Sergeant Dan Edwards, Andy Smetanka
Big Sky Update
Wednesday, Feb 27th update:
I’m home and seguing into routines. I keep thinking about certain films. That quirky Love at a Certain Age keeps calling me. I’m including a trailer here for all of you. Watch for this film! Beg for it! Cross your fingers that Gil will find some love and that Max will live forever! Florida seniors in the Sarasota area, watch out. You are about to be exposed. In a good way.
Saturday morning tells me it’s almost the end of this week at the Festival. I’m emerging from the fog of film overload and starting to think about the new friends I’ve made here. Some are local twenty-somethings working the festival in exchange for all access passes. Some are out-of-town filmmakers, either entered in competition with hopes on their sleeves or pitching their films to powerful media folks. Others are locals out for a film date. Others are proud parents of film makers. Some like me came for one thing and watched purpose morph as events unfolded. It’s a bit of magic fraying ever so slightly on the edges as the close draws near. It fuels hope for grand futures and dreams.
But on with the films. A wonderful line-up of shorts begins this morning plus features this afternoon and evening. Come. Be here. Experience.
A little word about another award winner. The Words in the Margins by Sara Mott, shown early in the week, was rightfully awarded. It is a powerful piece Kare Enga and I mused about afterwards, which speaks to immigrants, struggles to learn English, visa issues even for those who are deserving. A perhaps 30-something Kenyan, who speaks many languages well, tutors a Latino 30-year-old who graduated from an American high school but who cannot read. The legal status of both is not clear, but what the men share is an understanding of the difficulty of the other’s position in life. To not read is a fundamental door-closer. To be thirty with a diploma and not read well enough to fill out an application, pass a drivers licence test, read any thing of substance…that is disenfranchisement.
What moves us in the story is partially the gift that the non-reader gives the Kenyan. It is an extension of what he intuitively knows how to do: work with moving parts and make a very cool bicycle. We see his strength and intellect and humanity and thankfulness in that bicycle. We see those in the margins stretching to be set free. Great film. As Kare says, “it should be shown in every school.” I agree.
Special thanks to Leisa, our Indieitpress.com editor in chief, friend, and fellow movie watcher. We have seen some films, haven’t we? Special thanks to Nancy for hosting me and squeezing in some films with us. Ann
It’s Friday night and the festival awards were just announced at the after party. Some surprises, some rewards.
Tonight I enjoyed two films (a double feature!), having to do with veterans and the outdoors:
Not Yet Begun To Fight, with Sabrina Lee and Shasta Grenier directing, is a film about severely injured Iraq and Afghan war vets learning to fly fish as part of the Warriors Quiet Waters Program. Soul searching while casting a fly rod, with a retired Marine Colonel with his own baggage from Viet Nam in charge makes for strong content. The film took the Big Sky Award tonight. Many of the men double amputees, they fished from Hyde and Clackacraft guide boats on the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers and an undisclosed location, which might have been in Yellowstone National Park or on a spring creek in the Paradise Valley. Just guessing.
Earlier in the afternoon I enjoyed another touching love story, The One That Got Away. I liked it a lot. It began as a Holocaust survivor story ( said the two film makers on stage after the screening) but morphed into a story of the rejoining of two octogenarians who had been in love when they were 14, imprisoned in a Nazi prison. Thomas Beck set out to retrace his steps in Hungary and Slovakia and in the process found Edith Greiman, now living in Australia. Spoiler: it has a happy and unexpected ending.
Tomorrow is my last festival day. Heading west into the sunset, as it were, Sunday. Into the storms, with a mandatory stop in Wallace to see my favorite space ship.
It’s Thursday night and the final push of films is about to begin, mixed with winners who will be announced Friday, and the scheduling of replays of winning films through Sunday night. The Documentary Diva needs more sleep.
