Friday, February 13, 2009

Interview with Virginia Lee Hunter of Carny

I talk with photographer Virginia Lee Hunter about carnivals, train hopping and her inspirations.

Hunter assisted Alison Murray with her film, Carny, which screens at 11.15am on Monday, February 16th in Wilma 1.


T: Tell me a little about your involvement in the film. How did you meet Alison Murray?

VLH: I met Alison at a hobo convention in Britt Iowa in 1999. She was making her first doc called ‘Train on the Brain’ about riding freight trains across Canada. At the time we met, I too was riding freight trains but my main photographic focus was working on a personal photo project documenting the pop culture of carnivals as Americana and the subculture of carnival workers. I had often felt this project would be a good documentary film but I had no experience in telling a moving picture story. I admired the way she handled her subjects with great empathy and wit in ‘Train on the Brain’ and thought one day we might be able to team up and turn my project into a documentary.

T: In what capacity were your photos helpful for the making of her film?

VLH: Alison and I kept in touch and in 2005 I asked her if she’d like to make a documentary with me based off the work I had been doing on my carnival project. Although we had never collaborated before, we were willing to see if we could make this happen and throw caution to the wind, so to speak. We each brought elements to the film that the other was lacking--her creativity in crafting compelling story lines as a film and my in roads to this elusive sub culture that is traditionally sensitive towards any media attention as well as my visual aesthetics on a subject I had dedicated several years to...we both gained respect and trust in each’s input and in the end, the film speaks for itself in the richly, compelling stories and vivid visual capturing of the carnival.
During that time we were working on the film I had my photographs published in a book titled, ‘Carny; Americana on the Midway,' published by Umbrage Editions which I guess makes this endeavor I began so many years ago complete.

T: What drove you to shoot Carnival people? What is it about carnies that intrigues you?

VLH: I became interested in exploring carnivals as how they relate to modern Americana when I went to a carnival in the early '90s. As I wandered around the midway I saw myself, when I was a teen, marauding throughout the midway with my girlfriends, flirting with the town boys and the carnies, who to us were dark and mysterious outsiders. Those were my distinct memories. As I recognized my own, I thought if I had memories what are others around me and their memories? I began to see others, old, young, couples, with families, laughing, and creating their own memories , as they were repeatedly unfolding over time.

It was my own memory and seeing others’ that inspired me to photograph the carnival as nostalgic homage to Americana. They are America’s gypsies. I wanted to give them a chance to tell their stories as so many tales and impressions, and not all kind, have been told about them. The Carnival Midway then becomes a very unique and bizarre autonomous zone complete with whirling twirling lights and zany cacophony. Very strange and magical.

T: Have you been influenced by Arbus or Meiselas? If so, in what way?

VLH: Perhaps subconsciously, in my earliest years exploring my voice and vision in photography, I was influenced by Arbus. However, it was on the eve of my first trip to photograph carnivals in 1996 that I was introduced to and given Meiselas’ book ‘Carnival Stripper’. Everything she had done in the book; style of shooting, the gritty black and white, even the interviews transcribed, I had envisioned to be my approach to capturing the essence of carny life. I was both disheartened and inspired. Disheartened because it had been done before me, and inspired because I knew I was on then, the right path as I related to that book. I since added color imagery to define the pop culture of the carnival midway so the end body of work is not mimicking Meiselas’ ‘Carnival Strippers’, but certainly, I was inspired.

T: Where do you shoot mostly? In what cities? Do you follow one circus in particular?

VLH: I’m most interested in the rural areas the carnivals travel through as it seems the carnival plays a more significant role in rural American entertainment and celebration. When Alison and I made CARNY, we settled on one show out of North Carolina that traveled up into New York State and back down again into North Carolina. We needed to stay with the stories of our subjects and the show they were traveling with, but in my approach for the book I was going for a broader swath to portray the carnival life as ‘Americana’. In my own project, I traveled across the western states, Appalachia and into upstate New York.

Filmmakers Bring their Work to Hellgate High School

Kathy Corley, director of Secret: The Josephine Baker FBI Files, speaks to students at Hellgate.

Education Coordinator Niki Payton has networked with several high schools to bring Big Sky documentaries and their filmmakers to area students. The first day of the Festival, Kathy Corley (Secret: The Josephine Baker Files) and Eran Barak (Bloomfield or Childhood Memory) showed their respective short films to classes in the auditorium then answered questions from students.

Zach Stauffer speaks with students after screening his short, A Day Late in Oakland

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ron Mann Retrospective

This year at Big Sky, the work of Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann will be presented as one of the festival's three retrospectives. Mann has been making films for more than 25 years, and presents 6 documentaries from his vault that embody his reputation as a "cultural historian."

Ron Mann screenings at the Wilma Theatre:

Saturday 2/14 @ 10am

TWIST (1991)
Saturday 2/14 @12pm

GRASS (1999)
Saturday 2/14 @1.45pm

Sunday 2/15 @10am

Sunday 2/15 @11.40am

Sunday 2/15 @1.40pm

More about Ron Mann:


Missoula Independent Features Big Sky Doc Film Festival

Read more HERE.

