Editor’s Note: Ninety-eight documentaries in six days is a veritable smorgasbord of reality. So, to help you navigate the best of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which kicks off at in Missoula at the Wilma Feb. 14 and runs through the 20, we enlisted one of Missoula’s famed reviewers, filmmakers and artists: Andy Smetanka. Read on for Andy’s top five picks for the festival. And, to read up on others and make your own picks, check out the Festvial’s site at www.bigskyfilmfest.org.
Directed by Pam Roberts
If history were a natural resource, Butte would be sitting on a pile of it bigger than the rest of Montana put together. Though industry in Butte today is a only a trace of what it was a century ago, Montana’s mining city continues to exert a powerful hold on the imagination, and now comes a documentary that manages to stuff a hundred-plus years of rough-and-tumble into a scant hour and three minutes. Rushed at times (or maybe Butte history fans like myself just can’t get enough), Butte, America still conveys the tumultuous excitement of a once-upon-a-time Montana that preferred spats and tweed to boots and denim, where rival labor factions took the fight to the streets and money gushed even faster than the poisonous groundwater filling today’s Berkeley Pit. Mandatory viewing for Montana history buffs.
Butte, America opens this year’s festival at 10 AM on Thursday, February 14
Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank!
Directed by David Silberberg
In the fine tradition of Monster Road, and American Movie, Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! directs its lens at the inner/outer life of a true creative eccentric, in this case the son of renowned documentary filmmaker Les Blank. Harrod Blank (b. 1963) grew up in rural California fixated on chickens and his own self-proclaimed weirdness, later diverting those massive stores of pent-up creative energy into so-called art cars. Today he’s a leading proponent of the form, even organizing an annual art-car rally at the Burning Man festival. David Silberberg’s documentary — filmed in 16mm and larded with charming home-movie footage — is a probing but indulgent look into this one-of-a-kind personality, with revealing interviews from parents, former girlfriends and his best friend, who seems always seems delighted to be along for the ride. A real left-field, right-brain treat, this one.
Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! screens at 7:30 PM on Monday, February 18
Directed by Antonio Ferrara and Albert Maysles
With most artists, at least if when there’s no public funding involved, it’s enough to look away if you don’t like what you see. With Bulgarian-born empaquetage artist Christo, however, there is no turning away, particularly if you happen to live at ground-zero for one of his massive works involving the wrapping of historic bridges and iconic edifices. Love him or hate him, Christo goes after his life’s work on such a massive public scale that you pretty much have to come to terms with him. Owing to their public nature, Christo projects also demand a good deal of administrative process to get rolling, and that’s grist for the Maysles brothers and director Antonio Ferrara, who center HBO’s new doc on a project involving Central Park and thousands of bright-orange steel gates draped in fabric. Despite Christo’s assurance that he’ll pay for it all himself, it takes him and his spokesperson wife Jeann-Claude several tries and two decades before the project gets off the ground. Things get catty when Christo’s proposal goes to committee, and the comments of street-level New Yorkers are no less pithy than those of his administrative antagonists: “What if I took a shit on your lawn?” asks one passer-by — rhetorically only, one hopes.
The Gates screens at 6 PM on Thursday, February 14
Directed by Melissa Villanueva
Don’t you love it when a documentary lifts a little corner on a debate you didn’t know was raging over something you’d only barely noticed? Well, that’s what Resting Places does. In recent years descansos — the fancy name for those little roadside shrines to traffic fatalities — have become a worldwide phenomenon, fueling vigorous debate between defenders of public spaces and grieving loved ones who can’t understand why anyone would oppose these little tributes to the departed, public land or not. Director Villanueva presents the opposing views in balance, though natural human empathy would seem to tip that balance well away from the attorney who regards descansos on public land as an insult to the public and a harbinger of social chaos. Yet he, too, has a surprising story to tell — one of many in this surprisingly intriguing little doc.
Resting Places screens at 4 PM on Friday. February 15
When an indigenous music art explodes into a worldwide phenomenon, saturating the airwaves even as it succumbs to cliché and imitation, you almost need an outside perspective to help you hear it with fresh ears again. I Love Hip Hop in Morocco looks at the emergence of hip hop music worldwide through just such a lens as it follows dedicated Moroccan disciples and their efforts to organize that country’s first-ever hip-hop festival. It’s one of at least two films in this year’s festival to pose the question, “So what do you think of Americans?’ Where the Listening Project (screens Wednesday, Feb. 20 4:45 p.m.) poses the question explicitly, I Love Hip Hop does so rather more implicitly. In both cases it comes as some relief to learn that not everyone in the world hates us. In I Love Hip Hop in Morocco, at least it’s clear they dig our music.
I Love Hip Hop in Morocco screens at 12:45 PM on Monday, February 18
Andy Smetanka is a publicity coordinator in this year’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Check out www.bigskyfilmfest.org for a complete schedule of films and screenings. All screenings take place at the historic Wilma Theatre