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The comeback

Missoula filmmaker Rachel Stevens grabs life by the horns

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In January 2013, Missoula filmmaker Rachel Stevens hit a tree, face-first, while skiing near Bozeman. "I had 40 stitches in my face," Stevens says. "Broke my nose and my cheekbone and my lip. It was just a mess."

Doctors also feared that she had permanently damaged her brain, and she said goodbye to her boyfriend before she was airlifted to a Missoula hospital. Fortunately, the damage wasn't as bad as they'd first thought—her doctors compared it to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is found in football players and other athletes who experience frequent brain trauma. While serious, it was better news than they'd first expected.

After the accident, Stevens was "in survival mode," dealing with mixed-up emotions, paying hefty medical bills and going through therapy. A graphic designer by day, she had also been exploring her burgeoning interest in filmmaking, which she'd discovered while working on a master's in media arts at the University of Montana. But in recovery, she found it difficult to be creative.

Around the one-year anniversary of the ski accident, Stevens says she emerged from the fog and decided to make her comeback. Shortly after, she made the film that many Missoulians might be familiar with, a quirky "mockumentary" about Montgomery Distillery. Introducing Montgomery, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gin depicts an off-kilter distillery crew that reads bad poetry, proclaims themselves to be nihilists and does cocktail yoga.

Oddly enough, Stevens says she's never thought about making a film about her experience. Rather, she often portrays other people's struggles with life-altering accidents or disabilities. As a storyteller, she likes to dig in and examine what she calls "the beauty of the mundane."

Rachel Stevens - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Rachel Stevens

Her next short, 20/Nothing, focuses on her boyfriend of five years, Evan, who lost an eye in a childhood accident involving a two-by-four. The film shows how despite his lack of depth perception, Evan still climbs, bikes and skis—but also how he's come to accept his missing eye, and calmly deal with people who are rude about it. Stevens finds lessons in self-acceptance in how Evan handles his life in monovision, although she admits that making her boyfriend the subject of a film was a test of their relationship.

In an experimental twist, the entirety of 20/Nothing is split-screen, with one side showing the main narrative thread, and another showing hazy scenes of sky and sun. Stevens says it was their way of trying to mimic a distorted depth perception without being too literal about it. The result is a little disorienting, but effective. The film premiered at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, where it won the PBS American Documentary POV Award, and it screens as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this week.

Another Stevens film, For All: How Missoula Created a Playground for Everyone, makes its premiere at BSDFF this week. It follows seven children with disabilities who helped design the new All-Abilities Playground in McCormick Park. The playground was spearheaded by Jenny and Ryan Montgomery, from the distillery, who have a son with cerebral palsy. "Kids are hard," Stevens says, adding that they were often shy in front of the camera. She wishes she could have spent more hours getting comfortable with the kids, but she's ultimately "really proud" of the final 12-minute film.

Stevens says she isn't sure what project she might take on next; she's looking forward to graduating this May, and soon she'll be leaving Missoula to accept a new job at an advertising firm in Bozeman. Looking back, her intention to "grab life by the horns" is paying off.

"And then I had the best year of my life," she says.

20/Nothing screens at the Wilma on Sat., Feb. 7, at 3:30 PM. For All screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 8, at 2 PM, and at the Top Hat on Sun., Feb. 15 at 2 PM.

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