Before True/False turns 20, a list of 20 terrific festival picks

A serious cultural milestone inches closer on the Columbia calendar.

With its return March 2-5, the True/False Film Fest will mark its 20th edition. What started as a homemade collaboration, a creative conspiracy shared by co-founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson, stretched out to touch the entire filmmaking world — while somehow still feeling homemade.

Ostensibly a documentary film festival, True/False has explored the nature of reality through hundreds of offerings that twine techniques and avoid simplistic labels. These films imprint personal experiences and global issues upon their viewers, changing Columbia’s perspective one story at a time.

With True/False’s 20th anniversary looming, I thought it worthwhile to look back at my favorite films from the festival so far. Before I share my ledger, two important caveats: One, I didn’t start attending True/False until 2008, my first spring in Columbia. So several years’ worth of offerings are lost to me.

Second, this truly is my personal list. Every viewer cuts a different path through True/False, responding to uplifting crowd-pleasers, innovative shorts, slow and lyrical meditations (the latter tend to be my favorite). So 20 other lists might only share a film or two, if that. That’s the beauty and the draw of a festival like this.

With all that in mind, here are my 20 favorite True/False films so far, in chronological order.

More:These 9 stories shaped Columbia’s arts and culture scene in 2022

“The Order of Myths” (T/F 2008)

The film that made me a True/False believer and opened my eyes to what the festival can be. Director Margaret Brown excavated history — both her own, and that of her Mobile, Alabama hometown — to understand the how and why behind a community’s two, segregated Mardi Gras celebrations.

“The Red Chapel” (T/F 2010)

Certain filmmakers become key characters at True/False, and this piece of documentary as performance art — or is it the other way around? — introduced me to merry Danish prankster Mads Brügger, who would show up at the fest with subsequent titles “The Ambassador” and “Cold Case Hammarskjöld.” Here, Brügger and his cohorts pass behind North Korean lines under the guise of presenting a theater performance. The film both mocks the country’s authoritarian style and questions when you’ve gone too far in such a pursuit.

“Troll Hunter” (T/F 2011)

The jig was up for anyone still clinging to notions of True/False as a purely nonfiction fest when this Norwegian film played its screens. Using a found-footage documentary style, writer-director André Øvredal created a deliciously silly, ever-satisfying romp in which a team of student filmmakers find more than they bargain for on a trek alongside local hunters.

“Searching for Sugar Man” (T/F 2012)

As a journalist and a music obsessive, I was all in on the late Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning quest to find long-reclusive Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez. “… Sugar Man” might be the best embodiment of what former colleague Pete Bland and others have described as the True/False gasp, a collective response to a film’s reveal. Rodriguez’s relationship with Columbia would extend, as he performed at the Roots N Blues festival that fall.

“The Act of Killing” (T/F 2013)

Initiating a story that would continue with a second True/False selection — 2014’s “The Look of Silence” — director Joshua Oppenheimer takes an unflinching, often grotesque look at an Indonesian national tragedy, seeking to foster something like forgiveness and reparation by asking killers to dramatize their crimes on-screen. The power of art to change, or perhaps simply better resemble, reality — a key theme of True/False — has never been better or more strikingly examined.

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“Cutie and the Boxer” (T/F 2013)

As adorable as they are irascible, artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara from the center of this exploration of a decades-long marriage, creative competition and what it means both to be yourself and fit into your love. Come for beautiful explorations of art, stay for the quieter and more difficult look at human connection.

“Stories We Tell” (T/F 2013)

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves shape so much of our living. In this quietly staggering offering, director Sarah Polley discovers the plot twist in the story of her parents’ marriage, and her own coming into the world, and sifts the implications with honesty and the kind of fearlessness that only comes from facing your anxieties.

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” (T/F 2013)

Another eventual Oscar winner, this one from director Morgan Neville, shines the spotlight on all-time great background vocalists such as Merry Clayton and Darlene Love. Neville and Co. tell a powerful story about who the music industry keeps in the shadows, and the film offers more than a few breathtaking musical moments.

“Boyhood” (T/F 2014)

Known for films such as “Dazed and Confused” and the “Before …” trilogy, writer-director Richard Linklater’s decade-long labor of love came to True/False, weaving together a fictional family narrative with real risk and reward. Linklater filmed his cast (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and more) for more than a decade, observing how we age, change, separate and return to each other with soulful accuracy.

