Coming attractions 

Your guide to the 11th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

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 In that spirit, the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" pilot episode (it was originally made as a one-off) will screen along with several true documentaries centered on comedy, including classics like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which covers the pre-show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.)

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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.

Freedom rock

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.

click to enlarge Death Metal Angola
  • Death Metal Angola

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.

Kate Whittle

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.



True crime

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.

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  • Who Took Johnny

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.

Molly Laich

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.



Radical seeds

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.

Occupy the Farm is a down-to-earth documentary of the events that followed. There's nothing flashy or bold about Darling's style, but the content is compelling and the narrative shape is deeply satisfying. At heart, it's a David vs. Goliath story. It reminds me of when Argentinean workers reclaimed abandoned factories during their economic crisis of the early 2000s. The owners had laid everyone off and ditched the property. So the workers formed cooperatives, marched back into the factories, and started producing on their own.

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  • Occupy the Farm

Questions emerge from these stories: What happens when what is legally right becomes morally questionable and socially disadvantageous? What should land ownership—particularly public land ownership—actually stand for? What will be more important as society evolves—the economic rights of individuals or ethical stewardship of resources crucial to everyone? While the filmmakers clearly side with the Occupiers, they don't gloss over the ethical complexity of the situation. They raise questions without forcing answers down your throat. It's a story told in moments and images.

Even more fascinating than the actions of the Occupiers is the authority's response. The game is more chess and tightrope walking than boxing. Public opinion and the hesitation it creates in the power structure is dizzying to watch.

Occupy the Farm reinforces the potential of creative and non-violent protest. Focusing on building up rather than tearing down can dissolve the physical tension that allows the force of oppression to easily crush resistance. Maybe the most captivating image in the entire film takes place after the farmers have finally been forcibly removed from the land. A single masked renegade hops the fence with a bucket and starts watering the crops while a dozen police officers jog after him in full gear. I don't care what side of the fence you're on, that's just awesome. Like the Banksy image of a bandana-wearing anarchist flinging a bouquet of flowers instead of a Molotov cocktail, the irony reminds us we've got a lot of kinks to work out in our "just" society.

Josh Wagner

Screens Fri., Feb. 21 at 5 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for the Big Sky Award.



Power of song

Alive Inside offers hope for battling dementia

End-of-life care is not something we often think about in America. Just like with Grandpa in "The Simpsons," we ship old people off to nursing homes and mostly forget about them. At least, that's how it is for most people. My mother, a nurse, works in hospice care, so every time I go home to visit, I'm reminded of my own and everyone else's impending mortality. She's fairly cheerful about it, given that she deals with death every day. Her stern lectures about what it's like to die of cancer have forever put me off smoking cigarettes.

But what scares my fearless, tough mother is dementia. There's not much the medical establishment can do to prevent or treat it. It's a slow death where you lose your personality, your independence and your ability to connect with loved ones. It runs on my father's side of the family. I am terrified of dementia, too.

So I came to Alive Inside, a documentary about music therapy for dementia patients, prepared for something grim. I had my Kleenex ready. Instead, I got a jolt of hope. Dan Cohen, a social worker and nursing home volunteer, has found a way to bring happiness to patients with a therapy so simple it seems painfully obvious: Give them headphones and play their favorite songs from back in the day.

Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett followed Cohen over three years of the project. One of the first people we meet in Alive Inside is Henry, an elderly black man. In the video, Henry, who mutters and seems barely aware of his surroundings, transforms when the music starts. His eyes widen. He waves his arms. He hums and then sings along to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." When Henry's story hit the internet, Cohen's Music and Memory project took off.

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  • Alive Inside

Alive Inside follows many more such breathtaking transformations. People who are walker-bound or bedridden, seemingly barely conscious, start dancing, singing and crying, experiencing the first real joy they've felt in years. Doctors in the film explain that music is as fundamental in shaping the human psyche as language, and it activates parts of the brain that Alzheimer's doesn't destroy. One doc calls music a "back door into the brain" that elicits a physiological response.

Music should be an easily accessible thing, but bringing it into nursing homes"a combination of poor house and hospital," as one person puts it—has been a battle for the Music and Memory project. A gerontologist explains that it's easier for him to write a prescription for a $1,000-a-month antidepressant than it is to request a $40 music player. The medical supply and pharmaceutical industries are much more invested in promoting expensive medications, rather than simple at-home solutions.

