The best of this year’s True/False documentary film festival | Documentaries

nevery year early since I graduated in 2014, I’ve traveled back from one shore or another to my former college town of Columbia, Missouri, in the name of film, to attend True/False, a unique documentary film festival in the heart of the United States .

Having True/False in my backyard throughout college, I took it for granted how amazing it was until I was thousands of miles away. Coming back, I’m always impressed by the big questions True/False asks, the experimental spirit she embodies, and the amazing community that gathers around her.

Founded by local curators David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, True/False is known for its balanced mix of experimental work and traditional feature films. While many festivals seem to cater more to industry and the press, True/False also appeals to a large proportion of locals who simply appreciate the art of documentary filmmaking. And while it’s often just another stop on the festival’s Sundance itinerary, it’s not an awards-focused event or an event where big distribution deals are made, creating a laid-back environment where filmmakers can enjoy global talent in an environment of small-town hospitality.

This year, the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary. As we read on the website’s program page: “Films are often divided into two categories – documentary and fiction – but we believe that every film falls somewhere in between.”

Photo from Joonam
Photo from Joonam. Photo: Sundance Film Festival

This year, True/False screened 33 feature films and 25 short films, including several American and several international debuts. Chloé Trayner, the curator who took over programming for the festival in 2021, said this year’s films were more intimate in nature and sought to connect personal issues with broader political issues.

“We showed a lot of personal videos that had broader discussions behind them, which was really exciting,” she said. “A lot of our films were about how to tell stories about communities from different perspectives, not from the outside.”

Such films included The Hummingbirds, in which the two leads also co-direct, documenting their summer together in a border town in Texas. The Taste of Mango follows the filmmaker’s journey to mend the long-strained relationship between her mother and grandmother and Joonam, in which the filmmaker attempts to break down language barriers with her Iranian grandmother and reconnect with her heritage.

Trayner said such programming aligns with the themes of decolonization and “thinking about power dynamics in documentary filmmaking” – which in many cases means allowing subjects to tell their own stories. Nowhere at the festival was this more evident than in The Stroll, a film about the history of the LGBTQ+ movement and New York’s Meatpacking District, told through the transgender prostitutes who lived and worked there. Featuring archival footage from the era, it was hosted by director Kristen Lovell, who reflected on her own experiences in the community.

“It’s really exciting for me to move away from the idea of ​​the filmmaker as a voyeur and really confront the relationship that filmmakers need to have with the people they’re filming about or the places we’re filming about,” Trayner said. “It’s about being able to do it in a respectful and mutually beneficial way.”

In general, archive films seem to be having a moment – perhaps in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made in-person filming difficult in recent years. Last year’s True/False showed Fire of Love – a largely archival film about two volcanologists who died in 1991, which was a national success and is nominated for an Oscar. This year, True/False premiered Timebomb Y2K – a completely archival film about fears of technological collapse at the turn of the century.

True/False programming often revels in the gray areas of the film – where characters are fleshed out and happy endings aren’t so obvious. But this year, several films followed more traditional, story-driven arcs, including Bad Press – about a Native American news site fighting for journalistic freedom under tribal law and Going Varsity in Mariachi – about a high school mariachi band competing in state pageants.

Frame from Bad Press
Frame from Bad Press. Photo: courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“It was very important for us to focus on films that focused on joy and not just trauma,” said Trayner. “Many of our films still touch upon the idea of ​​trauma and may have a political background, but ultimately they focus on joy and love.”

No film has embodied all of the major truth/false themes – community driven stories, objective truth research and unique use of archival footage – than Anhell69, a gripping documentary set in the queer community of Medellín, Colombia.

The film entwined with director Theo Montoya’s earlier attempts to make a B-movie set in a dystopian version of a city where people start dying so fast they can’t be buried and ghosts start walking among the living. In a haunting and poetic voice, Montoya describes having to abandon the film as many of the cast members died of overdoses or suicides, and he began “attending more funerals than birthday parties.”

Anhell69 uses archival Instagram footage and interviews with loved ones to weave a beautiful portrait of the queer community, resilience and tender longing for a better life. Despite the unimaginable darkness at the center of the film, Montoya’s deep sympathy for his characters cuts through the haze of grief, giving the film a sense of affection that almost looks like a glimmer of hope. The result is a wonderful and indefinable portrait of a community steeped in magical realism. Perhaps the best way to describe the film is as it describes itself: “a boundless trance film” that, like the community it follows, defies categorization.

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