One of the best parts of sifting through the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival lineup is seeing how much the Montana-made films reflect the hot topics we’re dealing with in our state, right here and right now. In the 12-minute short film Kuwezesha Wanawake, for instance, Justine Binwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo offers a peek into her resettled life in Missoula. Similarly, the 39-minute Renga for the West explores the relationship between new refugees and long-time Montanans through first-person stories. There’s Drive Them Buffalo, a film about the only tribal-led buffalo drive in North America, a stewardship ritual of the Blackfeet Nation. There are films about wolves, including one about combat veterans with PTSD getting therapy through companionship with rescued wolves. And what would a Montana-made, Missoula-screened lineup be without films about river surfing, beer and backwoods poets? Also relevant to our landscape is the reliably splashy festival opener, sponsored by Montana Free Press and nonprofit marketing group M+R and free to attend. This year it’s Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money, about Montanans standing up to corporate campaign cash.
Beyond the Montana-centric films, there’s also an array of peculiar and riveting work — plus audio and virtual reality docs — addressing a diverse set of subjects including wrestlers, endangered birds, acrobatic cats, the Obama administration, racist mascots, Ram Dass, peak baggers and punk-rock grandpas. Many of these films are having their world premieres in Missoula. And all of them are the cream of the crop. The festival, now in its 15th iteration, received 1,800 submissions — 300 more than last year — for its 150 slots.
Then there are retrospectives from the festival’s featured filmmakers: Greg Barker, who delivers remarkable access to high-profile political figures, and Kirby Dick, whose docs about sexual assault are central to the #MeToo movement. We interviewed them both.
As usual, there are far too many events — workshops, pitch sessions and parties, in addition to screenings — to cover comprehensively, but here’s our selective take, nonetheless, on some of this year’s festival’s most anticipated films and filmmakers — and some potential sleepers, too.
When: Fri., Feb. 16 through Sun., Feb. 25
Where: All screenings and events are at the Elks Lodge, the Wilma, the Roxy, the UC Theater or MCT Center for the Performing Arts.
All-access pass: $325. Includes all films, events, workshops and VIP parties.
All-screening pass: $175. Includes all films.
Individual screening tickets: $9/$7 for students and seniors
Tickets available at bigskyfilmfest.org.
The Big Pictures
Street Fighting Men
What a powerful piece of cinema we have in Andrew James’ narrative documentary feature Street Fighting Men. The film chronicles the lives of three men making their way through impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Detroit. If you’ve heard anything about Detroit, it’s probably an uplifting story about the city fighting its way out of poverty via community gardens and new sports stadiums. That cozy narrative leaves out the average citizens of the city, who struggle with a broken education system, a dismal job market and gang warfare. James’ documentary focuses on three subjects as they suffer, over a span of three years, the slings and arrows of Detroit street life.
Chief among them is a retired cop named Jack Rabbit who’s assembled a kind of militia that fights drug dealers and gang violence in his neighborhood. In one powerful segment, we watch the ragtag team go from house to house, trying to sniff out the young man responsible for torturing, killing and robbing Rabbit’s childhood friend. “You can hide from the police!” Jack Rabbit bellows into a megaphone as his posse canvasses the neighborhood. “But you can’t hide from us!”
Next up we have Deris, a young father who grew up hustling on the streets. Since the birth of his daughter, Deris has ambitions to go straight, and so joins up with a mentorship program called Young Detroit Builders that offers a strict regimen of education and job training to help save motivated, low-income kids from incarceration or worse. “I keep getting all these second chances,” Deris says, in the wake of one bad event after another.
Finally, we have Luke, an immigrant from somewhere in the Caribbean who toils his days away renovating a dilapidated house with a loving pit bull by his side.
All these stories are presented devoid of voiceovers, title cards or any kind of obvious navigation, making for an immersive cinematic experience. If not for the gritty realism provided by an on-location documentary camera, we might think we were watching a staged narrative. Incredible but true, each of these stories is struck by a real-time tragedy in the form of death, fire, incarceration and more. The story finds its power in the way these characters rebound from the incessant hits. James’ hands-off style is aided in no small part by a masterful score from Shigeto, an electronic musician from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Shigeto’s diverse, jazz-infused sounds are the perfect overlay for Street Fighting Men’s remarkable collection of bleak human moments, punctuated by just enough hope and determination to keep us going. (Molly Laich)
At the Elks Lodge Sat., Feb. 24, at 6 PM.
