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An Unknown Home: My Journey to the True/False Film Festival

The best thing about coming home is finding it better than the way you left it. After all, a festival is only as good as the town that makes it possible.
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"I'm jealous of all you people who live here!" exclaimed the MC introducing The Green Prince, fresh from its Sundance triumph. I never thought I would hear these words pronounced about my mid-Missouri hometown, which often seemed little more than a pit stop on I-70, midway between St. Louis and Kansas City. After leaving Columbia, Missouri fifteen years ago, I returned to attend the annual True/False Documentary Film festival this past weekend and found the town transformed almost beyond recognition.

True/False is one of the most respected film festivals you've probably never heard of. It is also an epic event in the life of Columbia, affectionately called CoMo. Beginning in 2003 with 4,000 tickets, the annual festival grew explosively to sell a record number of 50,000 tickets this year, with more than half of the attendees coming from outside of the area. For four glorious days, this Midwestern college town is awakened and transformed into something greater than its composite parts. Lined with lamp posts sporting the the festival's signature red and white logo, the downtown streets bustle with rare anticipation as directors, producers, and filmgoers pour in from all over the world. This is the magnetic pulse of a sleeping creature coming to life at the end of a bleak and frigid February. Hardy filmgoers brave the -20 wind chill to dash from a 10am screening in a beer-stained night club to the next film shown in a stained glass church a few blocks away. World-class directors mingle with local buskers and festival queens -- elaborately costumed women (and some men) in colorful wigs who manage the queues of people waiting to get into screenings.

As I stroll downtown at the beginning of True/False Festival, I happen to trail Paul Sturtz as he crosses Broadway -- the main artery of downtown Columbia. I instantly recognize him as one of the co-founders of True/False. Wearing plaid pants tucked unevenly into a pair of winter boots, he stops to greet nearly everyone in his path. Between conversations, he gives instructions to small group of Film Festival volunteers across the street.

"Excuse me," I call out impulsively, "Are you one of the founders of True/False?" He turns around and smiles. "Yes, I am." He asks me where I'm from and we make some small talk. "Well, I hope you enjoy the festival and stay warm," he says. As I walk away, I realize that I squandered my chance to ask him my burning question: how did you guys do this? How did you manage to transform my unassuming hometown into a bourgeoning epicenter of indie cinema in the fifteen years since I left?

It seemed as though Sturtz and his co-founder had taken a cue from this year's festival theme: magical realism. This theme, in part, captures the way good documentaries magically craft some aspect of reality into art. Films ranged from The Green Prince, a riveting story of the unexpected friendship between the son of a Hamas leader and his handler from the Israeli security service to The Joycean Society, a poetic meditation on a small group of Joyce enthusiasts who have been meeting since 1986 to try to make sense of Finnegans Wake. These films weave narratives that are often more poignant and poetic than fiction. During his Skype Q&A following the screening of The Unknown Known -- a film about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- Errol Morris quipped: "I often think of this film as a horror movie."

In Particle Fever's frenetic account of the search for the elusive Higgs particle at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), one physicist wonders why nearly 10,000 people are in frantic pursuit of "something with no clear practical benefit... Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human." Blending science and art, the quest for the Higgs particle raises the same existential questions that preoccupy documentary filmmakers as they tell their stories. The musician Nick Cave, the reflective and often solipsistic subject of 20,000 Days on Earth, puts it another way: life "only becomes a story when you begin to tell it and retell it."

While I was a teenager, there wasn't much of a film culture in Columbia. I saw Jurassic Park eleven times in the three multiplex theaters that existed at the time. But in my absence, the town began to grow and flourish like a Midwestern prairie flower. The birthplace of True/False, Ragtag Cinema opened in 2000 and changed the local cinematic landscape with its cutting-edge screenings and cultural programs. Its quirky arrangements of mismatched chairs and ragged sofas was the antidote to the homogeneous multiplex theaters. Coinciding with the larger movement away from national chains to small, locally-owned restaurants and coffee shops, Ragtag helped breath new life into the weary downtown. And more recently, as the state of Missouri held its fourth execution in four months, Michael Sam, the openly gay University of Missouri football player came out to ESPN on February 9, 2014. When Westboro Baptist Church protested against Sam during a game, thousands of college students formed a human wall around the arena, sporting T-shirts which declared "We are all Como-Sexuals."

The best thing about coming home is finding it better than the way you left it. After all, a festival is only as good as the town that makes it possible. "During True/False," said the festival co-founder, David Wilson, "Columbia becomes an idealized version of itself." To me, this is the essence of magical realism, when something we know is momentarily transformed into something unfamiliar, what Rumsfeld would call an "unknown known."

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