Up and Coming

Cloudy and 27F here in Missoula. Snowing intermittently.
VIP goodie bags filled.
Final screening questions answered.
Bicycle for blogger provided.
Filmmakers trickling in from airport.
Twitter updated, Flickr updated.

On tap for tomorrow:
--HBO's special presentation of Thriller in Manila at 6pm (FREE public admission)
--Kickoff Party at 8pm (FREE to All-Access Pass holders, or $5 admission)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview with Paige Browning, Big Sky Intern

I talk with Paige Browning, current intern for Big Sky and student at UM in Radio-Television and Environmental Studies, about The Oscars, her position at the fest, and her history with film fests.

T: How did you get involved with the festival?

PB: One of my professors last semester, Gita Saedi, is a Programming Director for the Festival. She briefly talked about the festival and the High Plains Film Institute in our class. I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved because I hope to make documentaries or work with festivals in the future. Gita got me in contact with the people in the Festival office, and the rest is history.

T: What event or film are you most excited about this year?

PB: I am really excited for several of the films this year. My interest isn't necessarily related to just the topic, just the filmmaker, or production style, but a mix of everything. I look forward to seeing "At the Edge of the World", "Ask Not", and the "Dhamma Brothers" in particular.
I also really look forward to the Wrap Party at the end of the week. It should be a pretty fun way to end the week, and meet some of the people involved in making the documentaries.

T: What's the best part about working with Big Sky?

PB: The Big Sky staff is awesome. I love working with them because they teach me new things all the time. I've learned a ton about what works and what doesn't in a documentary, how to network within the community, and a great detail of how to put on a good festival (from the Filmmakers lounge to the screening times of films).

T: What does your position as "intern" entail?

PB: I've had several projects throughout the past couple of months. I don't really have one job, but mostly do work with maintaining info on our website, putting together our VIP bags, advertising around town, creating festival passes for all attendees, and helping work on details of just about all projects within our office. I do a lot of the footwork for things that our Program Director or Coordinator are working on.

T: How did you get the gig?

PB:After I showed interest in the Festival to my professor Gita Saedi, she put me in contact with the Festival Director/Programmer Mike Steinberg. We chatted via email a couple of times in December and I started interning in January.

T: Is the position as cool as you thought it'd be?

PB: This position not only keeps me busy with fun projects, but has taught me a lot. So, yes, it's definitely as cool as I thought it would be. I've been able to help with all the things I wanted to and more, including some basic editing and Photoshop assignments.

T: What's your history in the film scene? Have you worked at fests before?

PB: I really don't have any history. This is my first experience with a film festival, and with the documentary industry. Working at the festival is really a starting point for me to be much more involved in the future.

T: Do you think Heath Ledger is going to win the Oscar?

PB: I sure do. People loved him. It will be more of an award in memory of him than for his talent in acting. (but I do think he did a dang good job as the joker).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Goth Cruise

What first struck me about Jeanie Finlay was her shoes: ankle-cut healed lace-ups. She wore them with tights and a long skirt and a flowing top. She had just arrived from England to present her newest film, Goth Cruise, to the audience at the Webster Film Series in St. Louis. Jeanie was engaging and articulate and friendly. And her movie rocked.

Goth Cruise is a film about, well, exactly what you'd think it's about: a cruise inhabited by Goths. Finlay found the subjects for her "Gothumentary" in both the UK and the USA, and follows them on their journey to organize and ultimately enjoy their time on the Caribbean cruise of 150 Goths and 2,500 "norms." The feature length film documents the lifestyles, traditions and outside perceptions of this seemingly controversial group of people, and presents it in a way that's intriguing and informative.

There's the guy whose coworkers have no idea about his after-hours appearance.
The man who dresses in Goth drag.
The woman who never fit in and finds comfort in dressing Goth.
The couple who brings their child along on the cruise.

Finlay shows them packing everything from their sunscreen to their head dresses to their horns, then captures the reaction of the other attendees ("norms") as they board the ship, party, and take advantage of all the amenities cruise ships offer--like shuffleboard and buffets. The contrasts presented are striking, and the impressions of the elderly on-lookers is, at times, heartbreaking; but, overall, the film realistically explores the side of everyday people whose penchant for piercings, darkness, leather and make-up ultimately has an effect on the attention (negative or positive) they receive from those different than themselves.

The pace, the soundtrack, the intimacy of the interviews, the colorful portraits and the extraordinary cinematography (Finlay is also a photographer) make this film one of the must-sees at Big Sky this year.

Goth Cruise screens Sunday, February 15th at 9pm in Wilma 1.

Finlay's previous film, Teenland, looks at the life of 4 teenagers in their bedrooms. It aired on the BBC two years ago.
Above photo from Finlay's Flickr site documenting the cruise.