I spent the day listening and watching “pitches” of new films before a panel of experts. Each previously screened participant was assigned a time slot, and when their time came stood in front of the assembled judges and audience, to show a trailer of their film that would highlight a significant theme or intent of the film. Participants paid for the privilege and received feedback from all judges. Panelists included the most qualified representatives from CNN, ITVS, BBC-Storyville, Sundance and POV (PBS)– a heavy line-up with experience to back their opinions.
The trailers were astounding, inspiring, impressive. The themes covered women’s issues in the form of a colorful profile , musical band profiles (Joe Purdy), scientific persuasion pieces, inspirational pieces, Jesse Trevino artist, improper use of force by police issues, and local social commentary. One local favorite was the clip for a film about the giant peace symbol that stood on the hill above Missoula for many years, and the conflicted feeling the sign generated among former military members in the community.
The panel members exhibited a tremendous level of insight and offered constructive advice for further defining the film’s scope, and suggested ways to develop a tighter focus in some cases. Comments offered reminded me of a fiction or creative non-fiction critique/work-shopping session in University. Focus on characters, developing a frame work for the story and creating an arc, all play important roles in film making.
Contestants are getting anxious and excited as we move closer to award time. I chatted with the film makers of Love at a Certain Age–(Logan and Kyle)–as they were heading home to LA this afternoon, and wished them luck. They have a sparkle in their eyes that comes following a very warm reception for their feature film debut.
This evening two films called me: first to the Wilma and then the Crystal Theatre. Blood Brother by Director Steve Hoover is a poignant account of a twenty-something man, Rocky Braat, and the kids he cares for as a volunteer in an orphanage for HIV-positive children in Tamil Nadu, India where he has been working for three years. If you have been to India, many scenes of ordinary life will look familiar. If you have visited India it may make you nostalgic to return. India is a challenging place for most Westerners. But knowing there are ways to make a significant difference strengthens many would be tourists, and empowers them to overlook the poverty and celebrate the beautiful. Leisa and I were both wiping away tears at the end. A touching, perhaps brilliant film. FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE: JUST ANNOUNCED: WINNER OF THE FEATURE LENGTH DOCUMENTARY FILM AWARD.
Our second film of the evening, Be Here To Love Me (2004) by Margaret Brown, is not new but poignant none the less. It’s the story of the rise of musician Townes Van Zandt. In film clips of the performer, conversations with various ex-wives, other well-known musicians and music promoters, we learn much about the troubled man who died at 52. Van Zandt’s music playing in the background creates an atmospheric film. One of my favorite songs, Poncho and Lefty, is known to me as a Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard number. Surprise! It’s a Van Zandt creation. If you like folk music docs, this might be one for you.
Today I interviewed both Andrew Hinton (Amar) and Doug Hawes-Davis, (BSDFF Festival Founder). Interviews will follow a bit of editing.
And it’s a wrap. As a friend from home said to me today, “Ann the Bohemian has merged with Documentary Diva.” And let me tell you, she is exhausted.
Homework: define the following terms: Vimeo, engagement strategy, potential for engagement, post-production values, visual style, characters, arc, framing.
And an apology to Josh Lauer for failing to recognize him without his hat. May I claim fatigue?
Wednesday night, I think, under the Big Sky. Snow this morning, a cold wind this afternoon, with a prediction of more heading our way.
What a day of doc workshops, a lunch-time burger at the MO Club ( I was the only patron for the first 15 minutes!), a networking reception, interviews, and two feature documentaries tonight. Director Christina Schultz came by, chatting up the St George Documentary Film Festival, a five day gathering, Sept 3-7, 2013. Southern Utah anyone?
This afternoon I had the chance to interview Seattle documentary film maker Kevin Tomlinson, and talk about his film Back to the Garden. The film has had a sucessful run in many film festivals over the past few years including Seattle, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Maui, Olympia and more. Yet he is here to attend the informative doc shop sessions to learn about new trends in film distribution and other market changes as he nears completion of his next feature film.
Tonight’s feature length docs were spectacular:
I Am Not Rock Star, directed by Bobbi Jo Hart: A coming of age story, filmed over the span of 8 years, following classical pianist Marika Bournaki. Set primarily in Montreal and New York City, we see the toll on both the musician and her family through years of intense practice, travel and devotion to her craft. In fact she is a rock star in anybody’s book. At the end of the film she is 20 years old.
The Central Park Five: a Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns documentary about the wrongful conviction of five teenage black men in New York City in 1989, and their eventual release when a serial rapist admitted to the crime. The young men spent between 6 and 13 years in prison. A powerful film with many interview clips detailing the case. Well worth the 120 minutes.
The Tuesday/Wednesday Update:
The days are blurring together here in beautiful Missoula. I’ve been going to sleep about 2 am and getting up at 8 am for too many days now. Today was no exception.
Films last until late into the evening. The gatherings for film makers, volunteers and media are sandwiched between. Today seminars on various topics critical to film makers dominated: legal considerations, contracts, liability insurance, LLC status, 501 (c) 3 status; changing distribution patterns for documentary films–including Youtube, Itunes, self-distribution; advice from Shanida Scotland of the BBC on how they fund, co-produce and acquire films. Clearly there is more to making a film than handling a camera and a boom mike.
Tonight a group of short films dominated the program. The subjects ranged from a boxer attempting a comeback; a 4 minute profile of a musician playing at a farmers’ market; a middle-aged roller blader, self-named Slomo; a member of the Houma tribe who dresses as an “Indian” Santa while bringing gifts to children in smaller communities along the bayous including Dulac, Lousiana; The Union Man: a touching portrait of a custodian with delayed scholastic dreams working in the Student Union of a Texas University, in a black and white film format.
I was struck with the magic of the short film Amar by Andrew Hinton. Presented as a straightforward expose of a day in the life of a young man, Amar, from India, we are shown determination uncommonly seen in the US. He arises at 4 am to deliver newspapers on his bicycle in the darkness, then goes to work in a small electronics shop, and after noon carefully changes his clothes and combs his hair at home before arriving at school by 1 PM. He studies, reads aloud in class, seems exceedingly bright and serious, before returning to the electronics shop for the rest of the day. After nightfall he returns home, does homework by a bare bulb until about 11 PM, then sleeps.
While visiting friends in NE India, film maker Hinton was introduced to Amar. Touched by his condition Hinton made the film, vowing to share prize money if any came his way when the film was completed. It did win awards and he did share money insuring Amar’s continuance in school. The film is an exceptional example of the power of a documentary film to inform, without a musical track to artificially raise ones emotions. The simple images do the work.
FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE: JUST ANNOUNCED: WINNER OF THE MINI LENGTH DOCUMENTARY FILM AWARD.
To view the film Amar: https://vimeo.com/19890458
To learn more about the organization that drew Andrew to India: Initiatives of Change:
Also on the docket tonight were two films directed by filmmakers I have interviewed this week. It’s a curious thing to do an interview before seeing a film.
The Mercantile, directed by Brian Bolster, is a close look at a multi-faceted bakery and general store near the end of a dirt road in Polebridge, MT, just south of the Canadian border. Bolster is known for a previously awarded documentary called the Lookout which ran at this festival in 2012. While not as stunningly visual as The Lookout, The Mercantile shares a strong sense of place with the audience.
Scavenger, by Torben Bernhard and Travis Low, is a thoughtful portrait–shot in Thailand–of a man who lives very simply in a slum-like setting, supporting a family of seven with sales of collected recyclable materials from roadside garbage cans. His positive attitude and acceptance of his life circumstances are treated with respect and dignity by the film makers. Two scenes near the end of the piece stick with me: a long, almost uncomfortably long moment, when the camera lingers on Wichan Chaona’s face, and an almost slow-mo sequence as he rides away on his motorcycle/truck, slowly growing further away from the audience, who have come to care deeply for his situation. These are strong visual, film-making moments– the kind that stick. For more on this film and others in a related series: www.lostandfoundseries.com.
