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Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

143 films. 10 days. 1 complete preview.

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Mike Steinberg never expected to be in Missoula, introducing this year’s sixth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Steinberg has been associated with the festival since its inception, working closely with festival founder Doug Hawes-Davis either as an associate programmer, juror or, on two occasions, as a documentary filmmaker premiering his own new work. But for the last five years he’s served as the programmer for an alternative film series in St. Louis and taught film at Webster University.

Then, last summer, Hawes-Davis called Steinberg with an offer—he needed a new festival director. And he needed someone willing to help him expand the festival with more films, more special events and more community outreach. Was he interested? 

“I’ve always loved the event,” says Steinberg, who negotiated a way to keep his programming gig in St. Louis and still accept the Big Sky position. “It was something I couldn’t pass up. The thing that makes the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival special is how important it is to the people of Missoula. I’ve learned just how much people love the thing and how much it means to them every year.”

Since taking his new job last May, Steinberg’s helped put together the largest festival yet: 143 films spanning 10 days, with more special events than ever before. And his influence is already apparent—both counterculture filmmaker Ron Mann, the subject of a Big Sky retrospective, and the Alloy Orchestra, which will provide live accompaniment to a screening of the silent film South, have ties to Steinberg.

“I worked with the Alloy Orchestra in St. Louis and thought it’d be a perfect fit,” says Steinberg. “That’s typical of the special events I think we want to continue adding to the festival—something different every year.”

Steinberg’s indicative of the networking and happenstance that brings hundreds of filmmakers, volunteers and organizations together with thousands of fans for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival each year.

On the following pages we identify 10 other leading players—call ’em “names to know”—who help make this year’s event another can’t-miss affair. ?

Kimberly Reed

centerpiece of a crazy story

A couple of scenes into Prodigal Sons, the fascinating documentary feature from Helena’s Kimberly Reed, Reed is driving and her girlfriend and older brother sit in the back seat. This is the first time the brother and girlfriend have met, as the siblings have been estranged for a decade prior to this point. After the first uncomfortable exchange between the two, the brother reveals to the girlfriend that complications from a car wreck had resulted in the surgical removal of part of his brain, thus explaining the slightly off-center feel to him (and the dented head) in the last scene, at the Helena airport, when he picked up his documentary-making sister. In the close wake of that announcement, Reed drops the bomb, via voiceover, that she had been a he until a decade prior, not coincidentally the same period as her estrangement with the brother.

So within minutes you’re in a car with a transsexual, transitioned woman, her lesbian lover and a brother with brain damage. Obeying the instinct to buckle up would be a good idea.

In a story that would push the limits of even the most madly creative of fiction writers, this reality show just keeps getting better. Reed is returning to Helena to build a bridge to her brother and to reveal her new identity at their 20-year high school reunion. We find out that during high school, Reed was not just a man, but “The Man”—star quarterback of the varsity football team, the guy voted most likely to succeed, subject of a yearbook article titled “Paul McKerrow—The Real Man!” Who knew real life doled out irony in such humungous helpings?

And unless you’ve already read about it, you’re in for a real treat when Reed’s brother—who was adopted, unlike Reed and her gay (yep) younger brother—discovers his real identity, during the filming. In the interest of not ruining the surprise, I won’t reveal it here. But I’m still finding it hard to believe, even as I type this a couple days after viewing.

With a tale this compelling, a monkey could have cut a good movie here. Happily, Reed possesses serious chops. An early student and practitioner of digital filmmaking, she served as the editor of a prominent trade publication at the time of the filming. Even small HD cameras can look damn good in the right hands, and Reed and director of photography John Keitel have a deft touch.

Though Prodigal Sons feels like an unqualified freak show, it’s so much more than that. All of the players are complex and admirable, and Reed goes to great lengths to reveal the depths of their character. This is a crazy tale, beautifully wrought.
—Nick Davis

Showing: Monday, Feb. 16, 5:45 p.m. (Feature Competition Finalist)

Harrod Blank

all-around eccentric

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In 1993—maybe it was 1992—I was working at a local ice cream parlor with a small riverside backyard that was converted, for one glorious summer evening, into an outdoor movie theater by an itinerant projectionist biking across the country with a trailer full of 16mm film cans. When my shift was over, I simply took three steps down to this bespoke theater, where 10 or 15 others were lolling in the cooling grass, waiting to see what hit the bedsheet.

