Grab your popcorn and head to the Wilma film fans, its time for the sixth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
The festival, which begins Friday in Missoula and lasts through Sunday Feb. 22nd, screens 143 short and feature length documentaries from over 30 countries, many of which will mark their Montana, Northwest or even international premier. Subjects range from unique visual artists and cultural iconoclasts to hot button political issues like Aids in Africa and U.S. immigration.
This year’s festival features a series of films that provide a varied look at the complex continent that is Africa. The festival also showcases some of the work of Canadian Ron Mann, a long time chronicler of alternative cultural movements, and renown documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. As with many other directors of this year’s films, both Mann and Berlinger will attend the screenings of their films.
Admission for a single screening is available at the Wilma box office and costs $6.00 before 5 p.m. or $7.00 after. Multi-film, day passes, and all movie passes are also available at the Wilma box office or online. Several events, including the opening movie Thriller in Manilla are free and open to the public. The awards presentation, also free, occurs Thursday, Feb. 19th at 7 p.m. The winners for best feature, best short and the Big Sky award will be re-screened over the final weekend.
As in year’s past, here are some of New West’s picks, a select few feature-length documentaries that highlight this year’s festival (picks listed in chronological order by screening date).
Thriller in Manilla
It has been called the greatest boxing match of all time. The “Thriller in Manilla,” as promoters dubbed it, was the third and final contest between heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a fight intended to at last settle the question of who was the greatest boxer ever. By the time these two men arrived in The Philippines for their showdown in 1975, the one time friends had become bitter enemies.
This gripping portrayal of boxing’s golden era follows Joe Frazier, the “other man in the ring” from a present perspective, as he struggles for popular acceptance and respect amidst the racial politics of the 1960s and ‘70s. It is here where the film offers its most fascinating theme, the complexity of race relations within the black race and how one man, Ali, exploited those divisions to charm a nation and degrade and isolate his opponent. Over thirty years later Ali remains adored by the public while Frazier lives, and trains, at the same small gym in a rough side of Philadelphia that he did in his prime. A compelling examination of the human fascination with fighting, racial politics and how a nation chooses its heroes, even for non-pugilists like myself, the Thriller in Manilla is highly recommended.
Thriller in Manilla, sponsored by HBO documentaries, kicks off the festival at 6:00 p.m., Friday, Feb. 13th. Admission to this film only is free.
Despite more than eight decades of federal efforts to criminalize and eradicate marijuana use in the U.S., marijuana remains a prevalent, and in many cases, accepted drug smoked by musicians, students and even future presidents. Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann offers and engaging historical examination of federal drug policy toward marijuana. Narrated by Woody Harrelson, Grass pokes fun at government policy and the shifting rationale various federal agencies have offered over the years for the war on drugs. It highlights often inconclusive attempts to scientifically study the effects of marijuana smoking, as well as popular use and attitudes throughout the 20th century toward the drug. Grass is a bong-hit full of laughs, both at old government videos, actually stoned subjects, and the rhetoric of eighty years of an ineffective campaign against marijuana use.
A significant drawback to the film, however, is it often comes across as much as a pro-drug use piece of propaganda as the now-hilarious government anti-marijuana propaganda films it scoffs. And for a film made in 2000, its coverage of the ‘80s and ‘90s is woefully thin. Still for people interested in a sharp, funny and satiric critique of America’s attitude toward weed or in reforming federal drug policy, Grass will be an enjoyable view.
Grass screens Saturday, Feb 14th at 1:45 p.m. It is part of the Ron Mann Retrospective series.
This edgy, tense film tells the story of Kimberly Reed, a New York magazine editor returning for her high school reunion in Helena. Reed hopes to reconcile and build a new relationship with her estranged, adopted brother Marc. She also hopes to find some understanding and acceptance for her new identity, for Kim graduated high school as Paul McKerrow, the star quarterback of Helena High. But it’s not just Kim who must deal with a new identity, but Marc as well, who forged his identity as a kid in opposition to Paul. Now as he struggles with a deteriorating brain injury caused by an automobile accident, Marc discovers that his biological grandparents are none other than Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. In poignant and direct ways, Prodigal Sons explores the mostly closeted subject of transgender. But it goes beyond a discussion of gender identity to deal with the greater question of one’s whole identity and the struggle to transform it, the politics of childhood, and the universal desire to be loved by one’s family. Prodigal Sons is sure to provoke some thoughtful conversation.
