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.
Ten more must-see movies on this year's schedule
by Erika Fredrickson, Katie Kane, Alex Sakariassen, Ali Gadbow, Jessica Mayrer and Matthew Frank
A whole Cambodian village has been drinking arsenic. Black bumps have appeared on people's skin. Worms in their lungs induce chronic cough. At the center of director Cynthia Wade's short documentary is an adolescent boy named Vinh who has all the symptoms of someone who's been ingesting arsenic his whole life. The question of why the village's water contains arsenic is a shocking look at how the best intentions of outsiders can sometimes go tragically wrong.
But that's a side note to the profile of Vihn. And, it's the little details of this film—not the overarching story—that gets to you. The calming blues and pinks of dusk over the village, the village children's love for karaoke and Vinh's matter-of-fact acceptance of his lot in life give this film an understated power. More than anything, Vihn's innocent meditation on people who are born salty and strong, and people who are born sweet and sickly, like him, is viciously moving. Talk about heartbreaking stuff. (EF)
Showing: Saturday, Feb. 13, 2 p.m. Born Sweet is a finalist in the short film competition.
Last Train Home
In order to comprehend the vast industrial might of modern China, you should consider the fact that when the nation's migrant workers take a vacation for Chinese New Year, they take part in the largest human migration on earth. One hundred and thirty thousand strong, the faceless masses stream through train stations and bus depots in a mad dash to the rural homes they left to work in urban factories.
In Last Train Home, director Lixin Fan follows two parents on their journey from China's smog-choked cityscapes to its verdant countryside, and returns with them for years of monotonous labor behind whirring sewing machines. The result is a look not just at the maddening din of industrialization, but an immersion into one family caught amid its grinding wheels. The film's intimate contact with its subjects and unwavering gaze during moments of shocking violence makes for some uneasy viewing, but viewers will walk away with a better perspective on the true cost of a new pair of blue jeans. (KL)
Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 4 p.m. Last Train Home is a finalist in the feature competition.
During director Rainer Komer's melancholic Milltown, Montana, the question of what the film might be about is never directly answered. The film's dialogue-free but aurally rich scenes of Montanans at work and play leaves the viewer in a near-hypnotic state, at once fascinated and depressed by the monotony and minutia.
The film takes the viewer on a dreary tour around Montana with sudden and seemingly random stops to visit a man tanning an animal skin, a woman in a bar playing Keno, excavators moving around contaminated dirt at the Milltown Dam, Blackfeet Indians braving the wind and sticking a shovel into rocky ground where a building will soon stand. The sounds take over, like the bristling singe of a rancher pressing a red-hot branding iron into the side of a squealing calf, and the singing of birds over images of train-killed deer.
The end result is a sense of lonesomeness, even though the viewer has come to know so many overlooked details in the lives of ordinary Montanans. (MF)
Showing: Saturday, Feb. 13, 4 p.m. Milltown, Montana is a finalist in the Big Sky Award competition.
Special When Lit
Anyone familiar with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters—Seth Gordon's mesmerizing documentary about "King Kong" fanatics—can appreciate the appeal of a film steeped in obsession and nostalgia. Special When Lit, director Brett Sullivan's trek through the depths of pinball culture, boasts a similar cast of arcade addicts and pasty dorks set to the most intriguing history lesson this side of the BBC. Who knew Europeans hosted international pinball tournaments? Or that the U.S. government banned pinball for more than 20 years?
For most of us young folk, pinball is little more than a fuzzy memory of an Addam's Family-themed game in a Mexican restaurant. I never realized, stealing a few quarters from Mom's purse in the early '90s, that pinball manufacturers Capcom and Gottlieb were simultaneously circling the drain. Today, manufacturer Stern Pinball and a few hundred devoted gamers represent the last stand of a cornerstone cultural icon.
Sullivan's characters paint the demise of pinball as an oddly personal dilemma. There's no place in the console-centric world of the Xbox and PlayStation for the strategic dance and gyration unique to the flipper-button set. Special When Lit leaves you feeling as sorry for the likes of geeky world champion Lyman Sheats as for American tradition in general. "Pinball is slowly dying," says pinball designer Steve Ritchie. And Sullivan makes you feel it. (AS)
Showing: Saturday, Feb. 20, 9:45 p.m. Special When Lit is a finalist in the feature competition.
