True Films

Competition stories

Please Vote For Me


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Talk about unleashing democracy in China…here’s a cautionary tale. As an experiment, a third-grade class in a large city in China introduces elections for the class monitor. Elections are new to the kids, parents and teachers. The results are fascinating, horrifying, and electrifying. Every abuse and virtue of democracy is re-discovered. Bribery, mudslinging, spin, debates, slander, campaign reform — and all this with the first few weeks in elementary school! We also get a glimpse into how China’s one-child policy focuses pathological amounts of parental attention as they “coach” their kids. This short (less than an hour) film operates on many levels: it is a lesson about democracy, a warning to China, a reminder about the lord-of-the-flies savagery of third grade, and a portrait of a fat boy who will probably grow up to someone’s tormenting boss — or president. A lovely hoot, with lots of moments, in Mandarin with subtitles.

– KK

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Please Vote For Me
Weijun Chen
2007, 58 min.
DVD, $15

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Posted February 25, 2009 at 5:00 am | comments


The King of Kong


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A documentary masterpiece. Contenders for the Donkey Kong video game world championship face off at a video arcade. This contest is transformed into a memorable drama by the presence of a villain. It is rare for documentaries to have villains, but this one does, and he wears black. The bad guy, a slimy conniving world-record holder and his corrupt minions, is matched up against a likable, genuine good guy nerdy hero. A righteous battle ensues over many months. I haven’t found anyone who didn’t thoroughly enjoy this visible confrontation between the forces of light and dark. One of my favorite documentaries of all time.

– KK

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The King of Kong
Seth Gordon
2007, 79 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted April 9, 2008 at 10:34 am | comments


Deep Water


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Finally, a documentary with as many unexpected plot twists and turns as a scripted film. Nine men set off on a race in 1969 to be the first person to sail completely around the globe. Alone. Non-stop — without landing for repairs, re-supply, or human contact. That means each sailor will spend 8-9 months at sea by themselves going crazy. They have two adversaries in common — the stormy sea in the southern hemisphere, and their own minds. Of the two, the harsher force is their own minds. In response comes the whole spectrum of human nature: Hubris! Deception! Insanity! Genius! This film focuses on one of the men, a deeply flawed eccentric, and follows him step by step as his fantasies overrun his dreams on this arduous journey. His story is heartbreaking, yet gripping. It is not about sailing, but about a journey into the inner cosmos. As the drama unrolls one surprise after another, I found myself audibly gasping in wonder as we watch someone go over the deep end. Understated in that British way, it is an astonishing story.

– KK

Deep Water
Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
2006, 92 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted February 4, 2008 at 10:33 am | comments


Air Guitar Nation


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Serious fun! Follow contestants on their way to the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland. No actual guitars allowed. Features the first Americans to participate in this underrated “sport olympics”. Judges award points for “airness.” This documentary is a perfect one to play at a party. No one will leave. Over-the-top hilarity. You had to be there.

– KK

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Air Guitar Nation
Alexandra Lipsitz
2006, 81 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted December 6, 2007 at 2:11 pm | comments


Pucker Up


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It’s about the fine art of whistling. How whistling once was a serious musical genre, and even a language in some parts of the world. There is an international whistling champion contest, and as we follow amazing whistlers of different styles compete for the bragging rights as the world’s best whistler (who will win? The turkey farm guy who whistles like a bird, or the fund manager who does beat box whistling?), we enter the history, curiosities, and delightful beauty of human whistling. A simple film that is 10 times more interesting than it first sounds. This film is a perfect example of what documentaries do best: take a niche passion and fill out the details until we feel passionate about it too.

