Louder than ever 

Your complete guide to the 9th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Page 2 of 4

Marina Abramovic, the grandmother of performance art, tests the boundaries of what's accepted by society, peels away the "thin veneer of civilization" and asks the audience to come to terms with its own discomfort. In this film, director Matthew Akers follows Abramovic as she prepares for a retrospective at MoMA in New York, as well as a brand-new, incredibly ambitious performance.

Yes, this film is visually lovely. Yes, it's well-directed, edited and scored. But what makes it so successful is its subtle focus on humanity. Akers offers a well-crafted portrait of a charming, vulnerable and complex artist, but he also mirrors Abramovic's own aimnamely, to prod the audience. What moves us, deeply? How do we connect viscerally with those around us? What makes us human? What is art, anyway? Are life and art, as Abramovic suggests, actually one and the same? (MM)

Showing: Free opening night screening on Fri., Feb. 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Wilma.

Holy Rollers

There's something slightly off-putting about the way a group of evangelical Christians justify their indulgence in vices on film. They sound like addicts in denial, defending their actions not to others, but to themselves and to God. What would Jesus do? Apparently he'd count cards in Las Vegas.

Holy Rollers follows the exploits of Church Team, possibly the most enterprising mishmash of fuzzy-cheeked 30-something ministry leaders this side of the Last Supper. When they aren't lounging in upscale Seattle suburbs or baptizing followers in public parks, these men and women play blackjack. Professionally. Church Team started as a hobby for founders Ben Crawford and Colin Jones back in 2007. By 2009, the team included more than a dozen players who, combined, had won more than $3 million from casinos nationwide.

click to enlarge Holy Rollers
  • Holy Rollers

Director Bryan Storkel does an impressive job humanizing these holy rollers. To Church Team, card-counting isn't gamblingan activity condemned by their faith. It's a way to "free" a monthly income from crooked institutions in a mere 40 hours, then spend the rest of the month doing the Lord's work. The team does fall on hard times as success waxes and wanes. Members are tossed from casinos, team managers struggle to keep investors happy and tempers flare when one player accuses the team's token agnostic of stealing money, based on a tip from the Holy Spirit.

This last moment proves enough to challenge the trust system these Christians rely on exclusively but not enough to convince Church Team that what they're doing goes against their religious convictions. Blackjack, to them, is simply a meansone they defend more and more as their faith is tested. (AS)

Showing: Sun., Feb. 19, at 2 p.m., at the Crystal.

Piano Pat: A Montana Legend

How appropriate that we begin this six-minute film with the gravelly voice-over of Piano Pat as she leaves her humdrum apartment and drives over the windswept and snow-sodden roads to Great Falls's O'Haire Motor Inn, the home of the Sip 'n Dip, a tiki lounge with "mermaids" and the bar she has performed in for 60 years. The filmmakers wisely show us the Pat who exists outside the bar. We see the mom, the church organist, the lady who regularly gets her hair done, the woman who wishes fame would have come sooner in her life.

click to enlarge Piano Pat: A Montana Legend
  • Piano Pat: A Montana Legend

We also meet the woman whose infectious enthusiasm has kept her and her patrons returning to the Sip 'n Dip all these years, but the film leaves us wanting more, as both the audience and Piano Pat know that something this iconic won't last forever. (JM)

Showing: Wed., Feb. 22, at 4:30 p.m., at the Wilma.


According to Happy, people who spend a lot of time with family are happy. Surfers are happy. Villagers in Okinawa are happy. African bushmen are happy, in part because when one of them is sick, "rather than sending him to the nearest doctor, the whole community participates in the healing process" via ritual dancing. Students of contemporary culture will recognize a particular world-view in this assertion, one that Happy embraces without deeply considering it.

click to enlarge Happy
  • Happy

Americans are not happy, of course. Like the Japanesewhom the film presents generally as almost comically depressed automatonswe are too fixed on money and status to find contentment. We'd be better off like the people of Bhutan, whose government works to increase national happiness through careful development and "codes of dress and speech." If you aren't so sure you'd be happy with a dress code, you probably will not like Happy. Director Roko Belic's feature-length film is a long paean to Living Simply, Focusing On What Matters and other empty notions of post-consumer happiness. (DB)

Showing: Saturday, Feb. 25, at 10 a.m., at the Wilma.

Painting John

There's a sad beauty to Montana's rolling cattle hills that makes one yearn for some shred of days long past. Rusted trucks like farmyard sentinels, calves forging through snow, lonely men with hay hooks and broken backs. It's a beauty masterfully reflected in Audrey Hall's filmmaking debut, Painting John, an 11-minute short that feels altogether too short.

