True/False, the preeminent non-fiction festival, returned as a solely in-person event Thursday, drawing documentary notables and fans of their work to a Missouri college town for the first lineup under the artistic direction of Chloe Trayner.
There were 31 features and 19 short non-fiction films at the fest, which had more of an international tilt than usual and concludes March 6. Eight features, including “Fire of Love,” “I Didn’t See You There” and “The Territory,” had previously debuted virtually at Sundance in January, but screened for the first time for public audiences at True/False.
Their respective directors — Sara Dosa (“Fire of Love”), Reid Davenport (“I Didn’t See You There”) Alex Pritz (“The Territory”) – were among the filmmakers making the trek to Columbia for the 19th edition of True/False. Fellow Sundance 2022 doc directors including Isabel Castro (“Mija”) and Joe Hunting (“We Met in Virtual Reality”) also attended.
“Sundance was amazing, but True/False feels like our grand opening in many ways,” said Pritz, whose film “The Territory” focuses on an indigenous-led land defense in the Amazon rainforest. Beyond live audience reactions, the screening gave the entire filmmaking team the first time “to watch the film on a big screen with proper speakers. We put so much into sound design with this film — it feels like an entirely different movie when viewed in a theater.”
Dosa said the True/False screening felt like a premiere for “Fire of Love,” a docu about French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, that, like “The Territory” was acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films following its Sundance debut. “True/False has always been one of those beloved hubs for the nonfiction film community and that feeling — after so much isolation — is all the more palpable now,” she said.
Since launching in 2004, True/False has become one of the documentary community’s favorite film festivals. More of a showcase than a premiere festival, True/False is a community-based affair known for its enthusiastic, politically diverse audience and upbeat vibe. While the nonfiction event, which pre-pandemic drew over 15,000 people, isn’t where many distribution deals are made, top doc filmmakers have eagerly attended in years past.
After a hybrid event last year with a few outdoor screenings for the public, True/False 2022 marked the return of special events including the town parade, a documentary game show called ‘Gimme Truth’ and Campfire Stories that featured filmmakers telling tales both long and short around a fire pit.
Oscar-nominated director David France, who has previously had docus “How to Survive a Plague” and “Welcome to Chechnya” screen at the festival, attends even when he does not have a film in the lineup. He was among those who walked in this year’s parade full of local dance troupes, marching bands and adults in furry-animal costumes.
“I come just to watch films,” said France. “I love it here.”
Seven feature-length docus made their North American premieres at True/False, including HÀ Lệ Diễm’s “Children of the Mist” (Vietnam), Eduardo Crespo’s “The Delights, (Argentina), Srđan Kovačević’s “Factory to the Workers” (Croatia), Sergei Loznitsa’s “Mr Landsbergis” (Lithuania, Netherlands) and Karim Kassem’s “Octopus” (Lebanon).
“The Balcony Movie,” helmed by lauded Polish director Pawel Lozinski, screened at True/False, as did two feature docus that take place in Russia: Ruslan Fedotow’s “Where Are We Headed” and Nastia Korkia’s “GES-2.”
Following Friday’s screening of Korkia’s “GES-2,” about the transformation of a former energy plant that once fueled the Kremlin, the director was met with numerous questions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Of course, I’m very worried about a lot of my friends who are in Ukraine and also about my Russian friends who are now leaving the country,” Korkia, pictured above, told the audience. “The war should be over. It’s a very devastating period of time for a lot of people in both countries. It’s a very terrible, terrible time now.”
Three docus — Jon-Sesrie Goff’s “After Sherman” (USA), Kevin Shaw’s “Let the Little Light Shine”(USA) and Victoria Linares Villegas’s “It Runs in the Family” (Dominican Republic) — made their world premieres at the fest.
Shaw’s “Let the Little Light Shine” tells the story of a predominantly African-American school in Chicago threatened to be closed for gentrification reasons.
“Each year, True/False falls between the hot international film festivals such as Sundance, the Berlinale, and SXSW, Tribeca,” Shaw said. “So it is situated at this hugely influential moment at the start of the film festival cycle each year. It really works for us where it falls on the calendar.”
Villegas’ “It Runs in The Family” focuses on the director’s discovery that she is related to Oscar Torres, a little-known Dominican director. Through research, she pieces together a portrait of his creative and political legacy and breaks down the boundaries between his story and her own ambitions as an image-maker.
“People in the industry encouraged me to submit my film for consideration to True/False because my film is a very creative documentary,” Villegas said. “It’s not a conventional documentary and here at True/False they take that very seriously when curating the program so I knew it would be a good fit if we got in.”
There were approximately 1,000 submissions for this year, and Trayner, formerly the festival director of Open City Documentary Festival in London, made a conscious decision to broaden the slate to more international filmmakers.
“True/False has been an incredible space for North American filmmakers and we want to continue being that, but I think there’s a lot of voices from elsewhere in the world that I would like to see given more of a platform here,” said Trayner, named artistic director in August. “Being the first international programmer in the history of the organization, I come with a slightly different perspective. I come with a different understanding of non-fiction cinema history, and I’m really interested in broadening out what a True/False film is.”
She said that each Sundance film in this year’s lineup met her fest’s criteria, noting “they are all films that feel very much like True/False films in terms of being innovative and engaging in questions around documentary storytelling.”
The festival also runs an annual mentorship program, and Goff and Villegas were among six first-time filmmakers that took part. Seasoned industry professionals including Hulu’s Belisa Balaban and Kristi Whisler, Sandbox Films’ Patrick Hurley, Participant’s executive vice president of marketing Laura Kim, and Seesaw Pictures’ founder Heejung Oh offered the filmmakers offered advice on how to navigate the doc film world.
Trayner also serves as the artistic director of the Ragtag Film Society – a 24-year-old non-profit that runs the non-fiction documentary festival – carrying on the tradition created by True/False co-founders David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who have moved on to pursue other opportunities. Wilson, who stepped back in as interim director in 2021, is bullish about the future of the fest under Trayner’s direction.
“True/False has always been a festival of discovery, but for a long time, our discovery was looking around the U.S.,” said Wilson. “What Chloe brings is this ability to really look around the whole world. We are seeing a lot of discussion about who gets to make stuff and what voices are stories told in, not just who stories are told about. I think that’s going to be a shift everywhere in documentary, but I think True/False as always will lead the charge on that.”