The best festival films we saw at True/False 2023 in Columbia

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Courtesy True/False Film Festival

Columbia’s True/False Film Festival has long been known as a low-key gem of Missouri, a place where curious viewers can come to see crowd-pleasing documentaries programmed alongside work from exciting emerging filmmakers and boundary-pushing experimentation. This year—the festival’s 20th anniversary—was no different, with extra emphasis put on films that explored important issues, the joy of community, and the way we live with personal and cultural transition in its many different forms. It’s almost impossible to see a bad movie at True/False. That said, there were a few that dominated the conversation this past weekend. Here are some of them.


Hummingbirds. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival


If you combined the anarchic feminist energy of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies with the ironic attitude of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and add the loose hangout vibes of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, you might get something close to Hummingbirds, a delightfully feisty portrait of the friendship between two Mexican-American teens (one undocumented, the other not) in Laredo, Texas the summer after they graduate high school. 

Best buds Silvia del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras stargaze on car roofs, loiter at the local bingo parlor, and stand up for LGBTQIA, immigrant, and abortion rights. Mostly, though, they walk around and talk about life. The film, which the pair co-directed, perfectly captures the spontaneous joy and lazy, meandering conversations of warm summer nights in young adulthood when time seems both limitless and fleetingly tender. Silvia and Estefanía are human fireworks who you’ll fall in love with from the film’s first seconds.

Art Talent Show

Faculty at The Academy of Fine Arts in Prague audition potential incoming students in Adéla Komrzý and Tomáš Bojar’s Art Talent Show, a verité film that vibes like the offspring of a workplace comedy and Ruben Östlund’s The Square. Over the course of a week, hopeful students compete for a spot at the Academy, with faculty looking over their portfolios, presenting them with written exams and artistic prompts, and grilling them through in-depth interviews.

If this were an American production, the film would probably dig into the personal lives of the applicants and the faculty with direct-to-camera interviews and flashy montages of the kids at work. Fortunately, Art Talent Show is Czech. Komrzý and Bojar take an observational approach that embraces the endearing awkwardness and inherent absurdity of the application process and the people involved in it. It’s exactly the kind of movie that would make a great episode of Documentary Now!   


Paradise. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival


Paradise, from director Alexander Abaturov, features some of the most incredible images I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Abaturov follows a village in Siberia through wildfire season as the local community takes on the devastating flames with no help from the Russian government. 

Abaturov filters his portrayal through a lens of magical realism and wonder that considers his subjects’ cultural relationship to the land, as well as the apocalyptically volatile nature of their existence. Paradise is both an indictment of national leadership that coldly reduces its people to cost-benefit analysis and a stunning portrait of a population fighting for survival against the elements.

Bad Press

Bad Press. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival

Bad Press

Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the U.S. by the first amendment. It is not, however, universally protected in America’s sovereign indigenous communities. That surprising fact is the center of Bad Press, which follows Muscogee (Creek) journalists in Okmulgee, OK., as they fight for their future following a 2015 repeal of their press protections.

Columbia is home to the University of Missouri’s venerated school of journalism, and True/False has, appropriately, hosted a number of excellent films on the topic. Bad Press sits right alongside the 2020 festival, offering Collective as a top-tier portrayal of newsroom life and investigative reporting. It’s also an interesting look into the complex relationship between indigenous journalists and their communities, which ethically requires them to tell the truth, even in the face of outsider scrutiny.

Going Varsity in Mariachi

In the tradition of Spellbound and Boys State, Going Varsity in Mariachi is a feel-good journey through a hyper-specific competition culture. Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez’s documentary follows Texas’ competitive mariachi world, where high schools across the state vie for the title of state champion. Osborn and Vasquez focus on Edinburg North High School, a lower-income school in the Rio Grande Valley with a high-ranking mariachi squad struggling to maintain its reputation after its most experienced members graduate.

