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

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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 (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.


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.

click to enlarge Teenage
  • 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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