An Independent guide to the 14th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival 

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The Lure

In 2010, an eccentric millionaire named Forrest Fenn hid a treasure chest somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and thousands of people have been looking for it ever since. The Lure follows just a few of these hopefuls on their quest to find the gold. Famed documentarian Errol Morris has an executive producer credit, and his influence shows in the film's sympathetic and quirky portrayals of its subjects. We meet a once-wealthy Wall Street guy with a Santa Claus beard who gave up his privileged life more than a decade ago to hunt for gold and play cowboy in the Southwest. There are a couple of women who've set out on a weekend camping expedition together, away from husbands and families who don't quite understand "the lure."

In truth, I don't really get it either. Fenn provided a few clues about the treasure at the outset, and he continues to feed his minions crumbs as time goes on. There's a baffling poem, for instance, which talks about how long and perilous the journey will be, but also how easy and interesting. "It's not in Idaho or Utah," Fenn writes, which just means it could be anywhere in four other states. I hesitate to repeat the tired expression "needle in a haystack." What the hunt requires of its subjects is so much worse.

click to enlarge The Lure
  • The Lure

But it's not about the finish line! At least that's what all of them insist. The fun comes from the adventure and the thrill of the chase. Still, you can't help but notice a certain glimmer in each subject's eyes when they talk about the treasure. Always they engage in self-talk aimed at tempering their expectations, but it seems like all of them secretly believe the treasure is their destiny, and they alone will find it.

Now in his 80s, Fenn's motivations and sincerity remain a constant point of speculation. He maintains playful contact with the treasure hunters online, but can anything he says be trusted? Did he even hide a treasure at all?

The Lure is a delightful adventure, and a nice reprieve from some of the festival's more heady subjects. (Molly Laich)

Screens at the Elks Lodge Mon., Feb. 20, at 5:30 PM and Sat., Feb. 25, at 8:30 PM.




Untouchable

Take a guess: What percentage of convicted sex offenders will go on to commit a second sex crime? If you named any figure higher than 5 percent, social science says you're wrong. But don't worry, the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't know the right answer, either. More than 100 court decisions around the country, including from the high court, have cited sex offenders' supposedly "frightening and high" threat of reoffense in justifying the increasingly sadistic punishments the country inflicts upon them.

David Feige's documentary examines how this class of untouchables came about. Driving the narrative is the startling figure of Ron Book, whose daughter was horrifically abused by the family's female nanny for six years. The film opens on the father's pain, still raw decades after the fact, as seen in his eyes, both distraught and deranged.

click to enlarge Untouchable
  • Untouchable

There's a seemingly intimate scene of Book getting ready in the morning, where we see him shaving, with his shirt off, his middle-aged body exposed to the camera. What's jarring is that he's standing in a gorgeous granite bathroom. We see shots of his case of expensive watches, then of Book getting dressed in walk-in closet that puts any Men's Wearhouse to shame. It's a portrait not of an aggrieved father willing himself out of bed each day, but of a general preparing for battle.

Book is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida, and since his daughter's abuse, he's been on a mission to keep kids safe from sexual predators. That's how he describes it. As the film shows, the swaths of legislation that Book has pushed have done more to make sex offenders' lives miserable than to actually protect children.

"Sentence them to waterboarding every day, throw the keys away," Book says at one point. "I used to be a liberal Democrat, and then a crime hit my family, and I realized just how conservative I was."

The quote encapsulates our national attitude toward sex offenders, one that relegates them to a monstrous, subhuman class. We see this in neighborhood "predator patrols," in state-sanctioned sex offender tent colonies, and in the eagerness with which politicians of all stripes invent new scarlet letters with which to brand offenders. We see it, too, in the three registered sex offenders whose stories are interwoven throughout the film, themselves victims of a society that would rather they disappear and die than offer treatment, rehabilitation or, God forbid, compassion.

Anyone familiar with these arguments will quickly realize that Untouchable isn't treading new ground. Still, the filmmakers exhibit considerable deftness in tracing a character-driven historical arc that helps makes sense of this deeply discomfiting subject. (Derek Brouwer)

Screens at MCT Sun., Feb. 19, at noon.




Oklahoma City

Director Barak Goodman's Oklahoma City reminds us of the tremendous teaching power of a well-told story. If you're a Montana-born, anti-government gun enthusiast, this film is for you. If you're a peaceful anti-Trump protester in a state of suspended horror at the current state of things, there are lessons here for you, too.

