Saturday, February 21, 2009

Missoula and Its Flare

shot by Brendan Canty

Whatever It Takes at Big Sky

When Chris Wong's friend, Edward Tom, decided to become an educator after working for years at Saks Fifth Avenue, Wong knew he had to tell his story. 

Whatever It Takes chronicles Tom's first year as principal at a high school in the Bronx while focusing almost primarily on his interaction with Sharifea Baskerville, a struggling ninth-grader. 

While the film's subjects are an African American student and an Asian American (two races that are not typically known to get along in the inner-city environment), Wong says the film "isn't about racial conflict, because that issue really doesn't pop up, but I think that's definitely an interesting aspect....seeing them work hand-in-hand is pretty revolutionary."

Wong says the first two or three weeks of filming was difficult because the students wanted to be on screen all the time, but "once they realized they weren't going to be on the news or MTV, they sorta relaxed." 
"I think it's pretty evident from the film that no one notices the camera...that they aren't acting for the camera." 

Editor Zeb Smith agrees. 
"That's one of the benefits to a long-term project, when you spend a year on the story, they get used to you being around. I also think in that kind of community, there's a sense of adaptation to their surroundings." 

"It also takes a special person to adjust to the camera," adds Wong. "They're kind of raw...they say and do what they want without thinking. I think that's always the kind of character you want for a documentary film. We got lucky."  

Any why did they decide to sneak preview it here?
"We chose to bring Whatever It Takes to Big Sky because had heard a lot of good things about the festival," says Wong. "It seems to have a good reputation and we love being in a place which focuses purely on documentaries, that way we don't get lost."

Whatever it Takes screens today at 1.30pm.

Next stop is the World Premiere at the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. And Wong's current project about game shows and its fandom (Wheel of Jeopardy) is due out within the next couple years. 

Joe Berlinger and his Q&A's at Big Sky

At 12.3o today Big Sky will present another one of Berlinger's great films, Gray Matter, a contemporary story that illuminates one of history's darkest periods. It's a compelling tale of murder, conspiracy, guilt and redemption. It accounts Berlinger's hunt for 89-year-old Dr. Heinrich Gross, one of Austria's leading forensic psychiatrists and alleged murderer of hundreds of handicapped children. A Q&A will follow the film.

At 2.30 plays Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, an in-depth portrait of the most successful heavy metal band of all time, as they faced monumental personal and professional challenges while recording their first studio album of original songs in five years. The film trades rock-star posing for truthful introspection, and reveals an intimate portrait of the individuals behind a legendary band and their unique creative journey. A Q&A will follow the film.

Friday, February 20, 2009

New Wilco Film from the Makers of Burn to Shine

What Brendan Canty and Christoph Green have created with their Burn to Shine project is a way for artists to gather in one spot and create something that can never be recreated.

It began in 2004 when a friend offered them a house given to him by an old woman who had recently died. The friend wanted to honor the woman, and Green and Canty came up with this idea, which eventually became Burn to Shine--the first one was shot in Washington D.C., when many of the bands there were in flux. Other featured cities include Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago.

"I thought it'd be interesting, like that photo in Harlem with all the jazz bands," explains Canty. "Then when you look at it in 20 years, it illuminates the relationships that people had. My idea was to film a bunch of people who were connected...a community of musicians in one day...not to create a full-blown documentary, but just to create a portrait."

Green: "On a visceral level, it's emotional when you actually watch one (of the Burn to Shine films) the end, when the house comes down you have a sort of feeling for the house, oddly enough." 

The Seattle installment of Burn to Shine will screen on Saturday, but the real draw this weekend is Friday night's World Premiere of Ashes of American Flags, a definitive Wilco concert film. As a huge Nels Cline fan (the newly- installed guitarist for the band), Canty said making the film was an ultimate pleasure. Ashes follows Wilco on their southern tour and captures the band's performances, the fans, and the band's thoughts on each other and the changing American landscape. Even if you aren't a Wilco fan, say Canty and Green, you'll like this film. 

Ashes of American Flags won Big Sky's 2009 Programmer's Choice Award for Best Editing. 

The Rolling Stone gives props to the film, Ashes of American Flags, premiering tonight at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, MT at 9.30pm. Read More. 

"Any positive feedback is like a light at the end of the tunnel."--Brendan Canty (pictured above)

The Money Fix

I talk with Alan Rosenblith, director of The Money Fix, about his background, the state of the economy, the evolution of Twitter and the truth about where our money is made.

The Money Fix screens tonight at its WORLD PREMIERE at 4.45pm.

T: What inspired you to make such a film?