It’s been so long that I don’t remember who was there with me, or any other movies we might have watched, but I will never forget seeing Wild Wheels, a cinematic celebration of “art cars” by devotee and all-around eccentric Harrod Blank. So intimate was the experience, such a complete sensory package, that when Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank played the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival last year, I felt like I had my own private IV drip of grass-scented nostalgia connecting me, perhaps me alone, to the Wilma screen.

Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank featured a gratifyingly large amount of Wild Wheels footage, but the real star of Michael Silberberg’s documentary was, of course, Blank himself: the overgrown kid with a thing for chickens and cars that literally extrude their drivers’ personalities. The charm of a VW bug with a wrought-iron chassis or an old beater sprouting fresh green turf—with drivers with matching grass suits and hats—is something anyone can relate to. For Blank, however, these mobile artworks have a special appeal because he clearly views their creators as fellow travelers in a unique idiom where folk art collides with the all-American obsession with cars and driving.

So now Automorphosis, Blank’s overdue sequel of sorts to Wild Wheels, only with an emphasis on the drivers themselves. Again, a good portion of the movie consists of retread Wild Wheels footage (one suspects that some of the older persons in the original must be long dead by now, yet here they are, looking not a day older than they did in 1993), but the roster is rounded out by a new generation of hobbyists driving gore-cars, glass-inlay cars, and more. The list of cars and drivers in the end credits goes on forever.

Blank himself narrates and reprises his role as on-camera ethnographer and ardent enthusiast, but the movie—somewhat surprisingly—doesn’t revolve around him. This is perhaps thanks to old friend and accomplice Silberberg (credited with sound and sundry duties falling under the general heading of “everything else”), but also because among this collection of eccentric American originals, the remarkable Blank simply blends right in. These are his people.
—Andy Smetanka

Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 18, 11 p.m. (Feature Competition Finalist)

Brendan Canty

more than a punk

Anyone who experienced the mid-1990s underground punk rock scene listened to Fugazi. In Missoula, indie rock parties practically guaranteed at least one rotation of hits like “Waiting Room,” “Repeater” or “Sieve-Fisted Find,” complete with a crowd singing along. It was something about the band’s distinct reggae-influenced post-punk sound that compelled everyone to join in the song.

These days, Fugazi’s on hiatus with no sign of change. But drummer Brendan Canty’s got other things on his plate. In 2004, he and filmmaker Christoph Green co-founded Trixie, a production company dedicated to the documentation of live music. The company’s signature series, Burn to Shine, finds the filmmakers in various indie music hubs—D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Louisville so far—and herding several local bands into a house set to be demolished. Each film includes a private concert inside the house and the subsequent end of the venue. The result proves to be an oddly intimate view of the host city, as well as an unconventional opportunity to film some choice live music.

“In Portland, this guy was practically living in his house when we showed up, and he was like, ‘Now, what are you trying to do?’” says Canty, who, along with Green, is hosting a special selection of music docs at this year’s festival. “I had Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists and all these people with me and he goes, ‘Are you going to play on the lawn?’ I’m like, ‘No, no we have to play in your living room.’ Thank God his daughter was a Shins fan because the Shins played…and he was, by the end of the night, totally into the whole thing.”

The filming of Burn to Shine isn’t all sweaty rock and happy destruction. It takes work. After filming the concert, the filmmakers have to wait six months, sometimes a year for demolition permits to be completed. And when they get notice that the building’s finally going to be destroyed, they have to get to the site immediately. And while the destruction part seems so spectacularly punk rock, it’s not necessarily the part Canty looks forward to.

“You’d think it would be fabulous and great and satisfy some sort of vandalistic streak we all have,” says Canty, who has a connection to Missoula through brother Kevin, a local writer and professor at the University of Montana. “But it’s actually incredibly depressing. This project speaks to a time when people really didn’t feel like they had to live in a 5,000-square-foot house to raise children, and so many houses we end up [filming] are just simply considered outdated.”

In addition to continuing their Burn to Shine series, Green and Canty have also worked on more traditional music documentaries. Their latest, Ashes of American Flags, follows Wilco on a tour of several coveted venues across the country, including Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., and the Ryman in Nashville. The film’s less storyline than Wilco’s previous documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and focuses almost exclusively on the band’s live show. Canty says it’s a way to document the fleeting quality of today’s music by focusing on the music itself rather than the band’s backstory.

