Early on in the film Howdy, Montana, Joey Running Crane and his band Goddammitboyhowdy are seen practicing in the upstairs of a house in the town of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. The three young men seem introverted at first, engaging in small talk with little emotion as Running Crane restrings his guitar. But when they burst into their three-chord punk rock songs, suddenly they seem set free, as if they’ve hit a level of ecstasy that only music could deliver for them. Clapping and grinning, they sing together, “You must become the fire! Set! Yourself! On fire!”
Howdy, Montana is one of 125-plus films screening this year at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The 10-day festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and that milestone marks how, in its own way, the festival has caught fire over the years, becoming one of the most anticipated events in Missoula and the largest cinematic event in Montana. This year brings a few changes, including the departure of longtime festival director Mike Steinberg and the arrival of his successor, Gita Saedi Kiely. It’s also the first time in a few years that there won’t be a live-scored film; in the past Yo La Tengo, Next Door Prison Hotel, Boston’s Alloy Orchestra and local bands have provided a popular musical element to the festival lineup.
Changes aside, this year still offers an ample collection of films you’ve never heard of and others that have received recent national buzz. It can be an overwhelming barrage of content, so in honor of the 10th anniversary, we offer 10 must-see recommendations. If these documentaries don’t light a fire under you, nothing will.
Made in Montana
The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is beloved for annually corralling hundreds of stories from around the world and bringing them to downtown Missoula. While there’s always a global feel to the schedule, most of these stories can be boiled down to a few core elements: people and the small and big life risks they take. That means the stories can happen anywhere, including Montana.
This year, the festival showcases 10 films made in Montana that reveal how, even in a state with relatively few people, the types of stories run as wide and deep as the landscape.
Howdy, Montana, made by Brooklyn filmmakers Matt Cascella and Corey Gegner, peeks into the life of a punk rock musician through the lens of Blackfeet Reservation life. Broken into chapters, the story captures Running Crane being both goofy and serious; his sweet relationships with Missoula actress Lily Gladstone (Winter in the Blood), and with his family, who, despite having little money, have created a sober, supportive environment in which Running Crane’s musical talents have flourished. There are slow moving parts—shots of daily work and practice time—and also some intensely poignant moments, including one at the Oxford when Gladstone and Running Crane encounter a drunken American Indian. The filmmakers illuminate real complexities here, of being young, being Indian, being in love, being sad, being poor and being grateful. All with humor, too. Between the chapters about Running Crane are profile snippets of other Montanans the filmmakers encountered, including dobro player Andy Dunnigan playing in his brightly lit kitchen, Drummond artist and rancher Bill Ohrmann showing off his museum of paintings that speak to environmental destruction, and a barbershop quartet. Missoulians will get a kick out of seeing familiar spots: the Ear Candy Music record store where Running Crane and Gladstone eat Big Dipper ice cream, local recording celebrity Shmedly Maynes’ studio and the music venue below the Zootown Arts Community Center known as as the BSMT.
Bozeman filmmakers Sabrina Lee and Shasta Grenier bring a similar keen lens to Not Yet Begun to Fight. It’s the story of retired U.S. Marine Col. Eric Hastings, a veteran of Vietnam who turned to fly-fishing to help overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder and has since taken under his wing five Iraq war vets who also find solace on the river. It’s a non-sugarcoated look at mostly young men whose nightmares and missing limbs seem like insurmountable problems. The film never gets too melodramatic—and there’s no need to do so. Certain surprising details turn what could be an overwhelmingly depressing theme into an engaging narrative. Big Sky audiences shouldn’t be surprised by the strong storytelling considering that Grenier last co-directed festival favorite Class C: The Only Game in Town.
Montana filmmaker Andy Smetanka screens Sergeant Dan Edwards, part of a larger World War I project that involves his use of colorful silhouette animation. This short is a stand-alone piece, though Smetanka says it might be incorporated into the full-length film. He used intricate paper cutouts of trees, guns and military men, plus narration by former Indy editor Brad Tyer, to tell the tale of true-life veteran Dan Edwards, whose fantastic escape from enemy capture seems straight out of a movie script. The process of animation for this short film is just as fantastical—or, Smetanka might tell you, tedious—as he has created every shot by hand and filmed it with a Super 8mm camera.
Saved By the Birds is another short film that explains how Montanan Helen Carlson went from being suicidal 45 years ago to a champion bird watcher today; it’s directed by Missoula’s own Damon Ristau. The Great Northwest involves Montana filmmaker Matt McCormick recreating a 3,200-mile road trip made by four Seattle women in 1958, reconstructed from a scrapbook he found in a thrift shop. Eagle Boy follows a young American Indian from the Flathead Reservation as his family moves to Norway. Still other locally focused films cover the Polebridge Mercantile, the plight of bison, a fascinating character who plays piano at the Pattee Creek supermarket and a drifter musician who sings at Helena’s Saturday market.
