art feature
  April 05, 2012


Doing True/False 2012
Story, photos and (shaking) video by Dan Lybarger

If Man on a Ledge, This Means War or the sequel no one asked for to Ghost Rider has you wondering why anyone still goes to the movies, consider this: For nine years in a row, Columbia, MO has consistently offered some amazing films, months before they play here in Kansas City. Some of these movies don’t play here at all, but should.


I’ve been attending the True/False Documentary Film Festival every year since 2008, (this year March 1-4) and it’s a welcome antidote to the junk that Hollywood puts out on the market in January and February before the summer blockbusters hit the screens. More than that, attending the festival is about more than casually watching what’s happening on the screen. How many film festivals do you know are an excuse for a parade through downtown on Friday night?



This footage from 2008 is far from atypical. As regular attendees of True/False know, the whole city of Columbia seems to get involved, and documentaries are only part of the activities.



Before each screening buskers play a set as the audience starts streaming in. Here’s a photo documenting a rousing set by the Brooklyn-based band Pearl and the Beard. The crowd almost wished the movie wasn’t getting started.


Why Columbia?

That said, the festival never loses focus on its primary mission, which is to get some truly first rate documentaries where they can be seen. While Sundance and South by Southwest are better known, at True/False seemingly esoteric films play to packed houses with more fans seeing the films than in the more established venues.


In 2009 when Oscar-nominee Joe Berlinger (the co-director of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and the Paradise Lost trilogy) brought his solo film Crude to True/False, told his crowd, “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.”


That’s hardly an isolated incident. This March, both Bully, which dealt with the epidemic of bullying in junior highs, and Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope filled the auditorium at Jesse Hall on the Mizzou campus on Saturday, the third. Keep in mind, this means that 1,700 fans showed up to watch a documentary in a town that normally has 100,000 residents.


I’m sure the makers of John Carter would have been grateful for that size of a crowd.


At True/False, I met Brad Balfour, a fellow Huffington Post contributor and the creator of As the title of the latter publication implies, he’s a veteran of several fests around the country. I asked him why the festival was able to draw crowds for movies that would seem to be box office poison and how True/False compared to the other festivals he’s attended.


“Any time you have a festival that covers a genre, it elevates it in terms of being a player,” he says. “One of the smartest things they do is insist that all the directors come in. It adds to the event nature of the festival.”


True/False has a cue system that’s designed to make sure fans can see the films. If you see anyone dressed as a king or queen of a cue standing next to a giant “Q” sign, be nice to them and show up as early as possible. They can determine if you get in or not. As with a real monarch, you don’t want get on their bad sides.


A cue queen and king break for a quick lunch.


When I covered Detropia on the morning of Sunday the fourth, I had to sit on the stairs because the Blue Note, which is normally a music venue, was full, and I had failed to grab my seat quickly enough. The film that filled the hall was a grim look at how the residents of Detroit are trying to rebuild their city after the 2008 economic collapse.


Before the festival, I asked David Wilson, who calls himself co-conspirators with Paul Sturtz, why True/False was able to land the Oscar-winning Undefeated and other first-rate docs before most of the rest of the country got to see it.


“The spirit of True/False is the local, homemade quality of it,” says Wilson. “We’re really picky about the films we choose. We watch a lot of stuff. I think filmmakers ultimately appreciate that.”


Even if you’re indifferent to the films, walking through Columbia during True/False can be a treat. People show up wearing costumes, and the town is loaded with decorations. While you’re likely to spot a guy in a gorilla suit playing accordion in the streets, the town treats a documentary festival with the same zeal it used to devote to a Border War basketball game.


The Queen of Versailles

While the weekend might have made geeks salivate, the movies did little or nothing to take viewers’ minds off of the 2008 financial debacle and its lingering effects. Most actually discussed, sometimes in excruciating detail how the end of easy loans affected people in the audience and on the screen. Even Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope addressed the elephant inside and outside of the room by featuring a comic book dealer who’s trying to get a good price for his extremely rare Red Raven comic. He needs the sale to keep his long running Mile High Comics shop afloat. Now that Nicolas Cage and other big spenders have their purse strings tightened, it’s tougher to sell a classic for what it’s worth.


Lauren Greenfield, the director of The Queen of Versailles captures an up-close view of the meltdown, but she apparently wasn’t intending to. Her film follows former beauty queen Jackie Siegel and her husband David as the two of them prepare to move into a nearly $100 million home in Orlando, FL. At 90,000 square feet, it’s possibly the largest residential unit in the world, easily dwarfing the White House. It even faces the fireworks at Disneyworld, so that the owners don’t have to pay to watch them. That might save a little coin after all they’ve put into the place.