Alive Inside, which is in the running for Best Feature, calls out glaring problems in the way we take care of our sick and elderly in America; but it encourages me that projects like Music and Memory are putting us on the track to a kinder system.

Kate Whittle

Screens Sun., Feb. 16 at 1:15 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for Best Feature.



Make art, not war

An appreciation of Refah, the mostly invisible assistant

Wherever you fall on the Mohs scale of Montana crunchy (hint: cattle rancher=talc) probably corresponds to how you feel about the Buffalo Field Campaign. But your thoughts on Art Is War, a doc that follows Los Angeles performance artist Lila Roo, whom the campaign brings in to ruffle some fur, might be messier.

The doc, it turns out, is more complicated than the views of the campaign, which are laser-focused on humans not mucking around with the wildness of the American bison. In Art is War, those views serve as the Greek chorus, for sure, but fair play to the filmmaker, Montana State University grad student Devon Riter, for focusing his lens on Roo's assistant, Refah.

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  • Art is War

See, Refah's the one getting it done and building things, including the giant box for Roo to stand on outside Yellowstone National Park while she clenches many yards of red tarp (symbolizing bison blood) in her teeth. Like Roo, Refah is a newcomer to both Montana and its bison issue. He's there to do a job, to be "invisible" while the artist creates. In reality? He's the glue. When someone asks him how he feels about bison, he says, "I think they're here. ... They're big and there's a lot of them." It's a nice turn, a contrast, a break. Because, regardless of personal crunchiness, there comes a time when you need a break from Roo and the BFC. The film gets that pretty beautifully right.

Art is War starts chronologically, with Roo's arrival to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (sounds so fancy, huh?) and continues to follow her and Refah as they get ready for a Major Art Event near the park's entrance. (This all happened last May.) As it builds toward said Major Art Event, the BFCers let Roo and Refah ride along during their patrols of the patrollers, also known as the state and fed employees of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. They're witness to the patrollers using a helicopter and other methods to herd bison back into the park.

The experiences, enhanced by cute bison babies, turn spiritual for Roo.

"I hope we start changing back into animals soon," she says.

"She feels guilty for being a person and not an animal. I don't get that," Refah says.

You see what I mean? It's not like Refah is some raging right-winger. It's more like he's Canadian. (He actually is Canadian.) He's into creation, not destruction. He thinks Roo's an awesome artist and, you know, she's the boss. "We gotta make it happen," he says. So good enough.

Drama builds as the wind picks up and threatens to blow away both concepts and actual elements of the installation, including the huge headdress Roo will wear. All eyes are on her as it comes together, including Refah's, who switches from carpenter to photographer. But the film makes sure he's not doing the other thing he's supposed to dobe invisible—and that makes all the difference.

Jule Banville

Screens Sun., Feb. 16 at 3 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for the Big Sky Award.



Crash course

Coal, climate change and politics come into focus in Momenta

Montana knows coal. We see the trains laden with it paralleling the interstate. We glimpse pictures and read headlines about new mines on the horizon. Some of us even scan the lists of campaign donations to our elected officials, wondering how much familiar companies like Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy have invested in our politics. Coal is a part of life here in our West, and its expanding journey to markets in China has many wishing it weren't anymore.

So there are few surprises to be gleaned in Momenta, a film devoted to further exposing the dirtiness of coal development in Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin and squeezing it into the increasingly crowded narrative of global climate change. For those unfamiliar with the debate, Momenta offers a crash course from the side of the opposition, dropping little nuggets of knowledge here and there like chunks of coal from a train car. For most, though, the film comes more as an emotional affirmation than a revelation. Yes, there are people throughout the Pacific Northwest who are just as outraged, just as moved to action. You are not alone.

"If we cook this wonderful planet we're living on, we're not going to have human existence," says famed Bozeman climber and Momenta narrator Conrad Anker in the film's opening moments. Anker acknowledges he'll be fine. He'll still have his coffee and be able to drive to the mountains long before the oven timer beeps. "But what's it going to be like 200 years down the line?"