These 10 Montana films scratch the surface of the complicated characters we have here—evidence that you can’t reduce Montana to just Charlie Russell skies and wolf issues.
The Made in Montana movies play at various times throughout the festival. Go to bigskyfestival.org for showtimes.
The Central Park Five
“Alleged” was perhaps the single most important word I learned in journalism school. It’s the word we’re all taught to carefully insert before a suspect’s accusations, mostly to avoid getting sued, but ostensibly to respect a tenet of the U.S. justice system: “Innocent until proven guilty.”
I was reminded of this while watching The Central Park Five, Ken Burns’ documentary about five black and Latino teenagers who confessed, in writing and on video, to the brutal 1989 Central Park Jogger rape—a rape that evidence later showed they could not have committed. Journalists, police officers and anyone remotely interested in justice and racism should watch this.
Central Park Five is as visual, taut and horrifying as any crime thriller movie. It’s as masterfully executed as one would expect of Burns, including an astonishing amount of contemporary footage and news clips.
All of the now exonerated Central Park Five men are interviewed, but Raymond Santana appears the most often. He’s a well-spoken, affable-seeming man whose youth, like all the others, was taken from him by a rabid media and apparently bullheaded prosecutors.
The documentary does its best to explain why scared, sleep-deprived teenage boys confessed in detail to something they didn’t do, and why journalists of the day latched on to a story that was full of holes from the start. Unfortunately, we never get to hear any explanations from the police or prosecutors.
One of the oddest and most powerful moments comes toward the end, when a voiceover from Matias Reyes, the actual rapist, describes why he came forward and told police he did it after bumping into one of the five, Kharey Wise, in prison. Reyes talks about how he saw Wise’s misery and it seemed unfair that a kid be imprisoned for something he didn’t do. It’s powerful compassion coming from a serial rapist and murderer.
Other reviews have said Central Park Five doesn’t add many new details for people who remember what happened, but I don’t think that’s the intended audience. Burns made the film with his daughter, Sarah, who, like me, is too young to remember the events. (She first learned about the events as a Yale law student and went on to write a 2011 book, also titled The Central Park Five.) The documentary seems more fitting for millennials who are becoming adults in an America where the 24/7 media only seems increasingly ravenous for scandal, lurid details and fast convictions. It would do us all good to remember the spirit, and not just the letter, of “alleged.”
The Central Park Five screens at the Wilma Wed., Feb. 20, at 7:45 PM.
Only the Young
The place is Canyon Country, a mostly abandoned desert town in southern California, and our guides through this untamed wilderness are a trio of Christian punk rock teenagers.
“Children are the gods of this city,” one of the teens, Garrison, tells us.
“Yeah, and there’s still nothing to do here,” Kevin adds.
Their female friend, Skye, is a pretty alterna-teen, orphaned by irresponsible parents and raised by her grandfather. She’s strong, sullen and witty, and so, typical of their age, the boys in her life take her for granted.
Only the Young offers little by way of context or chronology. Instead, we measure the passing of time by the kids’ changing hairstyles. Garrison has shaggy brown hair, then glasses, then magenta bangs. Later in the film, when Skye rocks a half-mullet and finds herself adored by more than one suitor, she has to conclude: “It’s the hair."
Directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet have given us an incredibly sweet, intimate portrait of these kids. At just over an hour, the film takes the time to linger on dripping faucets, birds of prey and plenty of skateboarding footage.
The boys wear Minor Threat and Black Flag T-shirts, which make their Christianity at once baffling and touching. More than anything, it’s sweet just how much they love each other. Garrison and Skye have an ongoing thing, but it’s the friendship between Garrison and Kevin that takes precedence. Kevin has a dark side; Garrison is shy and unsure of what he wants to say. To watch Garrison confront Kevin about his self-destructive behavior, or Skye about her negative attitude, is to witness an act of bravery.
Of course, it’s not always so serious. A lot of times they just act like kids, like when the two boys dress up like Gandalf for Halloween. They speak to each other with a lot of dry, knowing humor. There are places with dialogue so punchy the film seems cut together like an indie comedy.
Watching Only the Young, you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of competent storytellers. These particular kids are interesting, sure, but a lot of the pleasure of the film comes in how they’re framed. We should expect great things from Mims and Tippet in the future.
Only the Young screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 22, at 8:30 PM.
