True/False Film Fest 2014: Fact, fiction and everything in between

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 | 7:01 p.m. CST; updated 4:06 p.m. CST, Monday, March 3, 2014

COLUMBIA — What's true to life isn't always exactly real. Sometimes it's a mixture of the made-up and the real that gets closest to the truth.

That philosophy seems to have guided the True/False Film Fest's David Wilson and Paul Sturtz in choosing the 43 films for this year's festival, which includes two fiction films and many nonfiction films that use techniques usually seen in fiction.

Still need tickets?

All festival passes are sold out, but individual tickets to some films are still available through the True/False Film Fest box office. Seats often open up for individual films and are available by standing in "The Q." The best source for information about tickets is the festival's FAQ on its website.

Registration for the Saturday 5K run is still open. The run begins at 9 a.m. on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail in Flat Branch Park in downtown Columbia.

The Box Office and festival headquarters during the film festival is at 1020 E. Broadway. It opens at noon Thursday and will remain open throughout the weekend.

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The festival draws filmmakers, scholars of cinema, and film enthusiasts from far beyond Columbia. It begins at noon Thursday and ends late Sunday.

Wilson and Sturtz are the founders, directors and curators of the festival, which began in 2004. Together, they hand-pick most of the films as far as a year in advance.

It's about "finding the best ways to tell a story," but how that's achieved is open to artistic interpretation, Wilson said.

"I'm fascinated by this line — or this lack of a line (between fiction and nonfiction) — because I think it ultimately is in the service of really good storytelling," Wilson said. "That's what we're after."

This year's theme, Magic/Realism, will be showcased in a parade Friday and many events and parties throughout the weekend. Last year, 43,786 tickets were sold for the festival. Wilson said he expects attendance to be up slightly this year, possibly hitting 46,000 tickets sold.

"I would hope that attendees open themselves up to films and subjects that maybe, on the surface, aren't immediately appealing," Sturtz said. "I think there are enough great films throughout the program that I hope that people take some chances and just explore as much as they can." 

A fading line between fact and fiction

One of the two fiction films on the program is Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," which follows the life of a boy, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, from age 7 to 18. Starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as his parents, "Boyhood" was filmed in short bursts over 12 years and evolved as unpredictably as its central character.

The film was completed last year and shown at the Sundance Film Festival and Berlinale, a film festival in Berlin. Its third stop will be at Columbia's festival this week.

"It reminds us of the way that documentary subjects are followed over a lengthy time," Sturtz said. "It just seemed to speak to nonfiction filmmaking, but it quite clearly is not at all like that."

As Coltrane went through adolescence and grew into a young adult, his passions influenced the narrative, Linklater said in an interview with the L.A. Times.

The other fiction film on the program is "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," which "documents the undocumented" dramas of Hurricane Sandy with a 13-year-old autistic boy's journey under the "pulsing urban streets" of New York City, according to the film's description on the festival's website.

This year is the first that the festival has offered two fiction films, but Wilson and Sturtz are reluctant to call it a trend. They'd rather call it "chimeric cinema."

A chimeric is "a monster from Greek mythology that breathes fire and has a lion's head, a goat's body, and a snake's tail," according to the Merriam-Webster definition. The film world equivalent is an overlapping of storytelling devices that are used loosely in fiction and documentary film.

"This sort of cross-breeding, or cross-fertilization, is yielding some very interesting results," Sturtz said.

Viewers will also see many techniques often used in fiction and narrative filmmaking in the rest of the festival's line-up, Sturtz said.

At the other end of the continuum, "The Actress," directed by Robert Greene, is a documentary at this year's festival that veers from nonfiction into the "middle ground," Wilson said.

The actress, Brandy Burre, plays herself as a character in the film, Wilson said. The film includes elements of melodrama and cinéma verité, which use improvisation and stylized set-ups, according to the film's website.

Other films at the festival use re-enactments, scripting and cinematography techniques typically used in fiction filmmaking, Wilson said.

"It's not as simple as there being two sides to a coin, but even using that metaphor, the sides are not as far off as you would think," said Eric Hynes, a freelance film critic and journalist who has attended the festival for the past three years and plans to attend this year.

A history of fiction at True/False

From the beginning, Wilson said, he and Sturtz have been interested in the middle ground between fiction and nonfiction.

The fiction film, "Zero Day," was on the program in the festival's inaugural year. It employed a video-diary style to tell the story of two troubled adolescents planning an assault on their school.

The mock-horror film "Troll Hunter" was shown in 2011, the first year Hynes attended the festival. "I recall people being really bothered and perplexed about whether or not the film was true," Hynes said. "It was believable, and the way it was shot was realistic."

Sturtz said "every fiction film that gets in has to clearly be talking in some way to the world of nonfiction film."

He and Wilson are not alone in their interest in films that blend documentary techniques with fiction film devices, and vice versa, he said.

Wilson said he envisions the selection process as surveying a playing field where films start at one end of each side and move toward the middle.

True/False is a place to "get a sense of what the trends in documentary filmmaking are," Hynes said.

"The greatest trend is toward accepting and appreciating that documentaries are works of art and not just works of journalism," Hynes said. "There's a far more interesting conversation that comes from creating a continuum between things instead of throwing up walls."

But it's not just the abundance of films and innovative curation that have made the film festival popular, he said. Many who attend multiple times say it's the town and the people who embrace the true, false and everything in between that make it special.  

"The film festival seems very integrated into the town, and that's very appealing," Hynes said. "I think the audiences in Columbia are as intelligent and engaged as I've seen anywhere."

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