“I’m trying to appreciate what’s in front of us right now as opposed to writing historical revisionist pieces on music…Documenting bands while they exist and then letting history have its way with them is much more interesting to me,” he says. “All I want to do is put this stuff out there and let it have a life of its own.”
—Erika Fredrickson

Showing: Bob Mould: Circle of Friends screens Thursday, Feb. 19, at 11:30 p.m. Ashes of American Flags screens Friday, Feb. 20, at 9:30 p.m., followed by Instrument at 11 p.m. Burn to Shine: Seattle screens Saturday, Feb. 21, at 11:30 p.m. All films are by Trixie, except Instrument, a documentary about Fugazi.

Kim Longinotto

women’s rights filmmaker

Kim Longinotto’s Rough Aunties documents the struggles and victories of a five-member, multi-racial group of women activists in post-Apartheid South Africa. The film opens with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “There can be no keener revelation of a nation’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The women who comprise the group of truly rough activist “Aunties” (a position of importance in Zulu culture) bear witness to the growth in South Africa’s new democracy of an ethic of social care that honors Mandela’s understanding of the fundamental link between a nation and its children. Over the course of the film’s 10-week shooting period, the women deal with instances of brutal child abuse, rape, AIDS, predatory capitalism, robbery, shootings and an unresponsive social bureaucracy. And, everywhere in the film—in balance against the struggle waged—there are wounded children being cared for, spoken to, nurtured and loved. The “Aunties,” who invoke the role women played in achieving South Africa’s independence, work tirelessly and with heart to secure social justice for the whole social order, but primarily for South Africa’s children. 

A well-known British film documentarian, Longinotto has amassed an impressive record of films that explore the lives of women in particularly difficult socio-political situations around the globe. Shinjuku Boys (1995) tells the story of three Japanese “Annabes,” transgendered escorts who work as hosts at a Tokyo nightclub. Divorce Iranian Style (1998) documents the courtroom divorce cases of Iranian women, while dispelling stereotypes of Iran as a land of stern Mullahs, passive women and rabid anti-Americanism. In these films, as in Rough Aunties, Loginotto uses a spare camera style and point-and-shoot framing to position the women front and center in the documentation of their personal and professional lives. Loginotto reinforces this subject-centered perspective by allowing the background and context of women’s lives to emerge out of their own narration in a non-linear fashion. Rough Aunties therefore does what almost no first world documentary about the non-Western world successfully does—it allows the subjects themselves, as much as is possible, to harness and to own the film’s action and message.

Rough Aunties won the 2009 World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has been called a likely candidate for an award at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s easy to see why.
—Katie Kane

Showing: Wednesday, Feb. 18, 8:45 p.m. (Feature Competition Finalist)

Darrell Kipp

Blackfeet raconteur

Apart from casting Jewish and Italian actors to portray American Indians, Hollywood’s most honored tradition is to exclude the native view of Old West history altogether. Windwalker is the only native-language feature I can think of, and movies written with anything like an American Indian perspective are almost as thin on the ground. And if there aren’t too many movies written from the Indian point of view, you can imagine how many symphonies there are.

Enter Rob Kapilow, a young composer commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to come up with a new work honoring the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Kapilow didn’t know anything about the subject, didn’t even know his old teachers had actually been talking about two famous Americans the whole time and not one named Lewison Clark.

“You know what you know and you know what you don’t know,” he rationalizes, explaining how he pondered at length over a way in to the ambitious project, “but what’s most interesting is what you don’t know you don’t know.” By his own admission, Kapilow had never met an American Indian before coming to Montana to do research among the Blackfeet, where, “like your typical white guy,” he found himself struggling with the right questions to ask. During a sojourn in Missoula, local historians referred him to Blackfeet raconteur Darrell Kipp, who agreed to write the libretto but initially perplexed Kapilow with the vagueness of his commitment. Kipp agreed to climb on board, but what was he supposed to be doing?
In Summer Sun, Winter Moon, we join Kipp and Kapilow at a late but agreeable stage in the collaboration—too agreeable, perhaps, for the sake of riveting documentary. There’s a time crunch on the production, but we don’t really get a sense of what’s at stake or what the participants are really up against in terms of outside pressure or working with each other. We do get some nice vintage Super 8 footage, and a glimpse into the Piegan Institute, dedicated to revitalizing the Blackfeet language, but on the whole Hugo Perez’s making-of documentary is pleasant but inert: solid, workmanlike, but lacking the “bigger picture” x-factor required to move it beyond limited regional appeal.
f Summer Sun, Winter Moon lacks breathtaking dramatic peaks and valleys and ultimately doesn’t reveal much about friendship between Kipp and Kapilow, it does introduce its players as big, engaging personalities—one stately and aloof, the other nervous and chatty. They both come across a bit mystified by the whole undertaking. Summer Sun, Winter Moon is pleasant viewing, but doesn’t do much to make itself bigger than a very modest actual size.
—Andy Smetanka

