In its 12th year, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival looks more and more like the multimedia world we see around us. It's not that the classic interview/footage kind of documentary is gone—far from it. Stories about underground punk rock in Cambodia, straight investigative features on political cover-ups and in-depth profiles on oddball artists will never go out of style. But the form is changing in new and exciting ways.
As evidence, this year's festival includes a retrospective of experimental filmmaker Sam Green's live-scored works and a wildly intricate stop-motion feature animation by Missoula artist Andy Smetanka. Legendary photographer, filmmaker and music producer John Cohen, who's worked with Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as well as documented traditional Appalachian music, exhibits his work at The Brink Gallery and plays a concert with Missoula's Scrapyard Lullaby.
Besides the multimedia events, this year's festival offers 125-plus short and feature non-fiction films, plus concerts, parties and Q&As with directors. As usual, the 11-day schedule offers too much for us to cover everything. But we've singled out a few award favorites and surprise sleepers for review, which appear below, and spoken with three fascinating filmmakers who are doing their best to push the limits of documentaries. You can read those profiles through the following links:
Need to know
When: The festival runs Fri., Feb. 6, through Mon., Feb. 16
Where: All screenings are at the Wilma Theatre, Crystal Theatre or the Top Hat Lounge
All-access pass: $299
All-screening pass: $149
Five-screening punch card: $32
Individual film tickets: $8/$6 students and seniors
John Cohen with Scrapyard Lullaby at the Top Hat: $12/$10 advance
Sam Green and Yo La Tengo present The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at the Wilma: $28/$25 advance. $10 off for passholders.
Sam Green with Brendan Canty, T. Griffin and Catherine McRae present The Measure of All Things at the Dennison Theater: $15/$12 advance.
Tickets available online and at the Wilma box office.
Visit bigskyfilmfest.org for more info.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
This film had the weird effect of making me want to move to the small, isolated town of Chadron, Neb. High aerial shots of houses surrounded by so much beige nothing, combined with the odd, eloquent people interviewed made me feel as though if I lived there, I would be known. And if by chance someday they found my scorched body tied to a tree in the hills under mysterious circumstances, the people of Chadron would wonder what had happened to me.
This is the subject of Dave Jannetta's feature length documentary Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, based on the book of the same name by author Poe Ballantine. The book concerns itself with the 2006 disappearance of Steven Haataja, who had moved to the town just three months prior to teach math at the state college. We have at the center of this thing a death that can be explained by two prevailing narratives: Either Haataja marched up the inhospitable path in order to kill himself, or he was murdered. Given the circumstances and what little evidence we have, neither story makes any damn sense. And of course there are any number of variations, like maybe he had help. But who?
The film interviews several of Haataja's friends and colleagues from the university, as well as members of law enforcement and a few random interested parties for good measure. Through these interviews we learn surprisingly little about the victim. He had a history of suicidal depression, yet he didn't seem so depressed in the months leading up to his death. He was a nerdy math guy who seemed to be adjusting relatively well to his new life. He's almost a dead end.
Thankfully the scope of this picture has the good sense to meander some into the lives of other citizens of Chadron. We spend a lot of time getting to know the book's author and his family, which includes his Mexican wife and their son, who has autism. Ballantine (that's the author's pen name) shares an intimate story of his own suicidal ideation. He had moved to Chadron as a lonely, failed writer intent on killing himself until he started to feel a little better.
The question of loneliness and suicide are woven through this picture with a poetry you rarely find in documentaries. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere should not be missed. (Molly Laich)
Love and Terror screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 6, at 10 PM and Sun., Feb. 8, at 2:15 PM. Big Sky Award competition.
Kung Fu Elliot
In 1999, a flick named American Movie came out. It was a small documentary about an affable amateur filmmaker trying to make a horror movie called Coven. American themes of drive, vision and indomitable spirit dominated the film, and it became one of the Sundance Film Festival's darlings of that year. It's hilarious, but uplifting and inspiring to see someone doing what they love.
In Kung Fu Elliot, the new documentary by Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau, the main character, Elliot, is also an affable amateur filmmaker with a drive that inspires others around him. In Elliot's case, though, he doesn't want to make a horror movie, he wants to be Canada's first real action star, a la Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme. And though the film takes place in Canada, the American Dream themes of drive, vision and spirit abound. Kung Fu Elliot is hilarious, but unlike American Movie, not inspiring. In fact, the film takes some dark and surprising turns.