Brandon Darby was essentially a god among radical activists in the South in the mid-2000s. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he traveled to New Orleans from his home in Austin, Texas, to rescue friend and former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson. Darby succeeded, and spent the subsequent months bucking officials in the city’s Ninth Ward as one of the co-founders of the relief group Common Ground.
Thus begins director Jamie Meltzer’s critically acclaimed documentary, which snagged the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s New York Documentary Festival. The ensuing years of Darby’s life play out on film like paint peeling off a house in fast-forward, as internal conflict and outside pressure chip away at the man’s ideology. As Darby sums up the post-Katrina fallout as “really fucking sad” early in the film, it’s hard not to feel he’s foreshadowing his own future.
By now, the name Brandon Darby has become synonymous in activist circles with words like snitch, rat, turncoat, fake, backstabber. His role as an FBI informant landed David McKay and Bradley Crowder—known collectively as the Texas Two—in prison following the riotous 2008 Republican National Convention protests in St. Paul, Minn. The duo idolized Darby; he got them busted for constructing Molotov cocktails. Now Darby receives frequent death threats, lives with a gun close at hand, and tours the country warning Tea Party groups of the immediate threat posed by his former cohorts. But how did a man once devoted to revolutionary ideals, indeed a man who would have made the Molotovs himself, wander so far from the radical left?
The answer is a tragic tale of mounting depression and dissolution, which Meltzer lays out through a diverse cast of law enforcement officials, reporters and activists. Each acts as a foil to Darby’s central narration, challenging his recollection of events and even calling b.s. at times. Informant makes it increasingly more difficult to trust Darby’s own account of how he went from patron saint to pariah. He becomes erratic, almost un-credible, as if the very foundation of his 30-odd years of life has crumbled beneath him.
Darby’s path is littered with the stuff of mental breakdowns. That may not explain why his internal pendulum swung so dramatically along the political spectrum. It does, however, explain why Informant is the kind of film you can’t take your eyes off. We’re all attracted to imperfections, particularly when they foretell imminent collapse. The sad truth is, Darby has no one to blame for the shoddy work but himself. And nowhere is the length of his fall more evident than when Wilkerson, the very man he’d gone with to New Orleans to save, states Brandon Darby “is dead to me.”
Informant screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 23, at 6:30 PM.
Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.
Don Letts, legendary London scene-maker, director and musician, describes the Bad Brains as “America’s Sex Pistols.” For those unaware of the Brains, this might be a readily accessible description. Those of us familiar with the band’s catalogue, as well as its place in punk rock, black and American music history, might say “bollocks” to Letts’ description. Personally, I wouldn’t let Sid Vicious (RIP) sniff Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer’s volume knobs.
The documentary begins with an unsurprising altercation between Jenifer and lead vocalist H.R. during a recent tour. H.R. is well known to be mercurial. In fan footage from the early ’80s, he is an energetic, engaging frontman who does backflips and swims into the crowd incessantly, all the while belting out lyrics about PMA (Positive Mental Attitude, the band’s mantra). For the last 25 years, H.R.’s antics have often manifested as the ire-inducing shenanigans of a crazed Christ-figure egomaniac or of a pouting 5-year-old. He stares and smiles at the crowd with a turban on his head as the band shreds. He wears a motorcycle helmet with a microphone inside it. He decides not to show up to perform at all.
For Ben Logan and Mandy Stein, the creators of this documentary, these antics and the years of on-again, off-again fighting between Jenifer and H.R. form the film’s emotional center, and it’s where they expend the most energy. Too bad the directorial duo couldn’t avoid the reality TV trap of constant, insistent turmoil and false tension, but there it is—they gave H.R. a stage to perform on, what else would you expect?
A Band in D.C. is at its best when it visits the past. Like all films about punk rock these days, this one includes gray-stubbled and balding stalwarts of the scene’s glory days. Harley Flanagan and John Joseph (Cro-Mags) share insightful and hilarious tales of yore with spectacular Brooklyn accents and diction. Two other heroes of the early Washington, D.C., scene show up as well: Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi) talk about how the band influenced their lives and sound. But it’s Dave Grohl’s (Nirvana/Foo-Fighters) genuine passion for the drumming of Earl Hudson that makes this less a runaway sycophant love train and instead an elegant illustration of how musicians communicate and learn from one another.
