Will You Be Watching? 

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

Page 3 of 4

Also playing

Our critics highlight nine other noteworthy films

by Erika Fredrickson, Dave Loos, Jed Nussbaum, Andy Smetanka, Jessica Mayrer and Skylar Browning


In 1982, Pamela Yates filmed the bloody conflict between Guatemala's military and the guerrillas living in the mountains. As it turns out, she was also filming evidence of genocide. That documentary, When the Mountains Trembled, became forensic evidence 25 years later in an investigation and indictment against de facto dictator Efrain Rios Montt for the death and disappearance of 200,000 citizens. Granito is the story of how this all came about.

Even if you know this story from beginning to end, you must see this film. Yates is a master documentary filmmaker and in Granito she deftly crafts the story with all the elements of a criminal mystery—except, of course, this is all very real, and Yates' thoughtful approach keeps the drama from ever feeling cheapened.

click to enlarge Granito
  • Granito

The story covers both past and present. It's an astonishing peek into how Yates gained access to indigenous villagers, mountain guerrillas, the military and the dictator himself as a young filmmaker. The unfolding of the investigation 25 years later is fraught with danger, sorrow and, also, hope. Numerous scenes will have you holding your breath, but one scene in particular captures one of the overriding messages—why documentaries are important in the realm of international politics. In the scene, a new generation of Guatemalan villagers—mostly young children—watch When the Mountains Tremble. There they see scenes of their own villagers 25 years earlier crying on their porches where the murdered bodies of family members lay. It's intense, but there's something fantastic about this idea: telling the story over and over so that no one ever forgets, and so it never happens again. (EF)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 17, 4 p.m. (Finalist in the feature competition.)


One of the problems historians face in narrating huge events of the relatively past—the Holocaust, for example—is that the narratives are by now so familiar that they seem almost preordained. In Ruth Fertig's hybrid Super 8/animated short Yikzor, we see the director's elderly grandparents in '70s home movies and immediately learn they were Holocaust survivors. And that her grandmother wrote a memoir that was discovered only after she died in 2001. The overall story is a familiar one.

"One death is a tragedy," said Josef Stalin. "A million deaths is a statistic." It's an interesting corollary that individual stories of the Holocaust continue to fascinate us even as reiterations of the larger picture have lost some of their force to time and familiarity. Liselotte Fertigova's story must speak for tens of thousands of women who found themselves in a similar predicament: Jewish and pregnant when the Nazis came in and took over.

Fertig pieces the story together with stock footage, home movies and pen-and-ink animation that starts off a little on the whimsical side, but gathers a good deal of foreboding and poignancy as the film progresses. Grandmother Fertigova's memoir is not without humor; "It's Hitler's fault I got married," she gripes.

With our historical hindsight, her trials are grimly predictable and predictably grim, but Yizkor is a potent essay on a tragedy so enormous it can only be grasped by the details. (AS)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. (Finalist in short film competition.)

Corner Store

The extent of many Americans' knowledge of the ongoing clash between Israel and Palestine is probably limited to brief glimpses on the evening news. Corner Store, however, digs deep beyond 30-second clips to tell a compelling and distinctly human story.

This 70-minute documentary chronicles the life of Yousef Elhaj, a father of three who, unable to make a living in an increasingly conflict-ravaged Palestine, leaves his wife and three children at home in Bethlehem to open a corner store in San Francisco's Castro District.

Filmmaker Katherine Bruens and her colleagues provide a wide-angle look at how the conflict has torn apart Elhaj's family. For 10 years, Elhaj saves money to bring his wife and children to the United States He sells tall boys, cigarettes and frozen food to hipsters. He eats alone and walks solo through San Francisco's streets. Sending money home, he waits for immigration officials to grant his wife and children permission to emigrate to America.

The documentary follows Elhaj as he makes a 60-hour voyage from California to his home in Bethlehem, his first trip to Palestine in a decade. He hugs his children, now teenagers. Elhaj sees that while he's been gone, Israeli settlements have moved even further into what was once Palestinian territory. More shops have shuttered and Arabs have continued to, like Elhaj, flee, leaving to make lives elsewhere.

The film clearly portrays the Middle Eastern conflict through Palestinian eyes; Israel is portrayed as the aggressor. But the film steers clear of getting tangled in the long and complicated history behind the Arab-Israeli conflict, instead providing a compelling look into another fight, one that aims to keep families and cultural identity intact despite seemingly insurmountable odds. (JM)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Saturday, Feb. 12, 1:45 p.m. (Finalist in the feature competition.)

The Secret To a Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive-By Truckers

Dirty, filthy, mean, miserable, wonderful. These are the words used by guitarist Jason Isbell to describe The Drive-By Truckers, a Georgia-based band that has been delivering songs about the grittier side of Americana culture with distorted guitars and a southern drawl since their formation in 1996.

This description comes to life in The Secret to a Happy Ending, filmmaker Barr Weissman's intimate and unapologetic look at the history and inner workings of the Truckers' universe. It's a classic hard-working rock band's success story—heavy on the hard work and uncertain about the success—brought to life through archival footage and interviews with various bandmates, influences, supporters and family members. The film follows the Truckers over the course of three years, tracing their rise in popularity and their dealings with personal issues and lineup changes, all set to an autobiographical soundtrack comprised of live performances by the band.

The film is not without its faults, and the emphasis is clearly not on production quality and flashy cinematography. The Secret to a Happy Ending is often rough around the edges, but this complements the subject matter well in delivering an unflinching and unpretentious story of friendship, class struggles, hard times, family, and, ultimately, rock and roll. (JN)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Friday, Feb. 18, 9:45 p.m.

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