The film begins with Elliot in Nova Scotia, already having developed a bit of a cult following. He's working on his third film, a huge martial arts mess called Blood Drive. Through interviews with Elliot, his cast and his tiny crew, mostly made up of his best friend and his girlfriend, the film explores Elliot's life, both past and present.
For the first two acts, this exploration brings a lot of sympathy, and one can't help but cheer for Elliot and his ridiculous dream, insipid though it may be. But as the film turns to the third act, and Elliot's character is stripped down, the film gets ugly really fast.
It's not cool to throw spoilers out into the world, but suffice it to say secrets come out, and Elliot's behavior becomes more and more erratic, leading to an ending that's incredibly shocking for an independent documentary. The ending is so surprising, and the story so nicely wrapped up, that one has to wonder if it was orchestrated somehow. Regardless, it's an intriguing movie to watch as, in the end, it's not about a man trying to make good. Rather, it's about a man totally incapable of making good, and the complete collapse of his stupid, awful, B-movie dream. (Migizi Pensoneau)
Kung Fu Elliot screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 7, at 9:15 PM.
The Possibilities Are Endless
Every rock star should be so lucky as Edwyn Collins, a tough concept considering a bleed in his brain made him unable to do things like cut his own nails or strum his guitar.
The thing is, he met this woman when he was in his prime. This was in the mid-'80s, after his Glasgow-based band Orange Juice hit No. 8 on the UK chart with "Rip It Up" and before his solo hit, "Never Met a Girl Like You Before," that groovy-hooky song you thought was in Pulp Fiction, but only should have been. (It was actually in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Sorry.)
This woman, Grace Maxwell, super dug him. He was quick and funny and preferred her company to others. And that's where he got lucky.
That story—the one about a rock star who goes on the radio and admits he's not feeling great two days before a severe cerebral hemorrhage, who then climbs his way back to a semblance of himself with the help of his wife and his music—that's the stuff of a watchable documentary. And, in fact, that got made as a half-hour BBC show not unlike "Behind the Music."
The Possibilities Are Endless isn't that. This documentary takes a more properly artful approach, with scenes imagined inside Collins' thoughts, some of which he can say and some of which are half there. In that way, this asks a lot of the audience. There's a tiny taste of who Collins was, followed by at least 20 minutes of lovely/plodding nature footage under meandering/profound audio that turns out to be Collins and Maxwell. It's quite the setup to what follows, which is a slightly more traditional, yet still artful telling of how Collins emerges.
Acts I (lovely/plodding) and II (clear-but-arty) are separated by Collins repeating the name of the film several times. It turns out that when Collins woke up during his six-month hospital stay, he could only say and repeat the words "no," "yes," "Grace Maxwell" and "the possibilities are endless."
Maxwell took him home, to the place he grew up in Scotland, and helped him learn the rest. She'd put a pencil in his hand and he wouldn't know what to do. Then he'd figure out how to draw a man, would draw him over and over, until Maxwell would say, "Could you draw me a bird?" That pushing happened enough that he became more like himself, writing lyrics again, then singing and being interviewed and performing.
But he's older now, 55, and more serious. So is she. They're changed. She still digs him. He's still lucky. Cue the sound of the sea. (Jule Banville)
The Possibilities Are Endless screens at the Wilma Mon., Feb. 9, at 6 PM.
Meet the Hitlers
Director Matthew Ogens's feature documentary Meet the Hitlers tackles the age-old question "What's in a name?" by exploring the lives of a handful of subjects who share maybe the most provocative name in western civilization. They include an American teenager named Emily Hittler; Hitler Gutierrez, a South American immigrant living in Connecticut; Gene Hitler, an affable old man from Salt Lake City; and Luaki Hitler, a native German who works as a helmsman on the ships.
On the periphery, we also meet an artist named Jim Riswold out of Portland, Ore., who uses Hitler collectables in his satirical art projects. For some real-time, if not somewhat anti-climactic action, Ogens's camera follows British journalist David Gardner as he researches the last living descendants of Adolf, who have long-since changed their name and are living incognito somewhere in America.
But it's the neo-Nazi couple in New Jersey who really run away with this thing. Heath and Deborah Campbell garnered national attention in 2009 when a local grocery story refused to make a cake for their son that said, "Happy Birthday Adolf Hitler." The Campbells saw it as an infringement of their basic rights, whereas the nation looked on in horror at a family who have gleefully branded their children into a culture of hate and discrimination. Eventually child protective services got involved and began seizing each little Nazi-named youth as fast as their mother could have them. The couple attempts to take on the government by protesting the deplorable conditions of the American foster care system. You almost start to feel for them, until the dad gets on the horn and starts talking about how the system specifically discriminates against white children—let's just say that it's clear these people perceive the world through some funny-colored lenses.
