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Q&A: True/False co-founder David Wilson steps toward fiction filmmaking

The co-conspirator took a step away from the festival this year to work on a teen thriller film and other long-term projects

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David Wilson’s impressive career has carried him far — both in Columbia and beyond. For one, he helped establish Ragtag Cinema in 2000. He has worked on several documentaries, including the Branson-focused We Always Lie to Strangers, which debuted at South by Southwest in 2013. Wilson also co-founded True/False Film Fest and worked as co-conspirator and programmer alongside Paul Sturtz for 15 years. Then, last spring, he decided to focus more on the other enterprises in his life. Vox sat down with Wilson to chat about that choice and what else he’s been up to.

What was behind your decision to refocus?

Primarily, I had projects, plural, but specifically one project, which is a feature film that I was working on and wanted to spend more time on. I just felt like I couldn’t really do it justice with the amount of work I was still doing at True/False. I think that coupled with, I mean, I’ve been programming documentaries for True/False for 15 years. So, even by a conservative estimate, I’ve probably watched 4,000 docs.

That’s a lot.

Yeah, and I’m a little burnt out on programming. I just found myself not going at it with the same level of enthusiasm. It’s really hard because I really love the fest, and I still feel very connected to it. But it seemed like the timing was good to take a year away and kind of see where things stood, work on these projects and then figure out if and how I would come back. Technically, I’m consulting for the festival; they’re using me however they see fit. Some of that is artistic direction, management/leadership advice, development and sponsorship work. Separate from that, because really it’s its own project, is this thing called the Alethea Project, where we’re taking True/False films from years past and doing screenings around the country in large, Evangelical Christian churches.

So far, so good?

I mean, it was terrifying. It was super scary to leave a job, but I think it’s felt only good so far. It’s given me perspective on some things and let me get a certain distance from the festival, and I think that’s really useful and helpful no matter where things go in the future.

Do you think you’ll still feel that way as the festival rolls around?

I don’t know. I’ll be working during the festival, doing a lot of introductions, Q&As, meetings with donors, stuff like that. I know they’re going to keep me busy, and it will feel weird to not be right in the middle of it.

What do you miss about being engulfed in planning the fest?

There are very few places in the world where you can walk into work and engage in a discussion about nonfiction filmmaking at the level that takes place in that room. My fellow programmers at the fest are among the smartest people out there when it comes to where nonfiction filmmaking is at, where it’s been and where it's going. That space, that room and that level of discussion that’s happening, it is singular, and it’s really special. I miss that.

What is your film about?

Actually, it’s a fiction feature, and it’s a teen thriller about surveillance culture. I’m writing it right now, and hopefully I will be able to shoot it in 2019 or 2020. One of the big things the film is tackling is about how our ideas on privacy are changing and, I think, are already dramatically different between baby boomers, Gen X and millennials and what’s coming after millennials. I’m really interested in that shift in terrain and the kind of ripples that will have for a lot of aspects of culture.

That’s an interesting shift. Do you want to focus more on fiction filmmaking?

I hope. True/False has always been a supporter of films and filmmakers that kind of cross back and forth. Maybe that’s part of a new way of thinking about documentary filmmaking which is that it’s not quite so segregated. Filmmakers go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction based on the best way to tell their story. If I’m lucky, I would love to be a filmmaker who gets to make more films. Some films are fiction; some are nonfiction. I don’t think either is more important or better; they’re just different ways of storytelling.

Do you think you’ll ever come back to True/False in the same role?

I don’t know. I feel fairly certain that I will continue to play some role in True/False. What’s most important to me is that the organization is sustainable, succeeds, and lives long past its founders. And so whatever role I can play to make all of that happen, that’s what I want to do. 

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