Most of us can recall basic facts and images surrounding the 1995 bombing of a federal building in the otherwise unremarkable midwestern town. Who could forget the photograph of the firefighter holding the charred baby? Or how, immediately after the attack, most everyone assumed it must have come from enemies in the Middle East. Remember how unsettled we were when it turned out to be a white kid from New York who mostly acted alone?

click to enlarge Oklahoma City
  • Oklahoma City

In a brief 102 minutes, Oklahoma City gives an overview of the bombing, the rise of white supremacy in the 1990s and how that culture ultimately influenced Timothy McVeigh to kill 168 people in a single blast.

Political unrest gained traction in 1992 after a gunfight in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, between the Weaver family and the United States government. The multi-day standoff ended with one dead U.S. marshal, two dead Weavers and their slain family dog. The Weavers illegally harbored weapons and were likely sympathetic to a nearby faction of the Aryan Nation, but does that mean it was OK for government agents to entrap Randy Weaver when he refused to become an informant? It's complicated. In any case, the incident had a way of re-invigorating a long-closeted white supremacist movement.

The plot thickened in 1993 when a 51-day standoff in Waco, Texas, between the federal government and members of a well-armed cult known as the Branch Davidians ended in fiery tragedy. Hundreds of white supremacists flocked to the site during the conflict, among them the disgruntled 24-year-old Gulf War veteran McVeigh.

Goodman's film surprised me with its measured and detailed account of the circumstances leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh deliberately scheduled the attack on the two-year anniversary of Waco, and he did it independently of any larger terrorist organization or homegrown militia. With so many angry, unhinged people out there, it makes you wonder why catastrophic events like the Oklahoma City bombing don't happen more often. Hell, I can think of a few dudes I know personally who are about a hair's breadth from snapping. More than just gripping cinema, Oklahoma City is a spooky cautionary tale. (Molly Laich)

Screens at the Wilma Tue., Feb. 21, at 1:30 PM.




The Islands and the Whales

Sheer human stubbornness crashes against immutable scientific fact in The Islands and the Whales the same way waves crash against rocky shores. Here we meet the denizens of the Faroe Islands, a remote part of Norway where blond men in knitted sweaters have been hunting and eating pilot whales for centuries. "Not a lot grows here," one man in this subtitled film explains, so the communities rely on seabirds and whale meat for their primary sustenance. But mercury and PCBs are making their way into the humans who live off these marine animals. Local scientists are running a long-term study that proves exactly that, and the people are told again and again that eating whale meat will slowly poison their children. But the community rationalizes the threat away. One man drives away from a doctor's appointment with his three bubbly children in the backseat and says he thinks his kids are doing just fine—why should they change their diet? It doesn't help to change anybody's mind when the Sea Shepherds arrive. This PETA-offshoot organization uses pirate-y logos and invasive tactics to get between the Faroe residents and their whales. Pamela Anderson, a longtime vegan activist, even appears at a tense press conference to argue with the locals, who respond that they don't find it realistic to suddenly start eating food shipped in from the mainland. The Sea Shepherds seem to succeed only in strengthening the Faroe people's resolve to keep hunting whales.

click to enlarge The Island and the Whales
  • The Island and the Whales

The Islands and the Whales' message is that we're screwed unless people start empathizing with each other, which might be too depressing for some to handle, but I urge anyone who can to see this on the big screen. The enormous vistas of misty islands and slate-colored waves reminded me that we can hardly fight to save the world if we don't love it. (Kate Whittle)

Screens at the Wilma Wed., Feb. 22, at 6:30 PM and at the Elks Lodge Fri., Feb. 24, at 3:15 PM.




Capsule reviews

Chasing Evel: The Robbie Knievel Story

So here's a film about a man whose whole life story is his attempt to escape his father's shadow, and still, it's dad's name that comes first in the title. Robbie Knievel, alive and striving in his mid-50s, is relegated to post-colon status even in his own biography. That's got to chap a guy's ass.

But if Evel Knievel was a tough act to follow, Robbie was more than up to the task. "Evel broke bones," an early quote quips. "Robbie broke records." In fact he far surpassed his more famous dad as a daredevil, and he held his own against accomplished paterfamilial competition as a self-destructive drunk.

click to enlarge Chasing Evel: The Robbie Knievel Story
  • Chasing Evel: The Robbie Knievel Story

Robbie's late-career attempt at sobriety and comeback is the thread that pulls this documentary taut, but it's the father-son conflict that gives it tragic heft—and hints of triumph, for that matter. The Butte backdrops are an illuminating bonus. I wouldn't venture to guess how this film might read outside its natural demographic of people roughly my age, but if you, like me, watched Evel Knievel crash into the Snake River Canyon on live TV, or tuned in to watch Robbie Knievel stick the landing at Caesar's Palace, or ever woke up on Christmas morning to a red, white and blue RV and a plastic ramp and a wind-up motorcycle, you can expect to spend this doc's two-hour running time entirely enthralled. (Brad Tyer)

Screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 19, at 8 PM.




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