It is a rare thing, said filmmaker Keith Fulton, for documentary filmmakers to come out of their closet in L.A., and walk the streets of Columbia. “To have people come up and say, "Hey we saw [Fulton’s film] The Bad Kids. … Back home, people would say, what is The Bad Kids?” Whether it’s the filmmakers themselves geeking out with fellow masters of their craft, or simply a four-day tripping through good movies, the True/False Film Festival has created a safe haven for members the close-knit documentary film universe.
It is, perhaps, even more rare for such fanfare to be thrust upon a shorts filmmaker. That is where director Galen Johnson found himself, when he attended True/False for the first time while screening his short, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton. Johnson, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, made his first appearance at the 2016 festival. Peruse his Tumblr blog, and you’ll find scores of production art for films, a smattering of architectural images, dreamish (or sometimes nightmarish) title sequences, and plenty of material related to Canadian filmmaker and artist Guy Maddin. The festival, for Johnson — who co-directed Tim Horton with Maddin and Evan Johnson — was only the latest branch of a web of people in the documentary world that Johnson said he is continuously-weaving.
He attended a half-dozen festivals this past year. He visited some festivals alone, but even then is eager to run into people he knows already or has met at previous festivals. There’s the networking, and the sidewalk commentary, and the parties.
“I’ve been to six or seven festivals this past year, and I've started bumping into the same people, at different festivals, which is nice,” Johnson said after screening his 30-minute short to about 200 people inside a converted ballroom named the Forrest Theatre at the Tiger Hotel. “Especially when I'm traveling alone, those sort of things can make going to a festival a pleasure rather than a chore.” The experience, he added, is based on fun: “This is true about all the festivals I've attended — all the volunteers, programmers and organizers really, really want you to have a good time, and they really take care of you. Even if you're just someone who co-directed a micro-budget short making-of documentary of an already forgotten Canadian war movie.” My emphasis added. And Johnson’s film, which can best be described as part parody, part political commentary, part Tron in the desert, part George Orwell or something, contrasts many of the documentaries shown at True/False this year, but that does not mean Johnson’s film is not in good company. This seems, according to Johnson, to be a festival that literally welcomes all comers.
“True/False seemed especially friendly and welcoming, with Columbians taking a lot of civic pride in the festival — and rightly so,” Johnson said. “I've only been doing the festival circuit for this past year, but the experience has sort of changed. I used to look forward to them, but now after doing six or seven I'm feeling like ‘OK, I get it.’ I've gotten a bit tired of watching my own movies. At the same time, after I'm back home from a festival, I'm always glad I went.”
Behind the scenes, Johnson anticipates how the film will be received and eagerly awaits the audience Q&A sessions following each screening. He may tire of seeing his film over and over, he said, but does appreciate the feedback. “I’ve only been to two other festivals with this particular film, but these screenings have probably have been the best,” he said. “There were good crowds, and a few people even showed up to a Sunday morning 9:30 a.m. screening. The audience questions were good and perceptive, and people — well, those who stayed for the Q&As — seemed to have enjoyed the movie or been at least amused by its concept.” These festivals can be stressful, especially those with films in competition with each other (unlike at True/False, where no prizes are awarded), but as filmmakers have attested, their amusement at this carnival of documentary movies remains firmly in the center ring.