Will You Be Watching? 

An all-access look at the 2011 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

In the 1976 film Kicking the Loose Gravel Home, poet Richard Hugo talks with his small class of University of Montana students about poetry. "There's no reason this can't be one hell of a good poem," he tells one of them, "but you're going to have to sound like you mean it...and you keep right on meaning it and you stop this goddamned nonsense." The film, produced and directed by local filmmaker Annick Smith, is one of the most powerful reminders of Hugo's fierce love for the written word, and why he is still so revered and referenced decades after his 1982 death. Besides the intimate portrait of his unapologetic and magnetic classroom conduct, the film—which screens at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 12, at 3:15 p.m.—includes Hugo reading several of his most famous poems like "The Milltown Union Bar" and "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," to a backdrop of dreamy illustrations and photographs.

Kicking the Loose Gravel Home is one of several literary documentaries set to play during the "Writers' Blocks" section of the eighth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Besides the Hugo film, the themed collection includes older films, like the 1975 look at Henry Miller, titled Asleep and Awake, and 2010 releases, such as In the Wake of the Flood, Ron Mann's film about Margaret Atwood, and a recent biography of Harper Lee called Hey Boo.


"Writers' Blocks" provides just one promising point of entry into this year's festival. Among the 142 films offered over a 10-day spread, Big Sky will screen films on nature, art, music and international politics. In addition to highlighting 10 of this year's most compelling films, we take a closer look at four of the festival's biggest attractions, including Yo La Tengo's live score of Jean Painlevé's groundbreaking underwater short films and a retrospective of a man known for making retrospectives. It's exactly the kind of diverse line-up that makes this annual festival an event not to be missed.

Last rights

Coming to grips with How to Die in Oregon

The seminal moment in director Peter D. Richardson's How to Die in Oregon is perhaps one of the most emotionally charged and painful ever screened for audiences. Period.

Cody Curtis, the 54-year-old wife and mother whose story provides the backbone of the film, stares out a hospital window while her husband queries her oncologist on the chances she'll survive recurrent cancer of the liver through the Christmas holiday. But Curtis' gaze suddenly breaks away from the window, and the flash of decisiveness in her eyes is only briefly interrupted by a wince of pain.

"I think this is enough," she tells her husband, Stan. "I can't do any more."

There's never been a more fitting time for Missoula to host a screening of a documentary on physician-assisted suicide. The Montana Legislature is currently considering two separate bills on the issue, one establishing clear regulations for physicians prescribing life-ending medication and another banning the practice entirely. If the former succeeds, Montana will become the third state to officially legalize aid in dying. Oregon legalized the practice in 1994, followed by Washington in 2008.

click to enlarge How to Die in Oregon
  • How to Die in Oregon

The debate over the moral and professional implications of the practice has rocked Montana for years. Billings trucker Robert Baxter, a man suffering from terminal leukemia, was one of several plaintiffs in a 2008 lawsuit arguing that the Montana Constitution guaranteed a patient's right to death with dignity. Baxter died the same day a district court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, without learning the outcome of the litigation.

The case was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled on Dec. 31, 2009, that the state's constitution does not specifically forbid physicians from prescribing life-ending medication to terminally ill, mentally competent patients. Baxter's victory, which came a year and some days after his death, gave physicians the legal grounds on which to defend against any lawsuits resulting from their actions, but physician-assisted suicide remains an uncertain and controversial topic in Montana.

With that local backdrop comes How to Die in Oregon, a film produced by HBO that boasts considerable power well beyond Curtis' meeting with her oncologist. Richardson's opening scene alone is enough to stir mixed emotions among moviegoers as he documents the last moments of Roger Sagner, the 342nd person to act on Oregon's Death with Dignity law. The pain and indignity sometimes suffered by the terminally ill become strikingly apparent as Sue Dessayer Porter, a volunteer with the aid-in-dying advocacy organization Compassion and Choices, questions Sagner on his understanding of what will happen when he drinks the lethal dose of the barbiturate Seconal that's waiting for him.

"My mind's not changing," Sagner tells her and those gathered around him. "It will kill me and make me happy."

Some might question Richardson's call to show Sagner's death on screen. Many HBO staff members reportedly refused to watch the entire movie, and a recent showing at the Sundance Film Festival garnered both tears and empty seats. That hasn't stopped How to Die in Oregon from securing an esteemed position in the film community: It won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary film at Sundance in late January.

"People should not be misled by the title of the film," Compassion and Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee stated in response to the award. "This is not a 'how-to' film. Only a tiny handful of Oregonians access the very personal choice of aid in dying each year. The film's title could imply aid in dying is common in Oregon."