Of this year’s True/False films, Mariachi was the most down-the-middle crowd-pleaser. As with the other aforementioned examples, the film digs into the lives of its subjects, developing them into characters we want to see succeed. Osborn and Vasquez do a good job of creating tension and thoroughly establishing the stakes, particularly in regard to how Edinburg North’s Mariachi Oro stacks up against its competitors in terms of resources. This movie is easy to love, full of spectacle, charm, and high production value.


Director Victoria Linares Villegas received this year’s True Vision Award, given by the festival to honor the work of emerging documentary filmmakers with distinct voices. Ramona, Villegas’ second feature, continues the blurred lines of nonfiction and narrative filmmaking she established with It Runs in the Family, which played at last year’s festival. Originally conceived as a narrative film about the teen pregnancy epidemic in Villegas’ native Dominican Republic, Ramona morphed into a documentary by necessity during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Villegas and her collaborator, actress, and casting director Camila Santana, consult with a group of young unmarried pregnant women to tell the story of Ramona, a pregnant teenage runaway. As Santana and Villegas spend more time with the young expectant mothers and their families, the girls become active collaborators in the project, eventually inhabiting the dramatized roles themselves. Ramona slowly evolves into a loving, playful film that addresses the dark realities of its subjects’ lives while also giving them agency to tell their own stories and build community together.

Time Bomb Y2k

Time Bomb Y2K. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival

Time Bomb Y2K

The archival documentary Time Bomb Y2K is directed by Brian Becker and Marley McDonald, but it’s just as much a spotlight for the editing, courtesy of McDonald and Maya Mumma, who helped the directors compile and organize a trove of footage related to the Y2K panic at the tail end of the 90s. The result is almost a tone poem about life at the turn of the millennium, following government officials, business moguls, technology experts, and doomsday preppers as they face the uncertainty of the year 2000.

Becker and McDonald incorporate news clips, home video footage, and pop culture soundbites alongside on-point graphics that accurately depict what it felt like to live through that weirdly fraught, aesthetically confused, and often dumb time—for example, a howl-inducing smash cut from the Times Square ball-drop to a shot of Kenny G playing “Auld Lang Syne.” But Time Bomb Y2K is also a surprisingly observant exploration of the world we live in now, hinted at through the early signs present at the dawn of the internet age. Come for the laughs, stay for the cringe.

The Stroll

The Stroll. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival

The Stroll

Transwoman and filmmaker Kristen Lovell, working with co-director Zackary Drucker, tells the story of her community in The Stroll, which digs into the lives of trans sex workers who operated in New York City’s Meatpacking District for decades. Formerly a documentary subject herself, Lovell was moved to tell her own story, and the story of her friends, in a way that only she could.

The Stroll is produced by HBO Documentary Films and, as such, is a straightforward interview-based film—don’t expect too much experimentation or artistic mold-breaking. However, it does tell an extremely important story through the perspective of a population that’s endured a staggering amount of abuse, violence, and suffering at a time when that message couldn’t be more important. The Stroll is an accessible movie made to be shared with people, and on that score, it’s a valuable resource.   

The Taste Of Mango

The Taste of Mango. // Courtesy True/False Film Festival

The Taste of Mango

Sri Lankan-British director Chloe Abrahams explores the difficult relationship between her mother and her grandmother in her docu-memoir The Taste of Mango. As a young woman, Abrahams’ mother was assaulted and repeatedly beaten by her stepfather, a man who Abrahams’ Nana has remained with for 40 years. Abrahams courageously navigates the reasoning behind that while also detailing her memories of her mom and her own experience with sexual assault.

Abrahams’ poetic narration threads through the film, giving a loving portrait of her relationship with her mom while slowly revealing some of the problems she struggles with as an adult related to what she explores in The Taste of Mango. It’s a love letter to people who mean a great deal to her and a brave, probing exercise in unearthing and addressing trauma.   

Categories: Movies