A different lens 

Big Sky continues to change the way we look at documentary filmmaking

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Ten more must-see movies on this year's schedule

by Erika Fredrickson, Katie Kane, Alex Sakariassen, Ali Gadbow, Jessica Mayrer and Matthew Frank

Born Sweet

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.

Milltown, Montana

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.

click to enlarge Milltown, Montana
  • Milltown, Montana

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.

click to enlarge One Fast Move or I’m Gone
  • One Fast Move or I’m Gone

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.

Tapped

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.

Antoine

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."

click to enlarge Antoine
  • Antoine

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.

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