Finding Truth

 StandingOvationScreeningTLF2013_byTaylorGlascock1-f33999f3Have you ever watched a movie and been so affected by its characters that you wish you could reach through the screen and help them? One local charity, True Life Fund, does just this. Operating as a branch of Columbia’s annual True/False Film Fest with the sponsorship of The Crossing church, True Life awards funding to the subjects of a selected film from that year’s festival.

“True/False started the fund in order to give back to the subjects who lend their stories to the documentaries at the heart of our festival,” says Paul Sturtz, co-founder and co-director of True/False Film Fest.

While part of the magic that is T/F plays on the ambiguity that exists between what is true and false in cinema, the fund is a direct magnifier of the truth that some films reveal. Ragtag Cinema’s board of directors facilitates fundraising, and The Crossing raises additional funds. The London-based Bertha Foundation, whose mission is to affect positive change in the world through the combined efforts of activist lawyers, storytellers and social entrepreneurs, has pledged to match up to $15,000 of the money raised by the True Life Fund.

The public may also make donations from the time the recipient film is announced in mid-January until March 31. The fund collects contributions throughout this period, but especially during T/F weekend (Feb. 27–March 2). Additionally, proceeds from the annual True Life Run benefit the fund. The run takes place early Saturday morning of T/F weekend (March 1); runners travel a route through downtown Columbia, with fun surprises along the way.

Over the past seven years, True Life has awarded more than $100,000 to journalists, anti-bullying and anti-violence advocates, children in need of school supplies, mentors to young girls recovering from sexual exploitation, and other recipients to advance their causes and support their missions.

“It’s important to give back to these subjects who give their lives to these films,” Sturtz says. “The fund recognizes that these characters give a lot of themselves and expose themselves to a lot of scrutiny by collaborating with filmmakers. We want to reward those brave souls.”

The process of selecting a film to support is relatively informal, Sturtz says. T/F shows a carefully curated selection of 40 of the best films of the year. “During that process, our curating team — made up of David Wilson, Chris Boeckmann and myself — identifies films with sympathetic protagonists who would inspire an audience to help support their lives and their missions,” he says.

Once the team chooses the film, Wilson and Sturtz announce it while attending the Sundance Film Festival in January, and then begin outreach efforts. Over the course of T/F weekend (typically the last weekend of February), contributions are collected and the film’s director and subjects visit local schools and The Crossing to host talks. True Life disperses funds in May.

The Crossing became a sponsor of the fund in 2008. The church covers all of the expenses of T/F screening of the selected film and the cost to bring those who made the film and/or the subjects of the film to Columbia for the festival weekend. The Crossing also publicizes and promotes the recipient film, the fund and the film festival.

As a church community, The Crossing also raises additional funds for the filmmaker, subjects and in the case of last year’s fundraiser, the cause of the recipient’s choosing.

“In my mind, where the money goes specifically year-to-year is important, but it’s less important than the effort of the film festival and our community to find common ground about something and care about something together in a way that unites us,” says the Rev. Dave Cover, senior teaching pastor and one of the co-founding pastors of The Crossing. “What I love about the True Life Fund film and fund is that it provides a time and a place for us to discuss and do something about a cause or issue that we all care about — that unites us.”

The church had originally approached T/F about becoming a general sponsor when Wilson suggested they sponsor the True Life Fund.

“It would be a more practical way for us to sponsor the film festival, which is so good for Columbia as a community that cares about the arts and cares about important issues,” Cover says. “But, it also allows us to support something that even better matches our particular values as a church community.”

Sturtz says candidates for the True Life Fund must meet certain criteria:

  • The film must exhibit a high level of craft.
  • The film must have a sympathetic, admirable and charismatic central subject.
  • The film must offer good outreach possibilities.
  • The filmmaker must appear cooperative.

Ty’s Legacy
The 2012 True Life Fund recipient was “Bully” — a 2011 film that exposed a raw psychological reality and the families that deal with it on a daily basis. With the help of a matching grant from the Bertha Foundation, True Life Fund distributed $30,000 to the five families featured in Lee Hirsch’s “Bully.” Sturtz says True Life Fund selected the film because it is an “extraordinarily moving story” with subjects who are brave enough to expose themselves to the world through the film.

Directed by Lee Hirsch, “Bully” profiles five families who face bullying in their schools and hometowns. The film exposes the tragedy and triumph that arises from bullying, asking the viewer to consider the impact of bullying on society and the present work being done to eradicate it.

Alex and Kelby from "Bully"One of the film’s subjects, Ty Smalley, was 11 years old when he committed suicide in his bedroom after enduring bullying by a classmate. His parents, Kirk and Laura Smalley, have since founded a nonprofit anti-bullying movement called Stand for the Silent, and commit their time speaking at schools, churches and community groups about Ty, their experience as parents dealing with a victim of bullying, and their hopes and advice for the future.

“We’re strictly donation-based,” says Kirk Smalley. “We don’t charge a fee from the schools. If some of them can cover travel expenses, that’s great, but we always manage to find a way to get there.”

When the True Life money reached the Smalleys, they had so many schools asking them to visit that they thought it would be impossible to reach them all. “The fund helped provide us the ability to travel to 50 or 60 schools on just that funding alone,” Smalley says. “That funding was so critical at that period to help us keep going, and also get us started on other stuff like putting together toolkits for schools to be able to start their own chapter of Stand for the Silent.”

In nearly two years, the couple has visited more than 800 schools and spoken to more than 783,000 children. Stand for the Silent has more than 500 chapters around the world. The process continues to be a struggle for the Smalleys.

