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May 6, 2014 | 8:48 p.m. CST
In the opening scene of We Always Lie to Strangers, about a dozen Ozarkians sit in a circle and play violins, banjos and acoustic guitars. A man and a woman dance to the music. T-shirts paired with jeans makes up the common outfit. The next scene is on a Branson stage, with drums, electric guitars and microphones. An audience of maybe a couple hundred sit in darkness. The performers wear red sequined jackets.
It’s a dichotomy the documentary, an intimate portrait of veteran stage performers struggling to succeed in Branson’s failing economy, sheds light on. Branson survives on its tourism industry and the commoditization of music drives that forward. However, the performers, ostensibly famous, are small-town down-homers. Most perform onstage simply because they love music and entertaining people, an Ozark tradition. As the documentary shows, they are quite normal. They have wives and husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends, exes and kids. And all the love and drama that comes with each situation.
Columbia native David Wilson, co-founder of the True/False Film Fest and co-director of the film, spent four years collecting footage. He had some help: MU graduate and co-director AJ Schnack, and producer Nathan Truesdell took turns behind the camera.
The cinematography is spectacular, but the most impressive element of the film is how close the filmmakers got to their subjects. There are several overlapping storylines, but one doesn’t dominate the other. Each one is given room to breathe. The result is that these real people seem, well, real. After watching, you’ll feel like you’ve been friends with them for life.
The title of the film comes from a Vance Randolph book published in the 1950s. Randolph observed that Ozarkians would tell tall tales about their way of life to tourists, creating an Ozarkian image full of fudged facts. When Randolph asked why they did so, the Ozarkians replied, “We always lie to strangers.” To them, telling tales was akin to being a good host. As seen in the film, modern-day performers in Branson continue the tradition.