A different lens 

Big Sky continues to change the way we look at documentary filmmaking

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Feature Review: Sérgio

Sérgio Vieira de Mello is a Brazilian silver fox. He's a man who's won people over across the world and across political lines. He's been the United Nation's go-to guy, the intelligent diplomat with perfect dimples, smiling eyes and endless confidence. He's described as Bobby Kennedy meets James Bond. Men and women want to either be him or sleep with him—and it's easy to see why. Sérgio spends a considerable amount of time portraying a man of extraordinary charm and political persuasion. Interviews show his colleagues overcome with emotion talking about him. Tony Blair's smitten with him. Condoleezza Rice practically swoons when she recalls his political fearlessness.

Even more, his background underlies a certain romanticism: He was schooled at Paris' Sorbonne in philosophy and led activist movements with an idealism he didn't seem to ever lose. In one part of the film a panel discussion finds him answering a question about whether the United Nations—and by association Sérgio—was really just a cover to protect American ideals. He's able to contain himself, though not before a cloud of anger crosses his face. "We are independent," he says forcefully, without a hint of forgiveness. "We are not a cover for anyone."

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From the beginning, Sérgio (based on Samantha Power's biography, Chasing the Flame) sets viewers up for the fateful day of Aug. 19, 2003. We're told that the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad hosts 300 employees and, on that day, there's a meeting between Sergio and a few colleagues on the third floor, and a media event happening on the ground floor. You know something bad is about to happen; you're being strung along in minutiae for far too long. But even after the bomb goes off, after rescue missions get underway, and even when you know the ending, the film remains suspenseful.

Director Greg Barker doesn't let Sérgio go without some scrutiny, though he doesn't get too critical. Infidelity's a given, it seems, but on the political front Sérgio seems like a saint, which is maybe a bit much. You do get the sense that not everyone loves him. In fact, right when you think the film might be overselling Sérgio's international importance you're treated to an interview with one of Osama Bin Laden's sidekicks basically calling Sérgio a Taliban target. From there you get to see the small web that leads him through temporary leadership of East Timor and, finally, to Baghdad. He is a big deal, as it turns out.

It's interesting to connect the dots between one man and a series of world shifting events. The film captures the tensions between the U.N. and U.S. policy via his story. That tension is addressed in broad strokes throughout the film, but also in small ones on the ground. At the gutted U.N. headquarters the film shows soldiers and diplomats, trained in entirely different ways, dealing with a real crisis. But Barker rarely misses an opportunity to let each interview and scene resonate with larger ideals and tragedies.

—Erika Fredrickson

Showing: Friday, Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m. Sérgio is the free opening night film sponsored by HBO.

Feature Review: Sweetgrass

A sheepdog's work is perhaps best appreciated when seen from above—from an escarpment in the Beartooths, say, looking down at a tiny black spot carving curls and eddies in a tide of white wool in the valley below. A single sheep filmed at length isn't nearly as interesting, but in their hundreds the animals become incredibly cinegenic: a single organism squeezing amoebalike through gates and corrals, flowing like liquid through the rocks and crags of some of the harshest summer pasture in sheepdom.

Sheep provide most of the interest in Sweetgrass, a deeply unsentimental look at the vanishing tradition of pasturing livestock in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. Videographer Lucien Castaing-Taylor followed the Allested family and their enormous flock on several seasonal migrations through this forbidding terrain. He lost 20 pounds on his last drive, but succeeded in creating an austere film document of a disappearing way of life in all its rigors.

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Initially intended as a family affair, Castaing-Taylor brought partner and co-producer Ilisa Barbash and their two kids along on the drive. When the risk from wolves and bears recommended against bringing kids into the mountains, Barbash and brood occupied themselves in nearby towns shooting supplementary footage of haying, shooting contests and county fairs. The hundreds of hours of footage the filmmakers captured over several summers eventually yielded nine films, of which only Sweetgrass was intended for theatrical exhibition. It has already stunned audiences at international film festivals and in limited domestic release, leading one notable reviewer to call it the first essential film of the new decade.

But Sweetgrass is a film that demands patience. Some of the shots are unbelievably long, and naturally most of them present some variation on sheep and mountains. Admittedly this tends toward repetition, but the small discoveries of texture and rhythm revealed in the lengthy takes are precisely what make the pace so rewarding. You simply get that much more into it. The shearing scenes are typical: There's a real tactile satisfaction in watching all that dingy wool come away, the electric clippers carving nubbined swaths in the pure white stuff below. You're itching to run your hands over it.

Much of the time it's possible to forget the outsider presence of Castaing-Taylor with his video camera. These dour Norwegian-Americans don't exactly ham it up for the production (although one of them, in a moment of abject despair, unleashes a salvo of cusses that could curdle sheeps' milk). The cinematography cannot be called showy or attention-seeking, but there is a certain stylized aspect to shots with a tripod and, perhaps, an over-reliance on the juxtaposition of scenery with off-camera voices and events.

Some critics have suggested that Sweetgrass could do with a pass or two with the shears to cut it down in length, but that's soft city folk for you. Sweetgrass is sheep, mountains and the last glimpses of a hard Montana life. My view is that, like the ranchers only to a lesser degree, like Castaing-Taylor himself, you're in for a penny you should be in for a pound. What's the sense of hurry through the last experience of its kind just to save a few minutes? The frappuccino can wait.

—Andy Smetanka

Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. Sweetgrass is a finalist in the Big Sky Award competition.

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