Few film festivals can leave you with more in the tank than when you first arrived, but the 2012 True/False documentary film festival which took place last weekend, is clearly the exception.

I had heard so much about this quirky festival run out the college town of Columbia, Missouri, and it truly delivered. I left it inspired and energized.

I didn’t see a single bad film, which is quite an unusual feat. And I was repeatedly moved to tears by profound subjects and top-notch storytelling. This documentary festival actually feels more like a film festival because the documentaries that they include are so diverse.

One gets a true sense of how broad the documentary form is, from hybrid films that use recreations and is-it-real? techniques to straight-up cinéma vérité.

But perhaps Detropia co-director Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware said it best when she crooned how she was having more fun at True/False, thanks to the “March March” robot parade, than she had had at Sundance, where her film premiered. Indeed, there is a premium placed on fun.

The festival’s unique flavor comes down to it being, I think, an extension of the personalities of the founders, Paul Sturtz and David Wilson. I bet if you opened up their brains, you’d see Robin Hood wearing a top hat, playing an accordion in a projector room.

This might be a little inside baseball, but I was in awe at how there was a total absence of publicists. And yet, still, directors showed up at the screenings, and I completed all of my interviews, without a single flack. At other festivals, this would be unthinkable. And where are the sectioned off seating areas for very important people? Usually, there are giant swaths of seating off-limits, reminding everyone that very cool, more important people than they are, will be coming. Not here.

And giving the films a run for audience attention were the zillions of musicians who busk before each screening. My favorite group was the bluegrass band, Toughcats, who came down from Maine. Les Trois Coups is also worth mentioning. It’s an incredibly energetic, talented French group that Sturtz stumbled upon in Paris, and managed to bring over for their first gig in the United States.

Les Trois Coups performing at the Jubilee at Missouri Theatre (photo via truefalse.org)

Of course, above all, was the very well-curated list of films. Who needs to go to Sundance when True/False brings the best docs from there, and then mixes in a bunch of other ones to boot?

Here are my favorite films that I saw. I should note that there’s a system of secret screenings at the festival — so there are three films that I’m not allowed to write about because they are officially premiering at other festivals.

How to Survive a Plague
David France’s film about Act-Up, the AIDS activist group that fought the epidemic and the government’s slow response, is more than a necessary history lesson. It’s expertly shot and edited. France got access to great footage, none better than an Act-Up meeting in which playwright Larry Kramer gives one of the most impassioned, dramatic speeches I’ve ever seen on film. I recommend all actors study it to observe how one man can make the world stand still with the spoken word. My heart stopped.

The Imposter
It’s hard to admit I love this film, because, in a way, I hate it. This story of a Texas boy who disappears, and then is apparently discovered in Spain, is a prime example of the hybrid documentary. There are reenactments that make it feel like an A&E special. (And, indeed, the film was produced with A&E money.) And there are apparently real people who talk to the camera as real people, but they may be lying to our faces, for all we know. What I love about this is that I was constantly on edge. The film is incredibly engaging. The fact that it got under my skin, sometimes in an annoying way, speaks to its power.

Forget all the talk about the MPAA rating (an R, which would prevent it from being shown in schools), and let’s focus on the film, a heartbreaking depiction of  families that have been tormented by bullying. Director Lee Hirsch gets in there, with the kids, the schools, the families and, most importantly, in the school busses where so much bullying goes down. I don’t know how Hirsch got the permissions, but he actually shows kids getting bullied. And he shows a principal who mishandles a victim that made me want to shout at the screen. Well shot and well told, with articulate, compelling characters, this isn’t a dry, advocacy film. There shouldn’t be a question of whether this film will get an R. The discussion should be how to make it mandatory viewing for all American children from 10 to 18. I’m serious.

Searching for Sugar Man
There’s something uneven about this film that tells of 70s folk singer Rodriguez, who apparently disappeared. Constructed as a thriller in search of the missing musician, the film can feel manipulative. I sensed the director guiding me, which is never a good thing. Happily, though, the path he takes us on is through a remarkable story of how a great singer with promise could fall off the tracks to fame, but then come back, if just a little. Great music, a tragic hero and a comeback story — no wonder there was a long, standing ovation for director Malik Bendjelloul.

Why would a festival show a film that’s already been released to theaters? Maybe because it’s so good that the organizers just wanted people to see it. (The fact that one of the directors, Dan Lindsay, went to the University of Missouri, was probably another factor.) This documentary, which had just won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the week before, has its detractors. Undefeated is slick, and it’s directed by two good-looking young guns, TJ Martin and Lindsay, whose previous film was about beer pong. These guys haven’t earned their stripes, but don’t hate them, or their film, for it. (They’re actually very nice, and humble. And they are the first to say how fortunate they are.) Just go see how a small school football team and its coach can open up a world of emotion, from heartbreak and frustration to hope and love.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen