FILM SCENE | OPINION: True/False documentary festival tests stamina

North Carolina soul singer Tre. Charles' performs before a screening of “Union” at Columbia, Mo.'s “True/False” documentary festival last week. (photo by AL Topich)
North Carolina soul singer Tre. Charles' performs before a screening of “Union” at Columbia, Mo.'s “True/False” documentary festival last week. (photo by AL Topich)

Friday, March 1

◼️ 2:45 a.m. -- My alarm goes off. I stumble around dazedly in the dark trying to finish packing my suitcase. I stuff my car's trunk with my poorly packed and unkempt luggage. I do some poorly paced jumping jacks in the empty, desolate parking lot of my apartment complex in an effort to get the blood flowing throughout my body. Trying to wake myself up, as I prepare for the six-hour drive I have ahead of me that will take me to our neighbor to the north, to Columbia, Mo., to the 2024 True/False documentary film festival.

◼️ 3 a.m. -- I had the bright idea, sometime the week before, that if I left my apartment before dawn, I could make it to Columbia right as Friday's films started. It was a miserable drive as I fought sleep deprivation, the rain and the curvy, hilly terrain of Greenbrier, Harrison and Branson. To keep my mind awake I had an audio book blaring loudly on my radio, specifically Stephen King's "The Stand," a 1,153-page novel about a pandemic eating its way through the world. It was probably not the best choice when I'm about to be at a festival, surrounded by 30,000 people.

But it did bring back memories of the first time I attended the festival in 2020. Memories of driving back to Arkansas after one of the best festival experiences I had ever had. Memories of listening to NPR as they were discussing how covid was starting to spread throughout the west coast. Memories of how I turned to my friend and festival companion, Omaya Jones, and commented to him that the disease would only last two weeks, tops. Memories of how wrong I was.

◼️ 10 a.m. -- I made it safely to the arts district in Columbia, right outside the University of Missouri. There was already a line of people inside the box office buying their tickets and passes. Throughout the weekend, I would experience many lines and much waiting outside the six different screening venues that are sprawled throughout downtown Columbia. After getting my media badge, I snagged a slice of pizza from one of the several nearby pizza-by-the-slice shops, and I stood in line for my first movie, "Union."

This documentary focuses on a topic I've been following in the news for the past few years, the attempted unionization of the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y. The film follows former Amazon employee Chris Smalls as he attempts to create the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and how he and his supporters struggle to start a union from the ground up, dealing with Amazon's union busters, insider politics from other labor unions, and even infighting within his own ranks. It's a fascinating look at how giant corporations treat workers like robots, work them without mercy, and spend millions of dollars trying to stop any form of collective bargaining. Smalls might not be the most conventional leader -- he might not be the best leader -- but he has spent a great deal of time, money and energy to change things at Amazon. As the credits roll, it's pointed out that Amazon still refuses to deal with the union and is trying every legal trick in the book to put the kibosh on the group. It makes me angry enough to consider canceling my Amazon Prime subscription.

After the film, my delirium had reached a peak, and I felt like I couldn't keep my eyes open. So I checked into my hotel and slept till the next day.

Saturday, March 2

◼️ 10 a.m. -- The best thing about waiting in the queue lines at True/False is that you get to talk to a bunch of different people. Everyone exchanges their opinions on what films they've seen so far at the festival. And almost everyone I talked to was raving about the film "Spermworld." With that title, I figured I'd go wait in line to check it out.

When I go to film festivals, I usually take my camera. In the queue for "Spermworld," this became a problem. The movie was recently bought by Hulu, a subsidiary of Disney, who'd sent an anti-piracy agent to protect the film. Even after I argued that I was part of the press, Mickey's muscle forced me to break down my equipment and shove it into my camera bag before they would let me into the theater. And before the movie started, they made everyone in the audience turn off their cellphones. After the movie started to play, the Disney musclemen walked, hands behind their backs, down the aisles to make sure no one had their phone out. They were acting like some sort of Disney SS officer.

That incident aside, the film is weird and quirky and looks at the unregulated world of online artificial insemination. Where people who can't afford the proper treatment use Facebook groups to set up alternate methods of getting pregnant. One of the more surprising participants of the documentary was a man who had donated his sperm to more than 100 women, all across the country, resulting in some 130 children. And for as funny and awkward and concerning this documentary was, I don't think it warranted all the anti-piracy security. It's no "Snakes on a Plane."

◼️ 7 p.m. -- After prowling around town for a few hours at the local art galleries and eateries I found myself in the line for "Look Into My Eyes," which was produced by A24. Thankfully, they didn't have an anti-piracy agent at the screening. This film focuses on one of my least favorite groups of people, psychics. My longstanding belief is all "psychics" are grifters. But director Lana Wilson found about a dozen or so clairvoyants whose main objective wasn't to make a quick buck, as they almost all lived in small, rent-controlled New York apartments. I talked to Wilson (who is also a psychic skeptic) after the screening. She said that the film was a strange journey that started with her walking into a $5 palm reading shop, and ended up with her finding hurt and troubled people trying to help others.

Sunday, March 3

◼️ 12 p.m. -- I checked out of my seedy hotel, but before I left town, I wanted to squeeze in one more film. I tried to decide which line I wanted to stand in and decided to go to the old Missouri Theater to watch "Girls State," the follow-up documentary to "Boys State," which was a film I saw at the 2020 True/False festival. I was a member of Arkansas' Boys State way back in 2004 so it was interesting to see how the other sex hashed out politics and policies. The most interesting thing about "Girls State" is that it was filmed a week before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. So, understandably, women's rights and abortion were two of the biggest topics these young girls argued about, since it directly affected their futures.

◼️ 4 p.m. -- The sun was starting to set as I headed back home, another successful year of True/False in my rearview mirror. If you're a fan of documentaries, if you're a fan of the Hot Springs Documentary film festival or if you're a festival organizer, I highly recommend checking out True/False at least once. It's a festival that's well run, well curated and lights a creative fire in me whenever I leave. It's a shame that Little Rock doesn't have a larger, healthier arts community that might sustain a festival of True/False caliber. Until we have such a renaissance, I guess the Hot Springs doc fest will be the closest we'll get.

  photo  Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine's "Girls State" is a follow-up to their acclaimed 2020 documentary "Boy's State."

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