The intense community atmosphere of the True/False Festival Missouri every early March, amplifies the community-minded movies in its exceptionally curated programming. There was maybe no better way to kick off the documentary celebration that takes over the streets and venues of Columbia, Missouri than with the short “Aqueronte” from Spanish director Manuel Muñoz Rivas. The twenty-minute movie observes passengers on a long, long ferry ride beginning in the morning mist and concluding long after many of the subjects have drifted off to sleep. The snippets of conversations between passengers as they sit face-forward in their cars or mill about the platform, mimics the eavesdropping and casual conversations between festival-goers, marked by their badges and their opinions on the four-day event’s offerings. Even the short’s somnambulant ending is a communal experience of otherwise strangers seated in the dark (and, honestly, there’s always one or two films that deserve a sleepy response).
Shorts had a strong showing at True/False 2023, with an offbeat biography-via-salt-and-pepper-shakers or by highlighting a prolific background actress in major movie scenes as in “Margie Soudek’s Salt and Pepper Shakers” and “Jill, Uncredited” respectively. They took us to the middle of current affairs with Ukrainian refugees in Budapest (“Away”) and migrant workers in Maine (“Tierra de Leche”). They used technology to capture love stories in new ways, as with a guy trying to win back his girl through a remote crane game (“Moonmin”) or a subway camera system finding the woman of its dreams (“Love at First Byte”). The riches of these shorts, played across three programs, are almost overwhelming in their innovation and sensation. In fact, scheduling to see two programs back-to-back was a bit of overload.
The features carve out more space for themselves but have been programmed with no less variety and enthusiasm for challenges to the documentary form. The more accessible offerings can make for thrilling viewing experiences in the 1200-seat Missouri theater, and this year’s crowd pleasers mostly hit the mark. Time Bomb Y2K, headed for a Home Box Office near you, puts together aired and unaired news footage to recreate the frenzy leading up to midnight on New Year’s Day 1999 and the mainstream realization that an unchecked computer bug could cause problems for a society that only recently placed much of its infrastructure into electronic hands. The film hits nostalgia buttons and humorous jabs along the way, as in early laughs for a clip of Bill Clinton and Al Gore grinning their way through a not-ready-for-primetime video call. But directors Brian Becker and Marley McDonald dig deeper than a YouTube rabbit hole, unearthing previously unused interviews, private home video footage, local news clips and even the recruitment video for a militia group. The film stays within the context of the moment’s hysteria while hinting at the dangers of the future that would later meet the expectations of the paranoid, with glimpses of Osama bin Laden, the ascension of Vladamir Putin and now-familiar scenes of citizens raiding their local stores for toilet paper. This may not stand as the definitive work on the subject, but it’s a solid second drafts of history.
Going Varsity in Mariachi delivers as advertised, following a group of high schoolers at school along the Texas-Mexico border as they prepare for the competitive mariachi season. The film doesn’t reinvent the competition doc, but there’s less need for inventiveness if the subject is interesting enough – how many people knew mariachi competitions were a thing in high schools? Filmmakers Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn find some interesting threads to follow and have a light touch as they wring the dramatic potential from their footage and interviews. Their best trick is introducing mariachi neophytes to the basics of the music as the group prepares for their first performance, but leaves out the intangibles until we witness them firsthand by a rival school. This quickly demonstrates both what separates a great performance from a merely passable one, and the distance our heroes have in making up the distance.
Next time: Babies! Or at least the potential for them.