It often feels like the rift between liberals and conservatives is just getting wider and deeper, with both sides living inside bubbles of influence and information that can’t be penetrated. How would anyone ever change the mind of someone, for example, who’s against the Black Lives Matter movement, or who generally holds racist views?
Watching For Ahkeem, it seems clear that the answer lies in simply getting to know and spending time with individuals. The slice-of-life documentary, which follows black teen Daje Shelton (known as Boonie) through two years of life in a crumbling neighborhood in north St. Louis, deftly avoids practically any political statements, instead simply presenting one person’s day-to-day struggles. Through her story, we quickly see how the concept of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps can be downright idiotic when the deck is stacked against you and the system is broken.
With the backdrop of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in Ferguson just a few miles away, Boonie has just been sent to an alternative high school called the Innovative Concept Academy after getting into too much trouble at her mainstream public school. As she tries desperately to graduate, distractions swirl around her, from racial unrest to gang violence to falling in love. The film is shot in a diary format, with Boonie offering a voiceover that conveys her thoughts and feelings as time passes and events occur. The cinematography feels immersive, and captures the complexities of Boonie’s environment, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
The movie can feel depressingly predictable to anyone familiar with its main issues: poverty, racial injustice, sexism, public school funding, the judicial system and reproductive education and rights. And, as part of its commitment to simply sharing Boonie’s story, it can be frustrating when the film ends without offering solutions or comfort. But that’s a frustration that doesn’t even register in comparison to the battles that Boonie and her family face just to survive. (Sarah Aswell)
At the MCT Center for Performing Arts Fri., Feb. 23, at 1:45 PM, and at the Roxy Sat., Feb. 24, at 6:30 PM.
From Parts Unknown
Professional wrestling is real. It’s as real as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Christmas. Sure, the outcomes of the matches are predetermined, the moves are choreographed and the wrestlers are playing characters, but none of that makes it fake. It’s all in service of a thrilling and sometimes dangerous art form with millions of global fans and a history dating back more than a century. Beyond the top-tier world of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, however, or even less-well-known organizations like New Japan Pro Wrestling and the UK’s Defiant Wrestling, exists a nebulous world of gifted amateurs plying their trade across the country.
Made by Missoula filmmaker/artist Michael Workman, From Parts Unknown follows Jesse Lawson and his death-defying alter ego, Jesse “Madman” Manson. Lawson is one of the true believers of wrestling. The bright lights of pro wrestling are his religion. It helped him grapple with his own depression and anger. We learn that, as a child, wrestling was Lawson’s connection to his working single mother, and as a teenager, it was his way of escaping the real life violence he experienced. He got his start falling through tables in backyard wrestling matches in the “bad part” of Spokane.
Now, 10 years later, he’s running an independent wrestling promotion company and producing free shows in parking lots and dance clubs.
Not yet 30, his body is falling apart — he’s taken hits from clubs wrapped in barbed wire and been body-slammed into ladders. He has one last match scheduled before retiring from competition, but how long will he be able to stay away?
From Parts Unknown crisply captures a world occupied by people who have lived their entire lives in economic distress. Wrestling — where good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, where outcomes are always planned — is an escape that Lawson and so many like him need. He spends most of his time babysitting his roommate’s daughter, introducing her to his beloved collection of action figures. He lives in a concrete-walled basement bedroom, watching VHS tapes of ’80s-era wrestlers. But when he’s caked in makeup, throwing himself from the top rope at an opponent while the assembled crowd of Spokane Anarchy Wrestling cheers him on, he becomes something more. (Charley Macorn)
At the Wilma Sat., Feb. 17, at 12:30 PM and Sun., Feb. 25, at 3:30 PM. World premiere.
My Country No More
By the time the Bakken boom peaked in 2012, my trips home to Bismarck had dwindled to a few days at Christmas, maybe a week. Friends and family told me stories about living out of hotels for weeks at a time, or fighting to curtail the oil patch’s encroachment on treasured places. For me, it all seemed so distant, a shift in the culture and landscape I could really only measure by how much farther the lights of Dickinson stretched since the last December night I’d sped through.
