Columbia Pictures

Nick Pinkerton at the tenth True/False Film Fest

Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess, 2013, color and black-and-white, 92 minutes.

“IT’S ALMOST LIKE everyone you see on the street is in a contest to see who can be more positive, who can smile the biggest,” said a director, visiting from a grimmer part of the world, who was introducing his film at the True/False festival. His documentary considered failed utopianism, but I can say no more—this was one of six, color-coded “secret screenings,” premieres not making their official festival premiere, their anonymity guarded by a festivalwide pact of silence. These unique screenings are among True/False’s trademarks, along with the busker musicians who play before every film, and an atmosphere of communal enthusiasm that verges, yes, on the utopian.

True/False takes place in Columbia, a college town in mid-Missouri that was digging out from its second snowstorm in two weeks as festivalgoers and filmmakers traveling from as far as Beirut converged for the event’s tenth anniversary. During True/False’s three days and four nights, visitors and locals packed into screenings of challenging fare, like Leviathan and The Act of Killing, which likely wouldn’t play such a small market otherwise. And while not shying away from heavy films, True/False has gained a growing reputation as a really fun small festival—well deserved, as evidenced by great parties, a hangover-considerate screening schedule, and an all-around feeling of goodwill.

Such universal popularity as True/False presently enjoys must inevitably lead to talk of Jonestown Kool-Aid—but the fact of the festival’s fun should not overshadow that it is programmed with discernment, and offers a lineup that eschews talking-heads infotainment for documentaries that show real formal ambition. There is a special emphasis on hybrid films operating in the limen between fact and fiction, hence the fest’s name. It’s appropriate that Jim McBride, on hand to present screenings of his brilliant 1967 forgery David Holzman’s Diary, was probably the most famous person in town, after Gael García Bernal, slated to present Pablo Larraín’s simulacra-drama No, bailed.

Lo-fi tech fetishism is seemingly à la mode: While No was shot on U-matic video tape to simulate the look of 1980s news footage, Andrew Bujalski used an even more primitive Sony camcorder for his glitch-comedy Computer Chess, a partway mock-doc covering a hotel convention in which the best of chess-playing technology and human programmers, both variously dysfunctional, are pitted against each other. By picking up Computer Chess fresh from a warm reception in Park City, True/False expands its definition of “documentary” ever wider. It’s impossible to deny the method behind Computer Chess’s messiness—and nice to see Bujalski stepping outside of his established niche—but the fictionalized facts of Sergio Oksman’s A Story for the Modlins make for a far more unnerving examination of crippling social anxiety. With a collection of personal effects found abandoned on a street in Madrid for his raw materials, Oksman crafts a cleverly constructed twenty-six-minute film, a window into the private world of a smotheringly close-knit family unit. The photos, letters, and videotapes, laid simply before the viewer as if onto a light table, were the property of the Modlins, a family of American expats: Elmer, an actor whose only claim to history is a non-speaking role in the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby; his wife, a painter of psychedelic Christian kitsch; and their son, doted on to the point of madness well into his teenage years. One can feel the flames of this family hell.

Eliane Raheb, Sleepless Nights, 2012, color, 128 minutes.

Thwarted artistic ambition is also at the center of Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, which observes the home life of Ushio Shinohara, a pugnacious eighty-year-old Brooklyn-based Japanese artist, and his overshadowed wife, while looking back over their long, rocky marriage. Cutie was probably the nearest thing to a consensus film that emerged at True/False, but it hits its marks rather too cleanly en route to a preordained destination of affirmation and closure. Cutie and the Boxer (which also captured the best director prize for a documentary at Sundance) will certainly have further festival engagements. I hope the same can be said for a movie that was close behind in popularity, the best in show for my money, and a movie that scoffs at the very idea of closure: Sleepless Nights, by the aforementioned Lebanese visitor, Eliane Raheb. While it finds time for some well-considered digressions, Sleepless Nights is principally about two subjects: Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a teenage partisan who went missing after a firefight in 1982 and who continues to look for her son, and Assaad Shaftari, an intelligence officer who killed hundreds during the 1975–1990 civil war between Pan-Arab and Christian factions. Shaftari fought with the latter—and is the only one to have publicly apologized for his role in wartime atrocities. His limp, gray face is a clay mask of fatigue; his penitent’s masochism makes him force himself to stay in interrogatory scenes, like one where he is ambushed and berated at an art installation memorial to the missing by Saiidi, who keeps her grief heated to a perpetual boil while official culture preaches mealy-mouthed forgiveness. The irony, which Raheb never leans too hard on, is that these two stuck-in-the-past figures, while sworn enemies, understand each other better than perhaps anyone else in the new city that has been rebuilt around them. Sleepless Nights was scheduled to publicly screen for a Beirut audience for the first time after leaving True/False, and it could well be a cultural flashpoint at home—but it also deserves to be seen in the States, even if it doesn’t have the celebrity endorsements (Errol Morris, Herzog) of the film it was frequently compared to, The Act of Killing.

I don’t know if anyone really tries to write the Great American Novel in the classic John William De Forest sense anymore, but Tinatin Gurchiani’s The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is an attempt at the Great Georgian Movie (the republic in the Caucasus, that is). A series of direct-address audition interviews for a film open into vignettes of the auditionees’ lives, taking in city and country, mountain and lowland, Christian and Muslim, sorrow and—well, mostly sorrow. The ambition is admirable, though some admittedly stunning moments cannot overcome an overall lack of shape. By contrast, Cristian Soto and Catalina Vergara’s The Last Station is a movie content to do just one small thing precisely and obsessively, observing the incremental way in which half-ghost residents of a Chilean nursing home go about their lives—such as they are—lives that have shriveled to the barest essence, the excruciating performance of small, intent tasks that, one senses, are the self-assigned “jobs” that give arbitrary meaning to existence. Close observation of these small things, however, provides a perspective on something larger: There is one shot of a shriveled resident lying in bed while a bright playground is visible through a window above them that might break your heart.

Some fun fest!—but all is not misery in Missouri, and there are also moments of programmed levity. For example: Joe Callander’s hysterical two-minute squib of a short, Tina Delivers a Goat, which involves an American do-gooder performing the title’s action for a third-world family while keeping up an oblivious one-sided dialogue that’s edited into a chipper blather. The festival even has an official game show, Gimme Truth!, in which a panel of filmmakers guess as to whether a series of comic shorts are, in fact, “True” or “False.”

The question is never far from one’s mind. For example, did filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq ask their subject to reenact the seaside ending of The 400 Blows for the beginning of their These Birds Walk, centered on an orphanage in Karachi, Pakistan? Omar, a boy of either eight or nine—his impoverished, abusive parents don’t remember—certainly has the raw, brooding magnetism of a young Jean-Pierre Léaud. There are other moments in Birds, though, which simply could not be rehearsed. Letting an ongoing schoolyard fight play out until you want to scream “Stop!”, or following Omar ducking a security guard and tearing up a crowded stairwell to plunge into a mosque, the filmmakers display an extraordinary ability to not let their subject, or a decisive moment, escape. It’s another gutty bit of programming from a festival that feels like a real moment itself. Sometimes Kool-Aid just hits the spot.

The True/False Film Fest ran February 28–March 3, 2013.