With little footage and few photos from the early days, the film does well to employ charming cartoon drawings to retell the tales of the past. But the best piece of nostalgia occurs when the Brains return to an old practice space on the fringes of D.C. The two-story house had caught fire and now lacks doors and windows. The band talks about being young and practicing there for hours in the basement, recording all the music they were churning out. A band friend and the home’s owner shows them a melted reel-to-reel recorder lying in the weeds outside, the machine’s body an ooze of gelatinous plastic barely recognizable but for two warped reels. The camera stays on the pile as the bandmates silently stare at it, floods of nostalgia and passing time undoubtedly seizing their thoughts.
Bad Brains: A Band in D.C. screens at the Crystal Theatre Mon., Feb. 18, at 7:15 PM.
New Orleans has received its fair share of love letters, especially since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Spike Lee’s excellent When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts set the bar for celebrating the Crescent City’s history, culture and scarred beauty, followed closely by David Simon’s HBO series “Treme.” Tchoupitoulas deserves to be held in the same esteemed company.
Made by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, this lyrical documentary follows three teenage brothers as they essentially come of age during a single night in the city. At least that’s the general gist. More dreamscape than straight narrative, Tchoupitoulas was actually filmed over the course of nine months to capture all of the pageantry and peculiarities that make New Orleans special.
The decision to experience the city through the eyes of three adolescent boys makes this film more than just your average sightseeing tour. The camera catches all matter of late-night action, including a drag show, parade and, this being New Orleans, several different music performances. Those scenes are interspersed by the wide-eyed ruminations of William, the youngest of the three adventurous brothers. He discusses young love and personal dreams and religion. He’s the type of talker and thinker begging for ridicule from his older brothers, and he receives it, but he elevates a beautiful-looking film into one that’s also poignant.
“This is everything I hoped for,” William says early in the “night.” “The naked pictures, the clubs. You guys know what I’m talking about?”
The Ross brothers deserve just as much credit for how they portray a city that, if it weren’t so vibrant and threatened, you may have grown tired of by now. In Tchoupitoulas, the blemishes receive as much attention as the glitter and beads, and the focus is on sections of nightlife that many have missed. In one scene, we watch from the wings of the stage as burlesque performer Perle Noire, wearing just a G-string and pasties, dances, flips and splits for a raucous audience that we can only hear. The camera follows her throughout the athletic performance, then stays with her backstage as she catches her breath and puts on her robe—then a few minutes longer as she adjusts the robe and watches the next act. That sort of patience and appreciation of detail become the lasting impressions of this film—and perhaps a lesson for how we should view the city itself.
Tchoupitoulas screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 17, at 1:45 PM.
The opening minutes of Blood Brother are disorienting and horrid. There’s no context to a scene that involves a dark room surrounded by onlookers gawking through barred windows at a sick Indian girl, her distraught father and a young white man urging the father to go, now, to the hospital. The young white man can take them on his motorcycle, but they have to go—now.
What follows is a rush that you can barely make out in the wobbly headlights of the motorcycles and passing street lamps. The action only slows once the motorcycles are blocked at a train crossing. There’s yelling and panic and pleas for the girl to hold on and then she goes completely limp in her father’s arms on the back of the bike. Without knowing who these people are, what’s happening, and why on earth the situation has come down to this desperate ride, the images are so startling that you can’t help but rearrange in your seat, refocus your eyes and start to process what the hell is going on.
Then the opening credits start.
Few other films have affected me as much as director Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother. It alternates between such powerful displays of love and kindness, and loss and pain, that by the end you’re somehow both spent and hopeful. I cried during most of the second half—and choked up again while telling my wife about it afterwards. I sound like a sap, except that I’m apparently not the only one. Blood Brother came away from Sundance last month with both grand jury and audience honors for best documentary.
The young white man in the opening scene is Rocky Braat, an aimless Pittsburgh native who decided to find himself by traveling to India. He shocked his friends and remaining family by choosing to stay abroad and continue working in a tiny village with HIV-infected orphans—a decision that his best friend, Hoover, doesn’t really understand until he visits with camera in hand.
Rocky becomes everything to a group of children that have almost nothing. While many visitors flinch at the thought of caring for or playing with HIV-infected children, Rocky hugs them, wrestles with them, shares food with them, helps them with their medication and dresses their many wounds. They call him “Rocky anna,” or Brother Rocky. He’s the family they’ve never had and, to a certain extent, they are the same to him.
The nature of this work involves suffering, of course, and Hoover’s complete access allows us to see the harshest sides of Rocky’s saintly efforts. The kids are hurting, resources are limited, and there are moments when Rocky’s unflinching care seems like it can only do so much. In other moments, his motivations are second-guessed and actions criticized. To Hoover’s credit, he shows it all.