North Dakota has changed. And I can’t help feel indebted to filmmakers Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling for chronicling how that happened. They center their narrative on Trenton, a speck of a town between Williston and the Montana border. Trenton’s people were sold a familiar bill of goods — jobs, riches, a chance to grab progress by the reins and ride. Embracing oil here meant embracing a refinery in the church’s backyard, but oil is never so easily satisfied, and demands more than anyone intended to give.
There’s nothing more heart-wrenching than watching good people get steamrolled, especially when it’s set to a soundtrack as slick and gritty as what’s coming out of the ground. Kalie Rider and her family put up a hell of a fight, but oil can be more erosive than water, and it threatens to wear Rider down the same as it has her neighbor, Merna Patch. North Dakotans are hardy stock, raised to face the wind with tight-lipped resolve. About the only thing you could do to break them is to take the one thing that can’t blow away: their land, their home.
Amid these struggles, Baghdadi and Hammerling reach for balance with glimpses of Ruben Valdez, a complex and kind-hearted oil worker who deposits his fat paychecks at the blackjack table. He is the jobs and riches that Trenton and so many other towns were promised. Their sorrow is his good fortune. That’s not his fault, though, and it’s impossible not to notice that Valdez is a victim, too.
In the beginning, My Country No More seems predicated on the tired old notion that you can never go home again. It’s a depressing thought, and it’s good to see Baghdadi and Hammerling throw it out with the fracking water. (Alex Sakariassen)
At the Wilma Fri., Feb. 23, at 6 PM, and at the Roxy Sun., Feb. 25, at 12:30 PM. World premiere.
Minding the Gap
This film begins just as you’d expect a skateboarding flick to, with reckless young guys ignoring a “no trespassing” sign as they trot up flights of rusted stairs. Only these three guys wimp out and bail when they reach the top of the attached parking garage. As they ollie around the pavement, one delivers a voiceover about the expectations of manhood, and how boys are taught to think “margaritas are gay.”
On first viewing, the line lands like the half-baked musing of some teenage skate punks who are making a movie about themselves. And, strictly speaking, that’s exactly what’s going on here. The boy behind the camera is Bing Liu, and the other skaters on screen are his best friends, Zack and Keire. They’re a diverse trio (Zack is white, Keire is black and Bing is of Asian descent) living in Rockford, Illinois. The stage is set for a middle-America buddy movie when, a few minutes later, we see them smoking pot and shooting roman candles in a backyard. Zack turns to Liu, who is behind the camera, and asks if he’s going to include footage of him smoking in the film. “I’ve given you free range,” Zack says. “I have no stipulations.”
But the film’s ambitions go far beyond goofing off, and the exchange between Zack and Bing turns out to be a hint — a permission slip, even — for the startling intimacy that follows. The young men each witnessed or experienced domestic abuse as children, and those scars are revealed slowly, and masterfully, throughout the film, as the boys grow older and learn more about one another.
The key is Liu’s technique, which places him as both a character and an exacting observer of his best friends and family. As the story progresses, we meet Zack’s girlfriend, Nina, and Liu’s mother, whom he interviews on camera about the stepfather who abused them. Skateboarders with handycams may seem like a premise destined to fall flat, but Liu delivers a delicate autobiography that explores the residue of childhood trauma. What starts as a story about skateboarding-as-escape becomes a filmmaker’s coming to grips with his own demons by discovering them in the people he loves. The result is a rare and special achievement. (Derek Brouwer)
At the Elks Lodge Fri., Feb. 23, at 6:30 PM.
Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats
The night I saw the Acrocats Circus Cats was one of the best of my life, coming in only behind the time I saw the first Magic Mike in a theater full of women on my birthday. There is nothing bad about it. They’re cats, and sometimes they do tricks, but even when they don’t, you’re still watching cats play. As I type this, I’m looking at a magnet featuring Buggles, the skateboarding cat, that a friend got me as a souvenir of that amazing night. When we left the show, we saw the Acrocats RV parked out back, and realized that the trainer actually lived in there with all those cats, driving around the country. What a life!
