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True/False Film Fest 2012: Friday

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series True/False Film Fest 2012

True False Film Fest

Last year I heard about the True False Film Festival in Columbia, MO. The timing wasn’t right for me so I didn’t attend. I was determined to make it this year. I’ve never attended a film festival before now. The location is close enough, the price is fair and the films are all documentaries which is just fine with me.

The drive to Columbia was about four hours for me. I stayed at the Wingate hotel, which I mention only because I find it helpful to know where people stay at when they go to events like this. After getting a first room that smelled like Don Draper and crew had spent the night there puffing on their Lucky Strikes, I was given a satisfactory room. Nothing special but I got it for $50 a night thanks to an early Priceline booking. I’m happy I got it back in the fall when I did. This hotel and nearly every other in the area is said to be booked solid this weekend.

Gorilla playing accordion

This gorilla was playing all Friday evening.

The festival is about a five minute drive from the hotel. As I made my way there I had to laugh at the Honda Civic in front of me sporting a “save the earth” bumper sticker spewing smoke like a coal burning locomotive. I parked in one of the nearby decks which are apparently free if you stay past 6pm. The gates were wide open when I left. I hope that’s how it’s supposed to work because I didn’t see anywhere to pay the 50 cents per hour I was told I’d have to pay.

Once you’re parked everything is within easy walking distance. There is no shortage of restaurants and there should be no fear of having to run from one end of the earth to the other to make your next film.

There are seven theaters spread around the area. Some are in event halls, others in churches and two in an actual theater. My first experience was with a small theater (Little Rag Tag) and a large event hall (The Blue Note). Both were good viewing experiences. Sound and picture quality were solid. My only complaint was The Blue Note had seats made for people under five and a half feet tall.

I ended up seeing three films on Friday. I bought a “Simple Pass” which entitles you to reserve up to 10 films and also allows you to get in the “Q” line for films you don’t have tickets for in hopes of grabbing an early number that will give you entrance if there are seats remaining about 10 minutes before the film starts. My first film on Friday didn’t start until 7pm but I wanted to see if I could get into one at 5pm. I was number 24 in the “Q” for Herman’s House. Numbers 1-26 were called. Nice. An even better bonus is that it stopped raining right before I parked the car which made for a much nicer experience waiting in line outside.

My reviews of the films will be intentionally short. I’m jotting down general thoughts and providing links to more details where possible.

Herman’s HouseHerman's House

Herman’s House is the story about a man locked up in solitary confinement for the past forty years and an artist (Jackie Sumell) who designs the man’s dream home. Solitary confinement for forty years. That is pretty insane. Yet that is the reality for Herman Wallace who is in those conditions because he was convicted of murdering a prison guard. One of the more interesting challenges for a director I’ve seen in a while is the fact that we’re never able to see Herman, as the director was unable to get permission from the state. Thankfully Herman has a lively voice and a quick wit about him that comes through clearly over the many phone calls we hear him talking through. The film isn’t as much an activist film as it is a narrative mostly focused on the relationship between Herman and Jackie. The editing could be tighter overall as there are far too many scenes that are explained with title screens and the story drifts a bit at times. An overall solid film that deserves credit for not going the activist route but instead tries to tell a story to make its point.

 ★★★½☆ 

The Imposter

The Imposter A near perfect film. Beautifully shot. Memorable characters. Twists that still have me thinking about them. The Imposter tells the story of a 13 year old Texan boy who goes missing and is reported found in Spain a few years later. To say much more is to spoil the surprise. If you only see one documentary from 2012, I’m going to say you have to make it The Imposter. Yes, it’s that good.

