Sunday, February 26, 2012

Firsts and Lasts: Reflecting on the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

It was mentioned by a fellow writer that there has been an unofficial theme of loss in the documentaries at the Big Sky Festival this year. I agree, but for me this year, what was lost was also filled, and I’ve felt or seen some transformations over the past week at the festival.

Friday night at Monterey Pop my chair pulsed because the lady behind me was rocking out with her foot. I couldn’t blame her. I was shaking my foot too. It’s been hard with these concert documentaries not to just want to get up and dance: from Janis Joplin exploding her lungs on Ball ‘n’ Chain to Otis Redding making my heart palpitate with his hips, and Ravi Shankar proving that human fingers can move as fast as the speed of light. The ‘67 festival was a time of firsts (introducing The Who to the American mainstream) and lasts (Otis’ last major performance – he died six weeks later).

The Monterey Pop documentary, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, has been a time of firsts and lasts for me as well. I first saw the film at the height of my love for the sixties. I watched it in an old, beautiful theater filled with aging hippies. I remember my chest filling with joy at Janis’ performance and wishing I had been born in that era. In my small-town world, the on screen people with their painted faces and tribal dresses summed up all I wanted quite lovely.

But Friday I had a moment of terror as the film started. I worried that all the nostalgic feelings I felt for the film, not to mention my adolescence, would be obliterated by a more mature watching. In a way they were. On second viewing, the people looked just like people I see everyday. Their faces were tired as they lugged huge sleeping bags across wet fields, or star struck, or indifferent, as they watched Ravi Shankar perform. I was cynical about the ones with dreamy looks on their faces as they watched the Mamas and the Papas. I understood, maybe for the first time, what it’s like to camp out in the rain. I left the theater remarking how very similar all of those people looked to us.

Documentaries have the ability to reach and find what’s been lost - and to make something of it. At the Doc Shop Pitch Session, one of the panelists commented that he didn’t want to see another documentary about naked hippies, one that didn’t capture the truth of the era, as he had known it. I hadn’t realized before the truth in Monterey Pop. I hadn’t seen how it humanized that era and celebrated it, as much as it offered it as a relic to me. I’m just beginning to realize that people’s lives were not better in the past; we only make it seem so.

That is the job of the documentary: to remind us of what’s reality. Out of all the films I have seen this week, the one that struck me most was one I happened in to. Last Call at The Oasis is an urgent, provoking plea to understand our global water troubles. If Last Call is any testament, it shows documentaries teach us to make what has been lost persevere. I left the theater perhaps more excited than I should be, because the film had given me hope for the future, even after an hour of bleak news – as in, we’re past the time of conservation, and the only hope is the use of recycled brown water. Like in Monterey Pop, I was finally able to see how the details in people’s faces and problems facing us are relevant to me. I won’t be rushing out to buy recycled water anytime soon, but I will pay closer attention to the commodities we’re going to lose, like the water we can never get back once it’s flushed and gone, and the people who remind us of decades lost, so that I go into the world with wider eyes and finally appreciate everyone’s story.

Article by BSDFF Promo Team writer Zoey Farber