Coming attractions 

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

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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.

click to enlarge Occupy the Farm
  • 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.

click to enlarge Alive Inside
  • 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.

click to enlarge Art is War
  • 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.

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