Achieving success in our culture and keeping a shred of dignity is a tricky feat. Ask all the movie stars, and even some of the documentary directors out there. The same goes for film festivals, but when you’re more than a thousand miles from major cities on either coast, as the True/False Film Fest is, then you’re going to have to work extra hard to stand out and also be able to keep your head up high: Strike your own path and if others follow, then you won’t have a reason to sell out.

True/False — in Columbia, Missouri from February 28 to March 3 — is celebrating its tenth year, and is known for its idiosyncratic, low-key, fun times appeal. It’s also known for showing great documentaries. I spoke with Paul Sturtz (who cofounded the festival with David Wilson) about what to expect this year and he surprised me often by repeatedly defying convention.

This year, in addition to the wacky parade and non-stop busking, there is a great list of already-buzzing films, including an orcas in captivity expose, Black FishLeviathan, about life on a commercial fishing boat; Sarah Polley’s tell-all, Stories We Tell; The Act of Killing, about Indonesian killers… And then there are the less-well-known curios, such as The Captain and his Pirate, about the strange bond between a German and Somali man; I Am Breathing, about dying with grace; and Village at the End of the World, about life in a small town in Greenland.

It’s true that a number of these titles just played at Sundance, but Sturtz says they were tracking those films long before that other festival. “We’re not going to penalize them just because they played in Park City for a thousand people,” he says. “We are trying to move beyond the idea of festivals taking credit for films. We are not into playing mediocre films just so that the festival can claim them as its own.”

While Sturtz recognizes there’s a danger of festivals replicating each other’s programs, he says, “The fact is that there are not 200 great documentaries made each year.”

I’m not sure many would sing this notion from the rooftops, but Sturtz isn’t shy about it. “It’s a feat to make a good documentary and it’s a miracle to make a great one,” said Sturtz, who just made his first short film, which will be showing the festival.

True/False is unusual in that it has achieved high profile while over half of its revenue comes from ticket sales. More prominent festivals have the benefit of receiving major corporate sponsorships or grants. They also have corporate boards, and major infrastructure to process their films. For True/False, it’s primarily Sturz, Wilson and a 20-something kid named Chris Boeckmann. (There’s also a screening committee that helps filter the films.)

One might think that the very large University of Missouri in Columbia – which features a prominent J-school – has a lot to do with the success of this festival, but that’d be wrong. Sturtz says, “The buy-in from the university has been tentative. We are not supported the way that Duke University supports Full Frame.”

Sturtz does recognize that there are elements at the university “who want to see it succeed,” and cites the school’s Based on a True Story conference, held in conjunction with the festival, as an indicator that the university sees the festival is an asset.

In fact, the conference is the reason I am going; I’ll be part of a panel entitled “Memories and Records: Reviving the Past in Film and Journalism.” (If you’re going to be in Columbia, come on by; it’s happening Thursday at 9 am.) The conference should be a good one, with the likes of filmmaker Kirby Dick and journalist Jeremy Scahill on board, discussing issues such as “covert agendas” and “creating controversy.”

We’ll be there because of those forward thinkers at Mizzou who brought us in, but we ultimately have Wilson and Sturtz to thank.

“David and I started this as a lark,” Sturtz says. “And it has accrued more meaning over the years. We realized we could play a role in pushing the form. And we could play a vital role in our community.”

I asked Paul if he’d ever pull a Geoff Gilmore, who went from Sundance to Tribeca, and he once again threw me for a loop.

“I am not really a festival person,” he says. “Our impact is wedded to our being in Missouri. I am not trying to make my way to Abu Dhabi.”


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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