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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.