 ★★★★★ 

Me @ The ZooMe @ The Zoo

Digital gnosticism. Celebrity obsession. Gender identity. Hatred. Love. Narcissism. Internet phenomenas. All are on full display in Me @ The Zoo, a film that follows YouTube sensation Chris Crocker through the insanity that is his life – online. Made up of mostly existing material from the internet (of wild degrees of quality) and traditional media, the task of putting together a coherent story is a tough one. The filmmakers mostly pull it off, though the film feels about 15 minutes too long. If there weren’t so much inappropriate material for kids, I would say Me @ The Zoo would make a terrific film to discuss with teens and pre-teens. There are so many relevant topics touched on that it’s a goldmine for thought provoking dialog.

 ★★★½☆ 

True/False Film Fest 2012: Saturday

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series True/False Film Fest 2012

True False Film Fest

Day two of the festival for me. A very ambitious day, as I picked five movies to watch. That’s the most I could fit in for today. I wanted to stay for maybe only one or two movies on Sunday so I could get back home at a reasonable time which meant Saturday was going to be a marathon. I’ve heard of people who do 5+ movies per day at other film fests and they do this for 5+ days. I can’t imagine. While today wasn’t bad, I wouldn’t want to watch five movies in one day very often. The brain can only process so much before the films all start to blur together.

Besides being filled with movies, my day was also filled with a bit of sadness as I said farewell to my trusty companion, a Samsung Tracfone, who died a sudden death. I knew its life was nearly over when he went through the washing machine late last year. The little guy made a miraculous recovery that wasn’t meant to last forever. I’ve since replaced him with his cousin, another, even cheaper Samsung model. Being in Columbia (MO…but still), buying a burner phone and desperately seeking out internet so I can setup the phone with the packaging spread out all over the car didn’t look suspicious at all. If I disappear one day soon you’ll know why – “they” got me.

I didn’t mention this yesterday but I’ve been staying for the Q&A sessions with the filmmakers after each screening. I’ve found this to be well worth suffering through the occasional pretentious comments clumsily disguised as questions from the audience. I would be a nervous wreck if I were these directors, many of whom are getting reactions from a crowd for their film for the first time. They’ve all been incredibly gracious and insightful. I recommend spending the 15-20 minutes after the film for the Q&A.

Now onto the movies I saw…

Only the Young

Only the YoungConfession time. Only the Young was the one movie out of the ten I picked to see at True/False that I was least enthusiastic about. The writeup on it was intriguing enough to get me to commit to it as one of my selections but I feared it might be nothing more than a reality TV show in documentary clothing about spoiled southern California youth that wouldn’t rise above navel gazing. I was wrong, though the first five minutes had me concerned. Once we settle into the lives of the three main teenagers the movie is so sincere it’s hard to find fault. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also beautifully shot, the music is filled with a unique selection of soul music, and the kids are all around pretty amazing. Contrast this doc with another I saw at the festival Friday that had a teen at the center of its story, Me @ the Zoo, and it’s hard not to feel some extra redeeming value in Only the Young. A fantastic film that is neck in neck with The Imposter for me so far at the festival. And unlike Me @ the Zoo, this is one that kids should and can definitely watch.

 ★★★★★ 

Searching for Sugar ManSearching for Sugar Man

I can’t say a lot about this film without ruining it. The mystery is what happened to singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez who recorded two albums, never went anywhere in the US but became a big hit in South Africa (think South African Elvis). Rumors in South Africa were that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage in a variety of gruesome manners, the worst being that he hit lit himself on fire. That is the setup for this doc and it is a well told story whose only serious problem is a certain subject who makes for a very difficult interview. Director Malik Bendjelloul does his best to work around this and does an admirable job. The story is so well told it’s amazing to learn that the director almost didn’t finish the film due to a lack of funding. He did much of the remaining work on his own, on his laptop, including editing and some animation. Impressive.