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  • Momenta

The most soul-wrenching moments come early, as when LJ Turner, a Wyoming cattle rancher, talks of the Powder River Basin as a sacrifice zone singled out to benefit some corporation's bottom line. "Mr. Peabody's coal train is carrying Wyoming away," he says, pointing to a line of BNSF railcars plodding through the distance. Like those coal trains, Momenta itself rumbles quickly past Turner and onward to Spokane, Portland and Bellingham, with brief stops in Billings, Missoula and Sandpoint.

It's a bit disappointing that Momenta doesn't spend more time in our backyard. Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier provides a momentary look at the stakes here, explaining that the anticipated 50- to 100-percent bump in coal train traffic could impede local commerce and public safety by blocking downtown corridors like Madison Street. But the film is off to the next station in a flash, making Strohmaier something of a missed opportunity.

As the producers point out, each train loses an estimated 31 tons of coal and coal dust during its trek to the coast—which at 18 trains a day pencils out to roughly 204,000 tons annually. That concern has prompted Missoula officials to urge the Army Corps of Engineers in recent years to extend its environmental reviews of proposed coal port projects up the line. The Army Corps declined the first time around, but the hubbub raised here did compel the Washington Department of Ecology to step in and assess such impacts. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

If, for the uninitiated, Momenta feels lengthy and cumbersome, weighted down by a few too many characters and a few too many stops, that's a good thing. The issue at hand isn't just about folks in Gillette or Cherry Point or any of the hundreds of towns in between. As Anker lays out from the very beginning, and as anyone in the West who's even half awake will tell you, Powder River coal has long-term ramifications for us all.

Alex Sakariassen

Screens Sun., Feb. 23 at 3:30 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for the Big Sky Award.




Seriously funny

Tig Notaro on comedian Chris Fairbanks, her Missoula cat and living lifeeven when it's hardwith humor

by Erika Fredrickson

Tig Notaro is the kind of observational comic you can fall in love with, even if you're not a fan of the standup comedy format. She doesn't really do bits, so much as she starts one joke and takes it for a ride. She's dry and conspiratorial. She occupies the stage like she just accidentally wandered up there, as if she just stumbled upon the fact that she's the funniest person in the room.

In May 2012, Notaro did a performance for the live version of "This American Life," in which she talked about running into 1980s pop singer Taylor Dayne and the absurd conversations that ensued between them. But, behind the scenes, Notaro was going through some hard times. Within a four-month span, she'd contracted pneumonia and a life-threatening digestive infection called C. diff. She'd gone through a breakup. Her mother suddenly died from a fall. A couple months after all that, in August 2012, Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Then, something amazing happened.

A few weeks after the grim news, she took the stage at a Los Angeles club called Largo and delivered a now legendary set, which she started with, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." It is a shocking, funny, heartbreaking and candid performance that spurred comedian Louis CK to famously tweet, "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo." Tig Notaro Live, her recently Grammy-nominated comedy album, includes a recording of the Largo set.

The album is just one artifact of Notaro's rising stardom. (By the way, the "Live" is pronounced as in the opposite of death, not like "live show," which makes it both funny and poignant.) This past year, she's been touring with her podcast, "Professor Blastoff," which she hosts with comedians Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger. She's also working on a memoir and she's the subject of a documentary in progress. We talked with her in advance of her upcoming Feb. 19 performance in Missoula, when she'll take the stage at the Wilma with her longtime friend, beloved Missoula native Chris Fairbanks.

Let's talk about the most pressing issue, which is obviously how you and Chris Fairbanks own a cat together. How did that happen?

Tig Notaro: Oh, well, Chris and I lived together for seven or eight years and we acquired a cat. When we finally parted ways, he kept the cat and then he finally started getting so busy he couldn't keep the cat and so I guess the cat moved to Montana. Well, I know the cat moved to Montana because I crashed on the cat's couch a few months ago. He's living with Chris' dad in Missoula and so I was going through there on tour and got to crash at my cat's house. Pretty fun!

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What were you doing in Missoula? Had you been here before?

TN: I was coming through with my podcast, "Professor Blastoff." We were on a national tour and went through Montana and just went and crashed with my cat. I did do a one-night gig in Missoula at a bar maybe 14 years ago, but that was just one night—in and out. For the show I did with "Professor Blastoff" I was only there the night that we crashed at the cat's house, but I haven't really spent much time in Missoula. With this [Big Sky Documentary] festival, I'm hoping that I can stay at least a couple extra days to hang out in town with Chris and all his old friends and go see some good movies. So I'm looking forward to it.