Showing: Saturday, Feb. 14, 10 a.m. (Big Sky Award Finalist)

Ron Mann

alternative maven

Once Ron Mann starts talking about his work, all bets are off. In a recent interview, he managed to tie together a story of tripping on acid at a String Cheese Incident concert, the filmography of Emile de Antonio, a new box set of his films and his love for Missoula into one answer. He followed the pleasantly circuitous response with an open request: Anyone know of a local band called Organica? Mann’s pretty sure he got their purple T-shirt at Missoula’s Hemp Fest years ago, and he’d love to replace the tattered thing with a new one when he arrives at this year’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

This isn’t a particularly unusual string of thoughts for Mann. The acclaimed director—and subject of a festival retrospective tailor-made to Missoula’s core sensibilities—has tackled topics like the history of marijuana (Grass) and the benefits of biodiesel (Go Further). He liberally explores unconventional storytelling techniques, like animation (Comic Book Confidential) and talking cars (Tales of the Rat Fink). He’s unabashedly out there, trying to “reinvent documentary,” he says, while celebrating counterculture heroes largely forgotten.  

“I see myself making agitprop films,” says Mann from his Toronto office. “These are films putting out information about disinformation. My information is called the truth.”
Mann points to 2003’s Go Further, a film that followed Woody Harrelson driving a biodiesel bus along the Pacific Coast Highway with a crew of activists as they demonstrated how small individual choices can help save the environment. At the time, the crew’s suggestions—hemp, eating locally, etc.—were considered fringe topics.

“Now the fringe is pretty mainstream,” says Mann. “The freaks have been vindicated…If we’re not offering an alternative voice then we’re stuck with the status quo. We’re told harsh drug laws are needed to win the drug war. We’re told that fossil fuels are the way to go. We’re told that mushrooms will kill us. That’s the status quo. We need an alternative viewpoint.”

Considering Mann’s subject matter, it’s little surprise that he’s prone to stirring up the occasional controversy. This month, for instance, a Canadian university considered pulling a Mann double-feature over fears that the films promoted recreational drug use. (The screening eventually went on as planned.) In Missoula, Mann’s also caught in a controversy—but this time because he’s not showing his latest feature-length documentary.

Know Your Mushrooms features Missoula’s own Larry Evans, whom Mann describes as “the Indiana Jones of mushroom hunting.” The film debuted last month in Canada to rave reviews, but a promise to premiere the film at next month’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin prevents Mann from publicly showing it to Evans’ hometown crowd. 

“It’s just bad timing,” Mann says. “It’ll be back, somehow. I don’t know when, but it will be back. I know Missoula wants to see it.”
In the meantime, local audiences have plenty to choose from in Mann’s Big Sky retrospective. And Mann plans to spend his time in Missoula catching up with old friends. He’ll see Evans, as well as some other locals whom he met while making Go Further. And if he’s lucky, he may find someone to hook him up with a new Organica shirt.
—Skylar Browning

Showing: Comic Book Confidential screens Saturday, Feb. 14, at 10 a.m., followed by Twist at noon and Grass at 1:45 p.m. Tales of the Rat Fink screens Sunday, Feb. 15, at 10 a.m., followed by Poetry in Motion at 11:40 a.m., and Imagine the Sound at 1:40 p.m.

Joe Berlinger

scene stealer

Toward the end of Brother’s Keeper, the award-winning 1992 documentary that launched director Joe Berlinger’s career, a courtroom scene captures perhaps the most haunting human breakdown ever caught on film. It’s impossible to forget—a man literally crumbling on the stand, the camera unflinchingly focused on him, even as the courtroom clears and officers come to his aid.

What makes the scene all the more remarkable—and far from a spoiler—is the fact that it’s just one of many memorable moments in this delicate film.