With $5 million worth of Chinese marble, the home might seem excessive, but keep in mind that David runs Westgate Resorts the world’s largest chain of time shares. Even though the couple already owns a spacious home, they apparently need the soon-to-be-finished behemoth to accommodate the eight children who live with them. But, hey, with all of David’s money, this should be small change, right?


Lauren Greenfield, the director of The Queen of Versailles


After 2008, the situation transforms drastically. If Inside Job made the mechanics of the collapse surprisingly accessible, The Queen of Versailles makes them human, if sometimes surreal. The Siegel’s entire empire is based on people buying more and more timeshares with each resort Westgate erects. For nearly 30 years, that worked well. But the whole system was based on middle-class people taking on formidable debts to buy timeshares that by all rights should be out of their price ranges.


When the credit squeeze starts, it doesn’t take long for the Siegels to part with their copious luxuries because their fortune is based on others’ credit balances. Their unfinished dream home languishes while they have to scramble to keep away from foreclosure.


If Greenfield is chronicling a time that the Siegels don’t want to remember, she also makes their excesses involving even if it’s hard to sympathize with how they’ve squandered an unimaginable amount of cash. The Siegels themselves acknowledged their mistakes, unlike a “Real Housewife.” If The Queen of Versailles does anything, it warns that having lots of money in your pocket and financial security are two separate entities.



Bullying has been with human beings since our earliest days. Just ask Cain and Abel. But as the new documentary by Lee Hirsch vividly illustrates, that does not mean it’s excusable to ignore the consequences. Hirsch documents a half dozen situations where middle schoolers have either killed themselves or even pointed guns at their peers to make the relentless harassment stop. In many cases, the youngsters are afraid to tell their parents about what has happened to them and school officials are reluctant, unable or too lazy to deal with them.


Bully documents far more serious offenses than simple horseplay or teasing. In the film’s most hair-raising example, some young sadists routinely converge on thirteen year old named Alex, choke him and stab him with pencils. Simply because of his oversized lips (he’s dubbed “Fish Face”) and awkward gait, these little thugs go after him day after day and remain unpunished. When Alex’s understandably outraged parents finally confront his school’s oblivious vice principal about the problem, she acts as if acts that could injure him permanently are just “boys being boys.”


The film also includes a young woman who threatened an entire bus with a pistol and a lesbian teen that discovers that coming out is the surest way to become ostracized in her small town. In two cases that resulted in suicides, parents recall in heartbreaking detail how they tried to protect their sons and let them know they were loved but were unable to drown out a chorus of their peers that told them otherwise.


I have to add a personal note here. When I was Alex’s age, I went through similar experiences and was told to simply ignore my tormentors. When I did, I was hit in the head with a board. Getting dragged out of a shower and being forced to stand naked in front of the girls as they stared at me after gym class didn’t make my situation any better. And people wondered how I grew up to be a cynic.


My parents had little inkling of what happened to me until decades later. Watching Bully made several painful memories return. It’s taken me years to deal with the psychological toll, so I found Alex’s situation in the film strangely uplifting. In my situation, the school administrators and teachers did take actions against some of the people who hurt me. Alex seems more heroic to me because he’s on his own in the film.


Alex gradually learns to stand up for himself and for others who have been mistreated, and the results are inspiring. Because of our inherently aggressive natures, it would be naïve to think watching a film could stop millenniums worth of needless mayhem. That said, if only a few youngsters could live their lives in peace, Bully would be an unqualified success. Bullying is not a rite of passage, and anyone who believes that may find they have blood on their hands.


While dealing with Alex’s dilemma is certainly praiseworthy, it would have been helpful to find out what motivated his attackers. While the film does an excellent job of explaining why their offenses go unchecked, it often seems that the bullying is a symptom of a much more malignant disease.


The film has generated some controversy in part because Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company has been a master of getting word out about his films when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gives them a rating he doesn’t like. He shrewdly used an initial rating of NC-17 and a costly appeal 20 years ago to promote the profanity drenched Clerks when he ran Miramax. Most independent film distributors don’t hire legendary counselor Alan Dershowitz to appeal a rating. That said, the MPAA’s excuse that the cussing wouldn’t go over in flyover country was what we here in Kansas City call bullshit.


In Bully, a half dozen fleeting F-bombs and homophobic slurs have been used to justify an “R” rating. It’s hard to tell who the MPAA is protecting by placing this rating on the films. As the movie itself documents, these youngsters hear these words on a daily basis, and getting the word out on these matters will do more good than hiding this film from what the MPAA considers over sensitive ears. The Weinstein Company is releasing the film unrated, so don’t let a boneheaded decision made in Los Angeles stop you from seeing it. (Editor’s Note: On April 5, the MPAA announced the rating for Bully had been changed to PG-13.)


