There’s a new local film festival, and this one tastes a bit like blood and fur. The International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) and Media Center, known mostly for its spectacular spring shindig punctuated by jaw-dropping wildlife cinema and costumed schoolchildren, has birthed a bookend gala for the fall season: the Montana CINE International Film Festival.
According to the IWFF’s Janet Rose, Montana CINE (aka Cultures and Issues of Nature and Environment) arose to fill a void left unaddressed by the IWFF’s narrow focus. “We were seeing films that had tremendous focus on cultural and habitat issues, but didn’t meet the criteria of IWFF, where wildlife has to be the subject,” Rose says.
The result of CINE’s inclusionary focus is a broad cross-section of world-class films. Here’s a brief look at three of the entries, including the award-winner for Best of Festival:
The Great Dance
As a survival tool, the act of hunting has been dulled enough in modern times that a state like Montana, with its relatively high percentage of meat hunters, sticks out as a last bastion of a nearly forgotten way of life. But even the most Jeremiah Johnson-esque hardcore game-killer in all the Big Sky pales in comparison to Karoha Langwane, a !Xo San bushmen in southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Filmmakers Craig and Damon Foster spent the better part of two years in the Kalahari shooting The Great Dance, a rough-around-the-edges documentary that rides the sheer power of its story—along with probably the greatest stalk-and-kill ever recorded—into the honor of being named Best of Festival.
Karoha is one of a triumvirate of San bushmen featured in The Great Dance, and the “runner” of a group that includes bow specialist Xlhoase and historian !Nqate, whose translated words form the entirety of the film’s narration. The three make a riveting study as we learn of the San’s uncanny tracking abilities—for example, a fresh tail mark in the sand superimposed on a fresh hoofprint means the hoof’s owner passed through just before nightfall and a subsequent crossing by the nocturnal scorpion. The trio’s flair for language is both stealthy (communication while tracking is limited to hand signals) and theatrical (a ritual for traveling groups includes fireside re-enactments of each hunter’s interpretation of the quarry’s behavior, as read through the tracks), and their deep devotion to the act of hunting is evident. “I am a hunter,” !Nqate says early in the film, “and we know tracking. It is what we were born to do.”
The Great Dance gets lost at times in the Fosters’ attempts at clever shooting. They jam and strap cameras anywhere and everywhere they can, sometimes to fine effect but more often—beneath a carcass being torn to pieces by turkey vultures, for example—to distraction. But the straight-up coverage of Karoha’s mesmerizing stalk near the film’s conclusion redeems every awkward moment in spades. You’ll literally need to see it to believe it.
If you make it to The Great Dance, you’ll certainly want to check out Being San. This companion documentary follows a disenfranchised San couple as they show The Great Dance to their fellow bushmen, the lot of them forced by government machinations into refugee camps riddled by abject poverty. It’s a travesty that echoes the brutal injustices perpetrated on American Indians, yet Being San fans a flicker of hope as it reveals some resurgence in both the pride and the political clout of the San, fueled at least in part by the movie. It would take a postmodernist to untangle the notion of a documentary twice removed jumping across the line that separates art and life, but the bottom line is it makes for a great story. This 17-minute film was named the festival’s Best Professional Short.
Anchored much closer to home yet no less global in reach is Trout Grass, a video essay of sorts written and narrated by Lolo resident David James Duncan. It opens much as you’d expect a fishing movie by Duncan to open: shots of him and fellow fly-fishing cognoscente Thomas McGuane plying the sparkling waters of a Western Montana trout stream, the serpentine paths of their casts slow-moed and brilliantly backlit against a cobalt sky. “Within the 80-or-so-foot radius of our cast,” intones Duncan in the language that has endeared him to countless fly-fishing fanatics, “we gain this crazy ability to pierce the river’s power of concealment, bringing life that would otherwise remain hidden right up into our hands.”
But Trout Grass is not about Duncan’s ruminations on the sport, and that actually turns out to be a good thing for the health of the movie. Following the path of a Tonkin cane bamboo fly rod from China to the loving touch of Twin Bridges master rod builder Glenn Brackett, Trout Grass is at once a fully-realized production story and, like The Great Dance, a nifty reminder that the pleasurable field recreation enjoyed by so many modern Americans has origins rooted deeply in dirt and sand.
Duncan’s poetic ramblings are spelled by long narrative sections from Andy Royer, a bamboo importer who’s refined the art of selecting rod-quality cane, and Brackett himself during the rod-making section of the film. That makes Trout Grass well rounded enough to appeal even to those who don’t have split-bamboo dreams.
The Montana CINE Film Festival runs Thursday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 25, with all screenings at the Roxy Theater. The Great Dance and Being San will run together Thursday at 8:30 PM and Sunday at 7 PM. Trout Grass screens Friday and Sunday at 3 PM. A full schedule is available at www.wildlifefilms.org.