AR: A few years ago, I was pretty heavily involved in the sustainability movement in Santa Fe NM. It suddenly occurred to me that every major problem the folks in my community were trying to address always came back to money. Why do we clear-cut forests? To make money. Why do some corporations exploit workers in developing countries? To make money. Etc. etc. As I realized this, I also realized that neither I nor any one I knew knew anything at all about money: what it is, where it comes from, etc. So I started doing some research, and I discovered that even a lot of so-called experts in economics had no idea. So, clearly there was a need for a documentary about it.

T: What does your company have to do with the message your film conveys?
AR: Since making the film, I have been involved in several efforts to bring community currency into mainstream usage. The film details how communities don't have to be dependent on the dollar in order to prosper, and I became so passionate about that I jumped to the other side of the camera so to speak.

I founded Community Prosper as an Oregon based non-profit whose purpose is to promote the use and development of peer-to-peer based currency (one type of currency design). Recently, I have been working with a Twitter-based start-up that uses Twitter to make payments in micro-currencies called "Twollars." I think this kind of direct audience engagement is how to ensure financial success for social-purpose documentaries in today's Internet-based media climate.

T: Do you have a filmmaking background?
AR: No. I got into filmmaking by accident, and to be honest I think of filmmaking as only one tool in a broader toolkit to promote human evolution. So to the degree filmmaking serves that purpose, I am involved with it. Not to say I don't love films, but my role is first and foremost as an agent for creating cultural mind shifts.

T: What is the biggest misconception people have about money?
AR: There are so many it's hard to list. The first is that dollars come from the government. They don't. They are issued by private banks as debt, so if everyone payed off their debt, there would be no money left.
The second misconception is that money is a THING in the sense that there is only so much of it. Money is actually nothing more than information about who owes who what. And this is a very good thing. Right now, we are experiencing a "credit crunch" which means money is disappearing. But think about it, we are still all here with the same talents and resources. The only thing that is missing is money to enable exchange. The problem is that, as a culture, we make something that is inherently just information (and therefore sufficient) into something scarce. This is in fact the sole function of our financial system. Think about it, if you have to make money to live, you have to compete for it. That is not something inherent, but rather something that is there by design.

T: How did Big Sky get to be the place you premiered your film?
AR:ichard Beer suggested I submit it. Also, I was interested in a less commercially-driven festival since these ideas can really upset people with a large financial stake.

T: Who do you hope to reach with this film? Who is your audience?
AR: I suppose I was aiming this film at what has been termed "Cultural Creatives." The film requires that people have open hearts and minds. I have been really surprised by who has reacted well and who hasn't. Money is one of those things that stirs up a lot of emotions in people, and for some, finding out how the whole monetary system is really nothing more than a poorly designed game, really shakes their foundations...I think a lot of people are much more open to hearing this news now that the economy is in crisis.

T: Any future projects?
AR: I am really passionate about using filmmaking as a catalyst for human evolution (particularly in the domain of money), so I am working on a series of follow-up pieces to THE MONEY FIX that will get into greater depth. The issues around money go VERY deep, and I think there could be several more feature length films worth of material there.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fest Winners and Screening Schedule

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Announces Award Winners

Best Feature: Rough Aunties by Kim Longinotto

Artistic Vision: In A Dream by Jeremiah Zagar

Best Short: Bronx Princess by Musa Syeed & Yoni Brook

Artistic Vision: The First Kid to Learn English From Mexico by Peter Jordan

Best MiniDoc: Jennifer by Stewart Copeland

Artistic Vision: The Secret Life of Beards by Melanie Levy

Big Sky Award: Red Gold by Travis Rummel & Ben Knight

Programmer’s Choice Awards

Best Editing: Crude by Joe Berlinger

Best Cinematography: Ashes of American Flags by Brendan Canty & Christoph Green

Best Music Doc: The Choir by Michael Davie


Fri. Feb 20, 2009 at 7 pm - In A Dream, Jennifer & The Secret Life of Beards

Sat. Feb 21, 2009 at 7 pm - Red Gold; Bronx Princess; The First Kid to Learn English From Mexico,

Sun. Feb 22, 2009 at 8 pm - The Choir & Rough Aunties

Thanks to the nine-member festival jury:
Richard Beer
Joe Berlinger
Mike Bonfiglio
Brendan Canty
Kristen Fitzpatrick
Brett Ingram
Anna Rau
Dawn Smallman
Chris White

Crude Independence

Several days after reading an article in the "New York Times" about an oil boom in North Dakota, Wesleyan University senior Noah Hutton flew west and began his preliminary research for what would later become the feature-length documentary, Crude Independence.