Samantha Martin used to train all kinds of animals, and had an exotic zoo before turning all-cat. Now she tours 200 days a year, playing any kind of venue that will have her. The footage in the touring RV gets more intimate than you’d care to be with 20 cats, Martin and her assistant Lynsi, and is effective at conveying how cramped the open road can be.
Imagine combining a touring band with herding cats and you’ll get a pretty good picture of the chaos that is Martin’s life. Christopher Guest mockumentary vibes creep in occasionally, like when Martin warns that it’s not a children’s show. “Kids can enjoy it, but the humor is adult-oriented,” she says, not wrongly.
Adults love cats, and the internet loves cats, and Martin gets frustrated watching viral amateur housecat videos get millions more views than those of her semi-polished show. But she keeps donning her stage outfits — always with purple accents and cat ears — and persevering.
Martin is charismatic, self-deprecating and uncompromising. After one visit to see her father, she talks about how she feels guilty for not coming to visit more often, but she simply doesn’t want to. There is a crushing amount of loss here for a documentary that isn’t even an hour long, and it’s barely discussed. That might be because it’s just a fact of life that a great deal of sacrifice is required to live like this and follow a passion.
Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats is, weirdly, kind of short on the cats. Let that be an incentive to catch the show live, because, as Martin says, no one else can do this. (Susan Elizabeth Shepard)
At the Roxy Fri., Feb. 23, at 9:15 PM, and Elks Lodge Sat., Feb. 24, at 8:45 PM.
Sickies Making Films
In Sickies Making Films, director Joe Tropea takes viewers on a sobering journey through the history of censorship in cinema. Like most art forms, the medium started out tentative and quickly went wild. Did you know there were silent pictures in the 1910s with full-on nudity playing at dirty nickelodeons for 5 cents in front of God, children and everyone? As history teaches us, all good things must come to an end. Sickies Making Films chronicles the birth of censorship, which in the beginning was dealt with on the local level. Eventually, only the Maryland Board of Censors remained, with an undereducated and over-opinionated prude named Mary Avara at the helm. Tropea’s doc is a fine addition to a compendium of censorship that includes 1995’s The Celluloid Closet, which surveys the annals of gays in cinema, and 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, which uncovers the crooked inner workings of the Motion Picture Association of America. Sickies Making Films explores some deep cuts in cinema. For example, have you ever heard of Howard Hughes’ blacklisted 1943 sex romp The Outlaw, or 1949’s Pinky, a strange political drama about a black woman passing as white in the American south? Me either! Despite its occasionally dry and academic delivery, Sickies Making Films promises cinema fans a solid history lesson. (Molly Laich)
At the Elks Lodge Thu., Feb. 22, at 8:45 PM. World premiere.
Janae Kroczaleski had two dreams growing up as, in her own words, “poor white trash.” One was to be strong. The other was to be a woman. The first was easy. As a teenager, Kroczaleski, still not sharing her true gender identity with the world, did the things she thought society wanted her to do to be strong. She became a powerlifter. She joined the United States Marine Corps, where she provided military security for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State. And after serving, she threw herself into competitive bodybuilding, where she won numerous awards and shattered world records.
That second dream proved more difficult. Transformer is the rare trans narrative that doesn’t simplify a complex issue into an easy-to-swallow pill. Gender is messy, complicated and deeply personal. The realities of trans people, regarding coming out, finding acceptance and just living their lives, aren’t as black and white as people would like. And while the film does gloss over a few important details (namely, Kroczaleski getting outed against her will), and even though her journey is still difficult and ongoing, this film reflects warmth, understanding and, above all else, strength. (Charley Macorn)
At the Wilma Sun., Feb. 18, at 8:15 PM, and at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thu., Feb. 22, at 1:45 PM.