Hall's subjects juxtapose nicely: the Wall Street man turned globetrotting painter Hugh Wilson and the grizzled 80-something rancher John Holland. Wilson chats with the joviality of youth, a tattoo of a bird peeking out above the neck of a striped T-shirt. Holland's answers come in short, shaky bursts, as though he's standing in the cold. Does the portrait Wilson completes capture Holland's spirit? "Yeah, I think so," Holland replies. Time has left trenches on Holland's face, but it's the eyes Wilson focuses on.

click to enlarge PAINTING JOHN
  • Painting John

The banter would not hold up as well had Hall not recognized a third character at play: Montana. From a shot of Wilson digging his truck out of the snow to a panorama of the hills around Holland's ranch house, the landscape is as much a part of Painting John as the painter and his subject. As the two part waysthe portrait finishedwe watch in silence through a pane of glass. Their conversation doesn't matter. Only Holland's send-off, a finger pointed at some unseen object beyond the trees. He's lived on and worked the ranch since his birth, in 1927. He's a fixture, mostly silent, an immovable part of that sad beauty Hall and Wilson have now immortalized. (AS)

Showing: Tue., Feb. 21, at 9 p.m., at the Wilma.


When I first read the blurb about this film and saw "new realm of non-verbal equine psychotherapy," I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Sure, cross-species relationships can be incredibly powerful, but I worried that this film would wander into new-agey nonsense. Apparently the subject of the film, a young woman battling cancer, had similar misgivings about communing with horses as treatment, and admits as much in the first minutes. She proceeds with the therapy, though, and seems to glean some peace from it.

Tanglewood, directed by Sarah Newens, isn't new-agey, but neither does it convince me that there's anything remarkable going on between woman and horse. It's a shame, because the potential is there to make an interesting statement about healing, acceptance and the very real empathic capacity of horses. On that front, this 17-minute short falls a little flat.

click to enlarge Tanglewood
  • Tanglewood

The saving grace comes in the form of striking visuals. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the footage of horses and the scenery demonstrate a keen photographic eye. I think I would have preferred this as a silent film, or perhaps overlaid with only music. (MM)

Showing: Mon., Feb. 20, at 1:45 p.m., at the Wilma.

Refugee AllStars in Montana

The most common complaint with short films is that they are, well, too short. In this case, local director Colin Ruggiero focuses on a tiny piece of an epic story, and does so with a grace and subtlety that fits perfectly in a 10-minute package.

click to enlarge Refugee All-Stars in Montana
  • Refugee All-Stars in Montana

There's already a feature-length documentary about the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, a musical group that emerged from the war-torn nation and proceeded to tour the world. In fact, that film screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2007, and hit the Wilma again in 2008. Days after the 2008 screening, the band took the Wilma stage for a sold-out live concert. Ruggiero uses footage from that Wilma show and a KUFM radio interview to provide a glimpse of the international musicians' brief stop in a wintery college town.

It's the little moments that make big impressions. There's the hushed retelling of what it was like to survive civil war and be displaced to Guinea juxtaposed with raucous crowd shots of dreadlocked Missoulians. There's the post-show giddiness outside the tour bus, when one band member uses an issue of the Indy as a drum and another sings.

You can get the full story of this band somewhere else; Ruggiero provides a few precious moments that may mean more to a local audience. (SB)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 18, at 4:45 p.m., at the Crystal.

Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword

There's such a well-established template for "brain game" documentaries and the eccentric subcultures they attract, whether it be Spellbound (about spelling bees), Wordplay (about crossword competitions) or Word Wars (Scrabble competitions), that you start to wonder how soon before the genre dissolves into depressing parody.

Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword is about the USA Memory Championship and the "mental athletes" who participate, and if there was ever a candidate for taking a documentary concept too far, this sure sounds like a winner, er, loser.

click to enlarge Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword
  • Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword

That it ends up being better than any of the aforementioned trio is a fantastic surprise. And yes, this is a documentary in which the climatic sequence revolves around two contestants reciting a memorized deck of cards. It's a genuinely moving scene.

There's a little bit of luck involved here in that the three featured competitors are all charismatic and interesting in their own right. Chief among them is Nelson Dellis, an avid mountain climber who burst onto the scene two years ago with his uncanny ability to memorize more than 200 digits in five minutes and remember the order of a deck of cards after looking at them for less than 70 seconds. (The title refers to a memorization trick for assigning people, objects and actions to each card.)

  • Email
  • Print

Speaking of...

  • Tourists gone wild

    After a series of questionable, dangerous and sometimes fatal incidents this summer, national—and state—parks start to take action
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • Lichen the results

    University of Montana biologist shakes science community with groundbreaking discovery
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • Game changers

    As more kids turn to alternative team sports, Missoula's Gnar Pirates and MT Alpha Juniors lead a new generation of athletes
    • Jul 21, 2016
  • More »

More by Independent Staff

  • Tourists gone wild

    After a series of questionable, dangerous and sometimes fatal incidents this summer, national—and state—parks start to take action
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • This way to summer

    111 ways to fill the season with outdoor adventures, live music, community festivals, oddities and more
    • Jun 2, 2016
  • More »

© 2016 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation