In Man with a Movie Camera, director Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent film, an entire Russian city wakes up before your eyes. The camera peeks through a curtained window and a woman gets washed and dressed. Scenes show windy parks and trolleys rolling by, a boy sprawled on a bench, the cogs and spools of machinery in motion, industrial buildings rising high into the sky and people pouring out onto the streets. The groundbreaking film states in an early caption: "The purpose of this experimental work is to create an absolute and cinematographic language completely free of theatrical or literary language."
For the seventh annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Man with a Movie Camera gets a soundtrack makeover from Boston's Alloy Orchestra—a trio that scored last year's showing of the 1919 film South. On Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. inside the Wilma Theatre, the group will score the Vertov film with clarinet, keyboards and junk percussion to bring out the noise of the industrial city—crying babies, sirens, et al.–based only on notes left behind by Vertov.
The Alloy Orchestra's performance offers a fresh take on a film that, in its time, differentiated itself. It was alternately acclaimed and criticized for all its controversial ingredients. What Vertov brought to the documentary form wasn't just what he shot, but how he shot and organized it: stop motion, split screens and double exposure were all fair game; the scenes are non-linear and seemingly unrelated, but edited together (by Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilova) to give it a sense of cohesion.
Vertov's experiment—and the accompanying Alloy Orchestra performance—serves as the perfect centerpiece to this year's festival. Among the 130 films presented over 10 days are examples of subjects, styles and perspectives that challenge the traditional view of documentary film. In addition to reviewing 14 of the festival's award finalists (see sidebars), we focus our lens on four aspects of this year's lineup—early American cinéma vérité, an archive of public service announcement footage, a director who regularly turns common stereotypes upside-down and the emergence of American Indian filmmakers—that follow Vertov's unconventional approach. And, for that matter, they help make the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Missoula's annual must-see movie event.
Rick Prelinger's amazing archive
Home-movie highlights of a 1937 European tour, the last leg festooned with swastikas. A 1951 industrial short celebrating the miracle of direct long-distance dialing, complete with charming dramatizations. A captured German science film about ants, re-cut with off-the-cuff narration by somebody's rambling great-uncle. A 1951 troubled-teen featurette likened to the movies of Luis Bunuel by Rick Prelinger, the film archivist who rescued it from oblivion.
None of these delightful obscurities might have survived the 20th century if it weren't for Prelinger, who for almost 30 years has been rescuing commercial films, educational and social-guidance films, ownerless home movies and other "ephemeral" films from the landfill of cinema history. This is America's orphaned cinema: Prelinger's namesake archive currently contains over 60,000 films that, were it not for his watchful eye, would probably still be entombed in an attic or, worse, long gone with the trash. In most cases, a single print in the Prelinger archive is the only thing standing between these artistic efforts, many made with considerable artistry and technical skill, and oblivion.
"It's partly because we're such a rich country," says Prelinger of his ever-growing collection, which since 2002 has resided, in its physical form, with the Library of Congress. "In the United States we throw away more media than some countries even produce."
Prelinger started taking in movie strays in 1982, after working as a researcher on the Cold War ephemeral film fantasia Atomic Café. Before delving into Atomic Café, Prelinger admits, his view of stock footage was fairly conventional: ceremonies, parades, war. But the more he looked, and the more cans of film he adopted, the more he started to see ephemeral film as a patchwork panorama of American life, a "sponsored" alternate history complete with now-lost landscapes and folkways.
"I'd like to collect a complete ethnographic portrait of the United States," Prelinger says of his ongoing archival mission. "These are documents of body language, of speech. It's a history of persuasion."
Prelinger says he couldn't quit collecting now even if he wanted to. But this is the really wonderful thing: He shares whatever he finds. Over 2,500 films in the Prelinger collection are available online for downloading, re-cutting, adding music, creating your own narrative—whatever you like, with no copyright restrictions.
"We try to make the most exciting 50 percent or so of our films available," Prelinger explains, adding that other footage is offered at a fee to pay for the free stuff. "It's really amazing to think about—all these informal collaborations I've entered into with thousands, hundreds of thousands of people using this material."
Needless to say, Prelinger's archive is an incredible resource for filmmakers: the online AV club dreams are made of, where you can stuff your pockets from the concessions stand. But it's not just for filmmakers: It's a fascinating place for anyone of a nostalgic bent to hang out and take in glimpses of a parallel America where captured Nazi ant documentaries and your-changing-body films for '50s teens unspool forever.
Showing: Archives Meet The People screens Saturday, Feb. 13, 1:15 p.m. America: From Capitalist Realism to Consumer Republic screens Monday, Feb. 15, 11:15 p.m. Panorama Ephemera screens Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2 p.m.
Robert Drew flies the friendly skies
It comes as no surprise that 85-year-old pilot and filmmaker Robert Drew also wrote for Life magazine for 15 years when you hear him tell a story.
"I'm flying along a ridge in New York state," he says in a recent interview with the Indy. "And I see, coming toward me, another glider. As we pass, I whip into a turn to look back at the glider. It whips into a turn to look back at me, and so I'm looking straight up at the pilot in the other glider. Turns out she was a beautiful woman smiling, in a white chemise with a ponytail down her back, and I thought, 'Boy, this is what soaring ought to be like.'"
Drew came to be considered the domestic father of cinéma vérité after his 1960 film Primary, about John F. Kennedy's primary campaign in Wisconsin. He filmed Kennedy for five days and nights, with no interviews, no lighting and no direction.
"Until I made Primary," Drew says, "documentaries were posed, scripted, written and directed. And most documentaries bored me. I thought if we could do in motion pictures what we did in Life magazine in still pictures—that is, shoot candidly things that really happened—we could make a picture speak more strongly. I think we've succeeded. Cinéma vérité is not a very popular method these days, but the style has changed the whole approach of documentaries."
Drew premieres The Sun Ship Game, a vérité film about gliders, at this year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. He actually filmed it in 1969, but because of copyright issues The Sun Ship Game was never released.
Drew's inspiration for the film comes from a couple of sources. He was a fighter pilot during WWII in Italy, and, after getting shot down, he ended up back in the United States where he was assigned to fly the first American jets. He ended up doing a story for Life about the P-80.
After Primary propelled him into moviemaking, he made a few films on soaring. But it was that fateful day in the air, where he saw the woman in the chemise, that led to The Sun Ship Game. She, as it turned out, was Suzanne Moffat, wife of glider George Moffat. He was training to compete in the U.S. Championships, and Drew decided to make a film about Moffat and the airplanes, which are powered by the sun.
"Nothing was posed," says Drew. "When I went into the air to film, nothing was arranged. The camera is at about 5,000 feet, and [in one scene] the glider is about to crash down below in a rainstorm. But it encounters lift, pulls up, climbs up—and this is all in one shot—until the glider is up parallel to the photo ship. A glider pilot rarely has such a fabulous moment in his life. And there we had it on film shot from beginning to end."
Drew decided to premiere The Sun Ship Game at Big Sky for one simple reason: "The film takes you into the sky in a way no other film could have in the past," he says. "This film is about the 'big sky,' and I'd like to unveil it at this festival."
Showing: Tuesday, Feb. 16, 5:45 p.m.
For Doug Pray, things are never quite as they seem
It takes a brave soul in today's oversaturated society to try and humanize, perhaps even celebrate, the most influential advertising visionaries of our time. I mean, who cares about the inspiration behind "Just do it" when Nike's bludgeoning readers, listeners and viewers with relentless, multi-billion-dollar campaigns for shoes and apparel made by 9-year-old girls? We get enough advertising without wanting to watch a film about advertisers. It's like reading about dentistry while waiting in the dentist's office.
Except that director Doug Pray makes it work. In his newest film, Art & Copy, he actually makes viewers care just a little about the master manipulators responsible for the mega campaigns that help define our culture.
"We all have these ideas of what people are like," says Pray, the subject of a career retrospective at this year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. "I've worked in advertising, but even I wondered, 'How are these people going to be sympathetic?' Because, well, they're not. They're powerful. Most people consider what they do to be manipulative. And I'd say that almost all of advertising, or 98 percent of it, is mediocre. But whether you like advertising or not, these people are among the best communicators on the planet. Therefore, I looked at the film as an opportunity to learn from the best communicators on the planet and see if I could learn anything from them."
Pray's approach to Art & Copy follows the same strategy he's used on every film since Hype!, his award-winning 1996 documentary on the growth and eventual overexposure of the grunge music scene. Despite jumping from topics as disparate as NASCAR to surfing to hip-hop, he's developed a reputation for flipping his subjects—or the perception of his subjects—upside-down. In Surfwise, the unbelievable story of a famous surfing family that embraced a seemingly idyllic gypsy lifestyle, Pray explores the lasting effects of such a nontraditional upbringing. In Scratch, he offers a history of turntablism and hip-hop refreshingly devoid of the usual imagery and thuggery associated with the music.
"Let's say you hated hip-hop—I mean, just hated hip-hop—and you watch Scratch, hopefully you're slowly going to realize that you had all of these stereotypes that just don't apply," he says. "You're hopefully going to realize—and remember, this film came out nine years ago—that these artists are really the same as jazz musicians."
The Big Sky retrospective will be Pray's first, and it's forced the filmmaker to look back at the trajectory of his career. Only recently has he realized that no matter what the topic, he's been attracted to people and subcultures that are completely misunderstood by society—even advertisers.
"The one film that's been hardest for people to wrap their head around is Art & Copy," he admits. "I think the reason is [the advertisers] aren't underground, they're not anti-society. But I would argue that they are just as misunderstood, that they have just as much to say. These are people who have fought the system, and they've succeeded largely because they know exactly how to fight the system. It's different, I know. But I somehow get excited about telling what I consider to be the truer story of what they do."
Showing: Art & Copy screens Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, features Veer and Feel Your Heart Race at 10 a.m., Scratch at 11:45 a.m. and Hype! at 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21, features Surfwise at 10 a.m., Big Rig at noon and Infamy at 2 p.m.
Correcting history through film
A new film category at this year's festival lineup, "Indigenous Visions: Native American Filmmakers," seems to be a welcome and timely addition. Tracy Rector, a Seminole and the director of Unreserved—one of this year's feature contestants—says that American Indian documentary filmmaking is critically important right now.
"People can't understand America today if they do not have an understanding of Native American history, the stories of the First People of this land," Rector says. "Native American filmmakers have an opportunity to rewrite the history books by offering a balanced and often unheard voice to educate both Native and non-Native people. And luckily today we are at a stage and time where there is a solid skill base in the Native American filmmaking community across North America to create the new visual histories."
Centrally at stake in the films is the history of Indian Country. "Indian Removal" in the 1830s and the subsequent boarding school experience are a small part of the difficult history the films explore and, sometimes, expose. Trail of Tears (part of the PBS American Experience Series "We Shall Remain" and directed by Chris Eyre of Smoke Signals fame) makes clear the cost of that history for the five American Indian nations removed to "Indian Territory" by Andrew Jackson, as well as the cost to American democratic ideals. The film closes with: "What happened to the southeastern Indians was ethnic cleansing."
American Indian re-visioning of history is at the center of all of the film projects, but the category also contains a range of styles and subject matter, from a film on the history and work of spoken word poet John Trudell of the American Indian Civil Rights Movement to Rector's film about artist activist Louie Gong's creation of Vans sneakers/shoes decorated with Coastal Salish designs. As one of the owners of the shoes says, "They're sick."
Also on the schedule are films about Native beauty pageants, Navajo weavers and Hollywood "Indians." Reel Injun is Neil Diamond's sharp and satiric look at the role American cinema played in perpetuating Native Americans stereotypes. (A highlight—or all-time low—is William Shatner's ludicrous, cringe-inducing performance as "Comanche" Notah Moon in the 1967 film White Comanche).
"I think we are seeing a serious movement in indigenous filmmaking right now that is only going to grow as we create a tight-knit community and we see more resources for training and opportunities," says Julianna Brannum, producer of "Wounded Knee," another part of We Shall Remain. "We are at a turning point in film. I think self-representation is key, but I also feel that we still have a ways to go in finding our own unique voices and storytelling. We have so many stories to share and it's important that we have a strong, diverse selection."
Trail of Tears (Chris Eyre): Saturday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.
Century of Genocide (Rosemary Gibbons), Weaving Worlds (Bennie Klain): Sunday, Feb. 14, 12:45 p.m.
Indian (Monica Lowe), Miss Navajo (Billy Luther), Unreserved (Tracy Rector): Monday, Feb. 15, 10 a.m.
Reel Injun (Neil Diamond) Monday, Feb. 15, 8:45 p.m.
Wounded Knee (Stanley Nelson), Thursday, Feb. 18, 5:45 p.m.
Trudell (Heather Rae): Sunday, Feb. 21, 4:50 p.m.
Indigenous films panel discussion: Monday, Feb. 15, 1:30–2:30 p.m.