Our New President
If you thought the political propaganda in the United States during the 2016 election was bad, get a load of this. In Our New President, New York-based filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin uses a combination of Russian news footage, amateur YouTube videos posted by excited Russian citizens and output from a variety of media outlets to paint a frightening narrative of misdirection and hysteria. We’ve all heard by now about Russia’s probable tampering with the presidential election and Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin. In Our New President, we see how the state-run Russian media helped manufacture such manic enthusiasm for their candidate of choice among their own people (and how they shipped that enthusiasm overseas to a Facebook feed near you). In one particularly bizarre plotline, Russian newscasters theorize that Hillary Clinton was hexed during a 1997 visit to a Russian museum to see a mummified Russian princess, causing fainting spells, dizziness, dementia and — seriously, a Russian newscaster actually says this — “retardation.” It seems silly and unbelievable, but was the American coverage on Fox News that far removed? Most spooky are the images of wild Russian children on YouTube, who regard Trump like a cooler version of Spiderman. Is there such a thing as objective news anymore? This film will make you wonder. (Molly Laich)
At the Wilma Wed., Feb. 21, at 6 PM.
A Shot in the Dark
One of the most compelling documentary sub-genres is the inspirational underdog sports story, and A Shot in the Dark delivers at every turn. The 86-minute film follows blind high school wrestler Anthony Ferraro on his quest for the New Jersey State Championship title, flanked by a colorful cast that includes his loveable but high-strung coach and his supportive, big-hearted father. The movie rolls forward with smart editing and cinematography (which includes spectacular, well-placed footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) paired with a perfect soundtrack as Ferraro advances from Districts to Regionals to State.
While his wrestling wins and losses aren’t quite as exciting and dramatic on screen as they might be, the heart of the story lies with Ferraro. He is an inspiration to watch — on the mats, playing guitar, skateboarding, rummaging through the fridge for a snack — and the filmmakers do an excellent job of capturing his struggle and the way he’s treated. Many think it’s unfair that he wrestles under slightly altered rules for his safety (for example, the wrestlers must maintain physical contact throughout the match to prevent head injuries), while others mercilessly take advantage of his weaknesses. Others doubt he’s really blind at all. The movie is as much about Ferraro as it is about discrimination, sportsmanship, equality and pride. (Sarah Aswell)
At the Elk’s Lodge Sun., Feb. 18, at 6 PM and Mon., Feb. 19, at 8:30 PM.
Bird of Prey
There’s a reason nature shows like Planet Earth rise to such critical acclaim. Nature is riveting, and great filmmakers can translate that onto a screen. Bird of Prey is no exception. The star of this 91-minute documentary is the Philippine Eagle, an endangered species of raptor native to the island nation.
The film follows cinematographer Neil Rettig on his journey to the Philippines to determine what it will take to save the world’s largest eagle from extinction. Rettig is no stranger to this bird — he filmed the first images of the Philippine Eagle in 1977. Footage from his original trip meshes with the modern clips to seamlessly weave the tale of the eagles’ demise across decades.
Shots panning above the rainforest canopy capture the scope of the scenery and long lenses put the viewer in the nest with newborn chicks. The film uses these elements to tell the dramatic tale of baby eagles fighting to survive, and pulls viewers in until they’re fully invested, before pivoting to an environmental plea for help. Shots of “a landscape bleeding” are narrated to show where nests used to be before deforestation decimated the birds’ already limited habitat.
The highlights of the movie are stunning images of the animals in the wild. One filmmaker even points out, “That’s got to be one of the most amazing beak-cleaning shots of any raptor ever done.” It’s hard to come away feeling anything other than awe at the world we live in and the beasts we share it with. (Micah Drew)
At the Wilma Sun., Feb. 25, at 6 PM. World premiere.
It may seem odd for a movie about campaign finance to open with geese. But this is Montana, where the same scars that remind us daily of past political corruption have also killed fowl by the thousands. We are, of course, talking about the Berkeley Pit.
Dark Money sets the table for a discussion of recent campaign scandals by invoking the Anaconda Copper Company. From there, filmmaker Kim Reed pivots to her primary focus: attempts by shadowy corporate figures to control our modern elections, and the effort to shine a light on their actions.
No doubt many of Dark Money’s characters and plot twists will ring a bell for Montana viewers. Steve Bullock is here, fighting as attorney general to beat back the effects of Citizens United. So are former state Sen. Art Wittich, taken to trial for illegal collaboration, and reporter John S. Adams, formerly of the Great Falls Tribune (and the Independent before that) struggling to find an outlet for his investigative skills. It’s a decade of state history condensed and bookended with the century-old legacy that speaks to why dark money matters, especially in Montana.
