Some thoughts on the meaning of festivals pre- and post-plague
This March, before the full force of COVID-19 hit, the documentary community flocked to Missouri’s True/False Film Festival (T/F) to be immersed in other realities. We feigned fist bumps before going in for inevitable and enthusiastic embraces, 15,000 documentary lovers, thrilled to be converging yet again at the “funnest festival.” We had no real sense that this would be the last event we would attend together for the foreseeable future.
As the last documentary festival to operate with relative normalcy, in the before times of the pandemic, T/F 2020 glows with an afterimage of what festivals represented to us all. It also lingers, ghostly, in an incantation of what might be ahead for festivals in years to come.
Many of us had come to Missouri with great expectations: T/F was in a landmark year, with a new constellation of programmers, operating for the first time outside the vision of the festival founders. Now that we are in a time of massive rupture and reimagining, what might be left of these expectations on the other side of this global freefall?
An afterimage is the glow left behind once an image has passed. It is demarcated by contrasts and is most potent when the original image was especially vivid. True/False’s colourful rebuttal to conventions has left a lasting impression on our collective vision of what a festival might be, and what forms documentary might take, especially in North America. Founded in 2004 by Paul Sturtz and David Wilson in Columbia, Missouri, T/F’s versatility and lively spirit saw it rise over the past decade and a half into one of North America’s favourite festivals. A documentary-only, four-day event with an edge of punkish irreverence, T/F is notoriously community-centered and filmmakerfocused. This focus manifests in legendary parties and enthusiastic audiences, but also in the fact that the festival has often eschewed entrenched market rules in favour of good instincts.
This focus on filmmakers, as opposed to industry, has helped distinguish the festival as a substantially different ecosystem for creators and cinephiles alike. For example, T/F has used its otherwise awkward timing, after Sundance and Berlin and before the other major spring festivals, to leverage cracks in the established systems. The Secret Screenings, which ran from the festival’s inception until 2018, are an example of such a disruption. A series of embargoed slots, the screenings deviously bypassed the possessive premiere requirements of the A-list festivals, allowing T/F to hos coveted films before they went on to officially launch at SXSW, Tribeca, CPH:DOX, Cannes, or Locarno. Another bold refusal of festival etiquette is the fact that T/F has always been a non-competitive festival, much to the chagrin of sales agents and distributors. Rather than foment rivalry among their filmmakers only to designate a few winners, the festival chooses to distribute substantial honoraria — in 2019, it was $850 (US) — to all feature filmmaking teams via their innovative Pay the Artists initiative.
The True/False Film Festival describes itself as “an ecstatic celebration of nonfiction cinema.” Ecstatic is a great word here because it describes standing outside of oneself. Perhaps eccentric is even more applicable: outside the centre, outside the urban centres, orbiting outside the established norms. T/F’s de-centered, non-normative notions have helped to shift the types of nonfiction films that get made, funded, acclaimed, and presented before the wider public.
Over time, the meaning of True/False in the American documentary landscape has shifted in response to the greater ecosystem of other festivals. Steadily, major events like Sundance and TIFF have been leaning towards risk-aversion, especially when it comes to their documentary slates. This aversion attracts specific types of film, those deemed “commercially viable”: biopics, works by well-established filmmakers, and “definitive accounts” of certain breaking news stories. Embedded within this quasi-algorithmic approach to programming is a circular prophecy. By selecting films deemed to be viable, A-list festivals often ensure that very viability. It is a well-known fact that films premiering at Sundance see a substantial rise a) in audiences and public acclaim, b) in the filmmakers’ careers, and c) in the films’ profit (with a few particularly vertiginous examples in past years of six- and seven-digit deals).
Filmmakers in debt; unknown filmmakers; established filmmakers; filmmakers with big investors, big crews, and massive budgets: all vie for the few marquee slots, not necessarily for the glamour, but for the bland reality that A-list festival approval offers the most guaranteed route to sustainability in a field riddled with risk. Yet, cruelly, power winks at the powerful — major festivals show clear bias for works already vetted by an established network of big-name Executive Producers, sales agents, and VOD platforms. This insularity leaves many independent works still waiting to be “discovered.” Because the attentions of the primary funders and festivals tend to follow the same algorithmic patterns, many exceptional documentaries are falling through the cracks.
