Cathy Gunther discusses five years of work for True/False Film Fest

Volunteer coordinators Cathy Gunther and Heather Gillich work to improve the True/False Film Fest experience for volunteers and the community.

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Cathy Gunther is one of the two volunteer coordinators for Columbia’s annual True/False Film Fest. As a professor at MU and an advocate for community involvement, Gunther discusses her role as the volunteer coordinator and the work that goes into making the festival a fun event for both volunteers and festivalgoers.

MOVE: When did you start getting involved with True/False?

Gunther: I started working with volunteers during the 2014 fest. I was brought on as an assistant volunteer coordinator [that year].

MOVE: Did you apply for that position, or was it a promotion?

Gunther: Actually, I’ve never volunteered. I have close friends who worked with the fest for years and always enjoyed it. Also, a fest organizer saw me setting up a local park cleanup and asked if I knew someone who might be interested in working with fest volunteers, and I said I was.

MOVE: How many hours do you work on volunteer coordination per week?

Gunther: It depends on the season. Based on what we estimate we’ll need for the fest, we make changes to the application in the fall before it opens Nov. 1. When applicants first begin to sign up, then I may commit, I don’t know, maybe three to four hours per week. It then ramps up quickly over the holidays, and in January, we usually have at least 300 volunteers in the system and we start scheduling them. At that point, my time answering emails increases dramatically with volunteers that require schedule changes and have various questions. One of my busiest times is just before orientation and training, which was last Saturday the 17th. Also, we’re planning what to offer volunteers at our headquarters, The Nest, and trying to convert an empty office into a comfy and relaxing venue for volunteers. Right now, I’m probably spending five to six hours per day on fest business, and I’m going to be full-time starting Wednesday night. With the fest coming up, we’re still scheduling people.

MOVE: So the process is you and your partner getting the volunteers together, and then once they get into their designated teams, the leaders take charge of those people?

Gunther: My partner Heather Gillich and I look through the volunteer applications first; we see everyone. Probably 25 percent of our volunteers are people that have either worked in a position before or have been asked to come in and work this position. We place the volunteers, but we don’t make a decision. For all the volunteers that don’t know what they want to do and haven’t volunteered before, we have to figure out what to do with them. One-third of all of our volunteers work in the theaters. Another quarter or so work in set-up and break-down. Those two positions are primarily my focus. The teams vary from 300 to three. We give people three preferences when they apply, and then we try to fit them in their preferences. From there, we schedule all the theaters, all the events and put the volunteers where they need to go.

MOVE: Other than knowing people here, why did you want to get involved?

Gunther: I’m an academic. I work at MU as a science teacher. I wanted to get to know more people in town that weren’t in academics and worked in community events. It was a nice way for me to get off campus. I teach these giant biology classes, so the idea of coordinating a large number of people is not foreign to me. There’s lots of emails, lots of communicating different issues. It’s kind of a parallel job, really. I love T/F, love to attend, but I don’t like to watch the movies. I was intrigued about how this thing was run from the inside, so I really got to know every group and what they’re looking for. I’ve never done any of those things, but I’m getting the hang of it after five years.

MOVE: What kind of organizational skills does it take to get everything together for the festival?

Gunther: You have to be able to kind of plan on a large scale but also deal with details. You have to check with every volunteer and make sure that they’re going to come to their shifts, that you’ve sent all of the right messages to all of the right people. It’s important to have the ability to listen to people and have patience if they’re frustrated. You have to be friendly and make people feel valued because these are things that you would expect when you’re volunteering. They’re giving us their time, so we’re trying to show them a good time.

MOVE: Is being a volunteer coordinator rewarding? If so, why?

Gunther: For sure. I feel proud when it’s all said and done and everyone’s happy. When the festival starts, all of a sudden I’m in there with everybody else and all the stuff is going on, so it has a good balance for me. Every year, you look at things and think about how you can make them better. This is my fifth year working and Heather and I added The Nest, which didn’t exist three years ago. We keep pulling for more volunteer benefits. One of the reasons this is a signature event in Columbia is because of the volunteer engagement and the community engagement. I feel really proud that that’s kind of my part. I’m not a film expert or know how to arrange a cultural festival, but I can certainly schedule volunteers.

MOVE: What is your favorite event at True/False?

Gunther: My favorite event is the parade on the Friday afternoon of the festival. The parade is kind of the opening of the event for the public, and it ends at an event called “Reality Bites,” which is food samples from all different restaurants. I like it because it involves everyone and it’s outside, it’s not in a dark movie theatre. It’s very spontaneous. There’s not a lot of planning to it. I think that’s what I like about this festival and about documentary films: There’s something in there for everyone.

MOVE: Are you still looking for volunteers?

Gunther: Yes, very much so. Our shortages right now are Thursday during the day, Friday during the day, Sunday at night and Monday during the day. The difficult times are those weekdays when everyone is at work and we need people to help us set up and break down. Those can often be the most challenging shifts to fill when it comes down to it.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Edited by Brooke Collier | bcollier@themaneater.com

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