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A Fanboy’s Notes: The True Delights of True/False 2009

Ondi Timoner and Josh Harris, the team behind “We Live in Public.” Photo by Lybarger.
by Dan Lybarger

Last week some of the most important movies of 2009, or potentially years to come, unspooled far away from Hollywood or New York in the middle of Missouri. Despite the seemingly remote location, documentary filmmakers from across the globe descended on Columbia, Mo. for the sixth annual True/False Film Festival.

Yes, I am a gushy fanboy, but I’ll stand by my previous statement.

Last year’s True/False brought both the makers of the Oscar-winning documentaries Taxi to the Dark Side and Man on Wire to town.

This was not a fluke. Director Joe Berlinger who has earned two Emmys for his work is a frequent visitor.

As a Kansas City movie geek with a limited budget, True/False is the sort of event that I once thought I could only dream about. Imagine that a mere two hours from where I lived I could watch primo documentaries and get to meet the people behind them.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow. How exciting. I think I’ll go balance my checkbook or trim my fingernails instead.”

If you find documentaries to be stale, True/False might just change your mind.

For one thing, the festival demonstrates that the definition of documentary is getting broader. This year True/False featured Ari Folman’s animated memoir Waltz with Bashir and the often hysterically funny look at the activist pranksters the Yes Men.

Tiger Hospitality
Much of the appeal of True/False goes well beyond the movies. The city of Columbia itself is part of the charm. The metro area has over 100,000 people and is the home of the University of Missouri, home of the Tigers.

Because my girlfriend’s and my allegiance to belong to the University of Kansas (she works as a librarian there), I had to contend with locals who despised my beloved Jayhawks. But that anxiety was gone when KU clobbered the Tigers in basketball the day after I left.

Compared to my current home, it feels pleasantly small, but it’s hardly a backwater. Columbia is also home to Columbia College and Stevens College, who both contribute to True/False.

There are
also dozens of unique eateries so you can grab something more nourishing and tasty than a Big Mac or a tub of popcorn between flicks. In my two days there, I got to sample succulent cheeseburgers at Booches, Thai delicacies at Bangkok Gardens and steaming cheese and crust at Shakespeare’s Pizza. Because I was on duty, alcohol was out. But I did have a couple of stiff hits of tea at the Cherry Street Artisan and Kaldi coffeehouses.

All of these places were just a few blocks from each other, so I could walk off the calories I had consumed. Placing all the events within strolling distance was a huge blessing because many of the filmmakers had flown in to St. Louis or Kansas City from the coasts and lacked cars.

The weather at the end of February was windy and cold. Angelinos had a rough time adapting. Fortunately, Columbia’s hospitality more than compensated.

The volunteers who helped organize True/False were consistently accommodating and worked with the guest filmmakers, visiting documentary enthusiasts and annoying journalists like me. The local press liaison had to field dozens of calls just from me. Downtown Columbia has a fairly easy layout to follow, but that didn’t prevent me from getting lost when I first got to town. Fortunately, she got me to my destination, and the interviews I conducted when smoothly.

True/False is the brainchild of RagTag Cinema owners David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, but it’s folks like her that make it run.

The Opening Act
If you wanted a break from all the documentaries, there was the Gimme Truth event, where the audience and a panel of judges had to determine if short films presented to them are genuine or spoofs. You could also catch the Friday night parade through downtown.

One enjoyable idiosyncrasy of True/False is that the movies don’t begin with tedious “pre-show entertainment,”
which is an annoyingly mendacious euphemism for commercials you can see it home.

Instead musicians who come in from across the country play a half-dozen tunes before the feature documentary starts. While I was waiting for We Live in Public, I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing a haunting set from former X lead singer Exene Cervenka. She was accompanied by a Hammond organist and another acoustic guitarist, and the analog sound made an intriguing counterpoint to the documentary about the impact of digital media on our lives.

I also got to hear a descendant of Hank Williams, Sr., named Brody Douglas Hunt, whose songs have the same captivating melancholy that his forbearer’s did. I was also able to catch singer Steve Carrel, who is cursed with a name all too similar to that of The Office star Steve Carell. Googling him and his music is a little hard but definitely worth it.

We Live in Public
While visiting Columbia is a treat, I came to True/False primarily to check out the films. The first one I caught, Ondi Timonoer’s We Live in Public, was an engrossing cautionary tale about the not-so-distant past. Joshua M. Harris founded the online research firm Jupiter Communications and Pseudo Programs, which was a sophisticated network of television programs that viewers could watch on the Web. He started the latter in 1994, when few Internet users had the broadband connections to watch his content.

Despite having made nearly $80 million, Harris decided to stage a grandiose experiment in 1999 when he persuaded nearly 100 New Yorkers to live in a bunker where their every activity was monitored through webcams. Keep in mind this is before the flood of reality shows. Harris was able to tap into electronic voyeurism years before others.

As a naïve Baptist boy from Kansas, I expected people to behave in a reserved manner if they knew they were being monitored at every moment. The opposite happened.

Timoner includes some chilling and occasionally beautiful moments when the residents of Quiet: We Live in Public abandon any inhibitions they might have had.

