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No challenges the definition of documentary filmmaking

No is the latest featured film to eschew the traditional documentary approach

February 28, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo courtesy of True/False

This year, the closer at the True/False Film Fest is the non-documentary film, No.

Chris Boeckmann, the associate programmer and submissions director for the festival, says people might find the selection a bit strange because True/False is primarily known as a documentary festival. However, patrons believe the film, which incorporates archival footage into a dramatic narrative about the 1988 Chilean referendum on President Augusto Pinochet, fits seamlessly into the festival’s overall theme.

True/False is about challenging the perceptions of what a documentary film is, says Alison Fields, who will be flying in from Seattle to attend the festival this year and is a Silver Circle pass holder.

Although No is a dramatic film, the director used real 1988 campaign material and shot with U-Matic film which was popular in the 1980s to make the film reflect the time period it’s portraying. The movie is very much interested in being like a real documentary, says Boeckmann, who saw the movie at the Sundance Film Festival.

He calls the films the festival looks for “chimeras,” mythical beasts with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail, because the festival is interested in films that use a hybrid of narrative and documentary techniques.

Examples of other chimeras are Compliance and Project X. The former is a dramatic film based on real events that’s interested in being very factual, Boeckmann says. The latter is technically a scripted feature, but the makers of the film threw an actual party, handed out cameras and edited the results. The resulting story is fictional, but the party is real, he says.

At the first True/False festival nine years ago, the documentary Touching the Void was shown. The film uses interviews, like a normal documentary, to tell its story, but it also relies heavily on reenactments of two climbers who scaled the Peruvian Andes in 1985. No could be considered one long reenactment with actual footage spliced in.

“Is it True/False?” Ann Mehr, a Super Circle pass holder and attendee for all nine years, asks about this year’s closing film before answering. “Yes, it is.”

Her sentiment reflects the attitudes of others. “It’s not a problem, really,” says Paul Stuve, a patron of the festival. True/False has always pushed the envelope of what a documentary is and has celebrated the hybrid format, he says. No, with its traditional dramatic elements and archival footage, fits perfectly into the festival, Stuve says.

David Mehr, the husband of Ann and also a Super Circle pass holder, doesn’t mind having dramatic films in the festival as long as they tell a good story. “The best documentaries are good stories,” he says.

Sarah Catlin, a Super Circle pass holder and a board member at Ragtag Cinema, says there’s really not a true documentary film out there. Directors make choices, from what camera angles to what to include and what not to include, when filming a documentary. Those choices affect the viewing experience, she says.

For all this, Boeckmann hopes the showing of the chimera will start a conversation about why it was selected for the festival, and Fields believes No is the next step in what True/False is doing here in Columbia.

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