One of the delights about seeing this film at True/False is that the participants and the filmmakers themselves regularly show up to present the film. When Alex ascended the stage, the crowd applauded him and gathered to meet him afterward with the adulation one expects for Justin Bieber. He took the attention with a grace that many adults couldn’t muster. No matter what happens on screen or off at True/False, that moment was probably the most triumphant the festival will ever have.


Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope

Morgan Spurlock, the filmmakers who Supersized himself in Supersize Me and who made himself a walking billboard in Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, has taken a radically different approach to his salute of all things geek.


For those who tire of Spurlock inserting himself into the action of his documentaries, he promises that in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, “I’ll tell you one of the reasons people like this film. This is the first film that I’m not in one frame of. It’s amazing. I tell people, if you don’t like anything I’ve done until now, you’re going to love this movie. I’m not in one frame at all. I’m not even in my Tolkien outfit.”


Director Morgan Spurlock holding up the companion book for Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope


If you’re not familiar with the San Diego event that anchors the new film, Comic-Con has gone from a small gathering of comic book fans and collectors in the early 1970s to the biggest annual event in pop culture. Now that geekdom is no longer something to be ashamed of, the gathering is the launching place for big science fiction or superhero movies and an ideal place to hype a new videogame. Gamer Holly Conrad has designed a series of breathtaking costumes from the game Mass Effect.


Her astonishingly lifelike monsters take forever to create and maintain but look spectacular on the Costume Play (cosplay) stage. Conrad’s attempts to turn her designs from a hobby to a career are an obvious success, but what makes Comic-Con interesting is not everybody taking part in the event is going to come away with a new, more gratifying line of work. Columbia’s own Skip Harvey tries to convince some publishers that his cartoons are worth printing on a wide scale, and one young man, who met his girlfriend at Comic-Con, has setup an elaborate marriage proposal for her, but isn’t sure she’ll say yes. Simply, getting away from the Con proves a challenge because she won’t let him sneak away to get her custom designed jewelry.


At the Saturday night screening, the line between what was on the screen and what was happening in the audience blurred frequently. Before the film started, dozens of viewers showed up as Navi from Avatar or as superheroes. Harvey and his girlfriend (who was dressed as a superhero) were there, and Conrad herself showed up brandishing an orange transparent sword, ready to take out any villains that came her way.


In the film itself, Spurlock let fans and geeks who turned pro do all the talking. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and The Avengers director Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Frank Miller, Stan Lee and others talk about meeting fans of their work face to face, sometimes with amusing results. A few describe the unique odor of hanging around people who think that showering is optional.


That said, Spurlock is a fan himself, and it shows. At True/False, he giddily describes how The Exorcist influenced his work as a documentarian as much if not more than Brother’s Keeper. It’s not exactly safe for work.





Comic-Con is playing on pay-per-view on April 6th.



In their previous documentary Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, followed a group of children as they attended a Christian summer camp with an ideology that would make a good number of Jesus’ followers nervous (many would be unnerved by the way the tots were marching around in fatigues or reverently praying on behalf of then-President George W. Bush) and would certainly terrify skeptics. The film also featured Colorado evangelist Ted Haggard condemning homosexuality on film just a few months before he was outed in the most humiliating way possible by a masseur.


Their latest effort is also frequently disturbing but for different reasons. If Jesus Camp had an outsider’s perspective at a specific community, Detropia is a chilling look at how the collapse of Detroit may be an omen for a greater catastrophe. Ewing and Grady are doing something much more daring this time around. They’re asking viewers to see the people on screen as themselves.


Directors Rachel Grady (left) and Heidi Ewing (far right) talk about their film Detropia


Many of the things we value today, the middle class and the 40-hour workweek were started in the Motor City. It was also an important cultural center, which gave us Motown Records and other landmark works of art that are now only memories. If Kansas City’s sprawl seems problematic, Detroit takes up more space than New York and San Francisco combined, and with its depleted coffers, policing it is just about impossible.


While the situation is undeniably gloomy, Detropia features several brave souls who are fighting to keep the city alive. One is the proprietor of the only black-owned jazz and R&B club left in the city. The city is also becoming home to young artists who can live there for a fraction of what they’d pay for rent in other cities. Art may not make the money that cars used to, but it does more good than despair or surrender.


What the Future Holds

Because it takes a couple of hours to get to Columbia, I’m always happily surprised when somebody else from KC is there. We actually have several festivals here, but none have the same quality or variety of films or the excitement that True/False has to offer. Every year it reminds me of why I drag myself into a crowded, darkened room to watch a lighted screen. Anybody who thinks documentaries and the audience for them are specialized has never been near the University of Missouri around the first of March.


Contact Dan Lybarger at