Most of the Hilters Ogen speaks to are kind, family-oriented people with no extreme political affiliations to speak of. Talking to them, you get the sense that they have overcome and are even empowered by their distinct name. When asked what makes the name precious to him, Gene Hitler says, "Well that's a philosophical question. I never thought of that." Finally he concludes, "Because it was given to me by my parents."
Meet the Hitlers is an engrossing, surprisingly warm film about family and identity as it intersects with a modern world that can never fully be rid of the past. (Molly Laich)
Meet the Hitlers screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 14, at 11:30 AM and at the Crystal Theatre Sun., Feb. 15, at 5 PM. Feature competition.
There Will Be No Stay
What does it take to erode the rock-hard psyches of two ex-Marines? Or to shake the resolve of a man of God? What demons could possibly bring a former prison warden to the verge of tears, resurfacing in nightmares throughout his life?
There Will Be No Stay frames these questions against the stirring tableau of our nation's death penalty—or, as writer, producer, director and narrator Patty Dillon calls it, the "premeditated ritual of legal homicide." As of last June, the United States had formally executed 1,379 people. According to Amnesty International, 39 of those took place in 2013 alone, ranking the U.S. fifth in the world for executions behind Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and China. But Dillon's film isn't centered on statistics or controversy. Instead, There Will Be No Stay comes off as a raw, soul-wrenching take on the fallout for those forced by government policy to stare death in the face time and again. Fair warning: The stories they recount will gnaw at you long after the credits roll.
These aren't murderers or sadists or hapless switch-throwers. These are men haunted by countless individuals others have deemed too evil to draw breath, men who found themselves turned ever so gradually against the justice system they swore to serve simply because it asked too much of them.
Terry Bracey and Craig Baxley, the aforementioned Marines-turned-executioners, bear this out as they recount their parallel paths from naïve new prison employees to tortured and unsuccessful litigants. Baxley's decades of legal killing have torn his family apart and left him dependent on therapy and pills; Bracey still fears that a "monster" lurks within. The execution chamber has left similar scars on Texas minister Carroll Pickett and retired Georgia warden Allen Ault. None seem able to wrap their heads around the paradox of answering death with death. All now stand firmly against it.
The final chapter of Dillon's documentary, ultimately, centers not on pain but on forgiveness: The son who comes to forgive his mother's killer, the death-row inmate who absolves his executioners. It's a fitting, albeit slightly predictable theme to end on for such a film. But the question Dillon's examination leaves unresolved is whether those who have carried out society's darkest deeds can forgive themselves. (Alex Sakariassen)
There Will Be No Stay screens at the Wilma Thu., Feb. 12, at 6 PM and Sun., Feb. 15, at 10 AM. Feature competition.
In March of 1971, burglars stole hundreds of documents from an FBI office in Media, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. The memos and letters revealed that the FBI was conducting an extensive operation spying on Americans, with undercover informants infiltrating everything from anti-war rallies to feminist support groups.
The citizens who exposed the FBI's wrongdoing were never caught, but they've now come forward to speak publicly in Johanna Hamilton's engaging new documentary 1971.
The director interviews people who believed citizen action and peaceful protest could stop the war in Vietnam and win the battle for civil rights. They also believed they were being watched. "It was clear that the FBI was sending in agents provocateurs when you spotted guys with crewcuts, wingtips and a tie-dye shirt," says one interviewee.
A small group of Philadelphia-area activists named themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, and decided to put their freedom, safety and families at risk in order to break into the FBI office and find out what it was up to. Here, the film uses archival footage and reenactments to show how the Citizens' Commission pulled off their incredible stunt. The group uncovered shocking evidence of the FBI's illegal activities, and photocopied the documents and mailed them to major papers and politicians.
The film also portrays an FBI that was infallible; even Congress was terrified to cross J. Edgar Hoover. Some congressmen, upon receiving photocopies of the FBI documents, immediately sent the pages back to the bureau, saying they wouldn't have anything to do with it. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times did the same, saying whoever stole the pages had committed a crime. The Washington Post, however, chose to run a front-page story about the crimes the documents proved, like illegal surveillance.
The break-in led to more than the Citizens' Commission could have imagined: It spawned a massive congressional investigation and passage of laws that restricted the FBI's power. But it also, as one burglar says, "raised the level of cynicism in this country."