What was it like being roommates with Chris?

TN: Everybody always thought it was going to be totally insane, but we kind of just were very mellow people and so there was nothing too crazy to report, you know? It was kind of a disappointment, I think. I feel like it would definitely disappoint people if they would have peeked in on our lives.

You're one of the main attractions for the documentary festival this year, as part of its focus on comedy. Do you have a favorite mockumentary?

TN: Well, I am a fan of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I haven't really followed much TV but that is one show that I thought was great. Waiting for Guffman was great. That was probably a favorite of mine. I don't really follow too much comedy or mockumentaries, but actual documentaries I go nuts on. I watched the Mitt Romney documentary recently and the one called Billy the Kid. I watched Last Days Here—that's about the lead singer of this metal band called Pentagram. I watch documentaries all the time. I love them.

There's actually a documentary being made about my life right now. They started making it in January of 2013 following the horrible year that I had previously. So that film is being made right now.

Your album Tig Notaro Live comes with a pretty big backstory, including the show at the Largo in 2012. You've talked about this night so many times. Is it something that you get tired of talking about?

TN: It comes up daily, several times a day, and I think I'm just used to it at this point. I feel very thankful for that night and so I try to remember that whenever I'm not really in the mood to talk about it. I'm glad I'm alive to talk about it.

Have you heard from people whom the album affected?

TN: Oh yeah, I get emails daily from people who have cancer or people who are dying or people who have just had a rough week and their health is perfectly fine but the album put their life in check. I read every email that comes in. I feel so thankful that people are touched, that they feel like somebody out there understands, because it's rough. People have so many different rough spots in life they go through and so however it helps them I'm thankful to be a part of it.

Someone I know who survived breast cancer used to joke about the pressures of "courageously battling" cancer, because what if you don't feel brave? It's a real fear, I think, but also she joked about it because she needed to laugh. Did it help you that you already approach life with a comedic eye?

TN: Oh yeah, 100 percent. It took me a while to have a sense of humor about life. In the four months that my life fell apart [before the diagnosis] I kind of lost my sense of humor. But when I was diagnosed with cancer it came back full force. I experienced that, too, as far as people saying how brave I was or how brave I am. I'd tell them if they could just see me in a fetal position crying on my couch—I don't feel very brave. But I was talking to Louis CK about that idea and he was saying how you're still brave if you're whining or crying. You're facing the horror and the troubled moments. You're getting through it. That's enough. But it was hard for me to accept people saying they consider me brave. But I get it.

Chris went on "Conan" recently wearing what he calls his "grandpa" sweater, which I also spotted him wearing two other times in Missoula. Then I realized you have a similar sweater that you wear all the time. What's up with the grandpa sweaters?

TN: I wear mine and have worn it for the past 14 years, like even in the summer time. And I saw Chris—he did a show of mine the other night—and he wore his sweater. He was acknowledging how he's starting to wear grandpa sweaters now. I don't know, I mean, I certainly didn't invent grandpa sweaters.

Chris tells me that you "totally shred" at guitar. He also said you would deny that you totally shred.

TN: [Laughs] I played guitar from the time I was in fourth grade up until the time I was about 22 or 23. I can pick it up and kind of fake it and impress people still but I'm not really that great. But, when I was nominated for a Grammy I was given all these free gifts and one of them was a brand new Les Paul guitar. It just got me thinking that I would love to have a hobby since I'm so busy. So I put a band together yesterday. It's a bunch of comedians: me and Kyle Dunnigan and Henry Phillips, Jonah Ray and Steve Agee. We're going to just start off learning some covers. I don't think I'm going to be impressing anybody right away. But, yeah, I can play.

Tig Notaro and Chris Fairbanks perform at the Wilma Theatre Wed., Feb. 19, at 8 PM. $25/$20 advance at Rockin Rudy's, Ear Candy and bigskyfilmfest.org. (Not included in festival passes.)




Also playing

From pet foxes to fake families, even more films to consider

by Jule Banville, Skylar Browning, Molly Laich, Josh Wagner and Kate Whittle

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

It's not easy to watch a man die. It starts in the eyes, with a soft glaze and a distant stare. There's muttering and confusion. Breathing becomes labored until, eventually, one day, the chest doesn't struggle to rise once more. The jaw goes slack. Skin color fades.