“Dusty Stacks of Mom” (T/F 2014)

Perhaps the True/False flick my friends and I still recall with the greatest fondness, Jodie Mack’s completely original, completely enchanting project is several things at once: a love letter to her family’s business, an innovative animation of real life, a test of our copyright system and a longform music video that rocks its entire runtime.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” (T/F 2014)

True/False loves audacious creators, and no filmmaker comes off more audacious than Alejandro Jodorowsky in this chronicle of his attempt to bring “Dune” to the big-screen long before David Lynch and Denis Villeneuve pulled off the task to varying degrees. Jodorowsky’s grand, nearly impossible visions both inspire and madden, making the film a surprisingly glorious thrill ride.

“The Overnighters” (T/F 2014)

A North Dakota pastor’s efforts to ease the busted promises of an oil boom leads to an unexpected collision between his past and present selves in director Jesse Moss’ layered masterpiece. Faith, sexuality, the Biblical idea of loving one’s neighbor, and distinctly American economic fractures come both into greater focus and obscurity.

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“Cartel Land” (T/F 2015)

This real-life action film from director Matthew Heineman documents the impact of local do-gooders and suspect militia types on the complex drug wars along the United States-Mexico border. “Cartel Land” features some of the most heart-pounding footage in True/False history, as well as a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of the tendency toward hero complexes.

“I Am Not Your Negro” (T/F 2017)

True/False typically keeps talking-head style documentaries to a minimum. But when the talking comes via historical footage of the forever-electric James Baldwin, the fest has something special on its hands. Raoul Peck’s film makes an airtight case for Baldwin as the quintessential American writer and a social critic we must still heed today.

“Bisbee ’17” (T/F 2018)

You can’t tell filmmaker Robert Greene’s story without mentioning True/False. Now the filmmaker-in-chief at the University of Missouri’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, Greene was a frequent visitor, and a public cheerleader for the festival, before ever moving to Columbia. His work embodies the wonderful tensions at the core of True/False, examining whatever lines still exist between emotional and historical truth, performance and reality. To choose just one of Greene’s films here feels diminishing, but perhaps this one — which finds residents of an Arizona border town recreating their community’s worst moment in a gesture toward repentance and redemption — best represents his relationship with True/False.

“Shirkers” (T/F 2018)

Director Sandi Tan’s autobiographical film examines the spark of creativity and decades-long effect of betrayal on her and her peers after an older mentor-type figure absconds with the film they all made together. Tan nimbly weaves interviews and recreations together, crafting a sad-eyed, stylized, sometimes thrilling narrative about the narratives we create.

“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” (T/F 2020)

The True Vision Award-winning, brotherly team of Bill and Turner Ross staged an on-screen wake for a dive bar in a film that wasn’t necessarily fiction or documentary — more an inventive third thing — but rang true all the same. As I wrote at the time of its appearance, the Ross Brothers (whose lyrical “Western” is another of my True/False highlights) created one of the great 1970s character studies, approximately 50 years later.

“Dick Johnson is Dead” (T/F 2020)

A miracle of tone and empathy, director Kirsten Johnson’s effort portrays mortality on-screen in a way few filmmakers could. Staging her father’s death, faking his funeral, and imagining the afterlife as a way of staving off the end, Johnson both offers a gorgeous tribute to a life still being well-lived, and inches toward the beautiful unknown, uniting appropriate measures of bravery and apprehension.

“Time” (T/F 2020)

A slow-burning blues rendered in beautiful black-and-white, Garrett Bradley’s film follows a real-life superhero, Sibil Fox Richardson, and her family as they work from the outside in to see their family patriarch released from prison after an exorbitant sentence. Subtly stunning on both a visual and human level, Bradley makes us part of the family, stoking our outrage at the prison industrial complex, helping us feel every ounce of the Richardsons’ affection and fatigue.

“Fire of Love” (T/F 2022)

Real-life Wes Anderson characters move within an explosive natural drama in Sara Dosa’s portrait of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. “Fire of Love” is a romance picture — portraying the Kraffts’ love story, and showing how it’s inextricable from their shared love of these dynamic, fire-breathing features. As with the best True/False films, Dosa’s work introduces us to people we might not get to know apart from the big screen.

More:True/False filmmaker Q&A: Sara Dosa on how ‘Fire of Love’ tells the ‘ultimate love story’

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.

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