Stronger than Fiction Film Festival to showcase 13 student documentary films on May 11

Stronger Than Fiction

By Austin Fitzgerald

The Stronger than Fiction Film Festival, now in its eighth year, will be held on Saturday, May 11, at the Missouri Theatre. The festival will present 13 short documentary films created by students at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism. Admission is free and open to the public.

“This is one of the strongest slates of films students at the center have ever produced,” said Filmmaker-in-Chief Robert Greene. “Their work reflects the expansive opportunities the documentary form provides for expressivity, storytelling and non-traditional journalism.”

Films will screen in three blocks, which begin at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively (the full schedule is shown below). And for the first time in the festival’s history, Jonathan Murray — the ‘father of reality television’ who established the Murray Center in 2014 with a $6.7 million gift — will be in attendance and speak before the 7 p.m. block of films.

Murray recently spoke about the center’s unique positioning at the School of Journalism, where it is increasingly serving as a launching pad for young filmmakers and continues to draw ever-stronger attention from the documentary film industry.

This is one of the strongest slates of films students at the center have ever produced. Their work reflects the expansive opportunities the documentary form provides for expressivity, storytelling and non-traditional journalism.

Robert Greene, filmmaker-in-chief

“It’s grounded in the ethics of the School of Journalism and all those wonderful things that the School can offer, but at the same time, it’s sort of like the pirate radio station,” Murray said. “It wants to help each person find their own path.”

The student films span a wide variety of subject matter, from the tribulations of an environmental activist grieving the loss of his daughter to examining the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy. They range in length from 10 to 34 minutes.

“These films are the product of a lot of hard work from our students, who have ranged all over the state, the country and even underground to end up with a slate of 13 excellent films,” said Supervising Producer Sebastián Martínez Valdivia. “I can’t wait for the community to see what they have created.”

At the conclusion of the final block of screenings, awards chosen by a trio of industry professionals — curator and film critic Eric Hynes, Chloe Gbai from Netflix and filmmaker Isabel Castro — will be presented to the winning students.

This year’s films are:

Block 1 (1 p.m.)

Victim, directed by Tessa Jagger-Wells (13 minutes).

In 1950, Janett Christman was murdered while babysitting in Columbia, Missouri. Almost 75 years later, a filmmaker investigates the unsolved case and its surprising connection to pop culture while she confronts her obsession with true crime.

Drona: The Movie, directed by Lauren Spakowski (17 minutes).

Drona – a rock band of Indian American teenagers – are the coolest people you will ever meet. Arjuna, Surya, and Pasha Raghu are teenage siblings who have had a love for music since they were born. As a teenager, it can be difficult to balance school, friendships, being a teen in general, or in their case being a part of a band. Drona: The Movie follows the Raghus as their music grows with them.

Cowboy Strike, directed by Matthew Pehl (22 minutes).

In 1883, cowboys in the Texas Panhandle responded to the rise of the first mega-ranches in dramatic fashion: they launched a strike. In investigating the story of this long-forgotten historical anecdote, a contemporary songwriter seeks to pay tribute to the cowboys’ search for economic justice. In doing so, he must rethink the meaning of the mythic legacy of the American frontier.

A House Is A Memory, directed by Morgan Williams (15 minutes).

A House is a Memory captures the intimate journey of a young filmmaker who moves in with her 88-year-old grandmother. Through heartfelt conversations, nostalgic archival images, and everyday routines, the film tenderly explores the impact of loss, the essence of familial bonds, and a quest for reconciliation and healing. A House is a Memory is a testament to the power of love, legacy, and the preciousness of time.

Block 2 (4 p.m.)

Concepto De Ciudadano, directed by Sharon Quintana Ortiz (15 minutes).

Inside the installations of a deportation center, a Mexican immigrant hears the innocent question: Where are you from? His answer determines which side of the Mexican American border he belongs to. Years after proving he is an American citizen, the fear of losing the life he built in the streets of L.A. makes him hide parts of a life story that started when he was a 3-year-old crossing the border under the bed of a truck in his mother’s arms. 

Evergreen, directed by Aidan Boyd (13 minutes).

To uncover what was missing in his relationship with his father growing up, filmmaker Aidan Boyd returns to where it all began. In the picturesque town of Evergreen, nestled amidst the breathtaking Rockies and serene aspen forests, memories come forward, and the realities of growing up in a dream-like place arise. The truth of family, forgiveness, and the enduring power of love begin to mend a part of the past that was once thought to be lost.

Choteau: Scenes From Below, directed by Nevin Dubinski (16 minutes).

Cavers are in no way numb to the absurdity of their hobby. Squeezing through impossibly tight spaces, jumping across chasms and crawling through chest deep water are just another day. Despite this, the question of why is seldom asked. Choteau: Scenes from Below explores the thoughts, feelings, and history of the Chouteau Grotto as they find ways to push deeper underground.

Alchemy Soul, directed by Devon Bidjou (10 minutes).

The use of psychedelic substances to aid in therapy is gaining traction. In 2019, the FDA approved the use of a form of ketamine for use in psychotherapy. Alchemy Soul aims to provide audiences with an uninterrupted, captivating, and insightful glimpse into the world of a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy session

Eight Ways To First, directed by Adam Runge (14 minutes).

Filmmaker Adam Runge explores his relationship with his father Dan while Dan deals with being new to long-term disability. Dan lives with Multiple Sclerosis but lives for selling baseball cards, a passion he and Adam share. There are eight ways to reach first base in baseball, and there are many ways we keep going in life. Through eight scenes, Dan and Adam bond while learning how to keep going.

Block 3 (7 p.m.)

I Will Take The Blame, directed by Elena Fu (15 minutes).

The film follows the filmmaker’s poignant journey back home in China as she endeavors to mend her parents’ fractured marriage, only to encounter the painful realization of her own limitations. Through candid moments and heartfelt reflections, it delves into the intricate web of family dynamics and the resilience required to navigate through the pain of loss and the challenge of change.

BUSBY999, directed by Anastasia Busby (19 minutes).

Busby999 follows young musician Justin Busby as he navigates the highs and lows of his life. When Justin decided to move to Los Angeles over a year ago, he saw it as his chance to make it big with his hyperpop music. Despite Justin’s success performing in shows and gaining fans, the euphoric moments couldn’t transcend LA’s oversaturated and unforgiving music scene. Back at home, Justin reconnects with friends, fu with family, and knows he’ll never stops making music.

Satan’s Greatest Lies, directed by Michael Coleman (34 minutes).

George Russell, a maverick environmental activist with a God complex, mourns the unexpected loss of his youngest daughter, causing him to question his lifelong crusade to preserve the piney woods of East Texas.

Royale, directed by Cam Medrano (18 minutes). 

Burdened by looming legislation that aims to prohibit their performances, three Missouri drag queens navigate a changing landscape fueled by their passion for performance. Royale is a love letter to drag and found family, bridging celebration and liberation with the realities of local entertainers to honor midwestern queerness.

Student film award winners

Congratulations to the following films and student filmmakers who won awards May 11 at the 2024 Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival at the Missouri Theatre:

  • Best film: “I Will Take the Blame,” Elena Fu.
  • Best director: Michael Coleman, “Satan’s Greatest Lies.”
  • Stacey Woelfel Award for Innovative Journalism: “Cowboy Strike,” Matthew Pehl.
  • Special Jury Award for Editing: “Victim,” Tessa Jagger-Wells.

Updated: May 16, 2024

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