A Documentary Runs Through It

Island Life

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It was a mostly uneventful seven hour drive home from Missoula the other day, after immersing myself once again in ten days of short and feature length documentaries, as well as workshops looking at and instructing in many aspects of documentary filmmaking, all at the 17th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. I say mostly uneventful because there was one thing that still kind of sticks out. I was almost to the Montana- Idaho border, just before Lookout Pass, and I had a sudden urge to visit a rest stop. Pulling into the parking lot, the five or so inches of snow from the night before was just beginning to be tended to by a lone driver on a snowplow-equipped ATV. After spending not very much time in the restroom I headed back to my car (which was the only car parked in front of the restrooms at that time), only to find snow all over the hood and a newly formed bank of snow completely obscuring my front bumper and grill. I needed a couple of cans of water from the back of my car, and as I was getting them, the ATV driver plowed another load of snow into my front left fender, while I was standing there a bit perplexed.

Closing the hatch. I walked to the driver door which was still snow-unobstructed and retrieved my cell phone from the front seat, and then snapped a photo of the front end of the car. As I was standing there, snowplow guy delivered another load of snow to the front end of the car as I was taking a picture of him doing it, and without looking at me, he waved his arm in the air and yelled for me to get out of the way. I briefly entertained the thought of getting the metal baseball bat I have in the trunk out to at least threaten some frontier justice, of sorts. But I opted for leaving and checking in with the Montana DOT when I got home. They sent an apologetic response saying that they contracted out the maintenance of that rest stop and asked that I send along the two pics I’d snapped, saying that they would be helpful in attending to the matter. The rest of the trip home was most strikingly event free, which is a preferable state of travel to be in. Having just seen somewhere over fifty short and feature films that were there to record and display a variety people and events of varying degrees of notoriety and importance, uneventful from there on out was fine with me.

But, what about those films that were there to display a variety of recorded events, you might say? To that, I would respond that to get to any of these films one must first address choice. This particular festival this year had four venues, nearly 150 films and an entire five day schedule of workshops. I arrived in Missoula on Thursday night, and spent most of the time Friday until the first block of shorts at 7pm that evening, sorting through the list of selections and constructing a matrix of times and films in order to maximize my viewings. It is a bit like navigating a maze, where one gets to a point of impasse, and then you take a step back to see if the choices you are stuck on are playing at other times and venues. If there is no other option, one then has to decide what is seen and what is missed. There is also the problem of buzz or curiosity sneaking in and causing a re-thinking of priorities, at which point one does have the option of x’s and arrows applied to one’s best laid plans whilst confronting the additional, deciding factor of whether one is to stay on for the Q&A with the director and whether that leaves enough time to speed walk from the Roxy, over the Clark’s Fork to the Elks Lodge in time to avoid the line at the door and the possibility of a sell out. If you get any of those wrong you are left with the choice of moping about it or going to have the dinner you would have otherwise skipped instead. Sometimes it is the universe telling you to chill out and have a beer and give your brain a chance to sort some files before the next cerebral bombardment begins. But what about the movies, one might ask once again?

I went into the festival, having looked at the selections list on their site before I got my printed program, with a few films that I really wanted to see. ‘American Factory’ was somewhere at the top of that list, both because of the buzz it had from its recent Oscar win, as well as the fact that directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert would be in attendance, since they were both being honored with retrospective screenings of their work, and because they were giving a master class workshop- all aspects of this did not disappoint. It was an amazing film about a Chinese company going to Ohio to reopen a closed General Motors plant and retool it for auto glass production. It dealt with cross-cultural bonding and conflicts between the American and Chinese workers, a struggle to unionize and surprise insights into how management tries to drive production while questioning the relevance of the trappings of their success. A much simpler but insightful film was ‘Oliver Sacks: His Own Life’, which took an all-encompassing view of his career as a neurologist and writer, and followed him up until the time of his death a few years back.

‘Martha- A Picture Story’ tells the story of Martha Cooper, who in the 1970’s was attracted to photographing the graffiti that bloomed and proliferated on New York City’s subway cars. Having grown up with the yearly trip into the city from the burbs, I remember being stopped in my tracks as the first cars I saw painted by rogue taggers rolled into the station. I was merely amazed- Martha Copper made recording these works her obsession, and she didn’t realize until years later that the book she published on subway art had become an international cult guidebook for graffiti artists everywhere. ‘Feels Good Man’ has a look at Pepe the Frog, who was the creation of Matt Furie back in the early 2000’s. This doc is the story of how this cartoon drawing of a stoner frog who hangs with three, close animal type friends and likes to pee in the bathroom with his pants pulled all the way down, because it feels good man, became a meme and eventually an internet symbol of hate for the alt-right. I was not originally going to see this and then something came along to inform me that I should go- I don’t recall what that epiphany was, but I’m glad it changed this particular life course.

Another film along the lines of switching my scheduling around to attend a screening was ‘Rewind’, a film by Sasha Neulinger. It told his own story about childhood sexual abuse, through a series of twists and turns and revelations. It was also one of those films where I was planning to bolt to the next screening on my list when I realized after the lights came up at the end that the director was present and was available for questions. I stayed, and I think I actually did make it to the next film elsewhere. ‘The Story of Plastic’ was one of those films that I almost didn’t go to because, from all that I already know about the worldwide plastics plague, I had a feeling that it would leave me angry and frustrated and hopeless, which it did. But it was still worth seeing because of the breadth and depth of its scope, and that it is an affirmation of sorts for my titling my latest  photo series ‘Life at the End of the World’, which may or may not be a good thing.

There was the film ‘Public Trust’, which further exposed the ongoing assault on national parks and monuments and refuges by the current orange offense in the oval office. ‘Common Ground, the Story of Bears Ears’, doubled down on that scary enlightenment, but just focused on that sacred Indian land in the southeast corner of Utah that was put into official preservation by the Obama administration, and which then, of course, put it in the cross hairs of Hair Twittler and his extraction cronies.  Both of these films made me so angry I had to walk twice as fast to the next Missoula Brew Pub afterwards. On the complete other hand, there was the adventure film ‘Race to Alaska’, which was on my list before I left home. Some of you may have heard of the 70/48 human powered vessel race from Tacoma to Pt. Townsend which Islanders Bruce Morser and Bob Horsley participated in last summer. Race to Alaska is kind of connected to this in that it starts a few days after the finish of 70/48 (70 miles in under 48 hours), and involves human powered as well as sail powered boats, but requires the removal of any engine from any vessel participating, which can then be replaced by oars or any human powered or pedal powered contraption one could dream of, as well as get to work properly for the 750 mile trip from Pt. Townsend, to Victoria, BC and then on to Ketchican. This film was a salve and a balm for the psychological, emotional and environmental beatings one had to wade through elsewhere. All in all though, this festival is a worthwhile experience that I plan on going back to Missoula for next year. Maybe this time I will have something they’ll let me show. We’ll see.