One other comment kept coming up today: the shortage of female film makers. It seems to be a male-dominated enclave here in Missoula. Whether this is an anomaly this year at this festival or a reflection of the industry I cannot be sure. What I do know is that we are all noticing. There have been notable exceptions definitely. But overall…
KSVR fm radio in Mt Vernon, WA, has been airing my called-in daily reports from the festival. I would like to send them a huge thank you for encouraging me to be the best reporter I can be in this rich environment. There will be editing work to do when I get home…shaping a collage from the many voices recorded this week.
And now sleep.
The Monday update:
The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival continues. Young, talented film makers roll into town, often appearing for Q and A’s after the showing of a film. Did I mention how young they are?
Highlights today included El Ultimo Hielero (The last Ice Man), a short film about Baltazar Ushca, a man from a small village in Ecuador who continues the tradition of packing his donkeys into the high mountains to chip off large chunks of glacial ice, which he wraps in straw, ties onto his animals, and packs down the mountains to town to sell on the street. His brothers have abandoned the natural ice business, declaring it a dying one with the arrival of electricity and an ice making machine in the village. Beautiful cinematography. By Director Sandy Patch.
The Mountain Between Us, directed by Stanford grad Maria Fortiz-Morse, is a 14 minute film documenting the challenges that girls face in pursuit of education in rural Nepal. Filmed in a remote village in the Everest region, Fortiz-Morse tracks the desire of two particular girls to step out of the village tradition of early arranged marriage. Fortiz-Morse speaks Nepali, which she learned during a six month home stay while in college, before pursuing her MFA in film from Stanford. She is one of a double handful of female film makers present this week. Her work was commissioned by two NGOs.
But the film that sold out–with a line out the door–was the film: Love at a Certain Age, by film makers Logan Hendricks and Kyle Clark. Set in Sarasota County, Florida it’s a story of four seniors as they navigate love in their sunset years.
Gil, a comical 72 year-old, married three times and now single, with an intense attraction for Judy, believes dancing is the key to happiness. Will he and Judy get back together after their umpteenth break-up and find happiness? Will their love of garage sales and .25 drinking glasses be the glue to bind them?
Will the good-natured widow Max, at 101, find companionship in his assisted living community or at the VFW dances or the Community Center dances? Still dancing and driving, his zest for life and clarity of thought is inspiring.
Vi and her husband, in their 90s and married 73 years, reflect on their love and health crises during the past years. A couple who watch the sunset each evening and bet on how long it will take for the sun to drop below the horizon, makes you wonder how they got so lucky. They offer plenty of advice for others.
The young film makers show us that love at any age is tender, wrought with peril, and how powerful the desire for companionship and human touch really is.
Look forward to hearing interviews with directors soon, for I have been busy. And yes, it snowed all day but didn’t really accumulate.
International features have consumed my attention here at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. But Sunday morning the film Building Babel was a knockout. The focus is on Park 51, the controversial Muslim prayer center and multi-cultural center proposed two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, NY. If you want background on the project developer, a Brooklyn raised American-Muslim, and more than a media byte, this is the film to see.
This morning brought a series of shorts, including the four-minute People Aren’t All Bad by director Matthew Hashiguchi of Cleveland. I interviewed him post filming. Interesting young man. Yes, it’s a family related story of the Japanese internment camps during WWII. Yes, it’s part of a longer piece, and powerful.
A short trailer of People Aren’t all bad: https://vimeo.com/53473049
I had a first glimpse of the animated, “Great War” related film Sergeant Dan Edwards by Andy Smetanka. It’s six minutes worth of a Kickstarter-funded film he’s been working on this year. Vivid paper cut images, against a backdrop of tissue paper and velum, move and react to a narration drawn from first person accounts of the war. Andy, you are on to something.
The awaited The Great Northwest, directed by Matt McCormick, a film which recreates the 1958, three thousand mile adventure drive of four Seattle women, reminded me that although many of the landmarks have changed the beauty of the natural scenery has not. It reminded me of my mother’s home movies over the last 40 years. Mom, take that as a compliment.