T/F has become a beacon for the overlooked, partially because of its timing at the top of the year, and partially due to its well-earned reputation. As a festival with both the prestige and the audacity to showcase works off the beaten track, T/F receives 700 feature submissions every year from over sixty countries. Overcoming its original disdain for the premiere game, T/F has in recent years begun offering a few of its roughly forty feature slots to a number of high-profile World Premieres. Notably, Canadian filmmaker Brett Story premiered both of her most recent features there (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes  and The Hottest August ), as have filmmakers Khalik Allah (Black Mother , IWOW: I Walk on Water ), Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll (América ), Robert Greene (Actress ) and Mia Donovan (Dope Is Death, the only Canadian feature at T/F this year). These filmmakers and their subsequent successes are hailed by documentarians as proof that they too, with their formally rigorous works, might pierce the ever-hermetic US market. The hope of being selected for T/F is one of the many projected on this small festival, run by a small team, in a small town, in the middle of America.
Many festivals have sturdy and established identities: the expectations we have of them are concrete, and often met. T/F, conversely, is a shimmering, shape-shifting spirit. This quality has been key to its success. Attendees of all profiles peer into the festival and see a reflection of the interests they hold dear. Programmers see works that gleam with freshness; critics see films that summon powerful prose; filmmakers see eager audiences, curious but influential industry guests, potential press, prestige, and sales; audiences see unforgettable films and salacious Q&As; funders see access to new ideas, creators, and collaborators. All benefit from the thrill of a social environment where everyone is just that much more attentive, that much more eccentric, orbiting just outside the center of their habitual ways.
True/False is a place of projections, and 2020 was a big year for the festival. In seventeen years, this was the first in which the founders were not integral to the programming team. David Wilson left two years ago to make his own films, and Paul Sturtz stepped down this year. Chris Boeckmann, who has been programming since 2009, was joined by Amir George, who started programming T/F last year, and newcomer Jeanelle Augustin, from the Sundance Institute.
Since the announcement of the changing of the guard at T/F, the documentary community has been abuzz with speculation. If T/F’s curious spirit helped set the tone for the past decade of docs in North America, where would their curiosity lead in this new decade? Might the new programmers open our eyes to some of the worthy films waiting in the wings for their moment on screen? Many hoped for an emboldened assertion of the impulses that programmers Boeckmann and Abby Sun (T/F 2017–2019) had brought: a concerted effort t showcase more international, introspective, unconventionally political, and poetic works. The most prominent rumour was that T/F would be steering away from the long shadow of Sundance, filling its screens instead with a great assortment of works not selected for that increasingly monolithic festival.
Programmers, filmmakers, critics, funders, audiences: all had cultivated their diagnoses of what the documentary space needed in early 2020. All were eager to see T/F’s remedy. What awaited us were a string of delightful cinematic encounters, but admittedly none of the tectonic shifts we’d be conjuring. Of the hundreds of hopefuls, six films this year were selected as world premieres. Other than Catskin by German/Belgian filmmaker Ina Luchsperger, these were all by known North American filmmakers and/or backed by major funders. And though the films were formally exceptional, bold, and beautiful, the lineup was an eerie déjà-vu, with a continued reliance (thirteen of the thirty-seven new feature films) on films siphoned directly from the Sundance slate.
What was perhaps more of a let-down was a general feeling that we weren’t really that far off the beaten path. Although approaches to form and subject abounded in variety, many films shared a common quality: two-thirds, by my count, were directly attached to the major influencers of the industry: funders, producers, or distributors. How is it that an event like T/F, so dearly upheld as a renegade festival, devotedly filmmaker-focused, and curatorially adventurous, is itself not immune to the mighty tugs of convention?
Perhaps the flow of new ideas, naturally, over time, settles into a more stable place. Or perhaps the draw of the mainstream is not exactly natural, but rather an indicator of the grid of factors that exist outside the programmers’ personal and aesthetic relationship with films.