– KK

Pucker Up
Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
2006, 76 min.
$4, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted August 13, 2007 at 5:00 am | comments


Wordplay


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Yet another word puzzle gets its spotlight. This one is the New York Times crossword puzzle. Wordplay follows two great films on spelling bees (Spellbound) and Scrabble (Word Wars). Like the previous two, Wordplay follows fanatical contestants as they battle each other in various matches to win the championship game. The drama in Spellbound is the question of which little kid will go the furthest in the superhuman attempt to memorize the dictionary. The juice in the Scrabble documentary is the weirdness of adult professional Scrabble players; their lives are odd as they try to earn their living playing fast Scrabble games. The joy of Wordplay erupts from the delight of words, the mystery of puzzles, and the cheery intelligence of the game players. For me (a non-user) the behind-the-scenes look at how cross-world puzzles are constructed, and how they are solved by the best players is worth the trip. This film is surprisingly fast-paced, and entertaining. It takes a small corner of life and expands it with unexpected details, funny lines, and sure editing until it seems like the most fulfilling thing in the universe. You see crossword puzzles differently, but also life. Maybe because crossword players are so smart and fun, this film is. See it.

– KK

Wordplay
Patrick Creadon
2006, 85 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted April 19, 2007 at 2:40 am | comments


Word Wars


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Just as Spellbound made the spelling bee cool, Word Wars lifts the invisible world of championship Scrabble into the spotlight. But rather than cute kids, the champs of Scrabble are lone guys without jobs or relationships. They are misfits who neurotically memorize words, and word orders. Their competition is less the joy of winning and more a compulsion. The joy of this film, then, is less the drama of who will win, and more the pleasures of following an odd obsession to see where it takes us. We go deep into a subculture, one of many hidden from the mainstream, and discover strange guys who find the meaning of life in the order of words.

– KK

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Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Game Circuit
Directed by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo
2004, 81 min.
$45, DVD

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Posted July 5, 2006 at 7:58 pm | comments


Project Runway


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This series is primarily about the drama of competition. Twelve unknown clothes designers race to win a slot as a new fashion star. Like a lot of reality shows it features camaraderie, back-stabbing, acts of genius, betrayals, and toxic doses of ambition, but mixed into eye-tickling colors and the stunning visuals of clothes being made. In parallel with the mystery of who will survive increasingly stressful hurdles, we also get a front-seat perspective of how clothes can become art and what it takes to survive in the cutthroat business of high-end fashion. I found every one of the first season’s challenges to be brilliant and the whole series very addictive; I’m guessing the other seasons are just as good. As someone who likes to make things, this 8-part film also made the craft of fashion something that inspired me.

– KK

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Project Runway: The Complete First Season
With Heidi Klum and Michael Kors
2004, 509 min.
$20, DVD, 3-disc set

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Posted June 14, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments


Mad Hot Ballroom


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Fifth graders in New York City overcome their natural distaste for the other gender and learn ballroom dance after school. They are average kids, with no real desire to dance. But their schools compete for the grand championship dance-off with all the seriousness of any sport. Clumsy boys and precocious girls battle their bodies and overcome many personal hurdles to advance to the final round of tango, foxtrot and swing. This documentary follows a wide spectrum of kids as they contest. You hear their individual dreams and troubles. It’s nicely constructed so the drama of who wins is a nice surprise that pulls you along for the grand dance.

– KK

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Mad Hot Ballroom
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
2005, 120 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted May 9, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments


Murderball


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Man, these guys are tough. They play take-no-prisoner rugby in wheelchairs. They are rams with wheels. No special allowances or protective gear for these quadriplegic cases, even though a lot of them have broken their necks once before. They overturn each other on their way to the Olympics in a sport called, affectionately, murderball. Several of the more colorful characters on the US team are featured in depth. We hear the story of how they wound up severely disabled (thrown from a car, crushed in a brawl, crashed a motorcycle), and what they’ve done to transform their lives since. It is clear that for this team, most of them are living fuller lives than before they were chairbound. The serious competition through the Olympics is great fun. Their success in living, inspirational. It’s an entertaining documentary.

– KK

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Murderball
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
2005, 85 min.
$6, DVD

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Posted April 14, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments