with the intent of showing their film at the festival.
The selection process is long and time consuming. It involves sifting through their own preferences when it comes to the lineup. For a movie to make it into the lineup, there needs to be a majority consensus. As much as they would like to agree on every film in the lineup, that’s not the reality.
“Most times, it’s three of us [including co-founders David Wilson, a 1992 alumnus, and Paul Sturtz] who are behind it. Sometimes it’s two of us overruling one. It would be disingenuous for me to say that all three of us are firmly behind every movie in our lineup,” Boeckmann said. “Of course, there are a few films that I don’t like that made it in, but Paul [Sturtz] and David [Wilson] both like them, and so they’re in and that goes the other way around.”
After the film has made it through majority ruling, the programmers must track down the filmmaker for permission to play his or her film, as well as accompanying the showings and possibly hosting a Q&A session for feature length films.
“We pay for their travel, and we pay for their lodging, but if they can’t commit the time to come here then we, unfortunately, can’t play the film,” Boeckmann said. “We’ll try our hardest to find some satisfying substitute for that person, like an editor or a cinematographer, but if it’s not a main creative voice in the creation of the movie, then we sometimes have to pull the plug on the movie.”
Not every film that meets the majority consensus of the programmers and has a creative voice accompanying it will be able to make the official lineup. They haveto scrap the movie and move on to the next one hoping for better luck.
“There are always two or three films we lose that way, and there are two or three movies we lose because some powerful person involved in it, like the distributor or its sales agent, doesn’t want to play it with us. Maybe because of financial reasons, sometimes a distributor doesn’t want their movies playing at film festivals because they just want the theatrical marketplace,” Boeckmann said. “I would say ultimately I’ve had a lot more victories than I have losses this year.”
Boeckmann and the other programmers’ work is paying off. They try to get films that are more than just beautiful cinematography and a quality story, but rather films that are trying to convey an important message.
“True/False is a festival that’s interested in finding exciting new voices … I want to make sure every single film in that lineup is not there because the story is amazing necessarily, but because the storytelling is good,” Boeckmann said. “I want to make sure the people we are bringing are people who I want to keep track of as filmmakers throughout the rest of their careers. It’s not just people who happen to stumble upon a great subject or something. That’s kind of like where our mindset is. We care a lot about the storytelling itself.”
Though the theme of True/False has little to do with the movie selection, it is still important to the festival. This year’s theme, “Now is the Future of the Past,” has an interesting history. “The Long Now” was the original theme until about a month before the official poster had to be sent in. It was changed to “Now is the Future of the Past,” Boeckmann said, because of the complex thinking it allows and because it is a popular movie among True/False staff members.
“David [Wilson] … watched Now is the Future of the Past,” said Boeckmann. “It’s a film that’s always been one of our favorite[s]. It’s this weird movie with this director who basically gathered all this material in China. It’s all sorts of grainy street scenes; it kind of created this nightmarish portrait of this city. It’s something you can’t get out of your head.”
By Ashley Tanner