The four Ward brothers live in a tiny two-room shack in rural Munnsville, N.Y. (population 500). When William Ward, 64, turns up dead, his brother Delbert is accused of—and allegedly admits to—suffocating his older sibling. Some say it’s a mercy killing—simple folk accustomed to putting their animals out of their misery. Others question law enforcement’s tactics and motives. Additional details emerge and the community rallies to the reclusive Ward family’s side. Even Connie Chung and CBS News show up. With deft storytelling and uncommon depth, Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky dive into a saga that explores an array of pertinent issues—community, euthanasia, fame and justice, just to name a few.

Although the film’s 17 years old now, Berlinger’s been thinking a lot about his first feature-length documentary. He and Sinofsky maxed out 10 credit cards and mortgaged a house to finish the project. As his career progressed to bigger films and bigger budgets— HBO’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood in 1996, 2004’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and a current series for the Sundance Channel called “Iconoclasts”—he missed the raw approach to his first documentary.

“With Brother’s Keeper, Bruce and I just went off to make a film because we wanted to make a film,” says Berlinger, the subject of a career retrospective at Big Sky. “We were not concerned about where the money was coming from or how much money we’d make. There were no career pressures because there was no career. We wanted to make a film to tell a story for the desire to shine a light on something.”
Berlinger found himself in a similar situation with his latest film, Crude. Three years ago he reluctantly agreed to fly to Ecuador with a friend to witness firsthand the $16 billion “Amazon Chernobyl,” an 18 billion gallon toxic spill. He had no intention of making a film. But what he saw prompted him to start filming without a full crew and with no financial support.

“It was the first film since Brother’s Keeper where I wanted to dive in, take some challenging material, explode some stereotypes, not worry about how it’s going to be distributed or what it’s going to do for my career, and just make a film,” he says. “There was a lot of sacrifice making this film, but I was really proud of it.”

And sure enough, the cinema vérité feature includes more choice scenes from Berlinger.
“I remember one of the first things I saw: people sitting on the side of the river, eating what looked to be the equivalent of Costco tuna because there are no fish in their river,” he says. “They live in one of the few places on earth that survived the last ice age, yet because of industrial development, they’re eating canned tuna. That’s a story I needed to tell.”
—Skylar Browning

Showing: Crude screens Thursday, Feb. 19, at 5 p.m. (Feature Competition Finalist). Brother’s Keeper screens Friday, Feb. 20, at 11:45 a.m. “Iconoclasts: Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer” and Gray Matter screen Saturday, Feb. 21, at 12:30 p.m., followed by Metallica: Some Kind of Monster at 2:30 p.m.

Muhammad Ali

the greatest?

What a casual boxing fan knows about “The Thrilla in Manila,” the 1975 bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, goes something like this: It was the third fight between the two, each having won one of the previous matches. It was marked by a particularly aggressive PR campaign from Ali, who laid a heavy dose of black-on-black racist insults on Frazier in the months prior to the bout (he called him “Uncle Tom” and “Gorilla,” culminating in a tussle between the two during a pre-fight interview with Howard Cosell). And it was Ali who won the actual fight after Frazier’s corner threw in the towel before the 15th and final round.

In terms of Ali’s legacy, the fight was but one of the many shining moments in a career that has earned him nearly universal respect and admiration. For Frazier, though, the fight was a watershed event, the hinge upon which his career collapsed—after the fight, he would lose once more to George Foreman before retiring. Frazier now lives above a boxing gym in the slums of Philadelphia, and when Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, Frazier told a reporter that he would like to throw Ali into the fire.
In Thriller in Manila, British director John Dower is bound and determined to tell Frazier’s side of the story, and he does so unabashedly—of the many interview subjects in the film, only one, Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor, could be considered sympathetic to Ali. Dower explores the reasons behind Ali’s tremendous popularity, emphasizes how Frazier assisted Ali in the latter’s quest to be reinstated to boxing after his suspension for refusing to register for the U.S. Army draft, and makes clear how deeply cut Frazier was by Ali’s racist taunting before the fight.