Even in the few scenes when Blood Brother hits the wrong note, it ends up working. During one crushing event, Rocky breaks into a song by Death Cab by Cutie. It feels forced, but in hindsight reminds us that this unlikely hero is just a big-hearted, Joey Tribbiani-looking dude from the Steel City. A million others like him end up content and working as bank tellers or bartenders or something, and that’s fine. But he decided to sit bedside or play in patches of dirt a world away, providing unconditional love to those who need it most.
Rocky’s path—and his steadfast commitment to it as the film goes on—turns out to be just one of many remarkable turns in Blood Brother. Perhaps the most remarkable, however, is that amid such challenging circumstances, this film manages to inspire and encourage. The tears aren’t all sad.
Blood Brother screens at the Wilma Thu., Feb. 21, at 5 PM.
Stanley Nelson retrospective
African American filmmaker and 2002 MacArthur genius fellow Stanley Nelson has explored the history of black Americans for decades. Freedom Riders, his feature about 1960s activists fighting for civil rights in the South, and Look for Me in the Whirlwind, about Jamaican revolutionary Marcus Garvey, examine major themes we’ve all read about in history books. Nelson doesn’t stop there. His films also reach into lesser-known corners of experience that have directly or indirectly impacted black Americans. In A Place of Our Own, he focuses on an affluent African American living in Martha’s Vineyard. Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple puts a microscope to the mass suicide of a multiracial congregation.
In many ways, what makes Nelson interesting is he’s mostly stayed away from biopics. He’s bypassed the stories of “great men,” as he put it in a 2011 New York Times interview, as well as broad historical issues. Instead, he’s favored tales about everyday people who are sometimes put in extraordinary situations—stories about the black press, methadone, businesswomen and domestic workers. That said, he isn’t entirely immune to pop culture. In the same Times interview he hints at an upcoming documentary on James Brown.
Stanley Nelson’s movies play at various times throughout the festival. Go to bigskyfestival.org for showtimes.
Let’s all agree that Dave Eggers can come off as pretentious. And let’s agree his 2002 novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, could have used an editor. That said, Eggers does help put out a nice combination of sharp writing, novelty guides and provocative illustrations through McSweeney’s publishing house. Wholphin, the DVD magazine he and co-founder Brent Hoff designed to give exposure to rarely seen short films, is one of those publications.
Big Sky will show several of the Wholphin documentaries during this year’s program. Though they’re not sure yet which ones will show up, the collection has featured films in the past by favorites like Spike Jonze, and covered subjects such as Al Gore’s failed 2000 bid for re-election, Maurice Sendak talking about going to the World’s Fair, and Major League pitcher Doc Ellis’ 1970 no-hitter while high on LSD.
Wolphin documentaries screen Fri., Feb. 22, at 5:45 PM at the Crystal Theatre, and Sat., Feb. 23, at 11:30 AM at the Wilma.
Best of 10
In honor of the festival’s 10-year anniversary, 13 favorites from year’s past were selected to re-screen during this year’s event.
Here are five that the Indy reviewed the year they premiered:
The First Kid to Learn English from Mexico,
“Although it’s just brief snapshots, these rich 20 minutes provided more of a lasting impact than some of the festival’s features.” —published Feb. 12, 2009
Screens Sat., Feb. 23, 1 PM at the Crystal Theatre
Be Here to Love Me
“If you don’t know who Townes Van Zandt is and you need a thorough introduction, or if your memory of the cult favorite ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ is as hazy as his tragic escapades … this is required viewing.” —published Feb. 16, 2005
Screens Thu., Feb. 21, 7:20 PM at the Crystal Theatre
Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank!
“See this if: You’re looking for a movie to make you squirt tears of laughter and love of humanity in all its nutty glory.” —published Feb. 14, 2008
Screens Mon., Feb. 18, 10 AM at the Wilma
Audience of One
“How does Audience of One connect to Missoula? The sound is done by Sarah Woods, who five years ago was most responsible for pressing Hawes-Davis to start the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The former Big Sky intern is now pursuing her film career in the Bay Area and can be credited with working on one of this festival’s most bizarre and engaging films.” —published Feb. 14, 2008
Screens Sat., Feb. 23, 11:15 AM at the Crystal Theatre
Know Your Mushrooms
“Know Your Mushrooms features Missoula’s own Larry Evans, whom Mann describes as ‘the Indiana Jones of mushroom hunting.’ The film debuted last month in Canada to rave reviews, but a promise to premiere the film at next month’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin prevents Mann from publicly showing it to Evans’ hometown crowd. ‘It’s just bad timing,’ Mann says. ‘It’ll be back, somehow.’” —published Feb. 12, 2009
Screens Mon., Feb. 18, 11 AM at the Crystal Theatre