Hutton, a neuroscience and art history major, had never made a documentary, much less a film, but felt the issue was topical and was compelled to expose a story about the newest and deepest oil discovery in the United States.

He returned to North Dakota that following May (in 2006), when news of the oil discovery began to peak. Hutton and his crew of two, with a budget of $10,000 (all tracked on an Excel spreadsheet by their "finance manager"), produced an account of what he describes as an "historical moment."

Just in the past years, says Hutton, the North Dakota landscape has transformed from a flat, uninhabited wasteland to a sprawling scene of power lines, trailers and "bobbing creatures" digging 10,000 feet for one of the world's most precious resources. The state had a surplus of $1Billion last fiscal year and is hugely profiting from this boom; there are hundreds of jobs for the transient workforce, but housing is scarce.

The film just won Best of Fest at the Oxford Film Festival and will go on tour after leaving Big Sky.

Hutton hopes to make his next film about artificial intelligence and a process to measure its existence, called the "Turing Test."

Harrod Blank and his crazy, wacky art cars

Harrod Blank created a film called Wild Wheels back in the day, but has now come out with something even more wild: Automorphosis!

It's a straightforward piece about people and their art cars--nothing more, nothing less. What drives people to decorate their cars? Is it ego? Insecurity? Obsession? After 13 years, Blank (son of filmmaker Les Blank), may have figured it all out. 

The film played Wednesday night to a very inquisitive crowd whose favorite car was this one

At the discussion panel today, Blank spoke about the business of documentary filmmaking and how his passion outweighs his desire to make money. While he's reluctant to go the online digital route ("highway robbery") of screening his work, he understands that by selling to Netflix or to Amazon, you can reach a different audience you might not reach if you tour the festival circuit. Blank is about getting his film seen--not about "selling out." 

Check out Blank's cool site here. He's currently working working on a film about The Burning Man Festival (shot on 16mm) due out in the Fall of 2010.

Joe Berlinger Retrospective

Award-winning filmmaker, journalist and photographer Joe Berlinger has created some of the most compelling non-fiction films of the last thirty years. Whether exploring the dark terrains of child murder and siblingcide or the complications of a heavy metal group's therapy, Berlinger's films go deep into the complex topography of humanness.

He has also directed and produced numerous hours of television, including the Sundance Channel series, Iconoclasts.

Berlinger joins Big Sky 2009 for an intimate look at his work.

CRUDE  5pm





Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"We Need to Make Films to Feel Alive."--Erin Hudson

Members of today's discussion on short-form documentary give their advice to anyone seeking a career in doc filmmaking.

  • Start small; if it needs to grow, let it grow.
  • Work in scenes to determine length, but include as many scenes as needed to convey your story.
  • What should drive you is content.
  • Think of it as making lots of little shorts put together when making a feature.
  • Let the subject determine the length.

  • Things to consider:
    • There seems to be more paying work in doc filmmaking than in fiction filmmaking.
    • Consider trimming your feature down--it may work better that way.
    • Posting online may affect its possibility of being widely distributed.
    • Wear lots of hats; learn to do one or more thing in the business.

    Questions to ask yourself:
    • Are people's attention spans shortening or are they just more hungry for solid content?
    • How do you feel about posting your shorts for free?
    • Who would want to watch this film?
    • What's the film's niche market?

    Thursday's panel is on the business of documentary--how to distribute your independent work in the world of mass media. Moderated by Chris White. 2pm at the Crystal Theatre.

    Photo by Cathrine Walters

    Boy Interrupted

    oday at 6.45, HBO Documentary Films presents a feature-length doc about the life, bi-polar illness and suicide of Evan Perry from the point of view of his mother. In the film she describes his struggle and the effect his death had on those who loved him the most.

    Boy Interrupted, 92 minutes, 6.45pm at the Wilma. 

    Wednesday's Panel

    Today Doug Whyte, director of the International Documentary Challenge, comes to us from Portland, Oregon to discuss short-form documentary and its place in a market driven by high-profile documentary features. What are the broadcast, exhibition and internet options for short-form docs?

    Join us at the Crystal Theatre, 515 Higgins Avenue, at 2pm.

    FREE and open to the public.

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    Panel Wrap-Up

    The big question: Is realism the truth?

    Today's discussion focusing on the art of documentary film welcomed seven panelists whose films ranged from the debated "art doc" to more formulaic pieces and features by amateurs to works about "cultural collision."
    Michael Murphy of the Media Arts Department at the University moderated and talked about proper venues for these documentaries and the emotional/physical processes of creating a film in this genre.

