Documenting the truth

Columbia’s second True/False Film Festival
features eight international documentaries
Sunday, February 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Independent film producer John Pierson will be in town this week to screen his most recent work at the True/False Film Festival. But he can never go back to Fiji, where his movie, “Reel Paradise,” was filmed.

Pierson was banned from the country after screening the raucous “Jackass” on the island of Taveuni. The film was unrated at the time, and the showing led to the banishment of Pierson, his family and, of course, the offending “Jackass.”

Pierson did, however, leave the island with an important souvenir: “Reel Paradise,” a documentary about the 180 Meridian Cinema on Taveuni. After hearing that the theater was about to close down, Pierson persuaded his wife and two teenage children to move to Fiji, where, for the next 12 months, he screened about 80 Hollywood and Bollywood movies at the cinema, including “Bend it Like Beckham,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Hot Chick.”

“Cross-dressing is the shortest way to get a laugh in Fiji,” Pierson says by phone from Austin, Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas. “They even liked ‘Sorority Boys.’ ”

The films were in English or Hindi, with no subtitles. Pierson fell in love with the 180 Meridian, which he calls the world’s most remote cinema, after witnessing audience reaction to a Three Stooges vehicle, “Some More of Samoa.”

“It was just about watching the audience have a reaction to something they love,” Pierson says. “You just really don’t get that in America anymore.”

Directed by Steve James, “Reel Paradise” is also an intimate look into Pierson’s family. The crew had a month to capture the family’s relationship with the local Fijians before they left. Pierson describes the filming as “worse than jungle fever.”

“It’s painful,” he says, “but I think it’s truthful. It’s true/false, but mostly true.”

“Reel Paradise” is one of eight international feature films at this year’s True/False Film Festival, which focuses on documentaries.

Five of the films were shot in the Middle East, including “BattleGround,” a documentary about the war in Iraq, and “Liberace of Baghdad,” about a hotel pianist.

Many of the films at last year’s inaugural festival, such as “The Control Room” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” went on to large-scale theatrical release. “The Fog of War,” featuring former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s recollections of the United States’ Cold War policies, won an Academy Award for best documentary.

Festival co-director David Wilson says the success of last year’s event didn’t lead to any significant changes in how the 2005 festival was planned and organized.

“Our scale is expanding slightly, but our focus isn’t so much on expanding as it is on having a quality festival with quality films,” Wilson says. “The films this year are newer in their life span. We have more premieres.”

This year’s event includes a number of short films, including a joint screening Feb. 27 of three international pieces. “Little Peace of Mine” is about a 12-year-old Israeli boy who starts his own peace organization to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together after witnessing a bus bombing. “God Sleeps in Rwanda” documents the lives of women in a post-genocide Rwanda. The third film in the program, “Waiting for Adnan,” by Columbia filmmaker Kerri Yost, documents the relationship between a Bosnian refugee and the man she left behind.

“Although the films look at very different things and situations, there’s something about that grouping that really works for me,” Wilson says. “I think its going to be a really powerful screening.”

Another window into the Middle East is “The Beauty Academy of Kabul.” The documentary is the true story of six American hair stylists who open Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban beauty school. Director Liz Mermin followed the path of the stylists, three of whom were Afghan-Americans returning home for the first time in 20years.

In an e-mail from India, where she is shooting her next project, Mermin says the film casts an eye on the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The American stylists, accustomed to the standards of Manhattan’s posh salons, have to adjust to the conditions in Afghanistan, including half-destroyed buildings and the absence of basic necessities, such running water and electricity.

“Initially, I wanted to follow the story because it sounded so crazy, but the more time I spent talking to the women involved — particularly the Afghan exiles who were returning to Kabul for the first time in over 20 years to teach in the school — the less crazy it started to seem,” Mermin says . “I like stories that turn out to be something other than you expect. That’s what makes for a good film.”

Stephen Marshall’s experience in Iraq turned out to be something other than he expected.

The “BattleGround” director went to Iraq to write a book, but he wound up making a documentary about an Iraqi man who returns home from the United States after 13 years. Marshall met Frank Al-Bayati while traveling to the Middle East. The director was moved by Al-Bayati’s story and his support of the American-led invasion. Al-Bayati’s passion for his country challenged Marshall’s own views on the war.

“It made me question my whole antiwar view,” says Marshall in a phone interview from New York. “When you deal firsthand with people who are directly benefiting from the invasion, who are living a better life, those left-wing views kind of fall off.”

In chronicling Al-Bayati’s reunion with his family, Marshall sought to humanize Arabs and give people a closer sense of connection to Iraqis. He also wants his film to make viewers re-evaluate their own beliefs about the war. He describes the film as more balanced than “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“‘BattleGround’ is not a structured debate, but because we ended up seeking out both sides, it ended up feeling that way,” says Marshall, who says he is a pacifist with a deep respect for American soldiers in Iraq.

“No matter what opinion you have of the war, hopefully you will question it and understand that there is a valid reflection on the other side,” he says.

“BattleGround” recently won the Silver Hugo Award for documentaries at the Chicago International Film Festival. While in Columbia for the True/False Festival, Marshall will be presented with the True Vision Award for his dedication to the art of nonfiction filmmaking. Marshall is also screening another film at the festival, “This Revolution,” which is about a group of anarchists at the Republican National Convention.

A BBC production that makes its North American debut at True/ False, “The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear,” generated considerable controversy when it aired in Great Britain in fall. It questions the rationale for the global war on terror. The film, directed by Adam Curtis, alleges that the threat of terrorist attacks from Al-Qaeda has been inflated by military and intelligence agencies.

Curtis will be in Columbia for the True/False Festival, as will Pierson, Mermin and Marshall. Wilson says bringing the filmmakers to town was a “real focus” of this year’s event and almost every film will be represented by either the director or someone else connected to the film.

Wilson says bringing filmmakers and film fans together strengthens the festival’s connection to the community.

“We want it to become a big part of the Columbia cultural scene,” he says . “A real attention is being given to documentaries that hasn’t been given in the past, and we want to be part of that attention. Hopefully we’re showing the most interesting and most important documentaries in film today.”

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