One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur
Everyone thinks of On the Road when they think of Jack Kerouac. They think of beatniks in San Francisco's Vesuvio's bar or artsy rebels drinking espresso at Caffe Trieste. But here's the rest of the story.
One Fast Move begins with: "If you think he found salvation on the road...you don't know Jack." And director Curt Worden makes that point. We learn that after On the Road hit it big, Kerouac withdrew from the culture that had dubbed him king, and took refuge in poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big Sur. Worden uses Kerouac's prose from his semi-autobiographical book Big Sur—read by John Ventimiglia (Artie of "The Sopranos")—as a soundtrack to images of the natural world Kerouac furiously embraced: stunning redwoods and coastline cliffs. It's a dark book as Kerouac struggles with demons, namely alcohol. Interviews with Ferlinghetti, Patti Smith and Carolyn Cassady add some dimension to the film, as opposed to Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and poet/actor Amber Tamblyn (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), who don't add much. And some interviews only seem to foster the pretensions Kerouac was trying to escape in the first place. But it's a fascinating profile of an icon, trapped by self-loathing and his disappointment with a world that never lived up to his words. (EF)
Showing: Saturday, Feb. 19, 9:45 p.m.
If you're the kind of person who is resigned to letting the world crumble beneath a heap of mass-produced plastics, consider watching Tapped. Stephanie Soechtig and Jason Lindsey's 76-minute documentary is enough to make even the most docile citizen's blood boil, as it shows mammoth multi-national corporations profiting off of municipal tap water wrapped in a toxic plastic package.
Lindsey and Soechtig, who, strangely enough, used to produce "The O'Reilly Factor" for Fox News, adeptly steer viewers from a look at Nestlé siphoning off municipal water reserves in rural Maine to the big picture—as water becomes a scarce commodity, corporations are snatching it up. And there's no comprehensive plan in place to ensure ongoing affordable access to the vital resource.
If that's not enough to make you want to fight The Man, watching the lifecycle of a water bottle should. At birth, manufacturing byproducts are known to cause cancer, diabetes and reproductive problems. At death, the Dasani bottle is often found piled high in a landfill or in bits along a rocky coastline.
After watching Tapped, chances are you'll never drink another pre-packaged bottle of water again. (JM)
Showing: Saturday, Feb. 20, 5:40 p.m.
Deep Down: A Story From the Heart of Coal Country
When a proposed strip mining operation threatens to permanently alter the landscape around Maytown, Ky., the citizens of this small town in the heart of coal country are forced to reassess their values and take an unprecedented stand against the coal company. Deep Down follows Beverly May—a health care professional and descendent of local settlers—as she leads the effort to keep the coal company out of her "holler" by petition. Meanwhile, May's longtime friend and neighbor Terry Ratliff is tempted to lease his land to the mining operation.
Sweeping aerial views of the Appalachian landscape reveal a rare and lovely forested place, steeply rolling and thick with deciduous trees for miles where it remains untouched, and a wounded, artificial wasteland where coal mining has introduced the new process of "mountaintop removal." Skillful pacing and well-chosen characters drive directors Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin's story briskly through interviews, strategy sessions, committee meetings and town halls to a satisfying, though open-ended, conclusion. (AG)
Showing: Sunday, Feb. 14, 3 p.m. Deep Down is a finalist in the feature competition.
To tell the story of one remarkable little boy, Antoine pushes the boundaries of the documentary format. Antoine is 5 years old and extremely imaginative. When he was an infant (born premature) his retinas detached, leaving him blind, but in his imaginary life, Antoine sees all sorts of things. He is a collector of sounds and a master detective on the trail of Madame Rouski, who has unfortunately "dissolved in the water."
The film makes no distinction between scenes of Antoine's life in Quebec—his large and loving family, his friends, teachers, triumphs and fits of frustration—and Antoine's imaginary life. Clever editing suggests that Antoine can cruise Montreal behind the wheel of his car or fly to Vietnam alone in search of a clue. Director Laura Bari's film is not fiction, and it isn't entirely factual, but it achieves a kind of truth. The vibrantly colored, tightly framed visuals provide an analogue to Antoine's intense, non-visual experience of the world. (AG)
Showing: Monday, Feb. 15, 2:45 p.m. Antoine is a finalist in the feature competition.
