In a 2010 panel discussion about the making of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," comedian Larry David confessed dryly that he wanted to improvise scenes for his television series for two reasons: it would feel more like a real documentary and he wouldn't have to memorize any lines. The latter illustrates classic David humor, the kind that captured the more selfish, self-deprecating version of the comedian in his show. But the primary appeal of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" deals with the former reason—that it mocks the formula and tone of a documentary in a way that adds one more hilarious, and often uncomfortable, layer to what would otherwise be just another sitcom.
This year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival offers a few different themes, but one of the most prominent is comedy. In that spirit, the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" pilot episode (it was originally made as a one-off) will screen along with several true documentaries centered on comedy, including classics like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which covers the pre-show scene of a 1986 Judas Priest concert. Robert Weide, a producer for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the focus of this year's festival retrospective, will be in attendance to introduce some of his comedy docs, like Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth and The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. (On a more serious note, Weide recently made a newer Woody Allen documentary, which will also be screened during the festival. You can read more about the controversy of Weide's defense of Allen and Allen's alleged sexual abuse in this week's Arts section.)
Comedy covers one major theme for this year's festival, but as always, the nine-day event encompasses much more. There's a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, encore screenings of past BSDFF popular films, and special appearances, such as former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart performing live after a Feb. 22 showing of a doc about the band, Every Everything. It'd be damn-near impossible to cover all of the 125 or so films on the schedule, so we've focused our lenses on many of the films short-listed for Best Feature, Best Short and the Big Sky Award. It's just a sampling, but should provide enough of a peek into what makes this one of western Montana's best annual attractions.
Music helps pick up the pieces in Death Metal Angola
Metal is filled with gnarly lyrics and macabre imagery; part of the intent is to titillate and provoke. But when a band like Angola's Before Crush sings about "blood on my chest, my heart filled with chaos," they're not having to use their imagination much. The young men in this band have seen a lifetime of real brutality.
After centuries of occupation, the Portuguese left the southwestern coastal African nation of Angola to its own devices in the 1970s, and different factions began fighting for control. The country was gripped by civil war and political instability for most of the decades after (with players like Cuba, Russia and the United States often interfering). It began to stabilize in the mid-2000s, leaving millions of displaced people, former child soldiers and sexually abused girls and women.
As the country heals from violence, music and art is popping up again, like flowers after a long winter. Rock music, introduced during the 1990s, is surging in popularity, with several bands, a national radio station and blogs like Rock Made in Angola and the Angolan Association of Rock. Death Metal Angola, in competition for Best Feature, follows several musicians who've found a healing power in hardcore and metal music. We meet bands like Dor Fantasma, Neblina and Black Soul. With cobbled-together instruments and gear, they rip with as heavy riffs and growly vocals as any Norwegian metalhead could aim for. Music "cleans it all away," as one young man says.
The main narrators are Wilker Flores and his girlfriend, Sonia Ferreira, who run an orphanage together. They love rock and aim to put on the country's first big rock festival; they joke that it will be like Woodstock. Ferreira explains that they desperately need arts and culture again. "Rock was one of the ways that helped me to fight for my freedom," Ferreira says.
On the film's site, director Jeremy Xido has explained that the documentary came about by pure chance. He was in the capital, Huambo, on another project and looking for a cup of coffee. He chatted for a while with Flores, who invited him to come see his concert that night at the orphanage. "There he was, Wilker Flores, the young man in a blue oxford, with tiny dreads and an electric guitar, surrounded by 55 orphaned boys who called this place home," Xido writes. "Siphoning electricity from the neighbor, Wilker proceeded to play one of the hardest and harshest impromptu concerts imaginable, lit by nothing more than the headlights of a van."
Many of the musicians in Death Metal Angola can't articulate what it is that draws them to heavy music. I would guess that they've found a place for catharsis.
Screens Fri., Feb. 21 at 9 PM at the Wilma and Sat., Feb. 22 at 2 PM at the Top Hat. Nominee for Best Feature.
An unsolved kidnapping leads to the first missing person on a milk carton
There's something terrifying about the idea of a person gone missing; that you could get plucked out of your life and dropped into a new one by people who want to take over your mind and body and use it for themselves. Imagine it: No one knows what happened to you and they might never find out.
This is the subject of the documentary Who Took Johnny, directed by David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley and in competition for Best Feature. Thirteen-year-old Johnny Gosch was kidnapped in 1982 on his paper route in Des Moines, Iowa. He left behind his dog and red wagon, so we can assume he didn't run away. What follows from there is the 30-year investigation into his disappearance, spearheaded by his mother Noreen Gosch.
There's a lot to be learned in this film about the history of how police handle a child abduction case. We take the current infrastructure for tracking missing persons for granted, but none of that existed back then. They had no interstate system in place, authorities used to have to wait 72 hours before they could investigate a disappearance—the list goes on. In the Gosch case in particular, the film paints a picture that starts to look like a conspiracy compounded by police incompetence.
Without much help from law enforcement, Noreen does most of the investigating on her own. She and her husband frequently go on television. We see her pleading with the kidnappers to come forward with their demands, as if they had a big ransom plot in mind and just lost the Gosch's phone number. A local dairy company hears about the case and Johnny becomes the first kid to have his face on a milk carton.
The plot thickens when somebody in the investigation brings up the word "pedophile," which was until then a rarely used term and an unknown, lurking danger in suburbs all over the country. It starts to become more and more clear that Johnny was likely kidnapped by a human trafficking ring that provides young boys to rich clients. Could he still be alive? All we ever see of the kidnapper is a composite sketch crafted from eyewitness accounts of the man they saw Johnny get into a car with. He never gets a name, and he doesn't have horns or a tail but he might as well.
Johnny and his mother's story plays out with soap opera-level plot twists. The details of the case are fed to the viewer like a trail of breadcrumbs, and it's a testament to the filmmaker's firm sense of pacing and storytelling. A lot of people along the way seem to think Noreen is a little crazy or maybe even not credible. The documentary couldn't exist without her full cooperation, and so it's not surprising the film tends to congratulate her, but still they've left a little space for interpretation.
Who Took Johnny is a dark story and it's surprisingly gripping and suspenseful, too. It's true crime at its most engaging.
Screens Sat., Feb. 22 at 3:30 PM at the Wilma and Sun., Feb. 23 at 10 AM at the Wilma. Nominee for Best Feature.
Occupy the Farm digs up questions about protests
Oakland, Calif., was one of the hottest of the hotspots at the height of the 2011 Occupy movement, with protests resulting in over 400 arrests, violent police response and millions of dollars in lawsuits. Todd Darling's Occupy the Farm comes in the wake of these events, with a mellower but no less dramatic story that played out just 10 miles north in Albany.
The conflict concerns a 100-acre lot of public land called the Gill Tract, the last parcel of farmable land in the entire East Bay area. Because of its exclusive agricultural status, people have been fighting for over 15 years to have the Gill Tract allocated as a sustainable urban farm. However, the University of California, which manages the land, only wants to use it for research and recreational purposes. When the unused southern half is slated to lease out for profit-based housing development and a Whole Foods grocery store, some 200 activists break the lock, enter the land and start to plant crops.