And then there is Seeking Asian Female, directed by Debbie Lum. A funny and poignant story of a white, sixty-year-old California male seeking a young Chinese girlfriend/wife via the internet. One interesting aspect is how unintentionally involved the film maker becomes as a translator for the couple because Lum speaks Chinese. She seems to be the glue that holds the couple together as they wade through the predictable struggles of an almost mail-order bride arrangement. Her sympathy for both parties keeps a balance within the story. It’s one easy to have an opinion about before you see it, but I walked away changed.
I finished the day off with two films that could not be more different in tone: The World According to Dick Cheney (political rehash of the George W. Bush years with lots of powerful interview clips) and Exotic World, a film about the now abandoned Mohave desert museum for Burlesque legends and revivalists. The Portland based, female film makers of Exotic World were in attendance.
Saturday’s favorites were two international films:
Sweet Dreams, a film chronicling the power of drumming to change women’s lives post genocide by a group of women from Rwanda and their further efforts to form a cooperative to make and sell ice cream.
People of a Feather, a film with terrific footage of the harsh natural world of the Inuit people on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay. The underwater photography of Eider ducks diving for sea urchins and mussels is astounding, but the film is really about the impact of increased fresh water discharge from hydro-electric dams in winter and the resultant change in salinity and disruption of ice formation. The film explores the impacts from technology that are unexpected, perhaps irreversible, and devastating to a culture and the food chain.
“Documentary viewers are the smartest and best informed film goers in the world, right?” says Director Gita Sadie Kiley.
This is not your father’s History Channel. The new docs are edgy, inspiring, close-lens studies of significant world-wide events. Plus a bit of fun. Come out and join the intellectual party in three locations: two screens in the Wilma Theatre, and one screen at the Crystal Theatre, a short walk on the other side of the river.
In its tenth incarnation the Festival promises a vast array of meritorious films, from local to global in scope. Captivating subjects with diversity of subject matter–from Buzkashi contestants from the Pamir Mountains of Tajikstan (3:15 PM, Saturday, Feb 16th) to the story of Maine dairy farmers trying to create their own Organic Milk Cooperative for business survival in Betting the Farm (1:30 PM, Saturday, Feb 16th).
Festival Director, Gita Sadie Kiley, and Director of Programming, Travis Morss, speak about the festival, the emergence of the documentary film genre, highlights of the upcoming festival, and the place of Missoula in the Doc Festival business in an interview this week with me on KSVR fm radio.
As they say: The Big Sky Documentary Festival: Where Reality Plays Itself.
I’ll be packing up my Subaru and heading east Thursday morning. Just like the women from 1958, which inspired the film The Great Northwest (Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Crystal Theatre, 3:30 pm). I’m keeping a journal and collecting postcards from stops along my 550 mile pathway. My modern version will undoubtedly include encounters at most of the independent java stops and Starbucks along I-90 (North Bend, Cle Elem, Ritzville, Liberty Lake); Wallace ( for the spaceship and perhaps lunch); the $50,000 Silver Dollar Bar/casino/huge gift shop (Montana’s version of Wall Drug); Superior for the atmosphere; and finally arriving in Missoula, home of the Wilma Theatre and the James Bar’s sweet potato fries. Perhaps in thirty years someone will find my journals and make a documentary retracing my steps. Ummm. My advice? See the film now.
Other films to watch:
Sergeant Dan Edwards, a bit of Andy Smetanka’s Kickstarter-funded, animated Great War documentary feature. Sunday, Feb 17th, 11:30 AM– a 6 minute short.
Fly fishers will be watching Not Yet Begun to Fight, as wounded Vets learn to fish in this Montana Premier (2012), Friday, February 22nd, 6:45 PM.
And the greatly anticipated and the much talked about, The World According to Dick Cheney, Sunday Feb. 17th, 7:15 pm. Straight from Sundance.
Of particular local pride are the Made in Montana entries, from The Mercantile (5:30 PM) to Howdy, Montana (7 PM). Stories that resonate– Tuesday, Feb 16th.
Get your comfy pants on, pack those Junior Mints, and see you at the movies. Updates will follow…of course they will.