We expect many things of festivals, and rarely glance at the unspoken underside: what festivals need in return. A festival’s viability is measured in more than love; its board and sponsors seek quantifiable metrics: pass sales, revenues, packed theatres. True/False has found ingenious ways over the years to bypass overt and steady pressures to conform, but those pressures are mounting every year. Festivals all over the world are bowing to the increasingly pronounced patterns of the industry.
As the centre expands, the eccentric is engulfed. When Sundance was founded in 1978, its main focus was on independent American films, retrospectives, and regional filmmakers who explicitly worked outside the Hollywood system. In 2020, its opening night film was Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, a documentary commissioned by Netflix, produced by an Oscar-winning director, about the world’s highest-paid celebrity.
When True/False was founded in 2004, it was an energetic and liminal time. No one knew where documentary was headed. The paths to success were not so well-worn; each film found its own particular way to audiences and acclaim. What T/F has done over the past seventeen years is to nimbly ride the crest of a very quickly moving wave. As documentaries moved from marginal fare to box-office wonders, festivals saw their weight shift away from a celebration of documentary as art towards a cultivation of docs as business. For quite a while, T/F was able to balance these two poles in ways that saw them often harmoniously unified. The festival’s massive growth accompanied an openness to new forms, and a healthy irreverence for certain norms. Disrupting an emerging ecosystem in 2004 was far easier than disrupting today’s established system, especially one that is dominated by the actual proprietary algorithms of the distribution and VOD giants. The success of films is increasingly pre-determined. This is no longer a liminal time.
The fact that we were all so thirtsy for T/F to pioneer change is a clear indicator of the widespread impoverishment of the documentary space. In early March 2020, things were unstable; now they are toppling over. Indubitably yet unknowably, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis will ripple across festivals, productions, funding models, and audiences for years to come. A couple of problems are already visible from here: six months of releases have been hijacked, resulting in a massive backlog of orphaned films. The very real financial distress caused by the mass cancellations of so many festivals only compounds that immediate tension for the documentary community.
Festivals have become integral to our notions of a film’s success, but now filmmakers’ interests feel at odds with the programmers who first welcomed their works. Festivals are pushing for online premieres; some are maintaining the competitions but withholding the cash prizes. All are battling to stay relevant.
Much of what festivals do and mean will be reassessed, ruthlessly, in the coming months. It is quite likely that this disruption might push festivals further away from the aesthetic and political audacity that made festivals like T/F so essential. The festivals that survive this plague will be even more susceptible to risk-aversion, even more mandated to program sure-fire successes.
Our imagination strains to encompass all that might change, and all that already has. It’s unclear what opportunities and disappointments will come of this upheaval. The fine balance between documentary-as-art and docs-as-business, already imperiled, now feels like it could collapse entirely. What happens to art in an environment of competition and scarcity?
What is rising into view is a period of joint precarity for festivals and filmmakers alike. Hopefully from this new vantage point, we’ll glimpse potential for solidarity that has otherwise eluded us. As hierarchies and festival calendars are thrown into flux, the very matrices of power too can be reassessed. For example, festivals have come to produce scarcity — premiere requirements, high ticket prices, inaccessible locations — as indicators of their prestige. But it is a false scarcity, one that is already being disrupted by the last few weeks of radical thinking.
If we retain one afterimage from True/False 2020, as a beacon on the other side of this crisis, may it be its glowing dedication to community. May more festivals see value in being “filmmaker-focused,” in cultivating spaces that thrive with camaraderie and not competition. May more programmers stake out distinct curatorial visions and pursue those with integrity and grit. May we see more films born from an original impulse to create, to unify, and to challenge preconceptions — and not solely to transact successfully on a market. May that market not already be rigged against them. May we all come through this crisis a little less faithful to formula, a little less consumers of content.
As filmmakers and film lovers, I hope we will use this moment to let go of the paradigms that are crippling us, measures that are actually pitting us against one another. Let’s re-evaluate the markers of success, let’s challenge the algorithms of viability. Down with access, impact, and story! Let’s reclaim what we value in the films we love to make, and the films we love to watch. Let’s reimagine what festivals can mean.
- Samara Chadwick
- Originally published at POV Magazine.