It’s tempting for campaign finance wonks to stray into the weeds. Fortunately, Reed spares her broader audience the pedantism. Instead, she keeps her focus squarely on Montana, the scrappy prizefighter jabbing and ducking in the name of transparency. (Alex Sakariassen)
At the Wilma Fri., Feb. 16, at 7 PM, the MCT Center for the Performing Arts Sun., Feb. 25, at 3:15 PM, and the UC Theater Mon., Feb. 19, at 5:30 PM.
Women are capable of heroic forgiveness. Are men capable of understanding why they need it? This unusual documentary follows Attiya Khan as she attends counseling sessions with the man who abused her when they were teenagers. Twenty years later, she and her abuser, Steve, revisit the places they lived and frequented then, while Attiya seeks an acknowledgement of the fear and pain she felt from the only other person who bore witness to it.
Attiya and Steve visit the apartment where they first lived together and the high school they attended, and in those scenes, Attiya’s recollection of how alone she felt is most striking. She says she would run down the street where their apartment was, screaming for help, only to have the neighbors close their curtains. And she recounts coming back years later to thank her guidance counselor, when a teacher who recognized her said she’d always worried about Attiya after noticing her bruises. Until then, Attiya recalls, that teacher had never once spoken to her about it.
The viewer learns very little about Steve’s life in the present, which is too bad. We know a lot more about how women handle trauma than we do about how men might cease inflicting it. (Susan Elizabeth Shepard)
At the Elks Lodge Sat., Feb. 17, at 3:45 PM.
The Experimental City
Fifty years ago, college professor, futurist and cartoonist Athelstan Spilhaus realized that the main problem with cities is that they’re totally reactionary. No one had ever built a city first, and then brought people to it. The film tells the story of a decades-long attempt to construct an experimental city in rural Minnesota for 250,000 scientific pioneers, designed to produce zero waste, move via experimental mass transit and serve as a shining guide toward a utopian society. It was an idea right out of Spilhaus’ fantastic comic strips. But with a $10 billion price tag (in 1967 dollars), who would pay for this bold vision of the future?
The film is lovingly constructed out of newspaper articles, educational films, oral histories and even tape recordings of planning meetings. It’s an archivist’s dream that shows real dedication on the part of the filmmakers. To add some dynamism to the film, the oral histories and meeting tapes feature actors standing in for the preserved voices, with the camera filming them slightly out of frame and out of focus. It helps the film power through a few of its drier moments, and creates a sense of depth not seen in a lot of other documentaries. (Charley Macorn)
At the MCT Center for Performing Arts Mon., Feb. 19, at 8:45 PM.
The Reluctant Radical
Nothing, not a broken oar or a padlocked chain or a 9,000-ton Finnish icebreaker, can stop Ken Ward from trying to protect his son, and the world.
The climate change movement has many faces. Director Lindsey Grayzel has found perhaps its most obsessive. Ward is eloquent and affable, a bit goofy, and his conviction is inspiring. But this isn’t a tale of simple activism. The Reluctant Radical captures the very real costs of committing so completely to a cause that you find yourself protesting alone outside a gas station on Christmas in a Santa suit.
Ward’s passion costs him a marriage, lands him in jail four times and prompts him to see a therapist, leading to Grayzel’s sole dangling thread: Is Ward actually bipolar? Regardless, he marches forward, snatching a few wins along the way and ultimately finding himself in front of the shutdown valve of an oil pipeline as one of the five now-infamous valve turners.
Grayzel wants us to ponder whether this one-man mission to save the world makes Ward a radical. “Yes” is too easy an answer, and the wrong one if you ask Ward. He has to stop climate change at any cost. His every action is one of common sense. Maybe we’re the crazy ones. (Alex Sakariassen)
At the MCT Center for the Performing Arts Thu., Feb. 22, at 6:15 PM, and at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 23, at 1 PM. World premiere.
This documentary asks a question that will be familiar to people who live in Montana’s remoter corners: Why live there? Vopnafjordur is a fishing town of about 600 people in far northeastern Iceland, which you can think of as the rough equivalent of, say, Ekalaka. “Fishing town” probably evokes images of a quaint village where sixth-generation fishermen use traditional methods, but Vopnafjordur is really a company town where everything revolves around an industrial fish-processing facility. It’s remote, but modern.
