True/False Film Festival introduces Columbia to independent films

COLUMBIA — In the summer of 2003, friends David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, owners of the Ragtag Cinema, were sitting in the Columbia heat and brainstorming ways to bring independent films to the city. Out of this conversation emerged the idea for the True/False Film Festival.

“We had reached this critical mass where we found we had venues downtown where we could show movies,” Wilson said.

As co-founder of the festival, Wilson is the kind of guy who commands a conversation with his confident, exhuberant voice. His passion for films shows when asked about the festival, one of Columbia’s most successful annual events.

In its inaugural year in 2004, 4,400 people showed up to see 30 different films. Last year, True/False drew nearly 15,000 people to see 40 films, and this year, passes to the festival sold out in advance for the first time.

The two friends thought some of the best places to show films were the Ragtag Cinema, Missouri Theatre and the Blue Note. All within walking distance from one another, the three venues helped to create their own little slice of Sundance.

Trying to establish a great film festival from scratch did not scare them.

“I guess we were too dumb to have fears,” Wilson said jokingly.

Sturtz and Wilson created an event where anyone can attend by buying tickets to a single film or three kinds of pass packages, which let the pass holder, depending on the package, watch multiple movies, get into parties or go home with a goodie bag. Many of the films also feature a question-and-answer forum after the showing, where the director or film’s subjects might show up to talk to the audience.

“The community goes crazy for these films they’ve never heard of before,” Wilson said.

He said backing from local organizations, an $8,000 grant from the Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs and $15,000 from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, have helped ensure the festival’s success.

Local support also comes in the form of volunteers. As many as 400 applicants are set to help with the 2008 festival. The large number of volunteers reflects the size and difficulty of putting on the event. “You have to be willing to work 12 hours over the course of the weekend or before or after the festival,” Wilson said. “Luckily, we have enough people who are interested, so we can be choosy. There are people who were general volunteers that are now helping to run parts of the festival.”

The large number of volunteers helps the event run smoothly, and the influx of directors, actors and visitors attracts growth and recognition for True/False both nationally and internationally.

“The festival has grown considerably. This is our fifth year, and it’ll be close to five times bigger than our first year,” Wilson said.

Last year, Sturtz and Wilson attended the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, the largest documentary film festival in the world. Most visitors who met them already knew about True/False. Wilson thinks the reason why directors all over the world recognize the event is because of the quality of films chosen by their staff.

“People have responded to our programming,” Wilson said. “We program a very carefully selected roster of films. They say, ‘Wow, this is a really impressive list; I want to my film to be a part of it,’”

To determine who makes the cut, both Sturtz and Wilson, along with a committee of True/False staff members and mid-Missouri film experts, review several hundred submissions. Submissions can include good films seen at other festivals, interested filmmakers or work from directors who may have previously participated in the festival.

“We look for work that has a strong story,” Wilson said. “A lot of our films are narratives in structure. They have good characters. It’s pretty rare we show a film that’s about a general topic.” The festival, he said, is more likely to show films that are more specific, like seeing the world through a person’s eyes.

“Often, those films inspire people to think about the world in a different way,” Sturtz said. Films shown at True/False, he hopes, will simply get people to talk. “Our main goal is to provoke discussion among local audiences. We get people coming up to us all the time talking about certain films.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the festival is seeing relationships being built through this community interaction. Sturtz said many people who ran into each other for the first time at True/False have started friendships because of their common interest for these independent films.

Wilson also wanted a large focus of the festival to be about the people, the ones behind the films and their audiences. “We made decisions that were based on wanting to show the best movies and to treat the audiences the best we could,” he said.

What was just an idea and a few goals became an event Columbians look forward to annually. “True/False is not going to be a passing fad,” said Ashish Premkumar, a sophomore at Boston University. Premkumar volunteered for the festival as a senior at Rock Bridge High School in 2006. “I don’t see this thing dying out in a couple of years.”

Wilson also sees True/False’s longevity for many years to come because for him, it’s all about the films and the people behind them. “We’ll continue to grow as a festival,” he said. “We think that it will continue to be a highly respected festival, but we don’t want to be as big as Sundance,”.

True/False attempts to increase community involvement through a volunteer outreach program at high schools.

“They had us do a lot of promotion at the high school,” Premkumar said. “We would help to do fundraisers to get people involved with the program, offering people chances to meet directors.”

Other middle- and high-school students grew up watching True/False blossom like Premkumar did.

“We were sophomores when True/False started,” he said. “We thought, ‘Why not just go and check it out? You could meet directors, see all these people.’ We heard about Sundance, Tribeca, so we went every year.”

The festival’s attempt to reach out to schools also attracted volunteers from Hickman High School. This year, as many as 50 Hickman students and faculty members will help out with True/False.

2008 Festival schedule and tickets
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