Hamilton portrays a more optimistic time in the consciousness of the American public, in those pre-Watergate, Pentagon Papers or WikiLeaks days, when everyone's sense of outrage wasn't routinely exhausted and personal privacy was taken for granted. The idealism of those 1970s activists seems to have become as retro as bell-bottoms and sideburns. (Kate Whittle)
1971 screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 7, at 7:30 PM and at the Top Hat Mon., Feb. 16, at 2:30 PM. Feature competition.
Now En Español
It turns out that a few of the qualities needed to enjoy watching a ridiculous show like "Desperate Housewives" come in handy if you're an actress dubbing it into Spanish: A sense of humor. Friends who can go over plot twists while drinking copious wine. The ability to tune back in even after unbelievable drama.
Now En Español chronicles the lives of the women who dubbed the women of Wisteria Lane in a way that's both obvious and clever. The show, which aired on ABC for eight seasons (outlasting star Eva Longoria's marriage to Tony Parker), has among its gimmicks the omniscient narrator: Mary Alice. The documentary has Marabina Jaimes, who started dubbing Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) in 2005. That's when ABC decided to do what other networks weren't: pay actors to voice-over its popular shows for America's Spanish-speaking TV watchers.
"Dubbing a hit network show with all its associated glamour brought us tantalizingly close to the big time," Jaimes intones in a familiar way over bouncy "Housewives" music. "But when you get that close to your dream, being stuck on one side of the glass can lead to your very own moments of [pause] desperation."
So the theme here? Compelling and not exactly subtle. Kinda like the show!
This setup continues to send up "Housewives" with clips from the show paralleling what's happening with the actresses. It sounds clunkier than it comes off and doesn't require viewers to have Wikipedic knowledge of the show.
That's in large part because the women of the doc turn out to be more interesting than the glammed-up ladies they dub. What Now En Español focuses on and gets right is how real and how hard it is to be a Latina actor trying to get paid in L.A.
About halfway in and after some nice work has been done to establish the women's back stories and personalities, there's a clip from season five of "Housewives" when—spoiler—Edie (Nicolette Sheridan) steps in a puddle and bites it via electrocution.
The filmmakers partner that scene with what happens when the actress dubbing Edie, a glass-half-full blonde who grew up in Mexico City, gets her own shock: a door knock that leads to her eviction.
If, at this point, you were still bouncing around these ladies' lives, you now genuinely start to care about them. It's heavy and continues to dig deeper, but don't worry because the film does what Papa Troll in Frozen does when he first meets Elsa (Sorry. Seen it so many times): It leaves the fun. (Jule Banville)
Now En Español screens at the Crystal Wed., Feb. 11, at 7:30 PM and at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 15, at 4 PM. Feature competition.
Three sports docs crowd the Best Feature competition
Watch enough sports documentaries and a certain formula for success emerges. There has to be an underdog. A villain. An unexpected twist that adds to an already suffocating amount of adversity and pressure. At least one scene that raises the hair on the back of your neck. At least one other scene that brings tears to your eyes. And, in recent years, there must be one extended sequence scored by atmospheric guitar, a la Explosions in the Sky in "Friday Night Lights."
Three of the 10 selections up for this year's Best Feature award are sports documentaries that rely on these elements—including the music. But after watching all three, it's clear that, even with the right components, not all sports docs are created equal.
Personal Gold goes heavy with the underdog theme. The U.S. women's cycling team is underfunded, understaffed and mostly irrelevant in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics. No one expects much from Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed and Sarah Hammer, especially as their sport gets dragged through an international doping scandal headlined by America's own Lance Armstrong. Their team has one coach and no support staff; their husbands must learn to do everything from tune the bikes to clean the laundry to rub them down after practice. On the track, they trail the favorites by as much as 10 seconds, an eternity in the velodrome.
Enter Sky Christopherson, a former Olympian cyclist turned tech guy, and his snappy motto: "Data not doping." Christopherson is a devotee to Dr. Eric Topol, a leading practitioner of digital medicine, and believes he can essentially use emerging technology to transform Bausch, Reed and Hammer into medal contenders in a matter of months. He recruits a ton of experts, analysts and doctors—Topol included—to volunteer their time and expertise to the team, all virtually. Through the film, Christopherson ends up logging more Skype time than some long-distance lovebirds.
Personal Gold provides a cool setup, full of real drama. The odds seem insurmountable, and the personal sacrifice intense. Even the interpersonal relationships, like the husbands banding together, make for good storylines. But something seems off whenever the camera turns to Christopherson. As he dives into the science and rationale behind his approach, the film takes the look and feel of an infomercial. It's as simple as the angle and lighting of his interviews, and filters down to his polished catchphrases and salesman persona. There are scenes of Personal Gold that wouldn't look out of place on cable at 3 a.m.