Only one inhabitant of Vopnafjordur speaks directly to the camera, in the film’s opening sequence. What follows is a collection of scenes from daily life with voiceover interviews with the people pictured. Even as the residents offer subtle reflections on their community, you never feel like you’re seeing them directly. The technique helps eschew nostalgia, making way for a quiet portrait of the anxieties and simple comforts that color a distinctive but familiar way of living off the land. (Derek Brouwer)
At the Roxy Fri., Feb. 23, at 7:30 PM and Sat., Feb. 24, at 11 AM.
The way we were
Documentarian Greg Barker talks about The Final Year and life post-Obama
by Dan Brooks
When Greg Barker started shooting The Final Year, his new documentary about Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during the last year of the president’s second term, he understood it as a kind of band movie.
“It’s the story of a group of people … who have been around the lead singer for a decade and know that they’re doing their final album,” he said during a recent interview with the Indy. “That’s how I conceived it.”
The 55-year-old filmmaker expected a certain tone: a team of experienced professionals, many of them at the apogee of their careers, working with a president they admired to pursue a final, ambitious agenda in the Middle East. There would be last-minute triumphs and lingering frustrations. There would be the bittersweet satisfaction of one era in American history making way for another. Then, in November, Donald Trump shocked the world.
“It becomes a different film because of what happened,” Barker said. “It becomes more like the Titanic. They’re going through the film not knowing what’s ahead … but we, the audience, know that the iceberg is looming.” This knowledge imparts dramatic irony to the movie. Even as we watch national figures like Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations ambassador Samantha Power pursue a Middle East strategy that requires astonishing levels of specialized expertise, we know something they do not. Barker believes the tension between these two perspectives drives the documentary.
“I’ve never had a film that plays on different levels like this one does — the narrative itself, onscreen, and the counter-narrative in our minds of whatever’s happening today,” he said. None of the Obama-administration officials who appear in The Final Year, including the president himself, knew what was coming. Although this particular uncertainty caught everyone by surprise, not knowing exactly what he would get after he started filming was an element of Barker’s project from the beginning.
“We tried out this idea of whether or not an experiential film inside government would work,” he said. “It was a question that all parties had.” White House staff wondered whether the filmmaker and his crew would get in the way. Barker wondered if he would get enough access. “Every film, regardless of what level, depends on access,” he said.
Barker’s ability to develop access has been a hallmark of his career. His 2011 film Koran by Heart followed children in an international Koran-reciting competition — a project that depended wholly on the willingness of families to grant him access to their private lives. His 2013 HBO documentary Manhunt, about the search for Osama bin Laden, is built around a series of emotionally charged interviews with CIA analysts. That Barker got such intimate footage from professional secret-keepers attests to his ability to develop relationships with his subjects.
“It’s a leap of faith on the part of a person to open themselves up to a documentary filmmaker, because they lose control over their story,” he said. “I take that trust very seriously. It’s a great responsibility to not make a film that they necessarily like, but to convey them and their story as accurately, and as truthfully, as I can … but at the same time to maybe see them in a way that they don’t see themselves.”
“What I’m trying to do is create a sense of empathy for individuals, characters in my films,” Barker said. This habit of referring to his real-life subjects as “characters” reveals something about his approach. Though his work is informed by his background as a journalist — Barker worked as a war correspondent in the 1990s, covering the first Gulf War and the conflict in what was then Yugoslavia for outlets including Frontline and CNN — he no longer considers himself a journalist.
“I consider myself a storyteller who specializes in nonfiction,” he said. “So I’m looking for, first and foremost, strong stories.” He describes Manhunt, for example, as an emotional journey, and different from the work he could have done at Frontline. This tension between storytelling and reportage — and the ethical dilemmas that emerge from it — is an issue Barker sees younger documentary filmmakers struggling to negotiate.
“It’s tricky,” he said, “because documentaries have become more and more popular in recent years. We’re living through a golden age of documentaries. There’s no actual rules about how to make them now.”
Big Sky’s Greg Barker retrospective includes The Final Year, Manhunt and Koran by Heart. The Final Year screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 23, at 8:30 PM, and at the Roxy Sun., Feb. 25, at 7:45 PM.