Two years ago, in awe, I watched one of those sweeping IMAX films that followed a group of climbers on Everest in that disastrous spring of 1996. The next day I learned a little about the special camera equipment used to shoot the film that produces that IMAX effect and decided the film stank.
The film is apparently expensive, and the camera that films those panoramas is heavy (about 40 pounds). The filmmaker, in centering the story around a bunch of hyper-fit athletes who manage to put aside their personal issues in order to bag a peak, had completely missed out on the most dramatic story of all. To my way of thinking, the real heroes of that film were the filmmakers who not only dragged themselves to the top of the mountain but also their cameras and film and then put in a day’s work. Where was the drama of amateur athletes with frozen fingers, fogged lenses and filters? How did they change the film? What were the challenges of working under those kinds of conditions?
After 10 years at the Sundance Institute, Cinda Holt, director of the Five Rivers Festival of Film, realized that one of the things she loved more than anything was hearing filmmakers tell their stories. “Filmmakers are some of the most clever, resourceful, creative people out there who excel under pressure and deadlines,” she says. “And while it is true that the movie is the magic part, the more information I have about how it was done, the more I enjoy a film.”
Starting Thursday, Sept. 21, the Five Rivers Festival of Film and the University of Montana Academic Conference Program will put on a series of events that is best described by Holt as a marriage of two of the different aspects of film enjoyment. The central theme, American Indians and the Mythic West, unites the two organizations who swap and guests and films for the various panels, and showings; however, events sponsored by Five Rivers will focus more on the art and craft of filmmaking, and the events under the auspices of the University of Montana will focus more on content.
The films that are up for art-and-craft analysis are Robert Altman’s 1976 Buffalo Bill And the Indians: Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man, Jonathan Wacks’ 1988 Powwow Highway, and Chris Eyre’s 1998 Smoke Signals, (Sherman Alexie, co-producer/writer will join this session, and will also read from and sign his books on Friday afternoon). After each film there will be a panel discussion and Q&A session with one or more of the actors, writers, costume designers, editors, co-producers, art directors, and production designers who were involved in the film. They will presumably give you the low-down, the story behind the story on these films, or just answer questions such as what, for example does an art director actually do? Cinda Holt explained that once you see what goes on behind the scenes, you begin to realize that “filmmaking is a monstrously collaborative project.”
The films invited to participate in the University of Montana program are A Song for Dead Warriors, Big Eden(a new film set in a fictional town in northwest Montana), Hand Game: The Native North American Game of Power and Chance, I Will Dance for You, Sacred Journey of the Nez Perce, and Last Stand at Little Bighorn, written by James Welch and Paul Stekler, who will both be there.
In comparison with other film festivals, which attract the pretty faces and hot new films, Five Rivers is an anomaly due to its stated mission: the “development of opportunities for Montanans to examine and celebrate the art and craft of filmmaking.” It provides a rare window into the background of one of the most popular forms of entertainment ever invented and one of the most powerful media ever created. And isn’t this just the kind of film festival you would expect to find in Missoula? The kind that brings in the writers, designers, producers and art directors—those not-so-glamorous intellectual workers behind the scenes. Go figure.
The Five Valleys Festival of Film takes place Sept. 21-23. For a listing of Thursday’s events, see “8 Days a Week” in this issue. Complete listings for the festival will be in next week’s arts and entertainment calendar. Meanwhile, call 777-1777, or dial up www.fivevalleysfestival.org.