In Defense of Tokens

December 19, 2016[ultimatesocial networks="facebook,twitter,linkedin" count="false" align="left" skin="round" url="" ]

True/False Film Fest patrons pass donation buckets at a True Life Fund Screening. Through several fundraisers, including the True/False screenings, the True Life Fund raised $35,000 for Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence in 2015 and $43,514 for Sonita Alizadeh of Sonita in 2016.

Too often the word “token” gets a bad rap. It can be used to belittle or demean. When made an ism, we rightfully scorn tokenism for its insincere efforts. But a token? It’s small and humble. There’s power in this humility. A token, by definition, is a physical object that stands in for something less tangible, like a quality or a fact.  People don’t expect a token to be a rendering of a whole; it only represents one aspect.  Besides, tokens get you into carnivals rides, advance you to the next level of a game, or guarantee you a free scoop of a True/False favorite: Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream.

So, too, is the True Life Fund a token gift from the True/False Film Fest and our community of Columbia, Missouri. Each year, the festival selects one film to be the True Life Fund recipient and raises money for that film’s subject.  We work with all four of our local public high schools (including an assembly with the filmmakers), partner with a local church, and raise money at the festival screenings. The grant is our way of thanking the people in front of the camera for sharing their story with us. It’s our way of honoring people on whose stories documentary film relies and who do not always benefit from having their lives on the big screen or broadcasted on major media platforms. At it’s core, the True Life Fund is a token—we can’t stand in for all of documentary film (nor do we want to) and we can’t begin to fully thank the recipient for the gift of their story, but we can give them some cash and let them put it toward their future however they see fit.

True/ False’s True Life Fund filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer leads an assembly at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. Students watched clips of The Look of Silence and discussed the film with the director. Oppenheimer attended screenings at all four Columbia Public High Schools.

Most recently, True/False’s True Life Fund selections have marked turning points for the Fund, and in the past two years, have been awarded to the subjects of two Bertha-supported films. In 2015 we honored Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, supported by the Bertha BRITDOC Journalism Fund and the Bertha Film Fund, and in 2016, for our tenth year of the Fund, we selected Sonita, a film by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, and supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund and the Bertha Film Fund.  The Bertha Foundation also supports the True Life Fund, and the True/False Film Festival team leverages Bertha’s annual gift by inspiring our community to match their contribution. For the past two years, we’ve significantly surpassed our goal: our community raised a grand total of $35,000 for Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence and $43,514 for Sonita Alizadeh.  It’s money, we say as we stand with the filmmakers and subjects in our post-film Q&As, that is a token of our gratitude.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, True/False Co-Conspirator David Wilson, and Adi Rukun (via Skype) host a Q&A after The Look of Silence at True/False Film Fest 2015.

These tokens –as small or big as they might be— matter.  While it can hard to measure the overall impact of a documentary or one story, it’s easy to ask our True Life Fund recipients how they’ve spent their grants.  In the case of Adi Rukun, the True Life Fund meant a newly secured life for his family.  After filming The Look of Silence while a getaway car idled within reach, after having bags packed and a “fixer on standby at the airport,” reports Cara Buckley in The New York Times, Adi and his family had to relocate to a different part of Indonesia to keep safe after the film’s release.  When we screened The Look of Silence at True/False, Adi told us he wanted to use the funds to open a brick-and-mortar optometry shop in his new community. It was a shop that, he said, he hoped to pass along to his children.  We recently heard from Adi and were delighted to learn that he had indeed opened the shop and, to our utter surprise, decided to name it Optik Columbia— as a token of his gratitude for our True/False community.

Sonita Alizadeh shares her Dream Journal from the film Sonita with high school students in Columbia, Missouri. The event was part of True/False Film Fest’s Bertha-supported DIY Day, an afternoon of artist workshops for local high school students. At this workshop, Sonita lead a group of students in making their own dream journals.

Sonita Alizadeh used her True Life Fund toward her campaign against child marriage and to support her family as she saw fit.  “This money,” she wrote to T/F, shortly after our fundraising campaign came to a close, “secures a future education for me and a voice for so many girls who are not heard, as I work toward my goal of ending child marriage.” Since the film premiered this past winter, Sonita performed and spoken at the World Bank, was featured at the opening of the Women in the World New York Summit, spoke at International Women’s Day, was featured at the Clinton Global Initiative, and more–while continuing her studies (long-distance when necessary) and excelling in her classes at school.

Sonita Alizadeh, David Wilson, & Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami on stage for the True Life Fund at True/False 2016 Photo Credit: True/False Photography

These are remarkable individuals and beautiful, powerful films.  True/False and the True Life Fund, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, draw attention to their work and offer something tangible as an honor and recognition.  The funds do not capture the whole picture; they do not heal a community or stop the practice of selling brides.  They are simply a thank you. They’re a token of gratitude, a gesture made measurable–and that matters.

Photo credits: True/False Photography


Allison Coffelt, Education and Outreach Director, True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri

Follow Allison on Twitter @allisoncoffelt and read more of her writing here

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