It is not snowing here at the moment, but that does not mean it will not be snowing again soon. In many ways, here could be just about anywhere, given where I have been to over the past few days. It all started with a nine hour drive through slush and blowing snow and I have been in Missoula ever since. I have also been to Ohio, South Dakota, Ft. McMurray in Alberta, at a bike race in New York City and one in Afghanistan and at a Critical Mass type ride through the streets of London. As with my trip last fall, when I got in my car I was not sure of the places I might go. What is different this time is, even though I brought a few cameras along with me, my intent was not to view the trip through my viewfinder and lenses but through those lenses and perspectives and sensibilities of others. That is after all why we go to film festivals.
The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is different this year, which is a good thing. If it were the same there would be no really good reason to be here- we come to see something different, and I have not been disappointed. I came here last year with lots of expectations. I learned from that, as well as from my trip last fall, that that is not always the best way to approach a journey. A big part of what I had not planned for last year was that I would be spending the first three days of the festival in bed in my motel room with the flu- that fortunately has not been a part of this year’s experience- knock knock on the wood of the desk I am typing at.
There is one less theatre venue this year, which in many ways is a good thing. As with last year (once I was up and walking again) I have not gotten into my car once. The fourth venue last year was across the river, the Clark Fork River which runs through the it of Missoula. What I enjoyed last year was walking across one of the many bridges which traverse the moving waters- I have not had to do that since there have been no screenings at the Roxy Theater over on the other side. There is a walking and biking trail over there that follows the river and was a place I enjoyed the walk to some of the next films I was going to then. In looking at the google map this time around I noted that this trail was named after Kim Williams, and a voice from the past immediately came into my head which always concluded her various audio essays on National Public Radio years ago, and I can still feel the rhythm and roll of her sign offs: “This is Kim Williams from Missoula, Montana.” And now, between films, I am experiencing at least a small part of what that voice used to intone about.
While I miss those walks on that side, I have found that with one less theater in the mix I am able to see more of the films listed in the festival guide. There is much less frustration this year- the unwanted agony of having to chose between two films that sound intriguing in the descriptions and look cool in their online trailers, but are screening at or near the same time and only that once. What I am also noticing this time around is that the programmers had the wisdom to not allow the doc workshops, that happen all this week, compete as much with the films. It is great that a desire to learn about the industry and a quest to see as much of what the participants in the genre known as documentary are creating are not this year as much at odds with each other as they seemed to be last year. Sometimes an embarrassment of riches is not necessarily a good thing.
As it is, I have been bouncing between screenings and workshops for the last four days for just about twelve hours a day, and watching as many as twelve features and shorts in those time blocks. I have been trying to write at least a little bit about each film I see each day, although I am a bit behind on yesterday’s group- a shortcoming that I hope I can remedy after I finish this and perhaps before this morning’s workshops- we will see. The notes, however brief, do help in reminding me of all that I have seen. After an all day session of visual and conceptual saturation, one can sit and be a bit overwhelmed- the sheer volume of stuff one has to process to get through this is sometimes daunting. If you add to that the impact of having to digest the content of a film that takes you and shakes you to the core, it all goes from overwhelming to exhausting and even paralyzing. I will say that there have been two films in the last five days of screenings that have left me stuck in my seat as the lights have come up, wondering whether I could watch anything else, or even move for that matter. It is, this amazement and awe, what we come to see and experience, but it is also a part of the process that is both devastating and stunning at the same time. The two films that fit into this category that I have seen so far this time around are ‘Blood Memory’ and ‘Dark Eden’, whose simple but disconcerting titles should have at least partly served as a hint of a warning as to where they would take you and how they might kick you in the core of your sensibilities by the time it was time for the credits to roll and list who might be held responsible for the visual thrashing you had just been through.
Having ventured the last time around in this column with a musing on the planned extermination of the buffalo and the first residents on the land of these United States, one might have taken away from that the thought that maybe we had done enough to one people for one lifetime of a nation. What ‘Blood Memory’ is there to say is that no, we were not yet done with the Indian- it was not enough to just take away their lands, it was also necessary to relieve them of their culture and traditions as well. I had heard of efforts of our government to raise the level of the average Indian from savage to educated Christian, but I had not known the extent to which those efforts had gone, and are still going, which is perhaps the biggest and most disturbing part of all of this. What ‘Blood Memory’ does is take you through a brief history of the Indian Boarding School program that ran without much fanfare from the turn of the last century up into the 1960’s and ‘70’s, along with adoption programs to get Indian children off the Res and into homes with proper white families. It took the Indian Child Welfare Act from the 1970’s to bring this cultural, social and spiritual injustice to somewhat of a halt, but among other things that this film is shining a light on is that like many things in these times, there a forces out there that are working to undo all the good that came from this act. I went to a talking circle with the director, producer and a couple of the main characters in this film right afterward, which seemed to be the only way I was going to be able to eventually walk out of that theater that afternoon. The talking helped a lot, and one of the things I found out was that this film is being submitted for screening at the Seattle International Film Festival. Keep an eye for it there this year, and if it gets in (I would be shocked if it didn’t) I would say this is one film not to miss.
The second film that left me stunned, as I said, was ‘Dark Eden’. Rather than getting bashed from the start like I was with ‘Blood Memory’, this film starts out as a bit of a mystery with stark, static shots of the bland realities of the town of Ft. McMurray in Alberta, along with hints of glimpses across the snow covered and barren land to the refineries and other evidences of infrastructure that have been put in place to wrench every last drop of tar sands oil from what once was 142,000 square kilometers of pristine wilderness. As we proceed through this film we meet both the filmmaker, who serves as the narrator, telling her own story and that of the film she is making about all of this, and a small sampling of residents who are there for various reasons which all have to do with the tar sands since, surprisingly enough, there would be no reason for them to be there otherwise. What we are privy to through the filmmakers probing camera is a look at the monetary motivation this small group of the larger whole of residents have for being there, and how their fortunes are changed as world oil prices take a major nosedive and when the wild fires came and raged in apocalyptic fashion over the residents and residences of Ft. McMurray. There is a hint of Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ here, as seen in some of the graphic aerials shot over both the new town developments and the areas being stripped of their resources so those developments can exist. There are also telling glimpses of the human and natural costs in all of this, but I think the strong part of this film is how most of this is understated in muted colors and bold statements about what is going on there that come off as almost just casual asides. The director was not in attendance, and I do not know where else this film might go, but I would highly recommend a viewing if you get the chance.
As it is, the sun is out and there is no snow in the air at the moment. I have to get out and get coffee and then wander back inside for the next workshop. We are half way through this festival with many more experiences and visuals to go. I need to look at the schedule and see what lies beyond the morning workshops, since after all we do have miles to go before we sleep as someone once said.