 ★★★★½ 

The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of VersaillesIn The Queen of Versailles Jacquie and David Siegel have a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal, for those not in the loop on the Jim Collins/Tom Peters dialect). They want to build their dream home – a ninety thousand foot extravagant monster unlike any other in the world. Jacquie was a former beauty queen and is on her second marriage with David, a rich time share developer. The two have seven of their own kids plus one of Jacquie’s nieces. Things can’t seem to get more surreal from there but somehow they do. Pictures adorn the Siegel household that have David as a king and Jacquie as a goddess and many others that are just as over the top not to mention absurd. Mix in a timeshare business and obscene amounts of greed and it’s hard to imagine this movie stirring up a sliver of empathy, yet it does. There are a lot of interesting characters and sub-plots to follow and at times the film suffers when it breaks away from the story of David and Jacquie. The film is too long as a result. That said, there are some incredible moments captured on screen. Moments that are hard to believe the Siegels would be happy to see on the big screen, but there they are. The Queen of Versailles is definitely a commentary on at least one part of the meltdown in 2008 and succeeds in portraying it through a couple who are oddly out of this world yet somehow also down-to-earth.

 ★★★★☆ 

Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's HopeComic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope

I picked Morgan Spurlock’s latest flick not because I’m a huge fan of his but because I thought Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope could be a lot of fun to watch with a large group of people. I wasn’t disappointed. The room was full of fans of all things Comic-Con. Whenever a favorite hero appeared on screen (Joss Whedon, Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, etc.) cheering broke out. Applause and cheers also came during several moments in the film where the main subjects achieve their stated goal. Laughs were also plentiful. Does all this make for a great doc? Not great, but good. The production value is extremely high. This was likely due to Spurlock’s 150 or so people working on the film, which included 24+ film crews at the convention filming at the same time. We learned during the Q&A, which Spurlock attended, that there have been numerous people trying to get documentaries made about Comic-Con but the show promoters have denied permission until this film. The film chooses several people to follow to the geek mecca in San Diego. These people represent different aspects of the show including aspiring artists, collectors, old-school comic book fans/sellers, and couples who find love connections at the convention. Interspersed throughout are interviews with various celebrities and fans all set to an Apple ad like white background. The style works for the film since it has a high gloss factor to it, including highly stylized comic book animatied transitions and a super hero movie soundtrack. I had a lot of fun watching the film with everyone and it was a nice bonus for Spurlock and two of the film’s main characters to make it for the Q&A.

 ★★★½☆ 

I can’t say much about the fifth doc I saw since it was a secret screening and the policy at the fest is you can’t write up anything about it. They do this so they can show films that would otherwise not be shown due to restrictions other festivals have on exclusivity to premieres. To some of the larger festivals, your movie is tainted if it’s been shown before. True/False secret screenings get around this restriction by never promoting the movie by name or too many specific details.

True/False Film Fest 2012: Sunday

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series True/False Film Fest 2012

True False Film Fest

All good things come to an end and I ended my three days at True/False 2012 in Columbia, MO intentionally early. The docs I was most interested in seeing were later in the afternoon and most of them I believe I’ll be able to catch later this year as they either have distribution or soon will.

That said, my experience at True/False was a great one. The festival is extremely well run which makes everything that much more enjoyable. Kudos to all the volunteers who were both behind the scenes and front and center. They’re dedication to the event made it a great one. Everything ran so incredibly smooth.

A pleasant surprise with the fest was the music performed by various bands from all over the country before each movie started. The music was solid and made time fly. It makes me wonder if movie theaters could learn a lesson here. Maybe instead of blasting people with ads, you go with music videos from local bands or lesser known artists who want to publicize their latest release? Sure, it might seem like advertising in a way but it’s far more enjoyable than the drivel that I’ve seen the past few years that proceeds most theatrical screenings.

I’d like to go the festival again next year and have my wife join me. I think she’d enjoy it. It’s a year away so we’ll see. I’d consider going Thursday through Sunday next year, as I think that would allow more opportunities to see some of the films and not feel the crunch of one immediately after the other. Plus, I’d like to attend some of the other panels/workshops next year that I didn’t get a chance to attend this time around.