This is a wonderfully constructed film, with a fantastic story, great interviews and excellent pacing. But perhaps its greatest achievement is the depiction of the fight itself. Like the acclaimed When We Were Kings did for the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” Thriller in Manila painstakingly lays out the entire fight in precise fashion, buttressed by expert commentary. It’s a revelatory experience for the casual boxing fan, and goes a long way in defining the nearly forgotten era when boxing actually mattered.
A documentary with an overt agenda can be tiresome, but Dowers’ unapologetic approach and adroit filmmaking abilities make Thriller in Manila anything but. The close-ups of Frazier’s face as he watches a replay of the fight are worth the price of admission alone, and the in-depth depiction of the bout’s incredible conclusion will leave you in full agreement with a particularly notable interview quote: “Great fights between great fighters are few and far between.”
—Nick Davis

Showing: Friday, Feb. 13, 6 p.m. FREE.

Isaiah Zagar

mosaic master

In a fairer world, it would be enough to just be a great artist and to have someone come along and want to make a documentary about you. But it’s not. You can be really famous, a known quantity, in which case the documentary doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do. Alternately, you can be a slightly to extremely obscure artist but have an intense, intriguing life story that somehow explains you or depicts what you’re up against in pursuing your art. It helps if the hours, days, years you spend on your work are plain to see in your body of work, and it really helps if you’re seven flavors of crazy into the bargain.

In this respect, the first five minutes of In a Dream are a kind of miniaturized version of the whole movie, and a summa of the elements in any memorable artist profile. We first see mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar sitting for an interview, looking calmly into the camera, practically daring the filmmaker—his son Jeremiah, as it happens—to bring it on. You can practically smell the steely tang of his singularly possessed character. But it’s when the camera pulls away in the first of many jaw-dropping dolly or Steadicam shots of Zagar’s work—and just keeps going and going, through a virtual Grand Canyon of mosaic—that you really appreciate who you’re dealing with. Whatever your subsequent impression of Zagar as a father and husband—as a man, let’s say—you have no choice but to consider your empirical observations individually against the concrete evidence of this all-consuming obsession.

Purvis of Overtown, a big hit at last year’s festival, is this kind of documentary. Who can forget the warehouse stuffed with the Florida artist’s paintings, produced with plywood and latex house paint at the rate of six or eight a day, each one worth tens of thousands of dollars to big-time art dealers who swoop in to buy them by the cubic yard? Or the tour of animator Bruce Bickford’s studio in Monster Road, another festival gem from a few years back, with drawer after drawer stuffed with tiny clay figures? It’s true that great art cannot be measured in terms of the man-hours it took to produce it—imagine timing Picasso with a stopwatch—but purely in terms of the obsessive work ethic encoded in their art, artists like Zagar and Bickford knock 98 percent of their contemporaries into a cocked hat.

Zagar the man is just as intriguing in his quirks and peccadilloes as Zagar the artist is stupefying in his output. In and out of institutions, in and out of relationships, variously a devoted family man and a distant figure—and the portrait of him that emerges is intimate and unflinching as only a son could make it.
—Andy Smetanka

Showing: Saturday, Feb. 14, 6:30 p.m. (Feature Competition Finalist)

Alloy Orchestra

silent partners

The 1919 classic documentary about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition, South, would appear to have enough intrigue all by itself. But the silent film—featuring men shipwrecked and lost in remote icy regions—receives a dramatic upgrade at this year’s festival with the appearance of Boston’s Alloy Orchestra.

The Alloy Orchestra—actually a trio—has been accompanying silent films since 1991, when they were asked to lend their eclectic sound to the sci-fi film Metropo-lis. Eight years later the trio wrote the score for South for a performance at the Telluride Film Festi-val, but clarinetist Ken Winokur assures that the Big Sky audience won’t hear the same arrangement. Alloy’s live scores incorporate improvisation so no two Alloy concerts are the same.

The trio—comprised of Winokur, Roger Miller and Terry Donahue—prides itself on not only filling the niche of scoring silent films, but also in incorporating odd instruments into their clarinet, piano and accordion ensemble. Winokur says the musical saw gets a lot of use in South—“It’s so evocative of some kind of death or stress impending,” he says—as does an air conditioning duct.

“If you take a wooden drumstick and lightly rub it across a piece of galvanized metal it starts the whole thing vibrating,” Winokur says. “And it sets off this very otherworldly whining quality which was really nice when the ship was starting to sink.”

South has its own allure just in the fact that one of the expedition members, Frank Hurley, continued to document the crew as it struggled through harrowing challenges.

“And because the film was made in 1919 there’s nobody left to tell us how to interpret [the score],” says Winokur. “We’re left with an unprecedented amount of flexibility and self-determination to go ahead and do what we think is right.”
—Erika Fredrickson

Showing: Sunday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m.


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