Prodigal Sons screens Monday, Feb. 16th at 5:45 p.m. and is part of the Documentary Feature Competition.
At the Edge of the World
Somewhere in the 370,000 ice-filled miles of the Ross Sea, lurk a fleet of Japanese whaling vessels intent on harvesting 1000 whales within the southern whale sanctuary off Antarctica under the guise of scientific research, a loophole in the 1986 international ban on commercial whaling that countries like Japan, Norway, Russia and Iceland exploit. Despite the Japan’s claim of scientific research, the men and women of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (and many governments and other environmental organizations) consider the intended harvest a violation of international conservation law and set out aboard two suspect vessels to interdict the Japanese fleet. Flying the Jolly Roger since no country will license their ships, the volunteer, mostly inexperienced and young crews spend monotonous weeks at sea trying to locate the Japanese. Once they do, a harrowing game of cat and mouse ensues that reveals the terrible risks and clever techniques these activists are willing to employ to defend the whales.
At the Edge of the World raises hard questions about both the limited international will to save the world’s largest mammals and the aggressive interventionist techniques used by organizations like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. While the film is more of a suspense and action film then a nature documentary on the biology and conservation of whales, it provides a fascinating inside look at the people willing to give up months of their lives to protect these creatures.
At the Edge of the World screens Monday, Feb. 16th at 7:45 p.m. and is part of the Documentary Feature Competition.
Why drive just another Ford, Chevy or BMW when you can drive a shark, a carthedral or a hamburger? Automorphosis takes us inside the world of art cars and the characters who transform them from, say an ordinary Volkswagen Beetle into a rolling stained glass mosaic. For many of the people we meet, the car as canvas is a means to resist social norms and express their unique personalities. Sometimes their inspiration to decorate their car comes as a continuation of a hobby, such as collecting buttons, spoons or brass ornaments. While for others it is simply a means to bring delight to other people’s lives as they smile and laugh at the sometimes beautiful sometimes ridiculous works of automotive art. While this movie is fun, lighthearted, and inspires one to dream up his own art car as a means of self-expression, its downside is at nearly 80 minutes it exhausts its subject before the conclusion.
Automorphosis screens Wednesday, Feb. 18th at 11:00 p.m. and is part of the Documentary Feature Competition.
Part of the Joe Berlinger Retrospective series at this year’s film festival, Crude tells the story of the on-going legal battle between a small group of human rights lawyers and the energy giant Chevron-Texaco to clean up the Ecuadorian Amazon. According to the class action lawsuit led by a team of Ecuadorian lawyers and the American counterpart, Texaco’s nearly thirty years of oil extraction left the behind vast swaths of highly polluted soils and waterways that have led to cancer epidemics, skin lesions, and scores of other diseases amongst the mostly indigenous population. Chevron (which now owns Texaco) denies the allegations and blames the state-run PetroEcuador for the pollution.
The film follows the plaintiff’s legal team from 2006 – 2008 (the case was originally filed in 1993) as they wade through endless legal delays, struggle to garner public support for their crusade, meet Ecuadorian mothers with heartbreaking tales of child cancer and death, and try to convince a lone Ecuadorian judge of their case. The film is a remarkable immersion into the worlds of human rights advocacy, multi-national corporate economics, the geo-political situation in Latin America, celebrity activism and the villages of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Fascinating, compelling and at times infuriating, Crude is a superb film.
Crude screens Thursday, Feb. 19th at 5:00 p.m. and is part of the Documentary Feature Competition.
Ashes of American Flags
This rock documentary by Brendan Canty (the drummer from the band Fugazi) and Christoph Green follows the rock band Wilco as it tours through small historic venues in the American South. While the movie is basically one long and delightful rock concert set in different venues, the interviews with the band interspersed along the way and the beautiful shots of the American landscape provide sufficient initiation with the band and the life of rock musicians without straying too far toward biography and away from the main point of the movie, the band’s up-tempo, country and folk influenced rock music. In the brief interviews, band members offer their perspectives on each other, learn some of the challenges of life on the road (such as self-inflicted whiplash from their performance style) and their observations on how small town America has changed over the years.
More than just an audio gem, the film is a visual treat in its own right. The filmmakers’ deft use of light and shadow, rich colors and artistic compositions create a stunningly beautiful canvas on which to feast the eyes. Even if you’re not a Wilco fan, the artistry of the cinematography makes Ashes of Americans Flag a worthwhile film.
Ashes of American Flags screens Friday, February 20th at 9:30 p.m.