Christopherson's wife, Tamara, herself a former Olympian, directed the film. The couple, along with most of the experts who appear in Personal Gold, now run OAthletes Inc., a company that's capitalizing on its pre-London success and, according to its website, continues to expand its "technology ecosystem." While elements of the data mining are truly fascinating, I started to lose sight of the athletes' pursuits and get distracted by their consultants' (i.e., the filmmakers') business interests. That's problematic when you're looking to develop a rooting interest in a film. I can't help but wonder how the same story would've been told by a filmmaker not directly invested in the team.
Boys with Broken Ears suffers no similar issue with commercial sheen or potentially mixed motives. This straightforward film follows young wrestlers in Iran, all of whom come from the country's most depressed areas. The future does not hold much promise for these boys—unless, they believe, they can win on the mat.
Director Nima Shayeghi does an excellent job of conveying just how hollow a dream these boys hold. Wrestling, in fact, offers no escape from poverty and little fame. Past champions warn of this reality. Current coaches talk of working second jobs and living with their parents. If anything, the sport is a brutal distraction from school and, with the cost and time needed for training, a burden on the athletes' already taxed families. Nevertheless, the boys know no better than to pursue glory.
Boys with Broken Ears is at its best when it explores the socioeconomic and cultural issues facing these teenagers, and provides an intimate look at parts of the country rarely seen. But like all sports docs, this one ends in the drama of a competition. In this case, it's the World Junior Championships, and the same boys we've followed through dilapidated gyms and rudimentary dorm rooms enter the arena against much wealthier nations. It's neat to finally see the modest Iranians stacked up against other wrestlers, but there's a major issue with this drawn-out third act: we've already been told it doesn't matter. Win, lose or forfeit (the latter comes into play if an Iranian draws an Israeli competitor), we know it means little to their livelihood. And pride? Sure, that's a major driving force for the boys, and usually enough reason for the audience to cheer, but it's hard to muster the enthusiasm when the rest of the film raises the stakes so much higher—and has already revealed the ultimate result.
Of the three sports docs in the Best Feature competition, Top Spin provides the best payoff. The subject matter alone is enough to pull in an audience: Olympic table tennis, better known as ping pong to you and me.
Directors Sara Newens and Mina T. Son focus on three American hopefuls, Ariel Hsing, Michael Landers and Lily Zhang. All three are normal teenagers save for the fact that they compete at an international level in a sport their friends usually play in a basement. That is, if they have friends—constant tournaments, travel and training make social interaction a challenge.
It doesn't help that the U.S. is historically awful at the sport. Since table tennis became a medal sport in 1988, the U.S. has failed to win anything. Just to qualify for the London games, players must win at the U.S. trials and then against Canada in the North American trials. Only three men and three women from the two countries get to go to the Olympics.
Newens and Son make all of this easy to follow with crisp graphics throughout the film. Even more impressive is the super-slow motion video of the players in action, where we get to see the athleticism and grace within the sport, as well as, most notably, the precise spin of the ball on every shot. Like Personal Gold, it makes a fringe sport easily accessible to the average viewer.
The heart of Top Spin, however, remains with the plight of its three main characters. Landers is on the cusp of greatness, with a New York Times profile under his belt, his picture about to appear on a cereal box and David Letterman's people calling about an appearance on the show. The kid runs himself ragged during training sessions and throughout a humbling trip to China. But when you see his hotel room during a different training camp in California, it's littered with Sour Patch Kids and empty cereal boxes. During a Skype session his sister just wants to know if he's lonely.
Then there's Hsing and Zhang, who hardly seem old enough to be facing similar pressures. There are still Little Mermaid posters on their walls and games of Wii to be played.
All of this backstory feeds perfectly into the North America trials, when these three underdog Americans get one chance to achieve their goals. The villains are played by older, cagier Canadians standing in their way. There are twists, and comebacks, and improbable shots, and an ending that you will not see coming. Unless, that is, you've seen enough sports documentaries to know that there's always some way to end on a hopeful note. (Skylar Browning)
Boys with Broken Ears screens Sat., Feb. 7, at 10:15 AM at the Crystal and Sun., Feb. 8, at 7 PM at the Crystal. Personal Gold screens Wed., Feb. 11, at 5:30 PM at the Crystal and Mon., Feb. 16, at 10 AM at the Wilma. Top Spin screens Thu., Feb. 12, at 4 PM and Sun., Feb. 15, at 5:15 PM, both at the Wilma.