One can sit in a room and stare at the wall, or perhaps take a walk outside and cast one’s gaze around, taking in trees and grass and clouds, sun and sky. In doing so, you come away with the feeling of just having done it- looked around, that is. Then on the other hand, one could spend all day looking at nothing in particular on the teevee and come away with a similar, blank feeling, unless you have been watching lots of cable news, or were bombarded by sales pitches from way too many commercials. It’s all visual stimulus, which seems to get more intense at a film festival, where, at least for me, I am not only watching for story, but also looking to see how the story is told, what cameras, lenses, drones, microphones and lights might have been included in the production and where that all leads one by the end of telling the story. Once all has been said and done, in looking for an analogous situation that might inform a state of mind one is in by the end of a day of film-festivaling, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the general feeling of being somewhat dazed and overwhelmed and a bit lost and confused, not unlike what I would imagine it might feel like if one were a bird that has just run into a window. Perhaps that is not right, as a bird/window encounter is one of those “not knowing what just hit you” kind of things. In the case of walking out of yet another theatre at the end of a festival day, one knows what it is that has just hit you. As of this past Sunday I had just come through watching eighty nine films in ten days- all documentaries in range from a few minutes to almost two hours. To say that I was on a self-imposed lockdown to get all the way through that would only be partly true.
The theme of the past year, at least one of them anyway, does not really need to be repeated or emphasized as we attempt to step toward a degree of relative freedom, if not a semblance of normalcy, whatever that is. In the year of the virus-defined lifestyle change of sheltering in place, we already have seen the surge in the visual binge, so going into a mega-watchdown of an assortment of pre-selected films never really threatened to be a weird experience, having throughout the better part of the last year already sat through hours and hours of impeachment delights and let downs, a hyper-extended rollout of election results, and hours and hours of a variety of cable series that blew by in strings of three, four or five episodes a night. It was the mind-bulging infusion of all-evening visual forced-feeding that was the issue here. In the end, in comparing the last ten days to my last three years of experiencing the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, it was the lack of people who sit around you during and talk to you after each screening that made the festival somewhat less festive this time around. It was a similar experience to watching the lockdown versions of late night talk shows and learning that the call and response of audience laughter is such an integral part of those shows, in the same way that the missing gasps or bursts of laughter from those normally around you in a dark theater may not necessarily change your perception of what is on the screen, but it is a wholly different experience without anyone there. It is also quite different typing in a Q&A question to a chat box and not being able to seek out a director after the session is over to follow up on anything that may not have been answered. Again, it was the personal contact that was missed in this whole year just passed that made the festival just like everything else we have endured this year- sort of.
All that being said, there was the advantage of this streaming festival that there was just one venue instead of the three of four theaters spread around the town that one had to amble or run to, depending on how things were scheduled. Even though the out of doors in Missoula is generally a lot colder there than here this time of year, the act of getting up and physically moving to another place is a good thing. First of all, at least you are moving, versus sinking ever further into the couch. And two, the time period one takes to transverse the town to the next theater offers a bit of solitude and a time to decompress from and process what you have just seen. Towards the end of this year’s virtual barrage, I almost decided to stop altogether because one block of shorts they offered was particularly intense, and when I came to the end of them, their collective intensity was overwhelming. As it turned out, the next group of shorts that I finally moved on to had both humor and positivity, all of which proved to be just the curative needed to get me through to the end.
It seemed to me that there was a unifying theme to the whole festival, and that appeared to be an overcoming of adversity and confinement, oddly enough, in these lockdown times. Most of the films had been shot prior the closing of things a year ago. There was not an abundance of face masks to be seen in most of the films because that suggestion had not happened yet. In retrospect, I found it probably not necessarily coincidental that the opening and closing films centered around water. The first was ‘Havana Libre’- a film about Cuban surfers. The closing film was ‘Manzanar Diverted’- a film about the ongoing controversy surrounding the Manzanar area of California where the Paiutes were driven from there land in the 1800’s, and Los Angeles looked to that area as a water resource to be extracted from in the early 1900’s, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated in the Manzanar camp during World War II and where some of those Japanese refused to leave and were thrown out anyway even though they had nowhere left to go. The Cuban surfing film showed yet another angle on the resourcefulness of the population there, in spite of their forced isolation, from making there own surfboards from the styrofoam insulation they stripped from old refrigerators, to their fight with the Cuban Sports commission who refused to even recognize surfing as a sport. Water and water signs and images are often associated with emotions, and there was no shortage of emotional material here. One note I began writing to self after realizing I kept seeing the image in many of the films, was that perhaps raindrops or condensation running down dramatically lit window shot in a narrow depth of field that accentuated the droplets and represented a sadness, was perhaps a visual metaphor that should maybe be seen as overused and thusly avoided.
The image of isolation and confinement was strong in ‘Havana Libre’ but they by no means had the corner on that image market. ‘Red Heaven’ was a feature doc about a small group of people isolated in a simulated Mars “camp” on the barren volcanic landscape of Hawaii for a year in order to simulate and study how people might react to a Mars expedition. ‘Victoria’ was a sparse but beautiful tale of a young, Black man who leaves L.A. to live in this failed development known as California City in the Mojave Desert. As a maintenance worker in the development, Lashay encounters many things in the desert- one of them being a passing, desert tortoise. In a completely unrelated short titled ‘Snowy’, the isolation of a pet turtle in an aquarium in a basement becomes a meditation on loneliness, compassion and inter-species responsibility and communication. The short film ‘E14’ was directly related to the pandemic, with the director using the lockdown parameters of the covid restrictions in London as a way to legitimize a bit of voyeurism while gazing around his high rise neighborhood to see how his neighbors are coping with their end of forced distancing. ‘Alone Out Here’ layered in a bunch of unexpected parameters for human isolation by telling a story of a gay cattle rancher in the Australian outback who had bred a strain of beef cattle who emitted considerably less methane gas, hoping that he would find a market for what he had developed and shown to be a more environmentally friendly breed of cattle in the fight against climate change. Being gay and concerned about this environmental problem were two strikes against him in this rural and conservative part of Australia that just added to his isolation in this already sparsely populated area.
This isn’t to say that everything here was all gloom and doom. The festival adventure film this year was titled ‘972 Breakdowns- on the Landway to New York’ and was about a group of Germans in their 20’s who collectively decided it would be a good and cooperative idea to pool their resources and their knowledge of the Russian Ural motorcycle and to set out on a journey from Germany east to the closest place Russia gets to Alaska and then ferry across for the rest of the journey down the west coast of these United States and across and then up to New York. It was 25K miles and close to three years of riding and pushing and almost quitting, and while fascinating and inspiring, it totally left me with no interest in doing anything close to as crazy as that, ever. Then there was Rodney Stotts, a Black man outside D.C. who has made a life for himself as a raptor rescuer and stereotype denier, as elegantly portrayed in the film titled ‘the Falconer’. And then, as a purely intended bit of humor, there was the short film titled ‘the Orange Candidate’. It is one of those reveal things where spoilers come in to play, and so I will simply say that it is not about THAT candidate, but rather one who ran for mayor in Chester, Montana, and that is all I will say about that. I could go on about some of the other films, but frankly my exploding brain could not really handle it, and I am late for deadline as it is. The only other thing I would say is: Missoula, if you are listening, hopefully I will get back there next year, and even though it is often really cold and snowy, I could certainly use a walk between each film out in the cool, fresh air.