The title of Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall prepares viewers for what they're about to watch, and it's a raw sight. But the power of this Academy Award-nominated short film isn't as much in Hall's death as it is in the compassion of those who surround him during his final hours.

The Iowa State Penitentiary created a hospice program in 2004 funded entirely through donations and staffed by specially trained prisoners serving life sentences. Prison Terminal, which was filmed by director Edgar Barens in 2006, follows Hall, 82, as he's moved from the prison's infirmary to one of two beautifully decorated rooms designed for end-of-life care. One prisoner made the curtains. Another constructed the bookcase. Hall's own snapshots fill bulletin boards on the wall. Men with names like Glove, Herky and Love, each serving time for murder or kidnapping, commit to Hall's 24-hour care, including back massages, showers and lots of prayer. The men take their responsibilities seriously, and speak eloquently about the redemptive nature of their work. They even conduct tours for visitors to help generate support for the hospice program.

Hall provides a perfect study for such a heartwarming endnote to a life of hard time. The former World War II veteran, who was convicted of murder, speaks with a quick wit and demonstrates a steely resolve in early interviews. He has tattoos of naked women on his torso and forearm, and one on his fingers that reads "Love is Hell." We learn that he's also racist, or at least used to be. But as his health deteriorates and he's left to the care of three selfless black men, it's clear that he's found some level of peace with his place in the world. We should all be so lucky to die that way. (SB)

Screens Sun., Feb. 16 at 5:15 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for Best Short.



Mistaken For Strangers

Behind many artsy, passionate musicians are humdrum upbringings and dorky families they'd rather not talk about during interviews with Pitchfork. In the case of Matt Berninger, lead singer for super-literate, broody Brooklyn rock band The National, he's embarrassed about his younger brother, chubby metal nerd Tom Berninger. Mistaken For Strangers, shot mostly by Tom on a handheld camera, was meant to be a rock documentary made while Tom roadied for his brother's band during several months of touring. But as the documentary progresses, the already uneasy relationship between the two deteriorates, and Tom keeps recording during many tense moments. Mistaken For Strangers is a portrait of two brothers, both odd and creative and smart, but one has channeled it into mainstream success and the other is still floundering along, being a screw-up and a goofball. If you're a fan of The National, admittedly an uber-serious band, you might not be surprised to see that Matt is intense and unforgiving of his brother's quirks. Tom is painful to watch at times, as he pesters the other band members with weird questions and invites himself along where he's not wanted. But it's clear, from scenes where he gets drunk and listens to Halford's Christmas album, that he's still the person you'd rather party with.

click to enlarge Mistaken For Strangers
  • Mistaken For Strangers

The end of Mistaken For Strangers seems to reach something of a resolution between the two squabbling brothers, but anyone with close family knows that sibling rivalry never really ends. It's a "rock documentary" that accidentally became a poignant, funny and authentic-feeling picture of fame and family life. (KW)

Screens Mon., Feb. 17 at 7:45 PM at the Wilma.



Teenage

In director Matt Wolf's film, we learn that teenagers didn't always exist. In fact, the distinction is an invention born mostly out of war and a changing economic and political landscape the world over. Wolf tells the story of the teenager's fight for a collective identity through remarkable archival footage, starting from before World War I and more or less wrapping up around the end of World War II. The images have an almost fake, dream-like quality, coupled with the voiceover narration of actors who speak as though they were there. We learn about the invention of the Boy Scouts in England, followed by Hitler Youth. The film shows teenagers in Germany who listen to American jazz, and kids in America getting into swing. The movie is like Will Smith's "Parents Just Don't Understand," except it takes itself much more seriously. It's eerie to watch people who look young on screen but are in reality very old and dead. They are like butterflies pinned to felt. This is a somber, trance-inducing film composed of pretty images and not a lot else. For viewers looking for a meatier experience, Teenage might come up a little short. (ML)

Screens Fri., Feb. 21 at 5:30 PM at the Crystal.