    • How do you get at the truth in your filmmaking process?
    • How much of your own tone, interpretation and subject-to-director interaction goes into that process?
    • How truly objective can a documentary be?
    • How many varieties of documentary film are there within the genre? ie Post-modern, avant garde, fly-on-the-wall, directorial inclusion, etc.

    Wednesday's panel at 2pm focuses on short-form documentary and is hosted by Doug Whyte at the Crystal Theatre.

    Photo by Cathrine Walters

    Panel Discussion 2pm @ The Crystal Theatre

    What is the relationship between Art & Commerce in Non-Fiction film? I there a home for the so-called Art Doc in the wide fields dominated by issue-driven cinema? Come to this informative discussion and decide for yourself.

    Panel members will include Richard Beer of Film Action Oregon; John Kane, director of the short Frontier Youth; Lisa Whitmer of No Strings Attached; and Mike Murphy of the Media Arts Department at U of M.

    Hosted by the Crystal Theatre, 515 S. Higgins Avenue, Missoula
    2pm on Tuesday, February 17th

    *FREE and Open to the Public

    Monday, February 16, 2009

    Montana Filmmaker Comes Out

    Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons, at its core, is about her brother Mark's mental illness due to a head injury, her own sexual transition and how those facets fit into their family dynamic. She views tonight's screening as a homecoming, with dozens of people (including many family members) driving in from Helena to see her "coming out" in both senses of the word: as a filmmaker with a Montana premiere and, of course, as a woman. 

    As a teenager growing up in Helena, Paul McKerrow (now Kimberly Reed) was a popular high school hunk and athlete. He left his hometown after graduation and moved to the Bay area and then to New York, only to return home years later as a woman. 

    She reconnected with old friends at her father's funeral in 2003, then began shooting the film at her high school reunion in 2005. While the film explores sexuality, her adopted brother's unique family associations, and mental illness, Reed says that it's mostly about a family who is faced with restructuring itself. 

    "We get a chance to reinvent ourselves," says Reed. "I think Mark and I have become these symbols for people moving and changing and reinventing ourselves and coming home." 

    Reed says the film could be "a bit disturbing" due to its level of family intimacy, but knows that the story, no matter how difficult it is to tell or watch, can potentially help other people struggling with the same issues. 

    "If you have this dark secret you don't want anyone to know...whether that's me and my issues of gender or whether it's our family and this issue of mental want to keep it buried." 

    But Reed describes her experience making the film as "liberating" and somewhere therapeutic in the sense that it helped her face what she needed to face with regard to both herself and her family. 

    The Montana premiere of Prodigal Sons screens tonight at 5.45pm in Wilma 1. Attendance is expected to be high.

    Push for the Doc Shorts

    I have a short attention span.

    That is why I like the SHORTS PROGRAMS.

    Monday at 1.15pm SHORTS PROGRAM #3 New York Stories

    Monday at 9.45pm SHORTS PROGRAM #4 Some Dreamers

    Tuesday 6.30pm SHORTS PROGRAM #5 Wide Open Spaces II


    Sunday 3.15pm SHORTS PROGRAM #6 What Work Is

    Sunday, February 15, 2009

    Know Your Ron Mann

    Ron Mann's Favorite Beer: Guinness

    Ron Mann's Favorite Silent Film: The General

    Ron Mann's Favorite Bald Man: His former sound man who intimidated Bukowski

    Ron Mann's Favorite City: Tie between Missoula and Barcelona, Spain

    Ron Mann's Favorite Essayist: Chuck Klosterman

    Ron Mann's Favorite Magazine: "Stop Smiling" out of L.A.

    The best (and only) conversation Ron Mann's had with Michael Moore: MM said to RM, "3rd Floor Please."

    What Ron Mann likes:
    Kombucha and yoga. Lapel buttons from Berlin. Pilsner beer, loves 1960's music and Big Sky Film Festival

    The scoop on Ron Mann:
    The Canadian filmmaker has been working for over 25 years in the documentary field and has collaborated with people like Chubby Checker (Twist), Pete Townsend, John Goodman (Ran Fink), Woody Harrelson (Go Further) and Jim Jarmusch (Know Your Mushrooms).

    Ron Mann's Problem:
    "The problem with editing is that there's no end. You either run out of money or run out of energy, and I certainly run out of both."

    But with a collection of 10 ("I don't know, though, I've sorta lost count") feature-length films, several shorts and some music videos, he apparently hasn't run out of either.

