When it comes to documentary filmmakers, it’s safe to say most students in Missoula have heard of say a Michael Moore, but probably not a Mike Bonfiglio.
But that didn’t matter one bit to Big Sky High School senior Danielle Winn, who called Bonfiglio’s visit to her filmmaking class Thursday afternoon “awesome.”
“I thought it was really interesting, especially hearing about his experience with film school and the business side of things. I hadn’t thought about that before,” said Winn, who plans to attend film school at Montana State.
Bonfiglio visited Big Sky High School as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival’s educational outreach program which takes filmmakers and their films from the festival into local high schools for screenings and conversation.
The brainchild of Big Sky Flagship Coordinator Scott Mathews, the program began five years ago when Mathews was trying to determine what speakers to bring to Big Sky’s Diversity Week. He’d happened to see a preview for the film festival, then in its second season, and decided to ask if they could bring some directors out to the schools. It turns out the festival organizers had similar ideas and a partnership was born.
The program provides students important exposure to this significant cultural event and helps engage students with downtown and with their community. And many students end up going to other films at the festival or even volunteering, Mathews said.
The quality of the films and the accessibility of the directors have generated enthusiastic response from students and teachers, many of whom rush to sign up their classes. The program also benefits the directors, Mathews said.
Most of the films at the festival lack distribution deals. The directors want to get their films distributed to educational video and this gives them opportunity to see how students react to their films.
“It’s kind of their first focus group of high school kids,” he said.
A writer, director, producer and sometimes cameraman—in documentary filmmaking “you wear lots of hats” he says—Bonfiglio has worked on such critically acclaimed documentary films as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Crude, which won an award just this week at the Big Sky festival.
Bonfiglio accompanied an episode from the Sundance Channel series “Iconoclasts” — a series he has worked on, although not this episode — about Into the Wild which featured Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer. The series’ director Joe Berlinger — who also directed Metallica and Crude — had to cancel his appearance due to flight delays.
For about half an hour, the young filmmaker fielded sharp questions about the production of documentary films and the life of a documentary filmmaker. He discussed the intricacies of directing non-fiction without manipulating the subjects and the challenges of not always knowing what will happen or where the story will go.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to know where your ending is,” he said.
The students asked him about research on his subjects — yes, usually intensive — on storyboarding — rarely, usually the best stuff just unfolds before the camera — and what he likes best about the genre — the relationships forged with people in places he would not have otherwise visited. And they sought his advice on how they might best become a filmmaker too.
“I certainly wouldn’t say go to film school,” said Bonfiglio, who dropped out of New York University’s film school after two years. Instead, he suggested students major in business or the humanities to learn other requisite skills and knowledge for their film career. The technical side of filmmaking can be self-taught, especially with the proliferation of affordable digital cameras and editing software.
“Self education is not a crazy thing in this particular field,” he said. And he recommended students intern. An internship during college with Berlinger, which Bonfiglio got just by asking, launched his career.
“When you want to work for someone for free, it is a really easy way to get a job,” he said and the students laughed. “But interning is a common way to get in.”
For Bonfiglio, the visit to Big Sky marked his first chance ever to speak with high school students about his filmmaking.
“It was a great experience. The kids are smart and engaged and asked some really insightful questions. It makes me want to do it again,” he said.
Bonfiglio’s response was typical of directors who participated in this year’s program, the film festival’s Nicole Payton said.
According to the directors she’s worked with, most other film festivals do not do this type of outreach. This year’s program was funded with a grant from the Dennis and Phyllis T. Washington Foundation.
Mathews and students from Respect Club select the films they think will interest students and provide a window into another culture’s or social group’s experience. They then try to narrow the list to films directors can attend. Mathews then previews all the films for appropriate language and graphic content. And students have the option to opt out of viewing a particular film, but not many exercise that option.
The use of films at Big Sky has drawn headlines of a negative nature recently. After biology teacher Kathleen Kennedy showed The Story of Stuff, a critique of consumer culture, Some parents and community members complained the use of the film lacked balance and amounted to liberal indoctrination. The Missoula County Public Schools board ruled on Feb. 11th, over strong objections from students, that the airing violated district policies on academic freedom.
So far Mathews hasn’t dealt with any such controversy surrounding the festival’s films.
“I think the fact that they’re documentaries makes a big difference,” he said.
A dozen different filmmakers came to Big Sky alone this year. The program also expanded with limited viewings at Hellgate, Sentinel and Willard High Schools. Organizers had hoped to take it to Stevensville as well, but arrangements fell through. They hope to include more outlying schools in the future.