Les Blank's documentary A Poem is a Naked Person, about singer-songwriter Leon Russell, is filmed in Blank's characteristic cinema vérité style. We see the footage of sweaty fans reveling in his blues-rock shows like they're at a religious revival, but we also get the backstage, after-hours, slice-of-life shots showing Russell away from the spotlight.
Blank is one of a handful of filmmakers presented at the 13th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival as one of the fathers of the genre. Blank, who died in 2013, shot A Poem between 1972 and 1974, though it was just released last year. That film will be screened along with Frederick Wiseman's 2015 effort In Jackson Heights, which profiles a diverse neighborhood in Queens, and Albert Maysles' In Transit, about everyday passengers on Amtrak's busiest long-distance train route in America.
The festival's nod to these old-school vérité filmmakers is balanced by retrospectives on a couple of new-school documentarians: Lucy Walker and Ondi Timoner, both of whom have transformed and updated the genre through new technology like virtual reality and multimedia.
The old and the new retrospectives act as something like bookends to the usual lineup of more than 180 short and feature films. Some docs are atmospheric, like Bluespace, about the terraforming of Mars. Others are on magnetic human subjects like Tear the Roof Off, about the band Parliament Funkadelic, whose screening will be hosted by original band members Billy "Bass" Nelson and Jerome "Big Foot" Brailey and Jeannette Magruder, one of the original "Brides of Funkenstein."
The diversity of films is impressive, not to mention the sheer volume of what's on display. But let's not lose sight of what's important. As Timoner put it in a recent interview with the Indy, you can try all the gimmicks in the world, but in the end an effective documentary must tell a good story. On that note, we look at some of the festival's most anticipated offerings, as well as a few must-see sleepers.
What you need to know
When: The festival runs Fri., Feb. 19, through Sun., Feb. 28
Where: All screenings are at the Wilma, Roxy, Top Hat, Crystal or Shakespeare & Co.
All-access pass: $299
All-screenings pass: $149
Five-screening punch card: $35
Individual film tickets: $8/$6 students and seniors
Tickets available online and at the Wilma box office
Visit bigskyfilmfest.org for more info
Ondi Timoner's 2009 documentary We Live in Public covered the dark side of the Internet. Filmed over the course of 10 years and pared down from 5,000 hours worth of footage, the story follows Josh Harris, a dot.com millionaire who started doing controversial experiments that explored the chilling confluence of human desire, technology and media. He created an experiment called "Quiet: We Live in Public" in which he created a human terrarium of artists under New York City and put up a webcam to film them at all times. Eventually, he turned the camera on himself, living for six months under 24-hour surveillance. It ended in a public emotional breakdown.
"It was a real-life horror movie about the future of the Internet, which is now about all of us willingly trading our privacy and our freedom, eventually, for the recognition and connection that we crave as human beings," Timoner tells the Indy. "He had this vision of what was going to happen and that this millennium would be about man versus machine."
We Live in Public was a smash hit at Sundance and Timoner won the Grand Jury Prize for the second time—the only filmmaker to do so. Her first win came in 2004 for Dig!, about the tumultuous relationship between two bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. Even that film was complex for a story about rock bands because it mined the personal dynamics rather than being a promotion or fan-piece about the music. Critics called it fascinating, while some band members admitted publicly to feeling exposed in a negative light.
Timoner is the kind of bold and cocky type who could, as a filmmaker, take someone down with a razor-sharp story if she wanted to. For instance, her most recent film on Russell Brand, titled Brand: A Second Coming, is a kind of bloody valentine. She's a savvy interviewer and patient when it comes to building a story that will reverberate with her audience, often in both hilarious and alarming ways. But Timoner has most recently been using her powers for altruistic purposes. After We Live in Public garnered so much attention, a startup company called Send Love reached out in hopes of harnessing her talents.
"They were huge We Live in Public fans and they told me they were going to change the world and that they're going to bring social accountability to people through the Internet and that I was the only person who could document it," she says.
That project has led to Timoner's "A Total Disruption," an online series or "constantly releasing documentary," as she calls it. The series tells the stories of entrepreneurs and innovators who are using technology to change the world in positive ways. The project is also changing the perception of documentary filmmaking itself—the series is interactive and the videos are searchable via keywords and phrases so that new entrepreneurs can use it as an educational resource.
Timoner sees it as the opposite of the tech-fueled darkness present in We Live in Public.
"We have the ability to affect the lives of billions of people in ways that we haven't before the Internet," Timoner says. "I wanted to make it a constantly releasing documentary so that I can kind of stoke the ecosystem and the economy and help all the 'wantrepreneurs' who are coming up today and give them inspiration and information in an entertaining format." (Erika Fredrickson)
Brand: A Second Coming screens Fri., Feb. 26, at 9:15 PM at the Wilma and We Live in Public screens Sat., Feb. 27, at 10 PM at the Crystal. Visit bigskyfilmfest.org for a schedule of Timoner's other screenings.