Journey from Zanskar
The situation in Tibet is dire: A traditional culture stands on the precipice of extinction. One of the central figures in Frederick Marx's Journey from Zanskar, Geshe Larampa Lobsang Yonten, says that Tibetan "culture, our tradition, our heritage is nearly dead." The Geshe, a highly educated Buddhist monk, is sent by the Dalai Llama to ensure the preservation of Tibetan culture in a remote village in Kashmir, Zanskar. This quiet but resolute film documents the cultural education of children, a task that requires heroic effort on the part of two monks and the Zanskar community as a whole. A school is planned for the childrens' education, but while the school is under construction the monks take a group of children to another village to study a Tibetan Buddhist curriculum. The long journey through the Himalayan landscape is a perilous one.
The Dalai Lama has said, "Zanskar is vital to the survival of Tibetan Buddhism." This film captures the urgency and horrible poignancy of that statement. (KK)
Showing: Monday, Feb. 15, 4:45 p.m. Journey from Zanskar is a finalist in the feature competition.
Next Year Country
Farmers prosper or go under by the weather's whim. In this film by Joseph Aguirre, three Montana farm families from little-known towns—like Opheim and Brady—tell their personal stories to illuminate larger issues about farming, drought and the disappearance of small towns. The appearance of a California rainmaker who charges towns $10,000 to make it rain, throws another element into the mix.
Director Joseph Aguirre's film partly shows how easily people under great stress want to believe in a kind of magic, but also how critical thinking can still prevail. It could have been simply a film about the difficulty of carrying on farming traditions and been just as sharp, without the rainmaker. But that part, though not explored as much as it could have been, adds a peculiar dimension to a farming story that is, unfortunately, all too common. (EF)
Showing: Tuesday, Feb. 16, 9:30 p.m. Next Year Country is a finalist in the Big Sky Award competition.
Sérgio Vieira de Mello is a Brazilian silver fox. He's a man who's won people over across the world and across political lines. He's been the United Nation's go-to guy, the intelligent diplomat with perfect dimples, smiling eyes and endless confidence. He's described as Bobby Kennedy meets James Bond. Men and women want to either be him or sleep with him—and it's easy to see why. Sérgio spends a considerable amount of time portraying a man of extraordinary charm and political persuasion. Interviews show his colleagues overcome with emotion talking about him. Tony Blair's smitten with him. Condoleezza Rice practically swoons when she recalls his political fearlessness.
Even more, his background underlies a certain romanticism: He was schooled at Paris' Sorbonne in philosophy and led activist movements with an idealism he didn't seem to ever lose. In one part of the film a panel discussion finds him answering a question about whether the United Nations—and by association Sérgio—was really just a cover to protect American ideals. He's able to contain himself, though not before a cloud of anger crosses his face. "We are independent," he says forcefully, without a hint of forgiveness. "We are not a cover for anyone."
From the beginning, Sérgio (based on Samantha Power's biography, Chasing the Flame) sets viewers up for the fateful day of Aug. 19, 2003. We're told that the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad hosts 300 employees and, on that day, there's a meeting between Sergio and a few colleagues on the third floor, and a media event happening on the ground floor. You know something bad is about to happen; you're being strung along in minutiae for far too long. But even after the bomb goes off, after rescue missions get underway, and even when you know the ending, the film remains suspenseful.
Director Greg Barker doesn't let Sérgio go without some scrutiny, though he doesn't get too critical. Infidelity's a given, it seems, but on the political front Sérgio seems like a saint, which is maybe a bit much. You do get the sense that not everyone loves him. In fact, right when you think the film might be overselling Sérgio's international importance you're treated to an interview with one of Osama Bin Laden's sidekicks basically calling Sérgio a Taliban target. From there you get to see the small web that leads him through temporary leadership of East Timor and, finally, to Baghdad. He is a big deal, as it turns out.
It's interesting to connect the dots between one man and a series of world shifting events. The film captures the tensions between the U.N. and U.S. policy via his story. That tension is addressed in broad strokes throughout the film, but also in small ones on the ground. At the gutted U.N. headquarters the film shows soldiers and diplomats, trained in entirely different ways, dealing with a real crisis. But Barker rarely misses an opportunity to let each interview and scene resonate with larger ideals and tragedies.
Showing: Friday, Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m. Sérgio is the free opening night film sponsored by HBO.
A sheepdog's work is perhaps best appreciated when seen from above—from an escarpment in the Beartooths, say, looking down at a tiny black spot carving curls and eddies in a tide of white wool in the valley below. A single sheep filmed at length isn't nearly as interesting, but in their hundreds the animals become incredibly cinegenic: a single organism squeezing amoebalike through gates and corrals, flowing like liquid through the rocks and crags of some of the harshest summer pasture in sheepdom.
Sheep provide most of the interest in Sweetgrass, a deeply unsentimental look at the vanishing tradition of pasturing livestock in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. Videographer Lucien Castaing-Taylor followed the Allested family and their enormous flock on several seasonal migrations through this forbidding terrain. He lost 20 pounds on his last drive, but succeeded in creating an austere film document of a disappearing way of life in all its rigors.
Initially intended as a family affair, Castaing-Taylor brought partner and co-producer Ilisa Barbash and their two kids along on the drive. When the risk from wolves and bears recommended against bringing kids into the mountains, Barbash and brood occupied themselves in nearby towns shooting supplementary footage of haying, shooting contests and county fairs. The hundreds of hours of footage the filmmakers captured over several summers eventually yielded nine films, of which only Sweetgrass was intended for theatrical exhibition. It has already stunned audiences at international film festivals and in limited domestic release, leading one notable reviewer to call it the first essential film of the new decade.
But Sweetgrass is a film that demands patience. Some of the shots are unbelievably long, and naturally most of them present some variation on sheep and mountains. Admittedly this tends toward repetition, but the small discoveries of texture and rhythm revealed in the lengthy takes are precisely what make the pace so rewarding. You simply get that much more into it. The shearing scenes are typical: There's a real tactile satisfaction in watching all that dingy wool come away, the electric clippers carving nubbined swaths in the pure white stuff below. You're itching to run your hands over it.
Much of the time it's possible to forget the outsider presence of Castaing-Taylor with his video camera. These dour Norwegian-Americans don't exactly ham it up for the production (although one of them, in a moment of abject despair, unleashes a salvo of cusses that could curdle sheeps' milk). The cinematography cannot be called showy or attention-seeking, but there is a certain stylized aspect to shots with a tripod and, perhaps, an over-reliance on the juxtaposition of scenery with off-camera voices and events.
Some critics have suggested that Sweetgrass could do with a pass or two with the shears to cut it down in length, but that's soft city folk for you. Sweetgrass is sheep, mountains and the last glimpses of a hard Montana life. My view is that, like the ranchers only to a lesser degree, like Castaing-Taylor himself, you're in for a penny you should be in for a pound. What's the sense of hurry through the last experience of its kind just to save a few minutes? The frappuccino can wait.
Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. Sweetgrass is a finalist in the Big Sky Award competition.
Welcome to the fascinating world of "clean" movies, and the clean-movie empire that flourished in predominantly Mormon Utah for roughly a decade. Ray Lines heard the call for grown-up movies with "the crap cut out" and went into business selling DVD copies of PG-13 and R-rated titles he edited himself. And made a crap-ton of money at it.
Cleanflix starts with Lines as its main personality but gradually shifts its focus to the engaging and infuriating person of Orem businessman Daniel Thompson. Thompson's flawless entrepreneurial timing (he bought up brick-and-mortar Cleanflix franchises up and down the Utah Valley as Lines and partner Allan Erb concentrated more on online sales and rental) helped him corner the Utah market in a matter of months, but with questionable long-term security. With no clear legal foundation, the clean-movie business was always on the verge of court-ordered extinction.
Clean-movie stores and distributors, as we learn in the movie, justified their after-market movie existence by buying one copy of a feature DVD for every copy they altered and sold, the rationale being that Hollywood would keep looking the other way as long as it wasn't actually losing money. Directors and producers minded, of course: The Hollywood interviews here are a gallery of snarling condemnations. What finally put Hollywood on the attack was Thompson's endless media grandstanding. A shameless and skilled self-promoter, his TV antics and skyrocketing fame eventually brought certain unsavory extracurriculars to light, to the ruin of his business and the horror of the original Cleanflix partners, Lines and Erb.