    And why has he chosen documentary filmmaking?
    "Why am I doing this? No one really asked me to do this...but I feel a responsibility to history. And I know I'm doing the right thing."

    Mann recently finished his retrospective at Big Sky, lives in Toronto and once lived on a commune.

    Get Your Alloys Right!

    Roger Ebert has called the Alloy Orchestra "the best in the world" at what they do, and, after their musical accompaniment the 1919 silent film, South, those in the audience tonight might feel the same way.

    The Boston-based Alloy Orchestra has been around since 1991 when Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue united their unique percussion backgrounds with a pianist who was later replaced by the current pianist, a trained compositionist and a former punk rocker, Roger Miller, nearly 11 years ago. Their premiere film was the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. (The man who asked them to provide the score apparently didn't like the 1980's Freddy Mercury version.) The ensemble insists on using only the best prints available, and has travelled as far as New Zealand and Sweden to play their compositions made for both short and feature-length silent films.

    One of the most intriguing aspects of the band is the "rack of junk" that travels with the trio to every gig. Depending on the airport stipulations, however, the number of instruments may vary.

    The rack of junk may include any or all of the following:
    2 or 3 gongs
    4 horseshoes
    2 truck springs
    random bells
    metal pipes used as chimes
    a metal bedpan
    a real drumset torn apart and spread out
    cakepans used as untuned steel drums
    a giant xylophone made of 2x4's

    Terry Donahue, a percussionist, has also picked up the accordion and the musical saw, or what he calls the "poorman's theramine," a rare instrument typically used in the early 1900's. He uses the saw because "has a lot of traits that work much better for us. It is much more durable to travel with and lends itself to the junk thing very well."

    "We anticipate we'll be together for a long time, so it's been worth our learning instruments and learning styles of music that we can bring into the band," says Ken Winokur, the second percussionist.
    He picked up the clarinet 8-10 years ago because he felt the group needed more melodic instruments.
    "I figured it was warm and pretty instead of the harsh metal stuff."

    Roger uses sheet music, but leaves room for improvisation, while Terry tries to memorize as much as possible, but phases it out as quickly as he can. Kerry composes a kind of "complex storyboard." For him, it's all about reading ahead and anticipating which sticks he needs for which drum or cymbal at which time.

    While the musical compositions aren't too difficult to sort out, Winokur explains that choosing films is not as easy as it looks, and that being "commissioned" is usually not an option.

    "We typically will figure out what we want to do or get asked by a film festival, so the trick for us is to figure out what will represent our tour for a year or more," says Winokur. "Because we don't want to do one film just once...if we're gonna do it, we're gonna do it a lot."

    Donahue agrees.
    "So that's the trick: finding a film that we wanna play and that people want to see that can be accessible. Some festivals want the really obscure ones."

    "When we were asked to do it [Metropolis], we did it the way we thought it should be done," says Donahue. "We didn't look back at the old scores and think of it as something old...we still try to think of these things that work as pieces of art that will stand the test of time. We just try to play music we think is appropriate to the film."

    One the trio's toughest challenges is their likelihood as a percussion-based band to overwhelm the score with drums and too much noise even when the scene is soft and quiet.

    "I think what's difficult for us is that we have a tendency to be large and exciting
    and powerful, I mean, that's our style, but all the films don't call for that, and all the scenes don't call for that, so I think it's important to keep control of ourselves and bring the volume down, and bring the emotion qualities," says Winokur.

    "The best example of that is Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)," adds Donahue. "We want to be drummers and we want to hit'em and Blackmail is so...suspenseful. It's one of the hardest ones just for that reason, because everytime you wanna play something, you gotta pull back and say no, i only have to play a quarter of what I want to play."

    "But on the other hand I think that adds to what makes the score really work for it. Because our feeling of tension of pulling back translates into a feeling of suspense which is perfect for a Hitchcock movie. Mostly we try to find the feel and vibe and the rhythm of the movie, try not to overplay it then go from there. Sometimes it's easier said than done."

    Audiences ("little kids, hipsters and grandparents") continue to be moved by their compositions and follow their work around the world. Their next project, Man with a Movie Camera, will premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia in April.

    Jennifer Screens Today at 3pm

    In the short film 'Jennifer,' filmmaker Stewart Copeland explores his relationship with his mother through a recorded conversation between eighth-grade students and astronauts aboard the international space station.

    It plays at 3pm today in Wilma 1 with the shorts series.

    Director Stewart Copeland hails from Tullahoma, Tennessee and graduated from Webster University with a degree in film production. He continues to shoot photography and short films, adding to his repertoire of visual arts.