Before True/False Film Fest, ‘Based on a True Story’ conference brings filmmakers to Missouri School of Journalism for hands-on conference

Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Filmmaker in Chief Robert Greene moderates a panel during the Based on a True Story Conference in Smith Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute on March 5, 2020.

Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Filmmaker in Chief Robert Greene moderates a panel during the Based on a True Story Conference in Smith Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute on March 5, 2020.

By Austin Fitzgerald

COLUMBIA, Mo. (Feb. 23, 2023) — Based on a True Story (BOATS), an annual three-day conference featuring conversations and workshops with working filmmakers in the lead-up to the True/False Film Fest, returns March 1-3. A work-in-progress screening from an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and an unprecedented experiment in pitching and developing a film using archival material are just a few highlights from the conference, which is free and open to the public.

“Filmmakers come into town for the festival, and BOATS is a great way for us to tap into their expertise and their experience and share that with our students in really creative ways,” said Sebastián Martínez Valdivia, supervising producer at the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism, which is hosting the event. “It’s all about bringing part of True/False into the School of Journalism and making sure our students can learn from filmmakers’ experiences.”

Organized by Murray Center Co-Directors Martínez and Filmmaker-in-Chief Robert Greene, sessions will take place at Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema and at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Smith Forum at the School of Journalism. The conference will be Martínez’s first in the role of supervising producer since taking on the position late last year, though that will not be the only first in the program: the closing night will feature a conversation with former Director of the Sundance Film Festival, Tabitha Jackson — her first time speaking publicly about her controversial exit from the organization last year.

While the conference is not typically themed, one theme did emerge quite by accident in this year’s program. Late filmmaker Julia Reichert, a celebrated and Academy Award-winning director, will be connected to — and honored by — a number of the sessions, including the opening night screening of “Julia Reichert: The Movement Never Ends.” The film, which is still a work in progress, is a retrospective directed by Steven Bognar, with whom Reichert shared a 2020 Oscar for best documentary (feature) for “American Factory.”

Filmmakers come into town for [the True/False Film Fest], and BOATS is a great way for us to tap into their expertise and their experience and share that with our students in really creative ways.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia

In addition, a session earlier that morning exploring depictions of Islam and MENASA (Middle East, North African and South Asian) identities onscreen will be hosted by Farihah Zaman, a Bangladeshi American filmmaker with what Martínez called “deep ties” to the Reichert family.

Finally, a live podcast on the morning of March 2 will trace the development of observational documentaries by examining — among other films — “American Factory.” The congruence of these sessions arose naturally out of the Murray Center’s increasingly prominent place in the industry and through industry connections forged by Greene, an award-winning working filmmaker.

But the most novel session in the program won’t be connected to Reichert. “Team Time Bomb Makes a Movie,” an interactive workshop, will see Murray Center students pitch an idea for an archival footage-based film to the filmmaking team behind “TIME BOMB Y2K,” a documentary premiering at True/False. Attendees will then see that team work to turn that idea into a project.

“We’ve never done this before, so I think it’s going to be tremendously exciting to be in the room,” Martínez said. “It’s another great way to get the students involved and help them feel like they’re a part of the program.”

See below for the full program of events running March 1-3 or visit the conference’s official website. The True/False Film Fest will follow from March 3-6 and see filmmakers and audiences from all over the country descend on Columbia for a major event in the documentary film world.

Based on a True Story 2023

Mar. 1, 7:00 p.m. — 9:00 p.m. \\ Ragtag Cinema

​We will celebrate the life of our beloved friend, the late great filmmaker Julia Reichert, by going on a uniquely personal journey with her longtime partner Steven Bognar. There will be never-before-seen interviews, home movies, clips from films and more as Bognar workshops an ongoing project that’s an attempt to both process the loss and celebrate the life of the woman many considered the godmother of documentary. Julia loved True/False and came back to Columbia every March, so it is beautifully appropriate to kick off the month and Based On A True Story with a remembrance of her life and work. The talk and screening will be attended by members of their family and moderated by Julia’s longtime friend Eric Hynes.

Mar. 2, 9:00 a.m. — 10:00 a.m. \\ Smith Forum

​What does the U.S. Democratic Party share with observational documentary? The promise and the problem of transparency. In a live performance from the forthcoming audio series “Trust Issues,” filmmaker and World Records editor Jason Fox explores the sixty-year long relationship between Direct Cinema and Democratic Party politics. Fox will trace these ties, from Robert Drew’s pioneering 1960 portrait of the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary contest between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, “Primary,” to Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and the Oscar winning documentary, “AmericanFactory.”

Mar. 2, 10:15 a.m. — 11:15 a.m. \\ Smith Forum

Independent journalism is something that can be taken for granted in much of the United States, but in some of the country’s indigenous sovereign nations, press freedom is a contested idea. No one knows that better than Angel Ellis, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who has served as director of Mvskoke Media since 2020. Ellis’s struggle against censorship is the subject of “Bad Press,” the True Life Fund recipient at this year’s True/False Film Festival. Ellis will discuss her fight, and the experience of being documented as a journalist, with Bad Press co-director Joe Peeler and moderator Jeanelle Augustin.

Mar. 2, 11:30 a.m. — 1:30 p.m. \\ Smith Forum​

Almost the entire team behind the True/False world premiere “TIME BOMB Y2K,” an all-archival film co-directed by Brian Becker and Marley McDonald that looks at the Y2K scare, will transform Smith Forum into their satellite office and use this session to make a film… right in front of our eyes. In this interactive workshop, we will pitch this dream team, which includes the co-directors, producers, editors and even their music composer calling in from Copenhagen, an archival footage-based idea and they will give us an unprecedented look at their collaborative process as they work to turn the idea into a project.

We will get an intimate perspective on the methods and challenges of working with archival material, finding narrative moments, acquiring the footage and turning it into a movie. This never-before-attempted experiment will be moderated by “TIME BOMB Y2K” Executive Producer Penny Lane.

Mar. 2, 2:30 p.m. — 4:00 p.m. \\ Ragtag Cinema

​The term “MENASA” (Middle East, North African, and South Asian) encompasses a wide diversity of cultures, loosely linked by the idea that the people of these regions are perceived as practicing or having a significant proximity to the practice of Islam. Yet the films exploring this identity that reach audiences in the West are too often limited in depth and range. How can one begin to challenge pervasive and deeply harmful stereotypes about their communities, narratives that have been embedded in film, literature, and journalism for centuries? In the wake of crises, such as the 2022 call-in to the film community to do better by MENASA people, The Museum of the Moving Image gave filmmaker and critic Farihah Zaman the chance to build the world she would like to see. The ongoing monthly series is titled Infinite Beauty, in honor of Islam’s emphasis on seeing the infinite array of beauty in the natural world, and the stunning range of depictions of Muslim lives, bodies, and ideas that mirrors that attitude of abundance.

​This session will consider the impact of programming counter to dominant culture, screen several short films that center Muslim + MENASA identity and/or perspective, and follow with a discussion of these works, how they do or do not engage with questions of identity, and the particular nature of their beauty.

Mar. 3, 9:00 a.m. — 10:30 a.m. \\ Smith Forum

In June of 2022, Tabitha Jackson unexpectedly left her position as the Director of the Sundance Film Festival after leading it through two tumultuous years. For her first public comments since leaving the festival, Jackson will be joined by writer and critic Alissa Wilkinson, as they discuss some of the hard-won insights and lessons that emerged from that experience.

Updated: February 26, 2023

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