Since 1994, only about 500 people have acted on Oregon's Death with Dignity law.

Richardson's contribution to the physician-assisted suicide debate—which took him four years and $750,000 to complete—does display competing viewpoints. The director interviews several physicians opposed to the practice, and includes a brief segment on a man outraged by the state's offer to fund his life-ending medication but not his prostate cancer treatment. A skillfully interwoven side-story on one woman's fight to help legalize the practice in Washington could even prove useful for those in Montana and elsewhere pioneering the same cause.

But the majority of the film focuses on Curtis' declining state of health, her protracted battle with both extreme pain and devastating uncertainty, and the reactions of her friends and her two children to her final decision. The scenes feel at times voyeuristic, almost surreal—Curtis talking about writing goodbye letters to her family, teaching her son a family-revered holiday recipe—until one realizes the point Richardson and his subject are trying to make. How to Die in Oregon isn't simply some macabre tale of grief and death; it's a story of empowerment at life's end, and the fulfillment of a wish for control when all else is dominated by chaos.

—Alex Sakariassen

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Friday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m.

Year of the derby

Kicking ass means more in roller skates

The story of roller derby is, in many ways, the same wherever you go. It starts with a few badass girls talking over beers about how they always dreamed of being a roller girl. Then they start getting serious—holding meetings, learning the rules of the game, re-learning how to skate, raising money, wrangling gear and pinning down a practice space. They start skating several times a week, doing brutal lunge workouts and learning knee skids and how to fall. And, before you know it, you've got a league full of tough, tattooed women in hot pants ready to rumble.

That's the edited version, of course. It takes some real time and commitment to build a team from scratch—though Missoula's Hellgate Rollergirls league only needed a year before it decided to host a public bout. It also takes time—and several ass kickings—before newbie teams start to enjoy some wins. Those struggles are exactly what give all roller derby teams a natural story arc. Plus, the elements of roller derby itself make the sport inherently dramatic. It's a full-contact affair, for one thing, with all the blood, bruises and injuries that come with that. It attracts strong personalities and requires a certain amount of pageantry. It's about winning and losing, and team spirit. It's about personal transformation. And, as one might suspect, it's perfect fodder for a documentary.

Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers follows Portland, Ore.'s roller derby league a few years after its 2004 inception. The film—a year and a half project—starts out profiling a handful of the competitors, who embrace derby names like Madame Bumpsalot, Cadillac, Blood Clottia and Scratcher in the Eye. Here we get a sense of why they each joined roller derby and what it's come to mean to them via interviews peppered generously with swears and sassy jokes. By the late middle, when the film starts covering the league's fight to win in regional competitions, we're invested in those players enough to sincerely root for a Portland win.

click to enlarge Brutal Beauty
  • Brutal Beauty

But director Chip Mabry doesn't just rely on the girls' personalities and the inherent drama of the sport to drive his film. For instance, explaining the rules of the game could have made for a tedious sidebar. Instead, a roller derby coach who works at Voodoo Donuts in downtown Portland provides a primer on the rules by using various glazed and frosted donuts to explain the roles of pivots, blockers and jammers.

"We'll use cake donuts for the jammers," he says at one point as he moves the donuts on an imaginary track across the bakery counter.

It's an effective—and mouth-watering—way to learn.

Mabry also captures the roller derby fever that springs up among the roller girls' friends and family. In particular, he focuses on Cadillac's boyfriend—a dude who probably should get the Most Supportive Boyfriend Ever award for his endearing enthusiasm. For many of the hetero women in roller derby, it's not just about partner support, it's about a clear shift in more traditional gender roles. In this game, guys are always on the sidelines.

"I'm fine being her cheerleader and she being my quarterback," the boyfriend says at one point.

Like any dramatic story about sports, the footage of the actual games doesn't always provide adequate tension. You get to see the action and the scoreboard, but it's not always clear which moments on the track are pivotal to the game's conclusion. Still, it's a rush to watch the way the players race around the track, sometimes gracefully threading their way through other players, other times flying into the ground with a glorious violence, only to get back up again.

In interviews off the track, longtime veterans talk about their conflicting feelings about retiring from the game, and injured players who will be benched indefinitely put on brave faces with heartbreaking effect. In deftly capturing the players' love for the sport—that sense that, for some girls, roller derby is everything—Mabry makes the action on the track that much more charged.

—Erika Fredrickson

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Saturday, Feb. 12, 9:45 p.m.

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