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  • Teenage


Trucker and the Fox

Mahmoud Falavarjani, the trucker, is depressed. His psychiatrist, however, has the cure: "Don't think about your dead fox anymore. Get back to work." The next shot? Mahmoud in his beat-down, 40-year-old lorry with a photo of his dead fox taped to the steering wheel. Because the deal with Mahmoud is, in his heart, he is not a trucker. He's an animal guy, first, and a filmmaker, second. And by midpoint in this Iranian documentary that's in competition for Best Feature, he gets around to creating his own cure: Trap a new fox. Make a new movie starring the fox. But that doesn't just happen, film fans. It takes time to make an arty critter movie, which is, primarily, the downfall of this otherwise quirky and lovely movie about making a movie. It's tedious to watch him keep checking the trap and talking pre-production plot. Although, hey, the plot does involve donkey lovers whose stars get crossed by you-know-who (pssst ... the fox!). We watch as Mahmoud allows his obsessions to blow holes in his marriage and in his tenuous job. But we also see his transformation from despair to joy because of them. Better, though, to get to joy just a bit quicker. (JB)

Screens Sat., Feb. 15 and Sat., Feb. 22, both at 11:45 AM at the Wilma. Nominee for Best Feature.

click to enlarge Trucker and the Fox
  • Trucker and the Fox


Rent A Family, Inc.

A middle-aged man sits down with his daughter and her boyfriend, who nervously explain that they want to move in together before deciding to get married. The father listens calmly, expresses his concerns, and eventually gives his blessing. The thing is, he's not actually the girl's father. She hired him to play the role because her boyfriend insisted on a father's blessing, and she knew her real father would never give it. This is the career Ryuichi Ichinokawa has made for himself, and the subject of Kaspar Astrup Schroder's documentary, Rent A Family.

Like much of Japanese culture, Ichinokawa's story is weirdly fascinating from an American standpoint. He calls his website "I Want to Cheer You Up" and takes on all sorts of jobs impersonating fathers, husbands, friends, as well as managing a staff of freelancers to fill roles he can't fit. What makes the documentary a story rather than an exposé is that Ichinokawa's business of duplicity parallels his own life. His family has no idea what he does for a living.

Unfortunately, the film's wrap-up doesn't quite live up to the intrigue of the setup. Rent A Family, a nominee for Best Feature, peters out into a conclusion that only fails to be predictable because of how anticlimactic it is. But it's still well worth watching on account of the unusual detailing of how Japanese relationships, as eerily unfamiliar in custom as they might seem to us, reflect the same emotional undertow we all experience. (JW)

Screens Tue., Feb. 18 at 6:45 PM and Sat., Feb. 22 at 2 PM at the Crystal. Nominee for Best Feature.



A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times

Jayson Blair is troubled, and that may be putting it gently. During the 74 minutes of A Fragile Trust, everyone on-screen—including Blair himself—searches for the right way to describe just what ails this "mentally unstable," "crazy," "sick" and "bipolar" lightning rod of criticism. These descriptors are important, because they're all that's available to explain Blair's fantastically flawed stretch as an intern and then reporter at The New York Times, during which he managed to file stories riddled with errors, fabricate sources, plagiarize work from other papers and report on events he never attended, in cities he never visited. At one point he smelled so bad his colleagues complained. In another, he lost a company car. Just lost it. For a month.

click to enlarge A Fragile Trust
  • A Fragile Trust

Blair's actions are so ludicrous that it's hard to fathom how he could get away with such behavior at an institution like the Times. His litany of excuses—drugs, alcohol, trauma after 9/11, pressure of the newsroom, etc.are so nauseating and desperate that you can't tell, as one editor puts it, where his sickness starts and where the scheming begins.

Director Samantha Grant's film, which is in competition for Best Feature, catalogues the entire saga and, toward the end, briefly explores certain postscripts, such as the fallout at the Times, the potential indictment of affirmative action (Blair is black and was hired to help diversify the newsroom) and the overall reflection on contemporary journalism (hence the title). The film spins its wheels at points and meanders toward its conclusion, but this journalist is willing to admit that it was the smarmy subject—not the filmmaking—that grew tiresome.

If you have any affinity whatsoever to journalism, you have zero time for a compulsive liar like Blair. I didn't want to spend a minute longer listening to or about him, and can't imagine why the Times took so long to reach the same conclusion. There are no great revelations in the film—except, perhaps, Blair's current career choice as a life coach—but plenty to leave viewers shaking their heads as the final credits roll. (SB)

Screens Tue., Feb. 18 at 7 PM at the Wilma and Wed., Feb. 19 at 5 PM at the Crystal. Nominee for Best Feature.

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