Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Culminates with World Premiere of ‘And We Were Young’
Feature image courtesy of Peterman Photography
“The spirit that it takes to make a documentary is represented by the kind of community that is in Missoula.” – Sam Carroll, director of Bedevil
Missoula’s most important cultural event, The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, comes to a close today. Culminating with local talent Andy Smetanka’s three-year project And We Were Young, the festival celebrates its 12th year with what a film Smetanka describes as a “Super 8, stop-motion, silhouette-animation oral history of Americans in World War I.” From John Cohen to Sam Green who have been looming large amongst the community in the past week, we take a look back at the faces and flavor of the festival.
Making its second appearance, directly after Sundance, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, played in front of a packed house at The Wilma Theatre for the opening night of the festival. Crowds snaked around the Higgins block awaiting Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s latest feature. Gibney was also a central character in his shocking documentary that revealed truths behind The Church of Scientology. “What the f*** is this?” asked Jason Beghe in the film, echoing the films key question and the reaction of the 1,000+ Wilma attendees who agreed in laughter.
It was Gita Saedi-Kiely’s first year as director of Big Sky and she was excited to announce 50 American premieres; 30 world premieres; the first year of the children’s program “Schoolhouse Docs;” the first year of cash awards; and two retrospectives highlighting the artistic genius of John Cohen and Sam Green. Saedi-Kiely was everywhere during the eleven-day event, from checking in with volunteers to introducing films and attending after parties. Along with the festival volunteers, Gita made the magic of the festival happen.
The Big Sky Doc Fest is not just a festival, it is a community event and it wouldn’t be the same interactive experience for filmmakers without Missoula’s support. Sam Carroll, whose film Bedevil premiered at the festival, noticed how engaged Missoula is with the festival. “To get this type of attendance is unbelievable. I walked around and was handing out flyers and a large percentage of the people I spoke to showed up. There is an amazing community support for the festival.” Carroll also got involved with the community while he was here, stopping by The University of Montana campus to tell people about his film. Beyond the films, he also sought out the music scene of downtown Missoula. “The experience of screening your film here is a great barometer of how your film is doing. There are great audiences in Missoula and that’s what clearly makes the film festival work. The spirit that it takes to make a documentary is represented by the kind of community that is in Missoula.”
The Q&A that followed Carroll’s inaugural screening could have gone on for over an hour. The star of the documentary, Darla Wynne, made her long way from the bible-thumping community of Great Falls, South Carolina to attend and answer the audience’s questions about being a Pagan priestess and her underdog run for city council. She may not have as many fans in her town of Great Falls, but she was welcomed here by an inquisitive and welcoming crowd. “When you have an audience, it is in their hands at that point. I saw people in the community that I had spoken to earlier at the screening and they asked incredibly engaging questions about the film in the Q & A afterwards. “This town is unreal,” says Carroll. Due to the popularity of Carroll’s film, Bedevil screened for a second time this afternoon.
The town also showed up for the substantial film and musical collaborations that heightened the week’s magic. John Cohen, highlighted in the festival’s first retrospective, made a memorable guest appearance. He was as inquisitive and energized as a child in the spring-like climate of the festival. Cohen’s photography featuring Beat Generation icons like Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan premiered at the First Friday Art Walk the opening night of the festival. Cohen’s presence was felt throughout the first weekend with his photography exhibit, lecture, the screening of his seven films and his musical performance with Missoula’s Scrapyard Lullaby.
At Cohen and The Scrapyard Lullaby’s performance at The Top Hat Lounge, he performed a song about Missoula he had written during a visit here forty years ago. It was the first time he performed it and as he pulled out a slip of paper with the lyrics, the crowd stood motionless as he sang about a church constructed on the reservation north of Missoula. The church housed angels whose faces were all white, and lacked the face of the Native Americans. “I’m not sure he understands just how timely that song is– if not even more. It’s still a big thing,” said Nate Biehl of Scrapyard Lullaby.