But the
messy resolution of Harris’ Quiet experiment was only a prelude to when he became his own lab rat. He and his then girlfriend placed cameras all over their apartment so web viewers could observe and comment on everything they did. Needless to say, the relationship wilted under the glare of the cameras.

That Harris’ rise and fall is involving can be attributed to Timoner’s intimate approach. In addition to providing some important history about how the web developed, she took part in the Quiet experiment and unflinchingly presents Harris’ astonishing foresight and as well as his more disturbing actions. She can make viewers care about Harris even when his downfall seems self-inflicted. If the applause Harris received at a screening of the film is any indication, she can present people behaving questionably and still not make viewers dislike them. This may explain why Timoner won her second documentary directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (the first was for her terrific rockumentary Dig!.

She also illustrates how Harris’ story can be an urgent warning about how dependent our society has become on the Web and how privacy is quickly becoming a thing of the past. That will teach you to post a beach photo of yourself on MySpace.

Crude
In his work with Bruce Sinofsky, Joe Berlinger has managed to deal with emotionally volatile subjects without slipping into didacticism. In Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost the two filmmakers allowed both sides to state their views and left viewers to reach their own conclusions. It’s what cable news networks claim they do but never manage to accomplish.

With Crude, Berlinger looks at how 30 years of pollution from Texaco could be responsible for the deaths of thousands in Ecuador. Streams that once provided fish are now dead from buried petroleum waste, and locals are still getting sick from cancer and other afflictions years after Texaco left the area.

Berlinger follows the case
by presenting the Ecuadorian plaintiff’s attorneys Pablo Fajardo and his American counterpart Steven Donziger. Fajardo’s commitment to the long, intricate case is formidable, and it’s impressive how he has worked his way up from being a laborer to taking on Chevron, who merged with Texaco back in the 90s.

Donziger is also fascination to accompany but for different reasons. He diligently coaches his clients on how they should express themselves in and out of the courtroom. While I would love to have an attorney with his dedication handling any case I might have, he can get amusingly overbearing.

As a result, both he and a Chevron lawyer who winds up indicted by the end of the film provide the film with some unintended laughs. Neither dry and academic, nor a screed, Crude presents a convincing argument for Texaco’s guilt while acknowledging the case is complicated and that other companies like the Ecuadorian PetroEcuador have contributed to the ecological nightmare. Berlinger has a point of view on the matter, but it’s fortunate that he allows viewers to walk away from the film with perspectives of their own.

I’m ambivalent about the footage of Trudie Styler and her husband Sting in the movie. It can get annoying listening to celebrities commenting on environmental issues. Some are smarter than others. Both Styler and Sting have been deeply committed to preserving the Amazon for decades, so it’s reassuring that they aren’t merely jumping on a bandwagon. That said, Fajardo’s quest is compelling on its own.

True/False may have been the ideal place to catch Crude. As he walked up to the stage to answer questions, Berlinger said, “First of all, I wanted to thank this festival and the town. Even though it’s really cold weather-wise, this is an incredibly warm and friendly town, which I appreciate. To be able to fill this theater with a subtitled documentary about people dying of cancer on the Amazon says a lot about this community.”

The Yes Men Fix the World
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano are pranksters whose gags are devoted to a higher cause. The two devote themselves to exposing corporate or government skullduggery by pretending to be shills. In some cases, they propose outrageous ideas that sound a little too much like the malarkey real mouthpieces utter. In attacking Dow for their
pollution policies, the Yes Men argue that the only good skeletons in the closest are golden ones. That means risking the health and well-being of others is all right if you can make enough money to cover it.

While the cinema audience laughs at their often hilariously absurd gags (get a load of how you can live through a disaster by wearing your SurvivaBall, courtesy of Halliburton), the suits at the conferences where Bichlbaum and Bonnano speak simply nod as if they’ve become inured to balderdash.

The stars of a previous 2004 film, the Yes Men directed The Yes Men Fix the World themselves and add some amusing transition sequences between their pranks where they sit in an abandoned lot waiting for their next “mission.”

The new film is framed around the 2005 incident where Bichlbaum went on the BBC pretending to be a Dow spokesman offering to pay for the damage Union Carbide (now part of Dow) inflicted on Bhopal, India back in the 1980s. Bichlbaum’s statement caused the company’s stock value to drop by two billion dollars in a mere 23 minutes. As we find out later, the people in Bhopal, while saddened that Dow wouldn’t be addressing the situation, enjoyed watching the company taking a hit.

Bichlbaum was greeted with a standing ovation after the film was over. Who knew that practical jokes could do more than get a laugh?

That’s All Folks
The weather made getting out of Missouri difficult for the visitors, but many still come back to our less than sunny region because we really care about good documentaries and the people who make them. While I was there I ran into Kirby Dick, the director of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, who attended simply to catch the latest docs. Several commentators have noticed that escapist fare is doing rather well in this glum economy. True/False demonstrates that looking at the real world can be good for your soul as well. For more True/False pictures, click here.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2702
originally posted: 03/08/09 04:10:38
last updated: 03/08/09 09:30:11
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