Stranger than fiction 

Your guide to the 12th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

In its 12th year, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival looks more and more like the multimedia world we see around us. It's not that the classic interview/footage kind of documentary is gone—far from it. Stories about underground punk rock in Cambodia, straight investigative features on political cover-ups and in-depth profiles on oddball artists will never go out of style. But the form is changing in new and exciting ways.

As evidence, this year's festival includes a retrospective of experimental filmmaker Sam Green's live-scored works and a wildly intricate stop-motion feature animation by Missoula artist Andy Smetanka. Legendary photographer, filmmaker and music producer John Cohen, who's worked with Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as well as documented traditional Appalachian music, exhibits his work at The Brink Gallery and plays a concert with Missoula's Scrapyard Lullaby.

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Besides the multimedia events, this year's festival offers 125-plus short and feature non-fiction films, plus concerts, parties and Q&As with directors. As usual, the 11-day schedule offers too much for us to cover everything. But we've singled out a few award favorites and surprise sleepers for review, which appear below, and spoken with three fascinating filmmakers who are doing their best to push the limits of documentaries. You can read those profiles through the following links:

Sam Green on the liberated world of filmmaking
Missoula filmmaker Rachel Stevens grabs life by the horns
Andy Smetanka's brutal but beautiful war

Need to know

When: The festival runs Fri., Feb. 6, through Mon., Feb. 16

Where: All screenings are at the Wilma Theatre, Crystal Theatre or the Top Hat Lounge

How much:

All-access pass: $299

All-screening pass: $149

Five-screening punch card: $32

Individual film tickets: $8/$6 students and seniors

John Cohen with Scrapyard Lullaby at the Top Hat: $12/$10 advance

Sam Green and Yo La Tengo present The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at the Wilma: $28/$25 advance. $10 off for passholders.

Sam Green with Brendan Canty, T. Griffin and Catherine McRae present The Measure of All Things at the Dennison Theater: $15/$12 advance.

Tickets available online and at the Wilma box office.

Visit for more info.


Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

This film had the weird effect of making me want to move to the small, isolated town of Chadron, Neb. High aerial shots of houses surrounded by so much beige nothing, combined with the odd, eloquent people interviewed made me feel as though if I lived there, I would be known. And if by chance someday they found my scorched body tied to a tree in the hills under mysterious circumstances, the people of Chadron would wonder what had happened to me.

This is the subject of Dave Jannetta's feature length documentary Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, based on the book of the same name by author Poe Ballantine. The book concerns itself with the 2006 disappearance of Steven Haataja, who had moved to the town just three months prior to teach math at the state college. We have at the center of this thing a death that can be explained by two prevailing narratives: Either Haataja marched up the inhospitable path in order to kill himself, or he was murdered. Given the circumstances and what little evidence we have, neither story makes any damn sense. And of course there are any number of variations, like maybe he had help. But who?

The film interviews several of Haataja's friends and colleagues from the university, as well as members of law enforcement and a few random interested parties for good measure. Through these interviews we learn surprisingly little about the victim. He had a history of suicidal depression, yet he didn't seem so depressed in the months leading up to his death. He was a nerdy math guy who seemed to be adjusting relatively well to his new life. He's almost a dead end.

click to enlarge Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
  • Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Thankfully the scope of this picture has the good sense to meander some into the lives of other citizens of Chadron. We spend a lot of time getting to know the book's author and his family, which includes his Mexican wife and their son, who has autism. Ballantine (that's the author's pen name) shares an intimate story of his own suicidal ideation. He had moved to Chadron as a lonely, failed writer intent on killing himself until he started to feel a little better.

The question of loneliness and suicide are woven through this picture with a poetry you rarely find in documentaries. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere should not be missed. (Molly Laich)

Love and Terror screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 6, at 10 PM and Sun., Feb. 8, at 2:15 PM. Big Sky Award competition.

Kung Fu Elliot

In 1999, a flick named American Movie came out. It was a small documentary about an affable amateur filmmaker trying to make a horror movie called Coven. American themes of drive, vision and indomitable spirit dominated the film, and it became one of the Sundance Film Festival's darlings of that year. It's hilarious, but uplifting and inspiring to see someone doing what they love.

In Kung Fu Elliot, the new documentary by Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau, the main character, Elliot, is also an affable amateur filmmaker with a drive that inspires others around him. In Elliot's case, though, he doesn't want to make a horror movie, he wants to be Canada's first real action star, a la Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme. And though the film takes place in Canada, the American Dream themes of drive, vision and spirit abound. Kung Fu Elliot is hilarious, but unlike American Movie, not inspiring. In fact, the film takes some dark and surprising turns.

The film begins with Elliot in Nova Scotia, already having developed a bit of a cult following. He's working on his third film, a huge martial arts mess called Blood Drive. Through interviews with Elliot, his cast and his tiny crew, mostly made up of his best friend and his girlfriend, the film explores Elliot's life, both past and present.

click to enlarge Kung Fu Elliot
  • Kung Fu Elliot

For the first two acts, this exploration brings a lot of sympathy, and one can't help but cheer for Elliot and his ridiculous dream, insipid though it may be. But as the film turns to the third act, and Elliot's character is stripped down, the film gets ugly really fast.

It's not cool to throw spoilers out into the world, but suffice it to say secrets come out, and Elliot's behavior becomes more and more erratic, leading to an ending that's incredibly shocking for an independent documentary. The ending is so surprising, and the story so nicely wrapped up, that one has to wonder if it was orchestrated somehow. Regardless, it's an intriguing movie to watch as, in the end, it's not about a man trying to make good. Rather, it's about a man totally incapable of making good, and the complete collapse of his stupid, awful, B-movie dream. (Migizi Pensoneau)

Kung Fu Elliot screens at the Wilma Sat., Feb. 7, at 9:15 PM.

The Possibilities Are Endless

Every rock star should be so lucky as Edwyn Collins, a tough concept considering a bleed in his brain made him unable to do things like cut his own nails or strum his guitar.

The thing is, he met this woman when he was in his prime. This was in the mid-'80s, after his Glasgow-based band Orange Juice hit No. 8 on the UK chart with "Rip It Up" and before his solo hit, "Never Met a Girl Like You Before," that groovy-hooky song you thought was in Pulp Fiction, but only should have been. (It was actually in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Sorry.)

This woman, Grace Maxwell, super dug him. He was quick and funny and preferred her company to others. And that's where he got lucky.

click to enlarge The Possibilities Are Endless
  • The Possibilities Are Endless

That story—the one about a rock star who goes on the radio and admits he's not feeling great two days before a severe cerebral hemorrhage, who then climbs his way back to a semblance of himself with the help of his wife and his music—that's the stuff of a watchable documentary. And, in fact, that got made as a half-hour BBC show not unlike "Behind the Music."

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