I had sort of hoped going into Cleanflix that it would take a pan-century view of movie sanitizing. Not censoring, but sanitizing commercial product to open new markets and hence make more money. It's interesting that Steven Soderbergh and Curtis Hanson have so much bile reserved for the Mormons when you never hear of directors complaining about how their artistic vision has been compromised for, say, in-flight viewing. Why has no one explored the issue before? Of course, clean-movie editors are outraging someone else's art. But so are the people who edit movies for television. Or who used to, anyway.
Not surprisingly, the Mormon moguls of Cleanflix reveal no great love of film, except as unchallenging family entertainment. They care not a fig about what their actions mean for the creators involved; even among the clean-movie editors, appreciation of film art seems limited to a grudging admiration for how cleverly a movie thwarts the Mormon filter—as though it were "constructed" that way for no other reason.
There's also a shocking double standard for clean-movie violence compared with sex and unacceptable language, as before-and-after clips of Saving Private Ryan and Fargo demonstrate. In the latter case, the notorious wood-chipper scene goes untouched, but an interview with prostitutes is scrubbed for scant mention of a circumcision.
But they do make a point, these clean-movie people. There is clearly a huge market for cleaned-up PG-13 and R movies, and you can't otherwise buy or rent them anywhere. That's fascinating when you think about it, not least because it pits law-abidingness against family entertainment in the moral balance of pious Mormons. Really, though, why should you have to starve on an airplane just to see an inferior version of an already inferior movie when you could just as easily rent a copy online?
Showing: Tuesday, Feb. 16, 7:45 p.m. Cleanflix is a finalist in the feature competition.
When I was in high school, the popular kids tended to play football and basketball, the preppy stoners suited up for the soccer team and the bookworms ran track. The wrestlers? We didn't even stereotype the wrestlers. Wouldn't even think of it. The wrestlers—those Jenny Craig-meets-Randy Couture blokes who practiced by running for hours while sweating through giant Hefty bags—always came across like the most on-edge dudes in school. You'd have to be, I guess, when a standard side effect of wrestling involves your ear ballooning into the shape of a giant cauliflower.
Simply put, wrestlers are a different breed. They train harder. They eat iced water for dinner to make weight. They endure those silly unitards and countless jokes about rolling around with other starved—and skilled—savages. And if you've ever attended a wrestling match, it's hard not to call it one of the most nerve-wracking and brutal sporting contests this side of mixed martial arts.
All of wrestling's highs and lows get thrown onto the mat in Pinned. Directors Patrick and Mike Nolan focus on two high school programs in suburban Ohio—the middling Lakewood squad, and its rare championship contender, Matt Curley, and the St. Edward juggernaut, a private school located a few miles from Lakewood and led by the unstoppable brother duo of Lance and Collin Palmer.
Curley immediately becomes the most personable figure in the film. The product of a broken home, he's humble, dedicated and aware of his coaches' and classmates' expectations of him. But Curley, unlike the Palmer brothers, is human. Which is to say, he loses. Never is the agony of defeat more apparent than when Curley's battered body is crumpled against a locker room wall, sobbing, after an early season loss.
The Palmers, meanwhile, look incapable of weakness. Their father, a hulking former wrestler who believes St. Ed would be even more dominant if he were coach, beams with pride about the relentless ethic he's instilled in Collin and Lance. Collin, however, who's just a freshman, admits to the camera at one point that he hopes his kids never have to wrestle. It's too much pressure, he says.
Curley and the Palmers serve up some clichéd sports movie scenarios, and Pinned certainly follows a standard sports movie story arc, but the documentary works as hard as the wrestlers to uncover some necessary depth. The Palmers' father, for instance, owns a wild animal sideshow business. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, we see Stephen Colbert introduce a segment of his "Colbert Report" called "The Craziest Fucking Thing I've Ever Heard," and then show footage of Lance Palmer wrestling one of his father's bears at a state fair. It's as outrageous as it sounds—and a good indication of just how ingrained wrestling is in the family.
Unlike Class C, the award-winning high school sports doc at the 2008 festival, Pinned probably doesn't hold much crossover appeal. But the Normans still provide an expertly crafted sports story for those who respect, fear and perhaps fear for high school's most devoted athletes.
Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 9:45 p.m. Pinned is a finalist in the feature competition.