The performance had a comfortable ease to it, yet the band felt thrilled to play with a legend like John Cohen. Caroline Keys commented, “It’s huge to be included in something that so beautifully showcases our town and also brings the world here.” Biehl and Keys had performed for the festival before, which lead them to represent North America, in the Nanning International Folk Songs Arts Festival in China in 2007. For Jeff Turman guitarist of Scrapyard Lullaby he felt, “The ability to collaborate with different artists and in different areas of the arts is amazing.” Partnerships between the arts is something that regularly occurs in Missoula, and that is why Saedi-Kiely called out to her community when she introduced the opening film.
The festival offered performances and experiences that cannot be replicated or available on demand “in the comfort of your own home.” The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, for example, is a live documentary that can only be experienced in the red velvet seats of art house cinema theaters. Narrated by academy-award winning filmmaker Sam Green and accompanied with a live performance by Yo La Tengo, the documentary following the life and work of “Bucky” Fuller, was so seamlessly executed that at times I forgot there was a live band scoring the film.
With live documentaries and interactive documentaries, workshops, and panels, The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is at the forefront of reinventing what documentary filmmaking is. “It’s blowing up—like the whole micro-brewing scene. People are bypassing the major distributors and going straight to the source,” said festival attendee, Matt Galiher. Centered around the non-fiction genre of film, the festival educates and unites the community of Missoula, and those who come here to celebrate artists, humanitarians and one another.
Check out the closing film and world premiere of And We Were Young tonight at 6 pm at The Wilma.
Here is the list of the 2015 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival competition winners.
Winner: CAILLEACH, directed by Rosie Reed Hillman
Artistic Vision Award: OMID, directed by Jawad Wahabzada
Jury statements: CAILLEACH is a portrait of Morag, an 86-year old woman who revels in her aloneness on the Isle of Harris in the house in which she was born. This stunning film reconciles how time can stand still while the years pass by in rhythmic ruggedness.
The craft of storytelling is alive in OMID, which looks in the face of contemporary cinema to open the eyes of the world.
Jury: Filmmakers John Cohen and Adam Singer; Tracy Rector, Longhouse Media
Short Film Award
Winner: LA REINA, directed by Manuel Abramovich
Jury statement: LA REINA is a devastating combination of artistic vision, storytelling, cinematic composition, and perspective as we follow the experience of a young, privileged Argentinian girl who is pushed to excel in a way that one imagines extends to every facet of her life. It is truly devastating – in the best sense of that word.
Jury: Alexandra Hannibal, Tribeca Film Institute; Christoph Green, Trixie Film; Noland Walker, ITVS
Sponsor: Missoula Federal Credit Union
Big Sky Award
Presented to a film that artistically honors the character, history, tradition and imagination of the American West.
Winner: LOVE AND TERROR ON THE HOWLING PLAINS OF NOWHERE, directed by Dave Janetta.
Artistic Vision Award: FISHTAIL, directed by Andrew Renzi
Jury statement: FISHTAIL presents a quiet nostalgic beauty for a way of life that has drifted from mainstream consciousness. Its poetic, intimate story, portrayed through magnificent cinematography, shows a vibrant American West in which the ranchers connect deeply with their work and the land.
Jury: Producer Sandy Itkoff; Julie Campfield, ro*co films; Nikki Hayman, POV
Sponsor: Montana Film Office
Winner: SIBLINGS ARE FOREVER
Jury statement: SIBLINGS ARE FOREVER is a poetic and warm portrayal of the siblings Magnar and Oddny, whose existence and everyday life seems frozen in time. Capturing the beauty of family ties, as well as of the Norwegian landscape. Stunning cinematography.
Jury: Brian Newman, Sub-Genre Media; Journalist Erik Augustin-Palm; Mia Desroches, National Film Board of Canada; Tracy Rector, Longhouse Media.
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