True/False 2021 Was a Light in the Darkness

Last week, during the opening night of the 2021 True/False Film Festival, I laid back on my blanket and closed my eyes. I almost drifted off. Slowly, I sat up and gazed at my surroundings. I wasn’t on my couch, like I’ve been for so much of the past year. I was far from home, in a park, on a hill, surrounded by hundreds of people. At that moment, I felt like goddamn Rip Van Winkle.

True/False 2020 was the last large event I attended before lockdown. It’s a small Midwestern documentary festival that punches well above its weight by cleverly combining non-fiction film with music, visual art, and community in the charming college town of Columbia, Missouri. The downtown is extremely walkable, with solid food and shopping options. True/False has its own parade, game show, campfire stories, “Queue Queens”, and best of all, a “busker” music set before each film.

I first went to True/False in 2019 to assist my partner, the artist Kristina Rolander, who is probably best known for her black and white stage design at Cactus Club in Milwaukee. She was hired to create an art installation for The Blue Note, a venue where we saw one of the first screenings of Knock Down The House, a film that centers around the 2018 election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We also went to a dance party at The Blue Note that was DJed by Dan Deacon. At the headquarters of Rag Tag Cinema, the non-profit behind True/False, we attended a talk with comedian Tim Heidecker, who debuted the first ten minutes of Mister America. We also went to shows headlined by Soccer Mommy and Jon Bap, plus impressive busking sets by St. Louis artists Tonina and pinkcaravan!

True/False 2020 was the first week of March, the same weekend that Klassik played his QUIET vinyl release show at Shank Hall. We were aware that COVID-19 was spreading and we were cautious. Within a week of our return home, the White House had declared a national emergency.

Fourteen months later, we were back in central Missouri. It was kind of bizarre. It felt like waking up in a new world. There I was, five hundred miles from home, watching a film, not with a small pod of friends, but with hundreds of other living, breathing human beings. There was energy and excitement. There were food trucks and local vendors. There were warm, fuzzy feelings that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

Of course, some things were different. There were masks and social distancing. Most of the festival was outside at Stephens Lake Park. There were some visiting filmmakers and subjects, but many Zoomed in for the post-screening Q&As. Despite the alterations, there was still a communal spirit and a celebratory air, which were absolutely invigorating.

The opening night film at True/False was the first public screening of Questlove’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul. It’s incredible and you should definitely watch it next week when it closes out the (fully-virtual) Milwaukee Film Festival, or at least when it comes to Hulu in July. 

At its True/False debut, there were technical difficulties that delayed Summer of Soul. Once it played, there were audio issues throughout, but such trespasses must be forgiven, for they provided much needed nourishment.

A few days before the festival kicked off, I went to check on Kristina at the site of her art installation at the “Sapling” in Stephens Lake Park. As I walked up to her, I could hear an amplified guitar and a human voice in the distance doing a soundcheck. My spine tingled as the vibrations danced in the darkness. 

During the festival, Kristina found herself digging styles of music that she might have dismissed pre-pandemic. “I’m so desperate for live music, almost anything sounds good right now,” she admitted.

This time around we brought the kids, which wouldn’t have happened if not for virtual school. Because of this, we didn’t festival as hard as we usually do, but there also wasn’t as much to do. There was only one film per venue per night, with most of the music during the day on the weekend. Thankfully, Mother Nature played nice for the most part. Only Saturday night’s films and the game show were moved to “Teleporter” status. Despite the challenges and scaled back programming, True/False delivered yet again.

The standout moment for me was on the second night of the festival. We had just finished watching Homeroom, another incredible film that follows the senior class of 2020 at an Oakland public high school. It’s heartwarming and heart-wrenching, especially when the pandemic hijacks their final months of school. After the screening, the announcer introduced the director, Peter Nicks, and three of the subjects from the film, who all walked in front of the giant inflatable screen. My stepson’s eyes lit up.

Though we couldn’t see their faces, at least not as clearly as we saw Questlove the night before, it felt so special to share space on that chilly spring evening. The next night, there were fireworks. It was magical, no doubt about that. 

According to LeeAnne Lowry, True/False Communications Manager, they made the decision to maintain an in-person element back in August. 

“Planning started as soon as the impact of the pandemic became clear. Our team immediately started working through different options as we felt out what the world might look like by the time our normal festival dates came around.” 

While I waited for Summer of Soul to begin, I couldn’t help but think about the Milwaukee Film Festival, which was kicking off the next night without any in-person elements. I wondered where they could have done outdoor events. Lake Park? McKinley Park? Veterans Park? The Summerfest grounds?

Last Thursday, I woke up in our hotel to a text from a friend that read, “Run the Jewels and Fishbone on the same day is exciting, so long as I don’t think about how little I want to be around people. September will be fine, right???” 

At the moment, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I later learned that the Summerfest lineup had been announced. I have to say…it’s a Summerfest lineup. 

To those that think Summerfest will be unsafe: you’re probably right, but that’s true under any context. Pandemic or not, if the sun’s down, you’re liable to slip on some vomit. I’m confident the boozehounds that stalk Henry Maier Festival Park will not be adhering to any pandemic protocol, but hopefully the spread will have dramatically slowed by September. Either way, if you’re yearning for live music and human connection, I wouldn’t stay home. 

Obviously, Summerfest and True/False are much different beasts. By virtue of their ingenuity, careful planning, and boldness True/False set a high standard for post-pandemic festivaling. As the world slowly but surely opens back up, let’s hope others take heed.


( If you’re looking for upcoming live music in Milwaukee, Columbia’s own The Hooten Hallers will be playing the Boone & Crockett patio on Saturday, May 29 at 8 p.m. with Hughes Family Band. )

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