OPINION | FILM SCENE: At the 2023 True/False Documentary Film Festival

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Film sets are often described as situations where you have to “hurry up and wait,” where every department has to quickly and efficiently get a shot ready to film, only having to wait until the director and actors are ready for the next camera setup. This concept also applies to film festivals, like the 20th annual True/False Documentary Film Festival, where for three days I waited to watch some of the best documentaries I’ll see all year.


The first day of the festival was cold and wet, but that didn’t deter any of the festivalgoers; lines for films have a tendency to stretch around the block at each of the festival’s six venues. If you’re not lucky enough to have a pass or reserved tickets for a specific screening in advance, then you are left to the whims of the festival’s patented rainbow “Q” system. The queue system at True/False is actually rather efficient — an hour before showtime elaborately dressed “queens” stand next to a giant rainbow painted wooden letter “Q” and hand out numbers. Fifteen minutes before screening, if you were lucky enough to get a number, you line back up in numerical order and wait to see if you get into the venue.

I spent most of the weekend waiting in these queues. While it can be an annoyance, it does create a sense of community with your fellow patrons as you discuss what you’ve seen at the festival, what you want to see, and what you’ve heard is promising. I had several interesting conversations while waiting this weekend: I talked to a volunteer of the festival, who grew up in Costa Rica as a kid before moving to the States; we talked about past festivals, how covid-19 affected the event the past two years, the city of Columbia as a whole, taxes, and she even offered me a toke of her marijuana stick — now legal in the state of Missouri — which I politely declined.


A lot of this year’s film lineup seemed to center around death. There were two documentaries that focused on terminally ill people. “Man on Earth” follows the last days of Bob, a man who suffers with terminal Parkinson’s. In the state of Washington, where he resides, they allow people with less than six moths to live to schedule their own termination of life. Bob invited this film crew into his home to document his last week on Earth. Similarly, the film “Red Herring’’ focuses on a filmmaker who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He turns his camera on those closest to him as he examines how his friends and family struggle to cope with his illness and find solace in the strangest and whimsical places.

“Our Body” is a feminist documentary, directed by the accomplished filmmaker Claire Simon, where she looks at women’s health care in France. The movie is structured in a way where we follow a variety of different women going through a number of different medical procedures. It feels like we are breaking all sorts of HIPAA laws as the camera sits in on these intimate meetings between patients and their doctors. We follow a 15-year-old-girl in search of an abortion, a teenager trying to transition, women trying to get pregnant by artificial insemination — we see a hysterectomy and two births.

As I queued for my next film, I was in line next to a very friendly Scottish woman. We exchanged our thoughts on the films we had watched earlier in the day. I went into detail about my experience watching “Our Body.” We both agreed that when it comes to health care, men have it way too easy.


One movie at the festival that was receiving a lot of buzz was “Time Bomb Y2K,” which focuses on the crisis that was the year 2000. The movie — directed by 2 millennials — uses archival footage from the ’90s to delve into the hysteria surrounding the transition between the millenniums. The film walks a fine line between the comedic — seeing people overly prepare for an apocalypse that never comes — and the relevantly terrifying as we watch far right militias and grifters use the Y2K scare to promote violence and misinformation.

Sometimes waiting in these massive lines can feel like waiting for the world to end. I headed over to my next queue and randomly bumped into this older couple who, coincidentally, had lived in Arkansas 15 years ago. We talked about how one of them used to teach at the University of Central Arkansas. They wanted me to give them all the news and gossip from Arkansas, especially all the current political news. They then reminisced about all the places they missed, like Ozark Folk Center at Mountain View. After we got our queue numbers from the “Q Queen” we went our separate ways looking for a quick bite to eat from one of the many food trucks or pizzerias. Fifteen minutes before the screening, I was back in line, but there was no sign of the elder couple. Did they get lost? Have the lost track of time? Did they opt to go to a different movie? I was quite concerned, but as the line started to move toward the theater, the couple were scuttling their way back to their proper place in line.


My favorite movie of the festival was the Sundance award-winning film “Bad Press.” Angel Ellis is a tribal reporter for Mvskoke Media who has a knack for stirring the pot and focusing on news stories of corruption in the tribe. I was shocked to find out that the majority of tribes in America — who are able to write their own constitutions — lack freedom for the press, meaning that the executive branch of the tribe can step in and censor any stories they don’t like. Angel is a spitfire and a very sympathetic underdog who leads the tribe through not one, not two, but three elections and an angry tribal chief to try to get “freedom of the press” introduced into their constitution.

One of my favorite parts of True/False is that as you sit in the theaters waiting for all the seats to get filled — and every screening is almost always filled to capacity — they have a live band play. The music ranges from country and folk to pop and experimental synth wave. There’s something for everyone as these bands travel from all over to play at the festival. As they play, a top hat is passed around the room as a collection tray for tips for the musicians. This is one aspect of the festival that I wish the Hot Springs Documentary Film Fest would adopt, as it makes the screenings and the crowd feel more alive.


Other than death, there seemed to be another stylistic motif through this year’s movies — the practice of documentaries weaving in fictional elements. “Anhell69” begins as a fiction film about ghosts having sexual relationships with humans, but after the lead actor dies, the film shifts into the realm of nonfiction and explores the tragic world of the Colombian transgender and gay population. On the other hand, “Ramona’’ starts off as a fictional film looking to explore the lives of unwed pregnant teenage mothers in the Dominican Republic, and then shifts its focus toward the lead actress of the fictional film as she begins researching for the role and becomes friends with several unwed mothers in the area. The film goes a step further and has these pregnant teenagers take on the fictional role of Ramona enacting and ad-libbing scenes from the scripts. This gives an emotional portrait of a country where there’s a history of vulnerability for women.

After a day full of waiting in line, True/False offers a variety of different parties and events that patrons can mingle and discuss and recover for the next day. The bars and restaurants of Columbia are flooded by people vividly talking about movies, about the things they’ve learned and the struggles they’ve witnessed in these documentaries. Back at their hotels or the Airbnbs, they hurry and sleep until the next day’s block of nonfiction films.

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