“We’ve done this pretty much all on our own, with a little bit of help from people like the True Life Fund,” Smalley says. “We don’t charge anything to go to schools and a lot of time there’s not much money and they don’t even cover travel, so it takes what True Life Fund has done for us for us to be able to continue.”

Hirsch contacted the Smalleys two days after the death of their son. He explained the film he was working on and asked if they would like to be part of it. The couple accepted, knowing they had to spread awareness of the psychological abuse that had led to their son’s death.

“The day after it had happened, Laura and I just knew that we had to make a difference for some other families and kids and let them know they didn’t have to live the same way,” Smalley says.

And so, Hirsch came to the town of Perkins, Okla., filmed parts of Ty’s funeral and revealed what the aftermath of bullying looks like. Viewers met the humble and caring Kirk and Laura; Hirsch’s narrative reveals Ty’s personality through his 10-year-old best friend, Trey.

“Lee was very unobtrusive; you really didn’t even know he was there,” Smalley says. “He did a wonderful job I think. His film started a lot of conversations and it’s brought a lot of attention to the problems that these kids are facing in schools and we’re proud to be a part of that.”

Images Of War
Over the course of the last weekend in February, the True/False Film Fest shows 40 films, and the world appears a bit bigger to festivalgoers than it does in everyday life.

“The fund is a good reminder of the real people who are the foundation of our festival’s appeal,” Sturtz says. “We use True Life Fund to amplify our community’s connection with the festival and the world.”

Last year, the True Life Fund raised $36,760. The fund donated $20,000 to Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues — an organization founded by Sebastian Junger, the director of the 2012 T/F film “Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington.” Junger’s film is a directorial salute to Tim Hetherington, Junger’s colleague and co-director of the Oscar-winning documentary and previous T/F film, “Restrepo.” The remainder of the raised funds was given to The Milton Margai School for the Blind — a school for blind children in Sierra Leone that held a significant place in Hetherington’s heart and life story. The Bertha Foundation provided matching funds for the second year in a row.

On April 20, 2011, Hetherington was hit by shrapnel from a mortar blast in Misrata, Libya, and bled out on the way to the hospital. Junger founded RISC in response to Hetherington’s death with the mission of promoting the safety of freelance journalists in combat zones by training journalists to treat life-threatening injuries on the battlefield. The True Life Fund earmarked funds to provide trainings to journalists free of charge.

Sturtz says True Life selected the documentary that traces Hetherington’s career as a journalist because of the filmmaker’s courageous and principled life story, Junger’s determined conception of RISC and the quality with which the film was made.

“I found out and realized after he died that his death was possibly preventable,” Junger says. “He died from loss of blood and none of the journalists around him had received any medical training, so they didn’t know what to do. He had a very dangerous wound, but there are things you can do about it and no one did those things because they didn’t know how.”

Junger founded RISC to educate experienced freelance war reporters about combat medicine. “We provide lodging, the course and a combat medical kit to each graduate,” Junger says. “They just have to get to London or New York or wherever we are to attend.”

The film brings to light a number of otherwise silent facts, including the obvious but often forgotten notion that the images of war that populate our visual landscape are the work of courageous individuals who put themselves at risk.

“Freelancers do probably 80 or 90 percent of frontline reporting and are the most underserved, underorganized, undersupported population of the news industry,” Junger says.

“It’s one of the projects we’re most proud of,” Sturtz says. “When a small community like ours can write a check for $30,000 to the subject of a film, it can make their lives better and sometimes easier. And that’s a great feeling.”

The Murderous Truth
In 2010, the fund sent $10,000 to help fund “Enemies of the People” the efforts of co-directors Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin to interview former members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The film examines “the previously unspoken reality of the killing fields of Cambodia and its impact on victims and perpetrators alike,” Lemkin says.

Enemies of the People is about Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath and his desire to uncover the truth about the mass killings that occurred in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when Cambodia’s Communist Khmer Rouge government executed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. For more than a decade, Sambath’s effort was a lonely one, Lemkin says, and one taken at great risk.

“The True Life Fund was a unique acknowledgement of that effort,” Lemkin says. “He used the money to continue researching the history of the Khmer Rouge and to continue his farm in Cambodia — which he uses to sustain his livelihood and that of his family. I think it was essential income at a very difficult time for him.”

The fund gives each film something else: exposure. “For both of us, the great thing about True/False was showing the film to school pupils and discussing the ideas with them,” Lemkin says. “They were some of the best discussions we had anywhere in the world.”

True Life Fund Films & Recipients

2013: “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington” (2012), directed by Sebastian Junger. Funds dispersed to Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) and the Milton Margai School for the Blind.

2012: “Bully” (2011), directed by Lee Hirsch. Funds went to the five families featured in the film.

2011: “The Interrupters” (2010), directed by Steve James. Funds awarded to the three individuals, known as “violence interrupters” in Chicago, featured in the film, as well as the Kansas City-based anti-violence group Cease Fire (now known as Cure Violence).

2010: “Enemies of the People” (2009), directed by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin. Funds went to Sambath to further his efforts.

2009: “Burma VJ” (2008), directed by Anders Østergaard. Funds given to depicted journalists for vital equipment.

2009: “Very Young Girls” (2008), directed by David Schisgall. Funds benefited Girls Educational & Mentoring Service (GEMS).

2007: “We Are Together” (2006), directed by Paul Taylor and produced by Teddy Leifer. Funds benefited Children of Agape singing choir of South Africa

How To Donate
True Life Fund accepts donations via check or online.

Send checks payable to:
True Life Fund, c/o True/False Film Fest
5 S. Ninth St.
Columbia, MO 65203

To contribute online, visit