Practical Magic: An Overview of the 2014 True/False Film Festival

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While attending last month’s True/False Film Festival, I had a discussion with some colleagues about the silliest critical clichés that crop up in studios’ advertising blurbs for their movies. Has anyone, for instance, ever actually been at the edge of his seat while watching a thriller? Did a movie ever restore your faith in film? (And if so, how easily is your faith shaken?)

In hindsight, I realize that there was one cliché we didn’t mention: the habit of calling films or performances “magical.” It’s understandable why it’s used—sometimes on tight deadlines, critics will settle for the word to hint at a movie’s ineffable greatness—but “magical” doesn’t really encapsulate much of anything. Like “enchanting” or “wondrous,” “magical” conjures up a cinematic experience that’s otherworldly, almost as if it’s beyond the abilities of either its makers or its audience to fully comprehend. (The Merriam-Webster definition that most applies is “being so extraordinary or abnormal as to suggest powers which violate the laws of nature.”)

What made it so strange that my colleagues and I didn’t invoke the m-word in our discussion was that we were at a film festival that was using magic as its theme. The 2014 edition of True/False, now in its 11th year as one of the world’s premier documentary festivals, was built around the notion of “Magic/Realism.” David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who dub themselves the festival’s co-conspirators, explained their rationale in the festival’s booklet. “Magic may be older, but since cinema burst onto the scene at the turn of the 20th century, the two arts that wed science and imagination have been inextricably linked, and attracted ambitious tinkerers and storytellers,” they wrote. “With this year’s theme ‘Magic/Realism,’ honesty and trickery may be strange bedfellows, but we posit that both magic and documentary deploy artifice and misdirection to illuminate a new reality.”

And so we have two different descriptions of magic: one that evokes the sublime, and one that evokes deception. The films that were part of True/False’s four-day event danced between these two definitions, collectively questioning what we want from reality when we’re shown it on screen.

Of course, there’s the question of what constitutes “reality” in the first place. Years of staged, scripted reality television have conditioned viewers to be suspicious of the idea that what they’re seeing is any sort of truth. Add to that the factual fudging that goes on even in Oscar-winners in fiction (Argo) and documentary (Searching for Sugar Man), and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that looking to Hollywood for history lessons is foolish.

In its very name, True/False embraces this collective recognition of the thin line between “reality” and “entertainment.” Set in Columbia, Mo., near the campus of the University of Missouri, and held during late February and early March, the festival caters to an audience of Midwesterners, filmmakers showing their movies, and invited journalists, which for the second year in a row included me. The “true/false” distinction doesn’t just acknowledge the inherent tension within nonfiction filmmaking—the director takes “truth” and shapes it to get at larger themes or to provide commentary—but also helps to explain why the programmers will include a few narrative films as part of the overall package of almost 40 feature-length offerings. (This year, those were Richard Linklater’s exceptional Boyhood and Sam Fleischner’s gently affecting Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.) It’s a reminder that all movies are, in a sense, a capturing of truth—and, at the same time, that they’re also the product of manipulating that truth.

After thoroughly enjoying the True/False experience last year, I was curious (and a bit apprehensive) how my second trip would be. There are few things sadder than going back to a beloved locale and discovering that its aura—its “magic,” if you will—has faded, either because it’s changed or because you’re less charmed the second time ’round. But True/False’s warm college-town vibe remains, even though the snowy winter conditions remind me why I’m happier living in Los Angeles than in my Illinois hometown.

Still, I confess that I did detect myself getting a little more cynical about the festival’s welcoming, adoring audiences this year—a product, no doubt, of me attending too many festivals and noticing the overly rah-rah atmosphere that greets mediocre premieres. But my minor grousing is irrelevant: Every festival should be judged not by its attendees’ enthusiasm but, rather, on the quality of its programming, and Wilson and Sturtz (along with their fellow programmer Chris Boeckmann) once again compiled a fine overview of what’s noteworthy in the world of nonfiction filmmaking, both in terms of sure-to-be popular successes and artistic heavyweights. (Consider that four of this year’s five Best Documentary Oscars nominees, including eventual winner 20 Feet From Stardom, played the 2013 festival. Add to that list two others, Leviathan and Stories We Tell, which were strong finishers in end-of-the-year polls. And if that’s not sufficiently impressive, another 2013 offering, Blackfish, might be the most influential in terms of inspiring real-world change, as SeaWorld’s beleaguered administrators would no doubt attest.)

Having now sampled a little under half of True/False’s feature-length slate, I keep returning to this theme of magic. (It was hard not to: The festival ran a different bumper each day in front of its films that focused on specific elements of prestidigitation.) But where exactly does magic fit into filmmaking? When discussing their narrative films, directors and actors will often describe the creative combustion and unlikely wizardry of diverse personalities and unique circumstances that went into producing the final product. (Their comments make movies sound like the working of a mad scientist, or an unpredictable mixture of volatile chemicals.) But I suspect that, by comparison, a documentary’s road to completion remains a mystery to audiences: The director just interviews some people, does some background research, hires someone to do some infotainment graphics, and then slaps it all together, right? If narratives are presumed to be the work of mercurial, artistic geniuses, then documentaries are too easily perceived to be mere journalism, highlighting an important issue or event in an easy-to-follow presentation. There’s no sense that creativity—that ineffable magic—happens in the world of the documentary.

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